I was a very green second lieutenant who’d been bouncing around South Korea for about a week, back in 1955, and was now happy to have been assigned permanent quarters. It was a quonset-shaped tent that was not so lovingly called a Jamesway. I never knew whom it was named after.
“Slicky boys?” That’s the name once given them by pidgin-English-speaking Koreans who worked on the post, and the label stuck. Slicky boys were native scavengers who’d use any tactic to steal booze, radios, cameras and all manner of American military goods to sell on the black market. They struck at night and were not so much slick as slippery; no barrier seemed to dull their determination or halt their enterprise.
“Those bastards wear black and sometimes smear black gunk on their faces to prevent being spotted,” Lieutenant Thurston informed me. “A year ago, one of them murdered a major, asleep in his hoochie up near the DMZ. So nobody’s safe, understand?” To underscore his contempt for Korea and the protective service he was there to provide, he’d nailed a wall calendar near his cot. His evening ritual included wielding a marking pen to cross out each day that passed and brought him closer to rotation back to the States. He was not the only man to do so, as I learned.
My bunkmate was eloquent on the subject of slicky boys, though it was clear to me that he’d never seen one, let alone killed one, despite his fierce demeanor and tough-guy banter. He may not have been a born assassin, but he clearly had killer genes. By his own description, Thurston was “an Army brat,” son of a retired bird colonel with whom he continually sparred. A serious careerist, he was the only first lieutenant on the post I ever saluted. As he made clear, such courtesy was expected.
Our post was Camp Jason, which had been carved out of rice fields near a tiny Korean village two years before the armistice and four years before I arrived. Strands of barbed wire encircled the compound—put up not to hold us in but to keep "them" out. Slicky boys. That's what was said, anyway, and that’s what Lieutenant Thurston obsessed about.
Unshakably determined and usually armed—with machetes and sometimes stolen pistols—these local brigands had been known to scale or sever barbed wire and slash their way into canvas-covered officers' quarters, like ours, searching for booty. Visitors from a Turkish battalion north of us were nonplused by our slicky-boy concerns, however. The first time their unit had been invaded, they caught the perpetrator, skewered and dismembered him, then mounted his head on a post they’d sunk in the center of an adjacent Korean village: a sickening yet memorably effective deterrent.
Like us, the Turks were in South Korea to help defend it from its hostile northern neighbor and, not incidentally, from the hordes of Chinese Communist foot soldiers whose massed presence beyond Korea’s northern border was an unending threat. As Lieutenant Thurston would say, with his customarily curled lip, “We’re supposed to be helping the gooks that got invaded, but nobody talks about the bad gooks that make the good gooks look like assholes.”
He may have been mouthing the mantra of military racism that was current and considered acceptable then, but he wasn’t entirely off course. It did seem to many of us—when we sat drinking two-bit beers at the club and bitching about the tedium of Army life—that the people we were there to defend often seemed our most combative adversaries.
Lieutenant Thurston was aces when it came to combat. "Every night I pray the fuckin’ Commies'll cross the line," he confessed once, licking the dregs of the Scotch in the glass only he was allowed to drink from. "If you can stay alive, there's no stopping you." I must have been wide-eyed. "Battlefield promotions, dickhead! You know, the captain gets shot, you take his place and lead the company. Didn't they teach you anything stateside?"
"Nothing that…detailed," I said, swallowing hard. He loved putting me down; I was an easy target.
Duty at our post was sadly frustrating for high-flyers like Gerald P. Thurston. They sat at desks all day and drank themselves surly at night. There were no troops to marshal, only occasional war games to plan and ponder. Worse, no dependents were allowed in what was still a war zone, and fraternization was prohibited. G.I.’s—they weren’t called grunts then—had to quell their desires until R&R let them escape military jurisdiction. But some officers, majors and upward, divined ways to create special privileges, and their commanders just looked the other way.
There were weekend “fact-finding” trips to Tokyo and occasional overnights in the Korean capital, strictly for officers of high rank, not for the rest of us. During my stay, more than one young lieutenant was nabbed when MP’s raided a cathouse near Seoul. For junior officers like me, the barrier between our claustrophobic Little America and the local habitat was underscored periodically. All junior officers had to assume the duties of O.D.: Officer of the Day.
Each of us approached this recurring chore with singular dread. It meant reporting to the Orderly Room at 4 p.m. on the assigned day, turning out for Retreat and a formal inspection of Headquarters Company, which was an assemblage of enlisted men of every size and shape who were uniformly contemptuous of junior officers. Then, every two hours after nightfall, the Officer of the Day would visit the guard posts—to make sure every man was awake and alert, that he hadn’t seen anything untoward beyond the barbed wire and was prepared to shoot to kill if "unauthorized persons" invaded his turf.
These visits recurred until 5 a.m. when, presumably, even the most audacious thieves were snoozing or already marketing stolen goods. Which meant that, for the Officer of the Day, sleep was a series of cat naps interrupted by an alarm clock or the Duty Sergeant calling out with unbridled glee, "On your feet, Lieutenant, sir."
