Memories of a soldier, and a town

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Memories of a soldier, and a town

ANYANG, Gyeonggi province
On March 10, 1968, Neil Mishalov, a 25-year-old Army recruit from Brooklyn, got his first view of the Korean Peninsula from a window seat on a troop carrier. Mr. Mishalov was not thrilled at the sight of barren fields and rocky hills in this country that would be his home for the next 13 months.
After landing at Gimpo Airport that chilly morning, Mr. Mishalov and his fellow soldiers rode a bus to Anyang, a small town about 20 miles south of Seoul. Dead silence ruled the bus.
Mr. Mishalov did not expect much from his service in Anyang. Fresh out of college, he knew little about this country called Korea, although he was happy not to be going to Vietnam, from which many of his fellow draftees were not returning alive.
After a rather shaky start, however, Mr. Mishalov found himself developing an attachment to the small farming town.
Given a post as a mailman, Mr. Mishalov was lucky enough to have his own Jeep, which gave him the freedom to explore his new environment. Everything was new to this young soldier from thousands of miles away. Farmers plowed rice paddies with cows, the old-fashioned way. Old grandmothers with withered faces and happy smiles walked by, carrying water jars on their heads. Little boys with curious eyes were willing to say hello.
With his best friend, a Nikon camera, Mr. Mishalov started to take color slides, sending the film home to be developed.
Before taking a picture, Mr. Mishalov would seek his subject’s approval, pointing to his Nikon with a broad smile. His subjects usually responded with a shy smile, giving curious looks to the small black box.
Before he knew it, Mr. Mishalov had made his time in a foreign land enjoyable. And by the time his service was finished, Mr. Mishalov had a collection of more than 600 images.
Upon returning home in April of 1969, Mr. Mishalov moved to Berkeley, California, where he lived a peaceful life as a realtor, his days in Korea fading in his memory.
Last year, 2002, however, Mr. Mishalov learned how to convert color slides into digital images, and he uploaded his old pictures to a Web site,
Having seen friends yawn through his slide shows, Mr. Mishalov certainly wasn’t expecting much reaction to his online exhibition.
After a few months, however, he found that his e-mail account was getting overwhelmed with messages from Koreans.
Some of the letters were in broken English, but that did not dilute the expressions of gratitude (though one writer did ask him to change a reference to “Sea of Japan” to “East Sea”; he compromised by changing the reference to “East Sea” with “Sea of Japan” in parentheses).
But the biggest surprise came earlier this year. His photos had so touched the people of Anyang ― who had very little photographic record of what their community looked like in the 1960s ― that the city wanted him to be a part of its celebration of its 30th anniversary of incorporating as a city. A municipal official, Jeong Wol-ae, asked him to fly to Anyang at the city’s expense for the celebrations, which would include an exhibition of Mr. Mishalov’s photos. And the city wanted to make him an honorary citizen.

So after 35 years, Mr. Mishalov was on another plane headed for Korea. Seated in business class, Mr. Mishalov this time found the view a pleasant surprise. The mountains were green, and there was something new: modern, high-rise buildings.
He was concerned about the anti-Americanism that he’d heard prevailed in Korea, but he found that not to be quite true once he’d landed.
He was welcomed warmly, especially at the ceremony awarding him honorary citizenship. Ha Jung-ung, a senior citizen who has lived in Anyang for more than four decades, shook his hand and told him how much his photos meant to him.
“I’ve always felt sorry that I could not clearly recall how the city looked when I was young,” Mr. Ha said. “Your photos are now the only tangible souvenirs of my past.”
At the ceremony, waving a miniature Korean flag he’d bought for $4 in Berkeley, Mr. Mishalov said, “I’m so happy and honored to be a citizen of Anyang.”

But the real journey began after the ceremony, when he started looking around the city with Robert Lawrence, an Army buddy who’d served with him in Anyang and who had joined him for the trip.
With hard copies of his photographs, Mr. Mishalov toured the city, trying to find the places where landmarks from his army base had been. It didn’t seem like the same city. Giant apartment complexes and skyscrapers had replaced the rice paddies and barren fields.
But ridgelines in the photographs offered clues. Every time he found a place where the ridgelines of the photograph and the scenery matched, Mr. Mishalov became so excited that he almost jumped out of the car.
“Holy moly!” he said upon reaching the place in Seoksu-dong where his company had been stationed. Where the main gate had stood was now a grocery store; the front gate had been replaced by a two-story office building.
Standing where a bar for American GIs had once been, Mr. Mishlov stared at a picture of a teenage girl walking past the bar. “You know, I had a crush on this girl, who was a daughter of the owner of a small drugstore nearby.
“I wonder if I could find her now,” he joked.
The dirt roads were long gone, but time had not changed the friendly attitude of Anyang’s people. A group of children gathered around Mr. Mishalov, saying “Hello” in English. He replied, “Annyeong hasimmnikka,” meaning “How do you do” in Korean. He took pictures of the children with his new Canon digital camera.
Mr. Mishalov visited three more places, one of which, on the outskirts of Anyang, was still what it had been: a military storage base. It is now under the control of the Korean army, and the Korean guards are strict about not allowing unauthorized visits, but they made an exception after seeing Mr. Mishalov’s pictures.
Looking around the compound, Mr. Mishalov and Mr. Lawrence reminisced about nighttime drills they’d gone through. “This trip is just so satisfying for me,” Mr. Mishalov said. “It answers all the unanswered questions.”
Kim Ji-seok, an Anyang city official who drove Mr. Mishalov around the city, said, “It is regrettable that our past is kept in a foreigner’s hands, but the important part is, after all, that we have souvenirs from the past. And we are grateful for that.”
In a car heading back to his hotel, Mr. Mishalov talked about how happy he was that he’d posted his photos online. “If I didn’t do this, my photographs could have been garbage,” he said. “I’m so glad that I brought my photos back to life. They take you back to the place that is now physically gone.”
Mr. Mishalov flew back to California, but says he can’t wait to visit his second hometown again.

by Chun Su-jin
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