On Memorial Day, and Korea

One day in May back in the 1990s, an old man stood about ten meters from a small flag on my father’s grave in Minnesota and gave a speech about Korea, the ‘forgotten war.’ For me, the war hadn’t been so much forgotten as learned and immediately neglected. One simple dot-matrix printout had been made (being a hoarder who needs to read everything multiple times before forgetting it, I still have it) which said KOREAN WAR, ripped from a digital wonder tool in a junior high school. It had no marginalia; nothing had been added, no tell-tale signs of mental struggle. Perhaps the war had something to do with Harry Truman, a man about whom I had similarly only the most fleeting of impressions, having grown up basking in the warm folds of Ronald Reagan’s television mannerisms, and my mother’s occasional flashes of anger about what he wanted to do to the teacher’s unions? This old man at the cemetery said a few words about why Korea needed to be remembered. Not being such a compulsive recorder, my diary from the time is more or less barren of its mention, but today I dimly remember words like ‘valor’ being used, and ‘sacrifice.’ There was a place called South Korea. It was Memorial Day. As the Taps sounded from a remote corner of the cemetery on the edge of a small horse farm, a few dozen members of the community lay out on their blankets in front of me — the Pierces, surely, were there in some constellation of love and support, if not principled agreement of the gunshots which thrilled us as boys. Perhaps I thought, too, about the numbers the old man had mentioned. 15,000+ MIAs; that was bigger than Stillwater at the time. 38,000 dead; probably more people than lived in the heart of St. Paul, which I had thought of as the very model of urbanity, a place which had large coffeeshops to which we could retreat to conspire about changes for our Republic which would never come. Now the Korean War remains a more palpable shadow, its papers having multiplied and trailing me like so many dandelion seeds, while my father’s grave is untended by my own hands and only seldom recalled, like his hacking cough or the way his feet slushed around in such daily agony, and his laughter in spite of it.

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