Leon and Mee-yung took a stroll, mid-April 1968. Mee-yung belonged to Leon, his yobo, his sweetheart, for thirty dollars per month. Leon belonged to the US Army, drafted at eighteen, shipped over at nineteen, but Korea that year, even near the DMZ, was better than the other place, the hell-pit, Vietnam. And Leon didn't grunt hills with rifle and grenade but worked for a transport section. Regular hours with evenings in the ville, that medley of mud and stick hooches squatting by and enveloping the khaki-draped military compound. Hey GI whatcha want? Dirty movie blow job five dollar. Three dollar can do. Hey GI.
The couple meandered the dirt paths rippling from the roadway that split the ville. They passed clusters of hooches, looked out on rice paddies, meandered back. At one of the clusters, an L-shaped enclave of abutting rooms and sliding doors, five GI's, all white, sat on the narrow veranda, drinking, talking, laughing, their girls standing nearby gabbing in Korean. Leon recognized Jimmy Noyes from his section, also a specialist fourth class, a dispatcher, kept books, calculated loads, plotted routes. Jimmy called out, holding a can of Bud, pointing, beckoning. The other guys waved, yeah, c'mon over.
Leon didn't have a problem with white guys. The off-duty drift tended toward segregation but guys who knew each other crossed over. Mee-yung – she had a problem with white guys, or rather with white guys' girls. It seemed droll to Leon that prejudice ran deeper for the working girls, whether they serviced brothers or not, than among the GI's themselves. Inside the low walls, the claque of mini-skirts gave Mee-yung the once over, thin smiles, went back to their chatter. Mee-yung tugged Leon's sleeve but he ignored her – here was something to do, to kill the afternoon. He pushed into the courtyard and closed a hand around the Bud.
Jimmy said, “Leon drives an M49.”
This impressed the white guys. Not that Leon cared. He was a big kid with oversize feet and hands that dwarfed his cuffs. He had a chestnut face with straight nose and lips that rolled out.
“Yeah I carry diesel up to first and third.”
Shit, man, across the river? The DMZ?
“Uh huh but I worry most about this side. The kids.”
“They run out in the road. If they go under a rear wheel you wouldn't even feel it.” Leon tipped the Bud, brought it down. “I go real slow through the ville.”
Well, Jesus Christ, they got every fucking thing in the road here, mamasans, papasans, bicycles. Ox carts. Another GI said, yeah, run a few over and they'll get their shit together. The white guys laughed except one who said, you fucking nuts? You wanna end up in a gook jail?
Jimmy said, “The Korean courts can't touch you if you're on duty.” He pulled on his cigarette and exhaled. “It would stay military. It would go to a court-martial.”
Leon said, “Guys, I don't want none of that. No Korean jail. No court-martial. No nothing. Maybe another beer.”
The white guys laughed. Right on. Fucking A.
Mee-yung stood next to Leon ignoring the white guys' girls who time to time tossed her a pout or wrinkled nose or ass wiggle. In the shade of the veranda, the air cooled. The GI's drifted to the center of the courtyard, felt the sun, felt the buzz of the beer. Leon thought it one of his better Sundays in the ville.
Tuesday morning, Leon sat in the company mess with toast and scrambled eggs. Bacon, coffee, orange juice. His favorite military meal. Jimmy appeared kitty-corner with a cup of coffee.
“Hey that was great. Sunday. That's your yobo then? Nice. You taking her back?”
It crossed soldiers' minds, taking their yobos back to the world. Leon had daydreamed of them settling in, him and Mee-yung, a second-floor apartment on Kirkwood Ave in South Atlanta, a baby, everyone coming around, admiring his exotic wife. It would be something. He wondered if his grandmother would like her. Ask her what she did in Korea.
Leon said, “I wouldn't know how to start doing that.”
“It's not hard. There's places in the ville – they can set you up. Marriage license, visa. Plane ticket. All you need is money.”
Leon laughed and scooped some scrambled egg.
