Welcome to Kunsan 1984 as Christmas season is upon us...I had a mission to dress up like Santa Claus and join a holiday celebration at the Salvation Army Orphanage, but instead of giving out presents to the children at this orphanage, I was the one who received a memory that has lasted my entire life and now, I'd like to share that memory with you.
The race was on as soon as I walked in the door. I had less than an hour to get the Kunsan Salvation Army Orphanage across town, a twenty mile trek from the base to the center of town where over two hundred children were awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus, me if I could get into costume and on the bus leaving in fifteen minutes. I had help. My roommate in the barracks was helping to stuff me into the costume with a pillow for my belly. Countdown had begun.
The weather outside was frightful as the temperature had dropped to around twenty five degrees which meant the roads were icy and I’d have to be careful with the footing. Still I was dressed with about five minutes to spare and on my way to the bus stop around the corner from my barracks. Almost ten years in the United States Air Force and this was my first time as St. Nick.
It had all been decided last month. What we were going to get the kids with the money we had raised and who would play the jolly elf, hint, it would be me. The nuns, the kids’ teachers would pick out a venue and there would be a party with lots of holiday music.
The children had been abandoned, most at birth, but Korea was a poor country, overcrowded, and still farmed the rice fields using oxen to help dig up the soggy soil in the spring. In the fall the rice had to be harvested by hand and the stalks and other leftover material was burned causing the autumn sun to disappear in a never ending haze. The children were taught by the Fransician nuns in classrooms that had no heat and since most of the children attended barefoot, I sensed that what we decided to give them might be appreciated.
I got on the bus. It was crowded. It was always crowded and this was quitting time when the Korean Nationals left their jobs on the American air base. As I managed to sit in a seat in the back, I noticed all eyes were on me as I had forgotten I was wearing the Santa Claus costume with a beard and long shaggy hair. A couple of the ladies began to sing some Christmas songs. There was laughter and smiles as the bus lumbered along the uneven pavement on its way into Kunsan.
No more than a fishing village on the South China Sea, Kunsan was a typical Korean town that smelled of the ondall, a charcoal brick used to heat most of the homes and left you longing to breathe fresh air, but there wasn’t any to be found anywhere.
For whatever reason, no one ever told me what that reason was, twenty miles from the back gate were off-limits to all U.S. personnel and it wasn’t until you got to American Town until you were allowed to get off the bus. A few GI’s got off still snickering at me as I sat in the back of the bus. American or Silvertown was supposed to be the Korean Version of Las Vegas with clubs and other adult activities of just about every kind you could think of.
We rolled on through the narrow roads until the lights of Kunsan appeared in the distance. Looking at my watch, I noted I was still running late as I was supposed to be at the orphanage at six and it was nearly that now. Pulling up on the hill where Salvation Orphanage was located, I made my way off the bus into the darkness and ice. One of my colleagues pulled at my arm, “Thank God you are here.”
“Glad to be here.” I adjusted my pillow and beard as I walked in the gates of the complex. The grounds of the orphanage was surrounded on four sides by a ten foot tall cement wall, the same materials the girls’ and boys’ dorms were made of as well as the main building which was the school. I would never tell American children that Korean children go to school six days a week. In the main room, all of the children had assembled by grade and as I walked in a lot of heads turned even though the nuns told them to keep their eyes up front. There was a chair for me to sit in that was in the back of the auditorium. It was a bit chilly, but wearing the extra clothes would keep me warm, but that damp cold could not be good for the children. There were ten volunteers who had come from the base to help out with the festivities and they were sitting around me as each group was called up on the stage in the front of the room by grade level.
First the kindergarten kids got up there and did the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies with little sparkly wings affixed to their backs and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite playing in the tinny speakers overhead. The first graders were next and they sang “Twelve Days of Christmas” in Korean and with each day brought new things until there was this cacophony of birds, lords, maids and finally twelve drummers drumming. Then the second graders put on a skit, in Korean, and there was much joy and laughter. Though I did not understand a word, I got the gist from the action on the stage that had to do with a child waiting for Santa Claus to come.
Wiping a stray tear from my eye, the fourth graders put on what could be best described as a gangsta play even though at that time, gangsta did not even exist. The boys who put on the skit enjoyed their performance judging by the mischievous glint in their eyes. There were more songs until finally the principal stood on stage and urged the audience to applaud all the students who took part in their Christmas pageant. Calling on each group, the students would stand up and bow to the thunderous applause.
I had heard about Christmas magic, but this was much more as I was almost ten thousand miles from home, I had been feeling lonely, sorry for myself knowing that this Christmas would be one I just as soon forget. I had sent my friends and family their good tidings from me about a month ago, so I knew it would get there on time, but still having Christmas dinner in the chow hall was not as much fun and there would be no football games until the day after Christmas. And as much as I liked the people who were involved in this special project, I would much rather be home for the holidays.
Then the nuns began to call each of the children out as my helpers handed each of them a neatly packaged gift. We had bought them each a pair of sneakers. Considering most kids would be getting the Atari interactive console, sneakers seemed like a poor consolation. I had no concept of what it meant to be here, but I soon found out.
As each child stepped forward, one of our group would hand them a wrapped box. They would open it, stand in front of me and bow deeply at their waist, saying,
“Gamsahabnida” which is “Thank you” in Korean, but it wasn’t just thank you, it was more, much more than that. I would wave and nod, swallowing back my tears. The boys would put their sneakers on and compare them with their peers, laughing and joking while the little girls would speak in such a humble and hushed voice that it touched my heart as they paraded past. Each of them would now not have to walk these cold cement floors barefoot any longer as some measure of comfort had been given to them by Santa. I suddenly did not feel worthy in my costume as the fat jolly elf. But for that magical moment, I had been a part of something that was much more than my own wants and needs.
Now looking back many years later, I still wonder if the spirit of that special night can still be captured after all we have been through and my hope is as we celebrate Christmas this year, that I can have just one magic moment like the I had so long ago, in a place so far from home.