There are moments in life that pop out with such radiance we cannot forget them. Everyone will know what I mean and offer their personal examples: the birth of a child, a wedding ceremony, a class where some idea came alive, a view that took our breath away, acts of courage and kindness, a dance a game, a gift, etc. We describe them with words that connote Beauty, Wonder, Meaning. In fact, all of the "radiant moments" may be said to be meaningful in some way or another. And, in most cases, the meaning we experience in such moments enriches our lives and brings us some sense of completeness or wholeness.
I will describe one such moment in my life. I am not sure just what brought it to mind, but I guess it was prompted by the Memorial Day activities, programs, and commentaries of this past week having to do with military service to our country.
Here is the moment that has continued to come to me this week. I will describe it in the web of associations where it is nestled.
On a beautiful May morning in 1964, I woke up early in my Korean quonset hut barracks in the military compound of the 76th Field artillery, an 8-inch howitzer unit assigned to I Corps, a unit whose legacy dates back to the Civil War and continues through all the wars fought by this country. We were located at Camp Saint Barbara, named after the patron saint of the army artillery, in close proximity to the old city of Uijongbu, South Korea, just above the 38th Parallel, and north of Seoul by maybe 20 miles as the crow flies. That May morning marked my departure date from Battery C where I had served as forward observer and then Executive officer of the firing battery.
Following the farewell breakfast of eggs and steak, we drove in jeeps out to our I Corps "airstrip," home to a couple of 2-seater L19's and the general's helicopter. The tradition was that the officers would line up on the so-called tarmac, and the departing officer would walk by each one, exchanging personal good-byes and ribbing before the "cowboy" pilot would climb out of his cockpit to ceremoniously announce that something was "wrong" with the plane's engine and we might not be able to make it to Seoul. So that morning, after much ado about mechanical failures, having also kicked the tires, he climbed back up in the cockpit, revved the engine, signaled for me to climb aboard and helped me adjust my goggles before racing down the runway, circling through some dangerous buttes sticking up around the airstrip and dropping down one last time to "dust" the waving officers on the ground.
You get the idea. Any occasion in the army could serve as an opportunity for devilish pranks and pompous ceremonies. To my knowledge, we never had an accident at the airstrip, but I'm sure we were spared only by the grace of God.
So there I was after more than a year, leaving old comrades with whom I had laughed, cried, worshipped, struggled, drank and celebrated. I looked down on the installation of Camp Saint Barbara for the last time, appearing pretty much the same as it had been following the signing of the Armistice in 1953, between North Korea and the allied forces. The strategic location of I Corps blocked any attack by North Korea through the geo-military corridor that swept down into Seoul. Consequently, we always had to maintain readiness to defend against any movement from the north. Here at Camp Saint Barbara, among my many memories, I would always recall the day we stood on highest alert when President Kennedy was killed and we soberly heard the announcement read from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that our Commander-in-Chief had been assassinated, leaving us uncertain about how that vulnerable time might be exploited by foreign powers.
Along with that very somber recollection was my recall of the controversies surrounding South Korea and the war in which President Truman and General Douglas MacArthur had drawn a line at the 38th Parallel to defend against what our politicians referred to as the expansion of Communism under the darkening and chilling cloud of the Cold War. In the drama of this political warfare, President Truman relieved the controversial General MacArthur and replaced him with a more politically savvy General Matthew Ridgeway who helped bring the spreading fire of war in Korea to a smoldering ember. But still the Cold War grew, climaxing, perhaps with President Kennedy's Cuban missile crisis that lingered emotionally throughout the days of his assassination. All around the world, the threat of conventional war and nuclear annihilation froze the outposts of US military positions where service men and women watched and waited.
So much had happened on the world stage in my short lifetime, and it was as if now I looked at all of it through the L19's narrow cockpit glass as my "cowboy" pilot and I sailed toward -- thankfully -- an uneventful landing in Seoul. From there I took a military transport plane to Yokohama, Japan, where I was to board for my flight back to San Francisco.
Here the rapid events of that emotion-packed day slowed down. In the terminal at Yokohama, I read and dozed while waiting for what I thought would be a propellor-driven military aircraft back to the U.S. I had arrived on such a plane, hopping across the Pacific from San Francisco to Hawaii, then Wake Island, to Yokohama, across the Sea of Japan (the East Sea), and finally to Seoul, Korea -- an interminable trip. But to my surprise, on this day, when I walked out on the tarmac, I was greeted by a stewardess from a U.S. commercial plane, a TWA, I believe, and definitely a jet, chartered by the military to ferry us home!
From that moment on, it was as if I had entered an enchanted world. After almost thirteen months away in the rustic countryside of South Korea's northernmost part, I was struck not only by both the kindness and beauty of the stewardesses, but also the comfort of the seats, the convenience of their reclining motion, the overhead light and fan, the readily-available magazines if I wanted one, and coffee and tea.
But I most remember the sound of the jet engine, its thrust when we lifted off, and our immersion in the darkness of night. Then, suddenly, the pilot did something very interesting. Yokohama cradled a major airport and U.S. military installation only around 15-20 miles south of Tokyo. So it was that either by a pre-determined flight pattern as a practical matter, or by a flight pattern determined for another reason, but in any case, the pilot tilted his wing, parting the curtain of the dark sky and exposing the city of Tokyo below.
We circled around Japan's capital, a city that would host the Olympics in the next four months, a city that had survived a devastating, humiliating defeat and was now ready to re-enter the world stage. Tokyo was radiant in splendor as we circled atop it. Perhaps it might be described as looking down on the top of a Christmas tree full of sparkles, lights of every color, shooting their rays into our mesmerized minds. Perhaps more in keeping with the symbolism of the Japanese flag, the shining city of Tokyo had become the circle of the sun, the hinomaru, that rises in unutterable beauty over the eastern rim of the Pacific. Now, quietly at night, the "rising sun" looked even more spectacular against a backdrop of black.
We circled, caught within the archetypal power of this vision. After a moment of eternity, the captain righted the wing, Tokyo disappeared into the night, and the radiant moment passed. For the first time perhaps in more than 13 months, I felt my body give way to the seat and the pillow behind my head. All that I had been, as well as the intimations of what I might become, all the old sufferings of myself and the Korean and Japanese people, all the tragedies of our forces who had lost so much on those battlefields, all the darkness of humanity's wars as well as the ideals for which we have lived and fought -- all spiraled around Tokyo in a mandala of tragedy and grandeur, as well as a belief in the power of transformation for the Japanese and Korean people and all of us!
I felt myself filled with what seemed like an unbearable sadness, exceeded only by an indescribable joy. And then I slept.
(An afterthought: Was the outcome in South Korea worth the sacrifices of so many among the allied forces and the Korean people themselves? I think so when I compare the fate of the peoples of North Korea with the relatively prosperous and free people of South Korea. To all of them, and to my old comrades-in-service, I send warm greetings and best wishes on this Memorial Day.)