“Not much,” said Jimmy. “A thousand or so.”
“Out of sight.”
Jimmy leaned forward. “Maybe not.”
Leon knew Jimmy did payday loans, parceling out two-dollar disbursements to needy GI's the last week of the month, collecting three the week following. He'd also heard that Jimmy erased equipment from the books and sold it in the ville. There were jokes about Jimmy Minderbinder and J&J Enterprises.
Leon said, “I'm looking to stay out of trouble.”
“Me too. Look. Leon. Try it once. If you don't like it, forget it.”
A half hour later, Leon signed out his M49 A2C Tank Truck from the motor pool and stood by at the fuel depot as the crew pumped 1200 gallons of diesel into the rear-mounted main tank. Jimmy pulled up in an open jeep. Leon mounted the cab of the truck, engaged the transmission, and paraded behind Jimmy through the compound gate into the ville. He sat high shifting gears, revving the motor, the jeep a blot to his front, crawling, just the right speed. At the end of the ville, Jimmy ticked up the speed.
Three kilometers out, paddies and river on the left, thin woods on the right, the jeep slowed, right signal blinking. As it turned, Jimmy twisted and looked up at the truck's windshield. Leon slowed, down-shifted, down-shifted again, hesitated, then wound the steering wheel clockwise. They crept along a narrow side road, little more than a double path, soon opening to a scattering of hooches. At Jimmy's hand signals, Leon reversed the rig and backed between two hooches. The rear-view mirrors showed Korean civilians lined up with five-gallon jerrycans.
Leon heard the gravity hose run out, felt diesel leaving the main tank like blood from his veins. In ten minutes, Jimmy sat alongside tucking military script, two twenties, into Leon's hand.
“Jimmy, how much did you take?”
“A hundred gallons.”
“You're shitting me.”
Jimmy pointed to the clipboard on his lap. It held a requisition form identical to the one on Leon's clipboard. Only the new form read 1100 instead of 1200. Leon's eyes dropped to the signature box – Lieutenant Cox – same as the original.
“We'll never get away with this,” said Leon. “The lieutenant's not stupid.”
“The lieutenant signs anything put in front of him.”
They swapped forms.
“He's gonna catch on.”
“He's in on it,” said Jimmy.
“Leon, you think I could of done this myself?” Jimmy pushed a shoulder against Leon's. “You worry too much. Look, twice a week, no more. A whiff of trouble, we stop.”
Next payday evening, Leon and Mee-yung sat cross-legged on the linoleum floor of her cubby-hole back of the Blue Moon Tea House. Leon placed a twenty-dollar note between them followed by a ten. Mee-yung smiled, thank you, yobo.
“Wait.” Leon blocked her hand, savoring the moment, watching her face as he dropped a second twenty.
But Mee-yung didn't squeal and clap as Leon anticipated. She tightened her lips. “Where you get money?”
Leon took her hands. “Mee-yung, you wanna go America?”
“All yobo wanna go America. Where you get money?”
“You no understand.”
“Yeah understand. Where you get?”
“Mee-yung, yobo, you know Jimmy?” Leon pointed in the direction of the hooches they had stopped by that April day. He lifted his hand in a drinking motion. Beers. White GI's.
Mee-yung nodded. “Yeah know Jimmy. Slicky boy.”
“No,” said Leon. “No slicky boy.”
Mee-yung dropped her head.
Leon said, “Three months, four months, tacsan money. No wanna go America?”
Mee-yung pointed to her transistor radio, a scratched-up Sony, light gray with jutting silver antennas. The girls loved their American pop and Korean soap. Leon often watched them sighing to crackling dialogue.
“All a time GI gonna take yobo America. All a time break heart.”
“No,” said Leon. “No break heart.”
