I was a teacher, athletic director and varsity soccer coach on an overseas military base on 9/11. The Rainy Season is my second memoir on the subject. This excerpt is set in Korea nearly eight months after 9/11.
The Rainy Season
I was impossibly young. I look back now and barely recognize the gaunt figure with the hard face. He is a stranger with a clenched jaw, dark, swollen and hollow eyes … until I see that I am flanked on either side by Sami and On-nee.
Then I remember everything.
Will jogged across the field and congratulated me. We shook hands like toughened, battle-tested men. After which Will had cracked a smile, and then he congratulated me a second time with half-a-man-hug, like friends do when they are done pretending to be toughened and battle-tested.
Our quest for trophies and Far East had begun ingloriously three years earlier with a spectacular thrashing from Will’s team in my first-ever match as varsity soccer coach, but I had promised Ray this moment would come …
Far East. Japan.
… and now Ray sprinted onto the field, bursting with pride and emotion. He shook my shoulders and proclaimed, “We did it! We did it!” For emphasis he tossed in a few colorful expletives. My student-athletes—including Ray’s daughter—were in earshot. But as Ray would say, they’re military kids. They were already familiar with the vernacular.
Our boys and girls teams gathered for a celebratory picture. I can still feel the icy Gatorade. It rained down on Sami and me. It’s one of the few times I can remember hearing On-nee shriek in laughter. Sami had loved it. She thought it was the single, most amazing thing she had ever experienced. I had acted annoyed. But late that night I stood in the middle of the field, alone, long after everyone else had gone home. I thought about my team, and I relished the orange stains on my jacket and jeans. I felt tremendous pride, and so much love, and my whole body began to shake with joy and trepidation. Joy, for our great achievement; trepidation, for adding three weeks to our season.
Far East meant two additional weeks of training followed by a weeklong trip to Japan with more than forty military students—all during a time in which analysts offered daily assessments that mutilating American military families was at the top of al-Qaeda’s wish list.
On a good night, I was sleeping three to four hours. On a bad night, I was taking two to three migraine injections.
On the day before 9/11 I had weighed 165 lbs and ran twenty-five miles a week—but eight months later I weighed 147 lbs and ran thirty-five miles a week.
Only I wasn’t healthier.
In fact, it was the opposite. I rarely ate real food. My diet was Pepsi and Maalox. My health was deteriorating rapidly.
But I didn’t take any sick days. I didn’t complain. I didn’t make excuses. My students’ parents were at war. I got up each morning and worked harder.
The Sunday after we clinched a trip to Far East, I met Sami and her mom outside the Post Exchange. Julie was Sami’s mom, and I think she was the quintessential military spouse—confident, unflappable, and resilient no matter the crisis. In an evening gown she’d be elegant and flawless, but give her a gun and cammies and she could pull that off, too. Julie was tall, blond and athletic, and Aaron—Sami’s dad—had by all accounts won the lottery.
On that Sunday afternoon, Julie bought fifteen kids meals from Burger King and I bought a case of grape soda from the Exchange.
Sami asked me, “Where’s On-nee?”
My phone beeped before I could answer.
“Is that On-nee?”
I checked the incoming text and told Sami, “Someone should really buy you a phone. Yes, it’s On-nee. She’s going to meet us there.”
Julie said, “She’s not getting a phone. You driving or am I?”
“Actually, I was going to walk.”
“Me too, mom.”
Our military community had four posts—one was thirty minutes away, but the main gates for the other three formed a loose triangle. If you used back alleys—and Korea is the world capital, I think, for back alleys—then you could navigate between any two points within that triangle in less than ten minutes. A large apartment complex facetiously referred to as the DoDDS ghetto was inside that triangle. I lived in the ghetto, along with many other teachers. Also inside that triangle was a tiny two-story house with a narrow yard, rusted swing set, and a beat-up ajumma cart.
Julie shrugged. “Easier than finding a place to park.”
Sami raced ahead, toward the pedestrian gate that led off-post.
I told Sami, “Stay close.”
I carried the grape soda and half the Burger King bags. Julie carried the rest. A fast-minute later we reached the pedestrian gate.
