Monday, July 13, 2009

SUPPLEMENT #3: "The Day The World Went Away"

I'm not entirely sure where I should start this story -- it's kinda simple and complex at the same time. I suppose I should start at the beginning -- my beginning -- and just see how it goes from there. It's not like I'm short on time, here.

Dad didn't get married until pretty late. He emigrated from South Korea in 1972, when he was 20 years old. Took him another 22 years to marry mom, but I showed up pretty soon after. I was born the day after Kurt Cobain died. Been a fan of his music since I was a little kid, which pissed off my conservative parents no end.

Dad came to the States through California, but by the time I was born, we were living in Denver, Colorado. Dad owned a small bar just off of downtown, and we did all right -- can't say I ever wanted for anything.

All the time when I was growing up, Dad used to warn me that I'd probably never get a fair shake in America, being Korean and all. He'd apparently had a lot of problems when he'd first come to the States, what with Vietnam so fresh in everyone's brains. Mom always agreed with him, though she'd barely even been born when dad came here (yup, they were one of those couples).

Me, I never thought of myself as Korean. Sure, mom and dad were both full-blooded, first-gen Koreans, and I grew up in a bilingual household and all that. But never once in my life did I experience a problem, not with the kids at school or even strangers on the street. I was just Ryan Pak, the kid from down the street. I was as American as they come -- Pop Warner baseball, garage band in high school, blowing shit up on the Fourth of July. Just like any kid in Denver, really.

Never faced a problem after Dad sold me the bar in '15 and moved with mom down to Boca Raton, either. My clientele was pretty mixed -- old-school hard drinkers, college kids, guys from the brake shop down the street, and at least one cop.

The cop is important to the story, not so much because he's a cop, but more because he's my next-door neighbor and a hell of a guy. Johnny Evans, sergeant with the Denver Police, former Army Ranger, bass player in my shitty bar band, and one of the nicest guys you could ever know. He saved my life, but I'll get to that.

Johnny was great. I've known him since high school, when he didn't arrest me or call my folks when he caught me and some other kids with a 12-pack of Coors on the bleachers at the football field after dark. Put a good scare into us and drove us home (no lights and no sirens), but pretty much gave us a pass. It was his first week on the job, but we became friends later on when we ran into each other at a guitar store. He was looking for a new bass -- I needed strings for my Stratocaster.

When I was looking to move out of dad's house, Johnny talked to the management at his apartment building and hooked me up. When I took over the bar, he'd come in for a beer or two after work. It wasn't long before we started a band, with a guy he knew from the department on drums and him on vocals. We played old-school hardcore rock and punk -- not like that bullshit synth-heavy Mecho terrorcore crap that's so popular these days.

I loved the hell out of my life, and it was clicking along great until that Monday afternoon in mid-September, 2017. I'd slept in -- up too late at the tattoo shop the night before, getting the finishing touches put on the full sleeve on my right arm. Wasn't a big deal, me getting up late -- bar didn't open until four, so all I missed out on was my usual two to three hours vegging out in front of the TV or the Web before work. Yeah, I know. Rough life.

My usual first stop on the way into the bar was the Starbucks just down the street (need a cup of coffee in downtown Denver? Pick a direction and start walking -- you'll hit a Starbucks in less than 100 feet), and that day was no different. I should have known something was up when Maria, the pretty little Latina girl behind the counter who I'd been flirting with daily for the past two years, seemed off. She didn't smile like she normally did, barely even said a word. I paid for my coffee, chalked it up to her having a bad day, and went down the street to unlock the bar.

The place was a little fucked up from the night before, but not too bad -- I just hadn't had much chance to clean after close and still make it over to the tattoo shop. I collected the few empties still sitting on the bar, tossed them out, and was wiping down the wood surface when my phone rang. I answered it without bothering to look at the caller ID.


"Ryan, it's Johnny. Where are you?"

"Where I'm always at on Monday at 3:30. At the bar."

"What the fuck are you doing there?"

It was an odd question, as Johnny knew what I was doing, so it took me a second to form an answer.

"Um. . . getting ready to open the bar."

"Are you fucking insane? You should be home, barricaded in the house. We've had reports of violence on Asians all through town for the last two hours!"

"Johnny, just what the fuck are you talking about?"

"You haven't seen the news?"

"No. I got up late."

Now it was Johnny's turn to pause.