One morning toward the end of June, Leon sat in the high tanker cab, transmission in neutral, motor idling, glancing at rear view mirrors filled with jerrycans and Koreans, diesel flowing. It had settled into routine. Twice a week, forty dollars per trip, eighty dollars per week, easy money. But on this early summer day, from Leon's left, from the double path that led to the main road, came a villager knees pumping, arms waving crosswise over his head. As he passed the truck, Leon went to the mirrors and saw Korean backsides in flight across the berms of the rice paddies.
Leon turned his gaze frontward. From the double path flowed a file of jeeps marked Military Police. Their occupants wore black arm bands and helmet liners bearing the letters MP in white letters. As from a box seat, best in the house, Leon watched the MP's dismount, spread out, surround Jimmy, take photos, write on clipboards. A major yelled orders.
The tanker's passenger door opened and an MP climbed in. To Leon's left, the major stepped on the running board and pushed a clipboard through the window. A disciplinary report, he said, sign at the bottom. The major handed Leon a carbon copy and jumped down.
“Let's go,” said the MP. Leon looked at him. The MP explained. Leon was to complete his delivery, return the truck to the motor pool, and report to his commanding officer.
Leon engaged the transmission, drove to the main road, turned right, geared up, gave a sideways look.
“What's gonna happen?”
“All I can say, buddy, is you're in a world of shit.”
Leon stood before the sign, Judge Advocate General. The previous month had floated half-real starting with his commanding officer gaping at the discipline report, saying, “Jesus,” then, “You're confined to quarters.” Quarters meant barracks, latrine, mess hall, and work, now the motor pool, no longer driving the big rig. There were no passes to the ville. Leon conversed with Mee-yung through a translation service. He sent money. She sent endearments, still his yobo, hoping for the best, that he would soon be free. Then he'd been ordered to report to JAG at division headquarters. A general court-martial had been convened with Leon on the docket.
Leon passed the JAG sign, ascended a gravel path, and stopped between two Quonset huts. The one on the right said Court and appeared empty. Leon turned to the hut on the left. It overflowed with desks, chairs, and clerks. Paperwork everywhere, in manila folders, on clipboards, stapled, clipped, loose. A clerk led Leon to a small office with one desk, two chairs, and behind the desk a thin man, late twenties, with blond hair and light-gray military glasses. The collar of his dress khakis held two silver bars and his nameplate read Captain Jacob Shapiro. Leon stood to attention.
Shapiro waved Leon to a chair. “Specialist Davis,” he said, “I'm your defense attorney. You can talk freely with me.” Shapiro read the charge, misappropriation of government property, to wit, selling government fuel to Korean civilians. “I tried to get this knocked down to a special. Since your accomplice ...” Shapiro thumbed through papers. “Ah, yes, your accomplice, Specialist James Noyes, got off with a summary.”
Leon had not seen Jimmy since the day they were caught. He'd heard that the military police held him for a few days then transferred him to a unit at division headquarters. Special, Leon knew, meant special court-martial, not as serious as his general. Jimmy's summary court-martial would have been less serious still, a one-officer affair.
Leon said, “What happened with Specialist Noyes, sir?”
“He ... let me see, here, he got off pretty light. Considering the offense. Here it is. Demoted one grade to private first class, confined to quarters for sixty days, extra duty for forty-five days. Forfeiture of two-thirds pay for two months.”
Shapiro looked up. “He turned state's evidence. He put the finger on ... on the ring leader. First Lieutenant Edward Cox.”
“What happened with Lieutenant Cox, sir?”
“It's happening. General court-martial same as you. Him first, then you. Noyes will be testifying against him.”
“I could turn state's evidence,” said Leon.
“Yessir, Noyes told me all about Lieutenant Cox.”
Shapiro slipped down in his chair and shook his head. “Sorry. Hearsay.”
“What do we do, sir?”
“We'll plead guilty. Concentrate on the punishment phase.”
Leon felt his lower lip sag.
“Specialist Davis, you were caught red-handed.”
Got me there, thought Leon.
“Look,” said Shapiro, “who can vouch for your character? Platoon leader? Platoon sergeant?”
