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Hanging On
By David Chrisman

Like the rituals of Thanksgiving or Christmas, like the carving of the Easter lamb, this evening show of horrors played again and again so far as I can remember back to the beginning of time, back, at any rate, to the beginning of my idea of time, as far back as a boy could imagine, past all recollection, all the way back to before I was born. "Before you were born…" That mist-shrouded family past up from which vague information percolates and seeps and burbles in the urgent half-tones older relatives use to communicate unspeakable things. Such kindling to a child's mind.

"The North Korean mortars." "White phosphorous burns on your father's hands." Words such as these conveying so malevolent a freight of loathing that 30 years later my testicles draw in and the flesh of my back pulls tight at just the thought of their telling. Unutterable things of which we hear only enough to fire the want to know more, that grow into legends in our minds, legends that wax heavier and only more mysterious with the passage of time, that we portage through life until our spirits so long to be rid of them we confess our disgrace without stipulation, asking only with our cry, "But then how shall I do it? But how? But how? But how? But how?!"

And the answer ringing back for some reason that if we could just piece the fragments of story together -- the half-spoken words -- just assemble the truth of the tale, the adult knowing itself might lessen our burden. Such, at any rate, was the answer that rang back at my moment of frustration and paralysis and panic. It rang that nothing but fact could mend me, the start of the thing, the acts themselves as they'd happened.

And so it was, one foggy late spring day in 1993 after riding the 5 Fulton Express down to the old San Francisco Main Library on McAllister Street, that, in a reading carrel behind the history stacks, I found this fact out: the battle occurred along the 37th parallel at a place near the Im Jim River.

To the North of Seoul, there is a place where the river-channel carves a lazy 'm' on the map. And at that place, I learned, along a ridge and series of hills the army map guys called THE NEVADA COMPLEX, on the night of May 29th, 1953, only weeks before the truce was finally settled, fifteen thousand Red Chinese infantry threw themselves against the hundred and eighty Turks defending outposts Vegas, Elko and Carson. And the regimental history informed me how the first hill fell and then the second and how the third was going down when help got begged of Uncle Sam. And Company 'B' of the Twenty-Fifth United States Infantry Division in General Douglas McArthur's 5th Army got thrown in for support. And among the men of company 'B' -- 'Baker Company' in the army lingo -- was my father.

A sheaf of information, to be sure, and yet I wanted more. I wanted more for, as the family whispers told it all my childhood and youth, before I was born, our Grandmother each day had read the morning San Francisco Chronicle and our Grandfather, the Examiner, which came out in the afternoon. And they told how it happened on a legendary Saturday in May of 1953 that our Grandmother had looked at the front page of her morning Chronicle and been so appalled by what she'd read she'd hidden the paper where her husband Raymond wouldn't find it and withdrawn to the Church of the Wayfarer to pray.

And the story held as well how when the afternoon Examiner had been delivered, our Granddad Ray had glanced at his front page and being likewise blighted had jammed the distressful headlines out of sight to slip away and staunch his day-mare with the poultices of faith.

At least that's how the whispers told it, in sketchy pieces, details withheld, rickety framework encumbered only by its lading of sad intimations and ache, vagaries that urged me -- past combat reports and battalion postings and the rest of the historical record -- to grasp for the life of the thing, to see in genuine print the headlines as they'd been seen, to put myself in the shoes of those who had lived the experience that had prompted the story, and find in their footsteps my way to release.

Because isn't that our belief? That seeing clearly the events of the past will un-harness that great sack of potatoes we carry through life while colleagues and friends from college and work seem to glide through it all on vacation in comfortable sandals and worn denim shorts? Isn't it in the end, for example, what psychoanalysis is all about? Sleuthing out the thing we know but do not know we know in the belief that somehow awareness itself will reduce our pain? Lighten our burden of life? The volume of memory that grows so heavy?

And so, many years after the tellings and the listenings had given way to a prosaic log of rent checks, work commutes and relationships that always seemed to be breaking down, as a prematurely tired and grief soaked man of 30, I found myself in the public library microfiche archives searching for the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner of May 30th, 1953.

And I found them. And under the fluorescent lights of the periodicals room, paid a quarter to run them through the printing machine. What was it that Gram and Ray had hidden from each other in the sharpness of their love and fear? Two shiny papers slid down to the copy tray. I held them in my hand. The legendary articles of the Church of the Wayfarer.

But before I share them with you, imagine for a moment that you're a Mom or a Dad with a boy in the service. You can't get much information except the name of your child's unit, which you remember in your prayers -- B, that is 'Baker', Company of the 1st Battalion of the 14th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. 25th -- and that they're serving in Korea where the war, as you've read, has been winding down. Daily you've learned with hope of diplomatic breakthroughs, settlement deals, peacekeeping forces and U.N. plans. And then with your morning coffee or your afternoon cup of tea one Saturday in May, you pick up the paper and read…


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