"Someone set off a nuclear device in Los Angeles. Reports are saying it was a North Korean terrorist organization."

I couldn't think of anything to say. My mouth was moving, I think, but no words were coming out. Johnny continued after a moment.

"Ten thousand dead. At least."

Mouth still moving. Sounds still refusing to come out.

"Look, just get home, all right? You take your motorcycle to the bar today?"

"No," I finally managed to croak out. "Took the car."

"Get in the car and lock the doors. I'll meet you at your place in five minutes."

Johnny hung up the phone, but I must have held it to my ear for a good thirty, forty seconds after. I couldn't think. I realized I wasn't breathing. What the fuck had happened?

Finally, some part of my brain came back online, and I put the phone in my pocket. I walked out the front doors of the bar, locked them, and started down the block for my car. A group of men, six strong -- some young, some old -- were walking down the street towards me. I recognized one or two of them as regulars. I opened my mouth to tell them the bar wouldn't be open today -- national tragedy, and all -- but I never got a chance to speak.

"There he is!" yelled Jordan, one of the older drunks at the bar. All six men rushed at me.

Dad insisted on a traditional Korean upbringing -- the horrible food, the terrible music, the language. I used to hate all the cultural crap he put me through (when I rather just would have listened to the Misfits and played baseball), but as those six wild-eyed men ran at me, I said a quick, silent thank you to my dad for sticking me in Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido as soon as I was old enough to walk.

What do they call it? Fight or flight? That was definitely the feeling. My body flooded with adrenaline as Jordan threw a sloppy overhand right at my head and I juked to the side, my left leg spinning up and clocking him in the skull. As I spun around, I ducked under a tire iron swung by some young black kid I'd never seen before and kicked his legs out from under him. In about a minute and a half, I'd put four of the men on the ground, and the other two were running off. I decided it'd be best to run to my car as fast as I could.

Four more men were waiting by my car. Jordan must have told them which one it was. As soon as they saw me, they came running at me, and I was fighting again. Not thirty seconds later, I heard sirens and screeching tires behind me.

Great. A Korean beating up four white guys in downtown Denver on the day of a Korean nuclear attack. I'm getting shot, I remember thinking.

"All of you, disperse immediately or I will open fire," Johnny's voice came booming out of the cruiser. The four guys by my car hightailed it, and I turned around to see Johnny holstering his gun.

"You OK, buddy?" Johnny asked.

"Yeah," I said, wiping a thin trickle of blood from my mouth. One of the white guys had got in a pretty decent shot to my face.

"Looks like they slashed your tires. C'mon, I'll give you a ride home."

I spent the rest of September 11, 2017 in my living room with the couch and the entertainment center pushed up against the door.

You know how it happened from there -- sociopolitically, I mean. The US went into North Korea. China didn't take kindly. Before you could say "fucked foreign policy," we were at war.

My house got broken into three times in the next two months. Most of my shit got stolen, and what didn't get stolen got smashed and covered with spray paint. I was living on Johnny's couch while the insurance fixed up my place. Johnny's buddy from the department had his kid, a guy about my age, looking after the bar. Needless to say, we didn't play too many gigs after that.

The final straw, though -- I woke up one morning to gunshots flying right over my head. Johnny was standing on one side of the couch, firing out the window at some fucking redneck who'd been trying to break in. When the cops came by to collect the guy's body, they found a whole bunch of anti-Korean and anti-Chinese literature, a 9mm handgun, duct tape, and a seriously sick hunting knife.

I knew I had two choices -- I could either sit around and wait to get killed (or have to kill someone myself and end up getting arrested), or I could get the fuck out of the country. As I was still an American citizen with no credit problems and no criminal record, I asked Johnny to drive me down to the local recruiter. I enlisted in the Air Force, where they decided they could use my skills in fluent Korean.

Johnny got called back into the Rangers a few days later. Since I've been posted here at Camp Liberty, I've actually seen him once -- he's a Major now, and he has a few new scars on his face, but he lit right up when he saw me.

I can't bitch too much, I suppose. I have a pretty easy job. I pilot a desk, translating various intercepted North Korean radio messages and emails. And, unlike the guys who got thrown into Mecho or Kilo units, I actually get paid for it, since I enlisted of my own free will. I have the feeling that my boss, Lt. Colonel Richards, thinks I might be working with the Koreans and the Chinese, but fuck him.

I'm not Korean. I'm an American.

© 2009 Trace Eber