“Sergeant Dumont. My section chief.”
Shapiro scribbled on a yellow pad. “Good, good, anyone else?”
Leon looked past Shapiro. “Maybe my yobo.”
“Be right back,” said Shapiro. Five minutes later, he returned with a Korean in slacks and short-sleeve shirt. “This is Mr. Kim. Our Korean liaison and translator.”
“How long have you had this yobo?” said Kim. “You still paying her? She still your yobo?”
Kim turned to Shapiro. “She'll make a good witness. She can say how much she loves him, wants to marry him. All that stuff. We'll pay her some expenses.” Leon told Kim where Mee-yung lived. Kim scribbled Korean characters in a small notebook and left.
“What will they give me, sir?” said Leon.
“The court can do anything. The max, now don't get excited, the max is five years at Leavenworth. Forfeiture of pay, dishonorable discharge.” Leon felt his eyes water. “But that won't happen. That's just the max. I'm hoping they'll let you off with a few months. Here, in the Eighth Army stockade, that would be nice. Bad time but no dishonorable.” Shapiro paused. He pushed the bridge of his glasses. “Okay? We've got two weeks to prepare.”
The second day of Cox's court-martial, early morning, Leon sat in Shapiro's office. He'd been there the day before, waiting, not knowing when Cox would end and he'd start. Two men with JAG insignia appeared in the doorway, one large and balding with a paunch and the silver eagle of a full colonel, the other a captain, Shapiro's age, black hair. Shapiro walked to the doorway and they chatted.
Shapiro resumed his seat behind the desk. “Lieutenant Cox flew in a civilian lawyer from the States. Ripped Noyes apart yesterday on cross. And those phony requisitions ...” Leon nodded. The lieutenant's signature was all over them. They had him there.” Cox signed hundreds of requisitions a week. Depended on the enlisted men to keep him straight. That civilian lawyer, he's walking all over us.”
“Who were those officers, sir?”
“The colonel's in charge of our JAG section.” Shapiro explained that he sat as the military judge on courts-martial. The captain was prosecuting Cox. “He'll be your prosecutor too.”
“If Lieutenant Cox gets off, that's good for us, right, sir?”
“No it's bad.” Shapiro drummed a pen on the desk. “The court, they'll be in a foul mood, they don't like not guilty. Then we walk in.” Shapiro jumped up. “Hang easy. I'm gonna check on Cox.”
At 1100, Shapiro reappeared scooping folders from his desk. “They're done. We're on.”
“Not guilty. Vote was six to three. The colonel wants to knock off your guilt phase before lunch.”
“They have to hear you plead guilty and vote on it. It won't take long. After lunch we'll do the punishment.”
Leon and Shapiro entered the courtroom. At a small table on the right sat the thick-bodied JAG colonel. To the left, at one of two larger tables, sat Leon's prosecutor, the black-haired captain. Leon and Shapiro marched straight ahead to face nine infantry officers sitting behind a semicircle of tables. Shapiro saluted the central figure, a colonel with wide face and red crew cut. Leon felt himself nudged to the defense table.
Shapiro announced a plea of guilty. The JAG colonel asked Leon to confirm the plea. Then everyone except the officers on the semicircle scraped back chairs and filed outside. Five minutes later, Shapiro and Leon again stood facing the semicircle. The red-haired colonel pronounced the court's finding, guilty, and they recessed for lunch.
At 1330, the court reassembled. Shapiro said, “The defense calls Lee Mee-yung.”
Mee-yung entered the Quonset hut in traditional wrap-around dress and bunned hair with comb. Mr. Kim, in suit and tie, followed and stood next to the witness chair. Shapiro approached.
“Do you know the defendant, Specialist Leon Davis?” Mee-yung listened to Kim's translation, raised her eyelids an instant, lowered them.
“Ye,” she said.
“Yes,” said Kim.
“Could you tell the court the nature of your relationship?”
