My earliest memory is of the day when my father brought a bear home. I must have been only four or perhaps five, counting by the Korean method, and my brother must have been only two or three, and my sister was only a baby. The bear was only a cub, I remember thinking that it looked like a ball of black fur, and it made a strange mewling sound.
My father told us that he had found it when he was leading a platoon of his soldiers on a training exercise in the forest not far from where we lived, which was in turn not far from the military base that he commanded, on the eastern edge of Seoul. He said that the bear’s mother had been killed by hunters – this was not uncommon in those days. The soldiers with him had said that the merciful thing to do would to shoot it then and there, as it would not be able to survive on its own, it was too young, but my father would not hear of it. But he agreed that, yes, the cub would soon be killed by another bear or some other creature of the forest if it was left. So the bear came to live with us.
My mother, needless to say, was not happy with this idea. It is a wild creature, she said. It has claws and teeth and when it gets bigger it will surely have a very nasty disposition. And we barely have enough food for ourselves.
You must realise that at this time, the early sixties, Korea was a very poor country, even in the area around the capital. Memories of the war were still fresh, and even though my father was a respected figure in the military – and as a colonel he had a significant role in the administration of our part of the province – there was often just enough to go around and not much more. Having meat in a meal was a treat, let me put it that way.
But my father was adamant that we would take in the orphan bear. And once my father had made a decision there was not much point in further discussion. He said that he would build a little cabin for it from scrap wood in the backyard, a bit like a cave, and the bear could live there in the warmer months and could eat leftovers.
There aren’t any leftovers, my mother said. But then she looked at the little ball of fur, and it made that mewling noise, and, well, she accepted that we could not simply throw it back into the forest. She shook her head and muttered something about another mouth to feed but the bear stayed. Somehow she managed to find food for it. Occasionally, later on, when my father was not at home, and when the bear could sit up, I would see her feeding it little bits of radish while she was cooking. She would see me watching and hiss that I was not to tell my father under any circumstances.
My father gave the bear a name but I cannot remember what it was. My mother, my brother, my sister when she could talk, and I just called it ‘the bear’. In fact, I believe that the first word my sister could say was 곰.
I should tell you a little more about my father, I think. He was from a town that was now in the North, but he had fought for the South in the war, and had been decorated and promoted. His medals and letters of commendation, along with his photograph, are in the glass-fronted case that we bow to on New Year’s Day and other significant occasions.
Like many soldiers he could be very stern and strict, and you could sense the steel in him. But there were times when he spoke in a softer voice. He would tell us stories about the war, about the Battle of the Han River and other incidents. He called MacArthur ‘the American general’ but he used the term ‘the General’ for another man, Park Chung Hee, the man who was now leader of the country. He had been a general but had recently assumed the title of President. My father knew the General, they had been in the same class at the military academy, we have a photograph of the graduation ceremony that shows the two of them.
I suspect that they also had had something to do with each other in some part of the war, although I am not sure what. In any case, there was some 정 between them. I suppose that battlefields create those sorts of connections.
My father’s responsibilities meant that he often had to stay at the base, but I recall warm evenings when he was with us in the little house. He would sit on the porch and drink 소주 and my brother and I would sit on the ground and listen to him talk. Aside from stories of the war he would tell us about the little town where he grew up, about planting rice and cabbages, and praying that the rain would be not too little, not too much, just the right amount, and that the winter would not be too cold.
The bear would be with us, sitting on its bottom and listening to the stories as well. I remember my sister sitting there but often, since she was very young, she would lean against the bear and fall asleep. I assume she liked the bear’s soft, warm fur. I mentioned this to her many years later but she said she could not remember it. Well, she was not much more than a baby at the time.
The bear had a remarkable talent for mimicry. When it heard my mother singing while she cooked or cleaned, in her sweet clear voice, it would make a crooning sound as well. My mother told me that it liked to sit and watch her putting on her makeup. One day, she said, she found that the bear had got into her cosmetics drawer and had put makeup on its face. I was there at the time, she told me, although I don’t remember it. I wish I could. A bear with lipstick and powder! Now that would have been something to see!
Maybe it happened and maybe it didn’t. I think that not all the stories about the bear that my mother and father told us, a bit later on, were true. Maybe they were just stories for children. But I like to think that that one, at least, was true.
One thing I remember quite clearly was when my mother took me and my brother into the forest to look for berries and mushrooms. She carried my sister in a back-sling. Of course, the bear came with us. I guess that by this time it had been with us about a year, perhaps a bit more, so it was no longer a cuddly ball of fur. But it padded along behind us, on all fours, happy to eat berries when we found some.
At one point the bear stopped. It stood up and sniffed the air. That was the first time, I believe, that I saw it stand upright.