Although O.D. duties had a twenty-four-hour span, daytimes were normally a formality. Nighttime was when the action began, when security was checked and the guard inspected. The Officers' Club was an easy first stop, for friends and sympathizers were there, and also the occasional drunk. Not that we could simply hover around the bar or warm our backsides by the fireplace all evening. Our G.I. driver would eventually get bored, cold—or hot, depending on the season—and antsy. If his horn didn't summon us, he would make a brazen appearance in the club doorway to drag us away.
The Saturday night before Christmas, our shower room was packed with men preparing for the weekend—that is, to do exactly what they did every other night: drink at the club and contemplate escapades that never materialized. I pushed through the mass of bodies enveloped in steam and found a ready showerhead. From across the room Kevin Ritchie, a recently promoted first lieutenant, waved a greeting.
"Hey, Kevin. Just back from Jaypan?"
"No way. Seoul," he shouted. “I had my R&R right there. Fantastic!"
"Not by yourself,” I surmised.
"You'd better believe! I think the broad's a Korean countess." He rolled his eyes and waggled his tongue. "Hey, whatcha doin' New Year's?"
"Why? Does she have a friend. A duchess, maybe?"
"Dream on! Listen. . ." he began, turning off his shower, "Madame Lee says I can stay next weekend if I bring her stuff from the PX.”
"I guess you've got it made."
"Wrong," he bellowed. "I pulled O.D on—can you believe—little ol' New Year's Eve." I was scrubbing my scalp and shaking my head, sympathy dripping from my soapy ears.
"I'll make you a deal," he said, as I rinsed away soapsuds. "You
take my duty, this once, and I'll do the next two of yours. Fair? I mean, look, I promised the lady.” He was obviously dead serious. As I turned off the shower and moved to the changing room to dry off, he was at my heels, extolling the multiple ecstasies that would be his if I acquiesced.
"All right, all right," I said finally, wrapping myself in the winter-heavy raincoat I used as a bathrobe. "My one for your two."
"You're a buddy," he cried, snapping his towel as I headed back to my hoochi.
New Year's Eve duty provoked a lot of good-natured razzing. Everyone I knew on the post phoned me that day—to chortle or commiserate. By sunset I was feeling almost cheerful. That evening the NCO Club was predictably raucous—tanked-up geezer sergeants with fat guts were dancing solo to jukebox muics—but the Officers' Club was deadly. The barflies were boring, seemingly glued to their leather-topped stools, and a bridge game among gray-faced majors and colonels sipping bourbon and rye was almost too stiffly comic to watch.
Returning to the Orderly Room I snoozed a bit on my designated rack, but two hours later was making rounds again, checking the guard to make sure there were no drinkers or shirkers. This was the kind of night that would have found First Lieutenant Gerald P. Thurston lusting for trouble.
Heading back to the Orderly Room again, I felt suddenly weary. That fold-out cot looked mighty good to me, and in a few moments I was out—but not for long. I was shaken awake shortly before midnight by the new Duty Sergeant: “Sir, did you hear me? Guard Post 23 reports penetration by a Korean national."
I was inarticulate and could barely focus, but I knew what he meant: slicky boy. I pulled on my boots and stabbed my arms into my field jacket. Outside, as I trotted to the waiting jeep, my feet felt leaden; it was a struggle to climb into the vehicle with any degree of military dignity.
We reached Post 23 and found that MP's were already there and in action. But as Officer of the Day I had to file a report, so I moved in close—near enough to see one small, thin Korean, hands tied at the back, head covered in layers of scarves that matched a pair of coal-black pajamas. A circle of helmeted soldiers, with weapons drawn, surrounded their prey, but I could see that the only weapon they’d seized from their suspect was a pair of heavy-duty wire cutters. The MP's were apparently unsatisfied. Despite the midnight chill, they were conducting a strip-search. I watched as the suspect's pajama top was slashed by a bayonet and torn off. It was then that a thud of sickness hit the pit of my stomach and I turned away.
What was I doing in this strange land? Why were any of us here? Whom were we helping? Nothing made sense. Years later, long after the bitter residue of Gerald P. Thurston's fanaticism had receded and I could no longer envisage the bawdy grin on Kevin Ritchie's face, I’d remember that New Year's Eve and the would-be thief: a pale figure with narrow shoulders and a slight swelling of the chest above a bony ribcage. I had seen the enemy and felt pure shame. The “slicky boy” I would describe in my official report was a Korean national, an adolescent, maybe fourteen or fifteen…and female.
I had never embraced pacifism and, until then, had refused to count the days until my time was up. But now I did find myself checking the calendar. Five months and twenty-six days left.
I could hardly wait.
Merv, JOUR ’59, was one of the five founding members of the Columbia Fiction Foundry. He is a freelance writer and can be reached at email@example.com. He has published in the Arizona Quarterly, Clockhouse Review, The East Hampton Star. He is the author of the children’s book, No Holiday for Honey Bees as well as eight juvenile biographies.
Slicky Boy was first published by Rockhurst Review, A Fine Arts Journal, in its Twenty-Seventh Edition, Spring, 2014, pp. 40-50