I told Sami, “Hold up.”
Sami jogged in place and talked smack. “Hurry, old man.”
“Bench warmer,” I said back.
“Hey, that’s low.”
Korean soldiers and police officers manned the gate, along with a few American MPs. I paused a beat to look around anyway. Inside the perimeter wall was our safety zone, but outside the wall the “buddy system” was in effect—and the reason the “buddy system” was in effect is why I paused. The threat to Americans was very real.
I saw nothing unusual, so I told Sami, “Okay, stay close.”
Sami took off again, like a boisterous puppy freed from its leash.
Julie said, “This works better anyway. It gives us a chance to talk.”
“You know all about Sami’s incentives, of course.”
I nodded. “Sure.” Sami’s parents had made plans to travel to Japan for Far East—and they had also bought tickets for the 2002 World Cup, which was being played in Korea and Japan only a few days after Far East.
“All year we promised to take her to the World Cup. A once-in-a-lifetime chance, right? I mean it’s being played in our own backyard, practically. We told her maybe Far East. If she kept her grades up and did well in school. Well, she’s been spectacular. It’s her best year ever, and not just academically. She’s never fit in or belonged to anything so special. She’s never been this excited about school or anything else for that matter.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Iraq is next. You know?”
“That’s what everyone is saying.”
“I’m not just saying. It’s a fact. Aaron already got orders.”
“Orders? To where?”
“Sami and I are going back to Tampa. Aaron is going to Qatar to plan Persian Gulf The Sequel, coming to a desert near you in about a year’s time. Maybe less. Aaron says next March. It’s really not something I should joke about. It’s important, I know that, and no one needs to explain it to me. But Sami is going to be devastated. She’d be okay if it was only the World Cup, but it’s going to kill her to miss Far East.”
“You can’t stay until the end of the school year? Or go back separately?”
She shook her head, and her voice broke just a little. “Aaron is going to war. He needs us, and we need to be with him every day we can.”
“When do you leave?”
“The same week you go to Japan.”
We caught up to Sami at an intersection and she jogged in place again. “Why are you out of breath, old man?”
I wasn’t out of breath. Or old. I said, “Practice squad bench warmer.”
Sami popped me in the shoulder with a left jab and a right cross, and when the green man lit up she hit the crosswalk at a full-on sprint.
“She’s going to be devastated,” Julie said, again.
“When are you going to tell her?”
“I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow. Aaron thinks he can get us orders to Germany.”
“Germany? What for?”
“As we build-up to Iraq he’ll be in and out of Germany. We could see him maybe once a month. If we stay in Tampa then we won’t see him for a year or more. I should be grateful Aaron’s career is fast-tracked. Most spouses don’t have options.”
Up ahead was the front entrance to the market. Sami held up, but Julie called out, “You’re fine. Go ahead.” Sami raced headlong into the teeming market with its warren of dirty stalls and rancid smells.
I thought, Sami, wait … but Sami and her mom had visited the orphans every week for months. The market was safe enough. I said nothing.
Julie said, “You know about her friend Angel?”
“Sami talks about her all the time. Angel’s mom is pregnant.”
“Angel’s family is in Germany. Maybe God has a hand in all of it.”
Julie and I entered the market just as Sami jetted around a corner and into a narrow alley.
Julie said, “Sami tells you everything, doesn’t she?”
I gave her my best noncommittal shrug.
“Of course she does. So you already know that Angel’s family isn’t the happiest. I’ve been bitter lately to be stuck in Korea with Aaron off God-knows-where half the time—but Angel’s mom is in a worse situation. At least I’m not pregnant.”
Julie and I made it around the corner and into the narrow alley. Sami’s red hoodie was a blur in the distance. She broke left and out of sight into yet another alley.
“Sami tell you Aaron and I had a big fight?”
“No,” I lied.
“He’s already been to Qatar two or three times. I thought he was in Tampa.”
“I know it’s been tough,” I said, wishing she would change the topic, and suddenly feeling anxious about Sami being out of sight.
Julie never finished her thought. We heard scuffling and a loud clatter in the next alley, and then a man began to shout angrily in Hangul.
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