They were planning to marry, Mee-yung said. They were in love. More open-ended questions. Mee-yung replied with voice low, eyes down, Kim providing amplification as well as English.
“At some point,” said Shapiro, “did you become aware of a soldier known as Jimmy?” Mee-yung's eyes remained down but her voice rose in pitch. Yes, he was an instigator, a smooth operator, the source of Leon's misdeeds.
Leon tried to catch Mee-yung's gaze. Her eyelashes rose but for the barest second.
Leon glanced sideways at his adjudicators, colorless faces in semicircle of nine. They might just as well have been viewing soldiers marching on parade or dead in trenches.
Shapiro had stopped asking questions. The black-haired captain said, “No cross.”
Leon watched Mee-yung walk to the door and out.
Sergeant Dumont entered in dress khakis, short-sleeve shirt, arms and face of ebony, two rows of ribbons over his left pocket. He saluted the court and took the witness chair, sitting at attention.
“Do you know the defendant, Specialist Leon Davis?” Shapiro asked.
“One of my best men. Sir.”
Leon looked from witness chair to military judge to prosecutor to court of nine and back to the witness chair. Shapiro had just asked if Leon – “hypothetically, now” – were punished with time in the stockade – “not discharged,” would Dumont be willing to take him back?
“In a heartbeat. Sir.”
Shapiro finished his examination. The black-haired captain had no cross. Dumont rose, saluted the court, and made his about-face. Shapiro returned and sat next to Leon.
The JAG colonel nodded. Shapiro rose. “Colonel. Gentlemen. We all make mistakes. Sometimes we make bad mistakes. That doesn't mean we should be tossed on the scrap heap.”
Shapiro talked for five minutes.
The black-haired captain rose. “The prosecution requests ...” He looked down at his papers. “Uh, punishment, commensurate with the offense.”
Chairs scraped. Leon and the JAG colonel and the captains and the court clerk stepped outside. Ten minutes later, the door to the Quonset hut opened and a hand beckoned. Cigarettes were pinched, smoke exhaled, places taken. Leon and Shapiro approached the court and stood at attention. The red-haired colonel spoke as the remaining eight looked on.
Leon concentrated on keeping the proper position of attention, hands curled, not trembling, shoulders back, head level, eyes ahead, and at the end about-facing without falter. He felt awareness of eyes and mouths widening but not until he stood outside with Shapiro, Shapiro's fists clenched, face blanched, did the red-haired colonel's words enter his consciousness, that he was to be reduced in rank to private, imprisoned for five years, forfeit all pay, and be dishonorably discharged.
Shapiro took Leon's arm. “The commanding general will review this. He'll knock it down.” Shapiro looked around. “This is so fucked even for the army.”
Leon said, “What do I do now, sir?”
“You have to report to the Eighth Army stockade. Tomorrow.”
“What about Mee-yung, sir?”
“Can I talk to her?”
“Private Davis. That's over.”
Next morning, Leon rode south in the back of an open jeep, Dumont right front with a forty-five caliber pistol. “Regulations,” he said. “For transporting a prisoner.” Soon the jeep traipsed center Seoul with its agglomeration of foot traffic, mini-buses, military jeeps, trucks, bicycles, ox carts, a few cars, and on the opposite outskirt entered a compound of chained link fence topped by spirals of barbed wire. Eighth Army Disciplinary Barracks.
Leon shouldered his duffel and with Dumont passed on foot through two wide gates to a cinder-block building of pallid green. There he emptied his duffel on the floor to the orders of a three-stripe sergeant, stripped, leaned forward against a wall, turned his face, opened his mouth.
“Spread 'em,” said the sergeant. He looked. He told Leon to dress and turned to Dumont. “You can go.”
Dumont looked like he wanted to say something. His lips moved. Then he was gone.
A specialist wearing an MP helmet liner stood at the door. The sergeant said, “Go with him. Leave your shit here.”