It looked around. It looked at us, my mother and brother and sister in the sling and myself. Then it looked again at the forest.
Then it went down on all fours again and came over to us. It nuzzled my hand, and I scratched its ears in response, as I usually did.
Someday, my mother said, it will have to leave. It is a wild animal, after all, and one day it will have to leave.
The bear had been with us three years, I suppose, something like that, when it vanished. It was not in its little cave-cabin and not in any part of the yard, and not in the house.
My father came back from the base that evening, and I remember my mother telling him, very softly, that the bear was nowhere to be found. My father said nothing.
I was surprised that the next morning a truckload of soldiers from the base appeared at the front of our house, and my father gave them a series of orders as he climbed into his jeep.
He saw me watching. He moved over a little to make space on the seat beside him.
Come on, son, he said to me. Let’s go and find our friend.
So I climbed in and we set off through the forest. My father knew where he was going, and eventually we stopped outside a little cave. My father got out of the jeep, and the soldiers climbed out of the truck and raised their guns. From within the cave there was a low growl.
Father, I said. We’re not going to shoot the bear for running away, are we?
No, my father said. But even though this is the cave where I found the bear, there might be another occupant. So stay in the jeep, son. To be safe.
My father walked towards the cave. He called out the bear’s name.
Being a boy, I did not stay in the jeep. I got out so I could see more clearly.
My father called out again.
The bear – our bear – came slowly out of the cave. On all fours, it went up to my father and nuzzled his hand.
My father stroked the bear’s head. The bear gave a soft growl. My father said something to the bear but I could not hear his words.
They stayed like that for a long, long moment. Then my father turned and walked back to the jeep. The soldiers returned to the truck.
My father saw that I had climbed out of the jeep. He gave a little nod, and then helped me in. He looked back. The bear was gone.
You have to go home, he said to no-one in particular. You have to go home.
It was early the next morning when my father shook me awake. Get dressed, he said. Don’t wake your mother and brother and sister.
I did as I was told. Then he took me outside and we climbed into the jeep.
We drove along the road that led to the military base. I had not been here before, or at least I could not remember being here, but I recalled him saying that it had recently been expanded.
We drove to the new section. There was a small helicopter on a concrete pad. My father got out of the jeep and talked to a guard standing near the helicopter. I could not hear what they were saying but at one point my father pointed to his badge of rank. Eventually, the guard saluted and opened the helicopter door.
My father gestured for me to come over, which I did. Together, we climbed into the helicopter.
I had not known that my father knew how to fly a helicopter but obviously he did, and he started the engine. He put a radio headset on and spoke to someone, using the words ‘on my authority’ several times.
Then we were off.
I asked him where we were going.
North, he said. There is something I have to see, and show you.
But won’t the Communists kill us if we go to the North? I said.
It’s not a long way over the border, he said. By the time they get planes in the air we’ll have seen what we need to see and be on our way back.
So we flew on, heading to the North. Seoul fell away behind us and we passed over a long strip of green forest.
The DMZ, my father said.
I nodded. Perhaps I should have been worried, even fearful. But my father seemed to be entirely sure of what he was doing, and so I was not afraid.
Occasionally he spoke to someone on the radio. Then there was another voice coming through the little speaker, a voice with a different accent. I realised that it was a Northern voice.
I just want to see my hometown, my father said into the radio. This helicopter is unarmed. All I want is to see my hometown, and for my son to see it.
The Northern voice continued to speak, even more stridently. My father turned the radio off.
Then we came to a town. We circled, and came in low. People in the town came out and looked up at us, unsure of what was happening.
My father pointed at a cluster of little houses. That was where I was born, he said. And my father was born there as well. Can you see the vegetable patch at the back? My mother was born at the other end of the town, in that house over there, you see? That one near the ricefield. They were killed in the war, as you know, but … that was where we lived. Before.
It was a town, like many other towns scattered across the landscape of the Koreas. A town like many others, but special. The town where my father was born.
Do you understand? my father asked.
I thought about it.
I understand, I said.
He nodded. He turned the little helicopter southwards. He was smiling.
Years later, after my father had passed, my mother told me that she had been very angry with him, but the way she said it made me think that she understood what he had done, and why.
My father continued to hold the rank of colonel but it was made clear to him, according to my mother, that there would be no more promotions, no more medals, no more letters of commendation. I said that it was surprising that he was allowed to stay in the military, let alone keep his rank. She said: the General.
So that is the story of the bear. For many years I did not really think of it, but these days, as I approach the age that my father was at that time, I think of it often. I wonder how the bear fared in the woods, what sort of life it lived. And I wonder if some day I might be able to visit my father’s hometown, to talk to the people there and see the fields of rice. But when I think of this I realise that I do not know the town’s name. My father had never told me, and I had never asked.