In 1981 I joined the U.S Air Force at the age of 19. I came from a small town in northern Michigan, with a whopping population of 1800 people! I never had any intention of traveling around the world in fact the thought had never crossed my mind. I came from a lower middle class family that did not have enough money to afford for me to go to college after finishing high school. By this time I had worked at several local saw mills which was about the best job I could expect to get in this economically depressed area. So my initial intention in joining the armed forces was to get a skill that could improve my job prospects.
Early after arriving at basic training in Lackland Air Force base I was asked to fill out what they in the military called, “a dream sheet”. This is where you write down the top ten places you would like to be stationed after finishing basic training and your technical school. Of course at this time it never occurred to me why the word “Dream” was in the name. So since I had no intention of going anywhere, I chose ten locations right around Michigan and the Midwest where I was from. After finishing basic training, and due to a strange twist of fate, I got the assignment for my tech school. Even though I joined the Air Force I was being sent to Great Lakes Naval training center in Waukegan, Illinois for my electronics training. Arriving at Great Lakes just before the Christmas it turns out that many of the sailors had already gone home to be with their families for the holiday. One day I needed to go to the personnel office to fill out some paperwork. There was an friendly older lady working there and to my surprise we were the only two people in what was normally a very busy office. After filling out the papers, even though no one else was there, she whispered to me, “I can give you an early Christmas present”. I asked her “and what would that be?” She told me that she could go on the computer and find out where I would be stationed after completing my school. I was very excited and said I would love to find that out! She got on the computer system typed in my Social Security number and then she gasped! I asked her “what is wrong”? She told me “maybe you don’t want to know”! Now I was more curious than ever and insisted that she tell me. She said ”You are going to be stationed at Osan Air Force base in Korea”!!
So suddenly I remembered the name “Dream Sheet”. Of course it was a dream because you probably never got any of the places that you wrote down! So now the guy who never had any intention of going anywhere far from his home was going to a place half way around the world. If the distance wasn’t enough of a shock, the culture and language of the people was totally foreign to me. I came from a place where there wasn’t a single minority living within a hundred mile radius! Everyone was white and mostly Christian. Little did I know that this was going to be the beginning of a love affair with far off places.
I flew from Traverse City Michigan to Chicago and then took a charter jet from Chicago to Alaska where we stopped for a 4 hour layover in Anchorage at 2:00 am. Then we went from Anchorage to Korea. It was a grueling 26 hour trip in total. After landing at Osan air base a couple of the guys that I would be working with picked me up and brought me to the barracks that would become my home. When they left to let me get some sleep one of the guy’s gave me a little bit of Korean money to get on the Korean bus that stopped out in front of the barracks in the morning. He said that the bus went around the base in a loop and that I was to get off at building #725. The thing that happened next set the tone of my stay in Korea for the next few months. The next morning I got up and dressed and went out in front of barracks and waited for the bus to come by. It wasn’t long until it appeared and when it stopped I got on. There was a young Korean girl who looked to be around 16 to 18 years old that worked on the bus. She would collect the money from the passengers and also open the doors to let people in and out of the bus. She came over and held out her hand so I gave her the money that the guy had given me the night before. It turns out that bus only cost 10 won to ride (at the time it was 700 won to the dollar) and the guy had given me a twenty won note. So I sat looking out the window watching for building #725. Watching out the window up ahead there was what seemed to be a gate (which I later learned was the front gate to the base) with some guards checking cars as they came in. The guards just waved the bus through and the next thing I knew it was heading out into the town right outside the base. I started to get a bit worried but since they had told me that it went in a loop I thought that any moment it would turn around and head right back into the base. To my amazement it went onto a ramp and we were headed out onto the highway. It was then that panic set in and I frantically tried to ask the girl who worked on the bus (who spoke absolutely no English) if they were going to go back to the base! She keep pushing me back in my seat and telling me (in Korean) to please sit down! Then suddenly the bus got on an exit ramp that led to another town. I kept asking the girl about going back to the base. She obviously realized that I did not know where I was going so when we got to the first bus stop she grabbed my arm and pushed me out the door. The bus drove off and at that moment I never felt more lost in my entire life! Here was the 19 year old Midwestern boy who had never been far from home standing at a bus stop in a foreign country, in an unknown town, not knowing the language, not knowing how to get back to the base, with 10 won worth of Korean money in his pocket!!! Now that is a lonely feeling.
