The Tea House


8 August 2006





From May 1971 until February 1972, I was a first lieutenant in an Army air defense unit stationed in South Korea. Camp Howse, located about mid-way in distance between the DMZ (North Korea) and Seoul (Capitol of South Korea) in the valley and on the only road that leads from the DMZ directly to Seoul, was a very small military compound with only the missile defense unit I was in and some division support personal. The mission of the unit I commanded was to shoot down any North Korea aircraft, which might try to fly to Seoul and bomb it or any North Korean aircraft providing air cover for what was expected to be a massive tank invasion of the south by the north. As there was not enough American military to hold back any significant North Korean invasion, our real mission was do die and thus force the United Nations and the US into a full scale war with North Korea.


Outside Camp House was a small Korean village made up of rice farmers, prostitutes and those that supplied various services to Camp Howse.  In the village itself there were no real retail facilities at all, other than 3 or 4 bars, which were nothing more than hangouts for prostitutes.


In South Korea, at the time, there were about 50,000 American military and over 100,000 registered, VD clinic inspected. female prostitutes. I honestly do not know if there was male prostitution or not in South Korea but suspect it was available in the larger cities.


By in large, military personnel had weekends free to do as they pleased although now and again, an alert would be called and all units in camp would have to collect all their gear and equipment and head out to predefined locations. Sometimes these alerts were called in the middle of the night and at other times at the start of the day. With infiltrators from North Korea always crossing the DMZ into the South, any alert had the potential for being the real thing. In the 1971 – 1972 timeframe, many harsh words were exchange between North and South Korea and I do not think it would have surprised anyone if the North had invaded the South as soon as the rice patties froze over in the winter and the North Korean tanks could roll straight to Soul. Straight to Soul that is, if they had their Soviet-made jet aircraft air cover, which my 4 missiles launchers was supposed to shoot down.


One weekend, I slept late and by the time I go to the Officer’s club, I could not find anyone I knew. Apparently everyone had headed out in different directions for the day. What to do? Hang around the bachelor officers’ quarters (BOQ) and read a book, hang out at the officer’s club and maybe pickup a game of billiards or 2? No, I would catch a Korean bus and ride the 30 or 40 miles into Seoul and explore the vast city I had been through at night upon first arriving in Korea but had not been back to since. Time to get lost in the city and stumble and fumble my way around.


Riding a Korean bus was an experience in itself. Just about everyone on the bus was fully asleep. In fact I noticed, while I lived in Korea, that if a Korean was not working and working hard, he or she was asleep. Made every sense to me and I too fell asleep on the bus, leaning against the window glass. Then I was awakened by a man behind me dropping the 2 section of his bus window down and a throwing a piece of cardboard out the window, which had his shit on it. He had apparently just squatted on the bus and shit on this piece of cardboard and then proceeded to dump it out the window. In my travels in Korea, I had seen men and woman squat in the rice patties or along a road and relieve themselves, but this bus “on-board” bathroom was a new one on me.


After the cardboard dump, I could not go back to sleep and could tell we were finally approaching Soul as the density of housing was getting significant and then on the left, high on a hill was this large smoke stack with a white smoke pouring from it and it had the strangest odor. Come to find out later, it was the central crematorium for Soul and ran none-stop 24-7.


Finally, the bus stopped at what appeared to me to be central downtown Seoul and I got off. The streets were crowded with cars of all shapes and sizes as well as bicycles and motor cycles. At first glance, all appear to be total chaos with people going this way and that and cars honking their horns, bicycles riding by carrying huge stack of carrots or cabbage or boxes headed to some city market.  I only walked and window shopped. Fresh fish, not even gutted, heads still on, wrapped in cellophane in the market. Hog’s heads hanging from a meat hooks in a butcher’s shops. Stores full of electronics of every type, most of it Korea made but some high-end Japanese for the rich customer. Korean letters, signs where everywhere, calling the sidewalk passerby to come in and buy. Dried and pressed seaweed was everywhere on the street, vendors sold everything from books to lima beans placed on a wooden stick and roasted over a small charcoal burner.


Often I would just stop and attempt to take it all in. The sounds, the movement, the smells and would be overwhelmed. It was during one of these periods of just standing and absorbing that a Korean man approached me and in very good English said “Hello, pardon for intrusion but I am on lunch and alone and would like to invite you tea house for some English talk.”  I looked at him. Sure, take me to some place to bust my head open and take what little money I had. “I know good tea house just down street. I pay. Just my English not so good and would like to talk with you to learn more.” 


Not sure what about this small, compact, well dressed Korean man took the edge off my paranoia but I said “Ok, lead the way” and we headed down the street.


Now unlike many Koreans in the country-side and now in the city, he did not wear a face mask to shield his mouth and nose from infectious diseases, nor did he wear white gloves, which was a public “statement” that you were of a class higher than the “common peasant”


As he had said, it was not very far until we came to a stairway leading up to the second floor of a 2 story building. Once upstairs, sure enough, it was Korean tea house and we quickly sat down on pillows on the floor and he ordered us some tea from a pretty little, smiling, Korean waitress. It was not long until she brought us a brass tea pot of tea like I had seen in almost every Korean family’s home and for sale everywhere in Seoul and even in small farm villages.


For the next 40 minutes or so, we talked and he asked me questions and I him and I got to liking this little Korean man a lot. He was polite, honest, smiled, listened and tried very hard to express himself in English. He was married with 2 children and worked making lenses for eye glasses.


Finally, looking at his watch, he said they he had to go back to work and we got up and headed down the stairs and back onto the street.

He stock out his hand and I shook it and thanked him for the wonderful tea house and time spent with him and he headed off down the street.


What was this all about? I have no clue. Simply a Korean man, lonely at lunch and wanting to share some tea and English. For me, it was a great experience and I feel blessed that a Korean could sense that I was open to an invitation and would be open to any and all questions and also be interested in him.


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