“Was the Korean Army really that bad?” I was asked one day while drinking. The insinuation was that I was just a big crybaby. It was a dick question all the more because I had never complained about it once to the guy. I wasn’t even the one who volunteered the information that I had served in the Korean Army. I rarely share about my time in the Army in social situations but people want to know what I went through, which is one of the reasons why I wrote the book.
There were plenty of things that made the experience that bad. Every day was a fresh hell to live through. Everyone around me seemed hell-bent to make sure it was. But if I were asked what the most damning thing about the experience was, I would have to say that it was time.
You can get through almost anything if you know it’ll be over soon. It’s why people rip Band-Aids off quickly rather than feel the adhesive pull out body hair one by one. It’s why, when I was laid out in the hospital after my motorcycle accident, I told my brother I wished they’d just cut the damn leg off. Throughout that first full day in the service, I thought to myself, “Goddam, I have to go through 729 more days of this?”
There was an informal rule in my company—privates were not allowed to calculate how many days they had left. The rationale behind the rule is that, if privates have time to calculate how many days they have left, they aren’t working hard enough. While I wasn’t allowed to keep track of my time, one of my morning duties was to keep track of our one-go’s D-day counter.*
While the rule was not established for the sake of the privates, it does end up working in their favor.
The basic rule is this: the more you look at the clock, the slower the time goes. It will uncover the hiding place of your mind and torture it with every second.
Those days were some of the slowest and most torturous days of my life. Every time I looked at the calendar, I could feel my soul get crushed by the weight of the all too many remaining days. I was always asking myself, “That’s all that passed?”
Time passes much differently, much more slowly, in a black hole. After a while, time began to distort. Even now, I find it hard to put into words. I often wonder how Camus put it so succinctly:
I hadn’t grasped how days could be at once long and short. Long, no doubt, as periods to live through, but so distended that they ended up by overlapping on each other.
Albert Camus, The Stranger
I imagine if it were possible to survive in a black hole and watch the lives of those you care about passing by at a much faster rate, it would be crushing. When I finally was able to escape from my black hole, I found it difficult to fit back into my previous life. I was stuck in the past, and everyone was living in the present. Everything had changed.
I don’t know if it is a result of the experience, but now I’m hopelessly rooted in the present. I rarely think of the past (except when writing these posts or drinking with old friends) and am unable to plan for the future.
[edit 5/20/15] I got tired and sloppy at the end of this post. Living in the present (and being unable to think of the past or future) may very well be a result of my time in the Army, something I picked up while I was in Afghanistan. It was there that I realized the futility of thinking of the past. There was no amount of regret that would change what had already happened. I’ve always been bad at thinking about the future, but the experience taught me that there’s no way to predict what will happen. Korea was only supposed to be a one-year stint. I’ve now been here for over twelve.
* One-go is the term for the highest-ranked conscript in a squad. In this case, it was Beaver. Every morning, he made me keep track of how many days left until his discharge on a whiteboard hanging on our squad room door.