The MP brought Leon to attention and issued orders. Forward march, left turn march, right turn march. The MP marched in step to Leon's left rear and pattered in his ear. “We're seeing the commandant. He's gonna rip you a new asshole. Just stand at attention and take it.”
And: “Don't say a thing unless I flick my eyes. Then say yessir real smart like.”
The MP brought Leon to a halt at a wide set of steps leading to a porch. The porch fronted a normal house, not cinder block, not a Quonset hut. It might have been his grandmother's house in South Atlanta.
They went up the steps and entered a foyer. The MP put Leon at attention and followed suit facing him at two meters. Minutes later a tall man with thin nose and brown hair entered to Leon's peripheral.
“Sir,” said the MP. “Prisoner Davis.”
The commandant approached so his breath touched Leon's right ear.
“You know why you're here?” said the commandant. The MP's eyes held steady. “Because you're fucking scum.”
The commandant walked to Leon's left ear.
“Do you understand that, prisoner?”
The MP flicked his pupils.
“Yessir,” said Leon.
“I got a letter,” said the commandant. He held a typed piece of paper in front of Leon's face. “From a JAG captain. Shapiro. He says you're a sweet boy.”
Outside Leon resumed position to the right front of the MP. They marched not toward the in-processing building but a larger one-story square of green cinder.
More patter. “You're gonna be here a few days. You're not gonna like it. Keep your cool.”
A narrow hallway ran the inside perimeter of the building. Another specialist led them a quarter way around, lifted a bolt, and dragged open a steel door, solid except for a small, barred window. Leon crossed the threshold and heard behind him a yawn and a scrape.
Leon's pupils adjusted to the darkness. He saw he was in a cell less than two meters wide of dank cinder block, the floor a cement slab. He took a step in and stopped at the apparition of a pale face on the back wall, not far, the cell being less than three meters in length.
“Stay away from me, nigger,” said the face.
The pale prisoner's hands came up sideways as in hand-to-hand combat.
Leon thought, I could snap that little cracker's neck with one hand. Both men breathed in gasps. Leon stepped back, to the door, lowered his heartbeat, let his pupils dilate. There was nothing in the cell – no bunk, no stool, no blanket, nothing – except the two prisoners and what they wore. Leon brought his hands to his face. The shame. Disciplinary barracks, a dishonorable discharge, his parents, his grandmother, friends from high school.
At the end of day two, Leon blinked in gathering twilight. From latrine privilege, he had been led outside. He followed an MP to a Quonset hut, a standard barracks with bunks, tin wall lockers, wooden foot lockers. Guys looked up from reading, playing cards, shooting the shit. The MP said, “Keep your nose clean.”
At the end of day nine, Leon received a summons from the guard shack, a white wood-frame rectangle. The duty sergeant pointed toward the far end. Captain Shapiro, holding a briefcase, staring at the floor, lifting his eyes at Leon's approach.
“How are they treating you?”
“It was little rough at first, sir.”
“We got your sentence knocked down to eighteen months. Still Leavenworth. You'll be flown back in a few days.”
“Still a dishonorable, sir?”
“With good behavior, you'll be out in a year. But, yeah, still a dishonorable. Look, I'm writing a letter to the commandant at Leavenworth.”
“Don't do that, sir.”
“Please don't, sir. They don't like letters from JAG.”
Shapiro ran his tongue between his lips.
Leon looked past the captain out the guard shack door. He peered across the Pacific Ocean, the Rocky Mountains, the High Plains, past Fort Leavenworth. He tried to see Georgia.
“Sir, that letter. Could you write it to my grandmother?”
“I can't tell her, sir. You're good at explaining things.”
Shapiro blinked. “Sure.” He pitched his voice higher. “Absolutely.” He dragged a yellow pad from his briefcase. “I can do that.”
Robert Perron lives and works in New Hampshire and New York City with attendance at Gotham Writers' Workshop and 92Y Creative Writing. Past life includes high-tech and military service. Present life includes travel and hiking. His work has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Icarus Down Review and Korea Lit.