After several minutes of shock I decided that I had to do something and I couldn’t spend the rest of my life at that bus stop. So I started walking and came upon a taxi stand with several Korean taxi drivers standing outside their cars. I tried to ask if any of them went to Osan AB. Unfortunately none of them spoke English so they didn’t know what I was asking. Something I learned later was that even if they did speak a little English they did not pronounce English words like we did. I was also wondering at the same time what I was going to do if one of them said yes since I only had 10 won and some U.S. dollars in my pocket and somehow I figured that 10 won would not be enough for a taxi. So I kept walking and then came upon another taxi stand. This time one of the taxi drivers spoke up and said that he could drive me to the base. I told him that I only had U.S. dollars and he just shook his head like that would do. He took me back to the base and it was an incredible relief when I saw the main gate that we had gone out of a few hours before. So on my first day to work I showed up three hours late. They were all wondering what had happened to me and had a good laugh when I told my story. It turns out that the bus does do a loop but it first comes from off base and does the loop around the base only to exit and go off on a route to a couple of other nearby towns. I had just gotten on the bus on the wrong side of the road.
For the next three months I was totally miserable. I did not want to go off base at all so all I did was go to work and go back to the barracks. I was hating the Air Force for sending me to this god awful place. All I wanted to do was go back home to Michigan. One day while stopping at the Base Exchange for something I saw this Cannon camera with a telephoto lens. Since I had not been going anywhere I had not been spending any money. I had a lot more money then I would normally have so I decided to buy it. I spent the next couple weeks taking photo’s around the base and developing them over at the base hobby shop where they had some developing equipment that we could use for free. One day at work one of the other Airmen was talking about a small lake nearby they called Paradise lake. He said near the lake there were some trails that went up into the mountains. So I decided finally to leave my safety zone one day and go hiking so I could take some photos. When I got to the lake it was not very big and also not very clean. Later I would learn that the GI’s had a nickname for the place, Parasite pond! I found where the trails started and began on my hike. The trail went higher and higher and as it went up there were more and more trees. After a considerable walk I came to a clearing and could see a beautiful view looking out over a valley. That is when I saw this amazing statue with some small buildings down below it. It was a standing Buddha about 30 feet tall (The photo on this post is the actual Buddha statue I photographed that day) . The only photos I had ever seen before of a Buddha showed him in a sitting position. I noticed a solitary monk sweeping around the small buildings. That is when I realized that this must be some sort of monastery. At first I did not know if I should go any closer because I did not want to seem disrespectful. The monk just kept on sweeping and although I felt that he knew I was there he did not seem bothered by my presence. So I went to the base of the statue and there was a small little stonewall around the edge of the hill where they made space for the statue to stand on a flat surface. I sat down and my eyes were drawn upward because the statue seemed so tall and I was wondering how they got it up to this place? It was such a beautiful place and it had such a peaceful feeling there. As I finally looked down toward the bottom I noticed something that my mind could not comprehend. All the way around the bottom square piece of stone that the statue was standing on, were Swastika’s!! I was looking at them and it was as if my brain just could not compute. The only place I had ever seen a Swastika was on the arm bands or flags of the Nazi’s in Germany! What could that symbol possibly be doing on a statue of the Buddha in Korea? This just didn’t make any sense.
The whole way on my hike back I kept running this around in my mind. The Nazi’s were known for the atrocities that they committed during world war II and Buddhist were known to be pacifist and didn’t believe in killing anything or anybody so how could these two things be at the same location. This was a mystery that I had to solve. When I got back to the base I went to the library and checked out all the books on Buddhism that they had. This was the beginning of my Buddhist training.