Each year around Christmas I think back on one of the saddest times in my life and that’s being away from home at Christmas. For someone who has been stationed overseas or away from home in the military at Christmas it’s a difficult time, especially in a war zone. I always think of our troops away from home this time of year.
It was about 54 years ago, give or take a month, when we were last together. Our friendships had developed by necessity, circumstance and a common bond. We were in the Army stationed in Uijongbu, Korea over 7,000 miles from home in 1966.
In December it’s cold in Uijongbu (Wee-jong-bu). It’s about 30 miles south of the North Korean military DMZ and about 20 miles north of Seoul. Freezing winds blow down from Manchuria. Uijongbu was the scene for the TV show, MASH. Our doctors were mirror images of ‘Hawkeye’ and ‘Trapper John.’
As civilians we never would have met one another, being from different parts of the country, a New York Italian immigrant who sailed to America at age 12, an East Tennessee southerner, some would call a ‘hillbilly,’ and a laid-back California photographer.
The Army stationed us together at Camp Red Cloud, I Corps Headquarters, working at the I Corps newspaper, ‘The Bullseye.’ Our office included eight other military journalists, two Korean military and our Korean interpreter, Mr. Rhee. We published the base newspaper writing and photographing military feature and news stories for the troops. We all felt lucky to be in Korea and not Vietnam.
Carmine “Mel” Anania was my friend from New York City. He was also my lower bunkmate sharing our luxurious Army olive-drab spring loaded and narrow bunk beds. I occupied the upper bunk. Greg Iger was our resident laidback Californian. We didn’t know much about hippies at the time but he could have been one. He was also a graduate of the craft’s most prestigious school, Brooks Institute of Photography.
Upon arriving from the states Greg introduced himself, “Like, man, what’s happening babe? I’m the I-Man, dude.”
“Hi, there, I-Man. This is Mel from New York and I’m Bill from Johnson City,” I replied.
“Johnson City…. Hey dude, where’s that,” Greg asked?
“Do you know where Knoxville is,” I responded?
“That in Tennessee,” he asked?
“Yep, a hundred miles northeast,” I said.
Our little office included great newspaper people. Jack Hummel was our editor-in-chief and got more excited over a good news story than anyone I’ve ever met, and John Stefans, who had worked for the New York Daily News, was our professional journalist. Other office staff included military career news types and draftees putting in their military time.
A Korean military tour was 13 months but seemed a lifetime. Our newspaper jobs enabled us to travel the countryside covering stories. Our Korean driver, Sgt. Jung, drove us all over I Corps. More than once we uttered hasty prayers about his driving ability and near misses. A number of years ago we found out he’s an American citizen and taxi driver in Washington, DC, a perfect place to scare the heck out of people.
Friendships formed quickly living so close together. We slept, worked, showered, ate, and listened to the same music together 24 hours a day. We shared letters from home or a goody bag from someone’s mom, especially at Christmas. My grandmother sent me a lemon sponge cake. By the time it arrived in Korea in a crushed box the cake was a pile of crumbs. We all shared the crumbs. It was absolutely delicious. Nothing beat Mel’s real Italian provolone cheese and sausage sent by his sister and mom. Every morsel was a treasure.
The day the ‘Red-Tail’ came (Northwest Orient Airlines’ Boeing 707 with a painted red tail fin) for us was the happiest day of our lives. You were headed home. But it was also a sad day. You were saying goodbye to the close friends knowing you would probably never see them again.
Today, as many veterans have already discovered, the internet has opened the door to say hello to old friends or to be reunited. That happened to me a few years ago. My laid- back California friend, Greg Iger and wife, Debbie, traveled through Tennessee visiting her relatives in Clarksville. They stopped by Johnson City for an overnight visit.
My wife and, I’m sure, Debbie, might have been a little apprehensive at listening to our reminiscing over dinner. Not so. We all started talking the second we saw one another and didn’t stop for five hours. We had a blast. We shared our careers, family photos of our children and now, grandkids’. Greg and I laughed as we went through our priceless photo albums viewing hundreds of photos both of us had taken in Korea. We smiled inwardly to one another on a couple of the photos.
Greg’s career resume includes photographing movie stars for Universal Studios, United Press International, writing two books and a very successful photographic studio. He is still the laidback artist.
I also made contact with my other good friend, Mel, who now lives in Huntington Beach, California. We have shared emails and family photos. He is a retired executive with Toyota after working for them 27 years. He has a beautiful wife, Marilyn, and two sons. All three of us have been married over fifty years.
We’ve also made electronic contact with other buddies. Jack Hummel was a top editor for the Bridgeton Daily News in New Jersey and John Stefans worked as an editor on a weekly newspaper on Long Island, after retiring from a 30-year career as a speech writer for Chase Manhattan Bank.
We can’t recapture our youth. But we can recapture our memories.