By Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2019. All rights reserved.
The culmination of seven years of saving what we could from my modest salary as an Assistant Professor of English at a university in South Korea, the money we spent on the jeonse, or key money, for our new apartment in Pusan was, my Korean wife and I believed, money well spent. After tolerating life lived in that closet sized apartment near the university in Gyeongju for far too long for a person with my educational background and work experience, we all, that is to say my family which consisted of myself Paul Robertson, my wife Suji, and our fourteen year-old son Joseph, were overjoyed to be calling our spacious three bedroom flat in Sajik Dong our home. Of course it was not as nice as the condo we formerly owned in Chicago before we returned to my wife’s native land after giving life a go in the Second City for eleven years, but enduring a Korean life without some of the creature comforts of home was all part of the bargain we had committed ourselves to when we decided to leave Chicago and return to the land where Suji had been born and raised.
Suji was adamant in her contention that our life in South Korea was far better for all of us than the life of struggle and middle-class squeeze we had endured in Chicago for eleven years. We earned a higher salary in Chicago, me teaching history and social studies at a prestigious selective enrollment high school for gifted students, while Suji also worked, teaching math and science at a private school before completing her master’s degree in education at a local university, However, the level of frustration we were forced to swallow along with our pride convinced Suji first, and eventually me later, that we would all be better off if we returned to Korea.
The problem for me as a high school teacher was never the gifted students, who were a joy and pleasure to teach. Future Ivy Leaguers many of those bright and talented students were, enabling me as their teacher to instruct them at a high level of intellectual sophistication. Doing so allowed me to make good of and put to use my own distinguished academic background and preparation. The problem for me at work was not the students, but always the gross mistreatment I received form my supervisors in the administration at the high school.
Almost without exception I considered everyone in the administration to be the worst kind of CPS (Chicago Public Schools) thugs who were intent on penalizing me for my academic accomplishments and resume, instead of rewarding me for them. I know it seems counterintuitive for someone who has no experience working within the CPS system, reeking as it does of corruption, dysfunction, and mismanagement, but those CPS thugs considered my University of Chicago degree to be a liability rather than an asset, and so they relished every opportunity to treat me like dirt and walk all over me, all because I had what they wanted but could not obtain for themselves. I tried my best to stomach, for eleven years, the unprovoked personal attacks and ruthless backstabbing, the politically motivated bullshit and patently false, even absurdly dishonest, evaluations of my talent and performance as an educator. I told myself I had to live with the abuse and suck it up, no matter how unfair and unwarranted the mistreatment was, all in order to be able to provide for my family and pay that condo mortgage every month. The final straw came when the thugs took away from me my gifted classes and purposely stuck me with a schedule of lower level classes full of remedial students suffering from extremely serious behavioral and emotional disorders. They purposely and intentionally packed my classes with the worst behaved students in the school in an effort to run me down, burn me out, and force me to quit.
Suji pleaded with me to allow us to return, once again, to Korea and teach at a university there where I belonged, convinced as she was by the manner in which the CPS thugs in the administration abused me, and also by the manner in which my troubles and desperation at work were adversely impacting our home and family life, that the American dream was dead, at least for us. If the CPS thugs believed Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and a degree from The University of Chicago were liabilities rather than assets, then to Hell with those jerks we decided, and we commenced our preparations for our return to Korea, and we hoped, to greener pastures for all of us.
We lost some money on the sale of our condo in Chicago which we sold during the sharp downturn in the real estate market after the mortgage debacle of the past decade, and I donated all of our furniture to The Ark, a Jewish charity, realizing it would not be feasible to ship it all to Korea. Like the furniture, much of which were hand-me-downs which had been in my family for decades, there were many valued things we had to give up and forgo once we were determined to leave Chicago. The most difficult challenge for us was the realization that, living literally on the other side of the world from Chicago, we would no longer be able to see on a regular basis my father, who was at the time the only one of our son’s grandparents still living, himself also weakened and frail due to successful cancer surgery that, while saving his life, also severely taxed his strength and health. Leaving behind my father and also my sisters and their children, my son’s American cousins, was the most difficult part for all of us. But I believed, at that time, that Suji was right about the American dream. The American dream was now dead for us in the city of my birth, at least as long as I would allow those thuggish administrators in CPS to use me as their doormat. My wife was right. We could see it was time to move on to what we hoped would be bigger and better things and a happier life for all of us, and we were committed to tolerating whatever temporary challenges and inconveniences making such a great leap would entail.
Selling the condo in Chicago when we were living and working overseas in Korea turned out to be a big hassle, made worse by the fact that we were forced to withstand a capital loss in doing so due to the terrible state of the real estate market when we sold. But it was either sell or default on our loan with only my English professor’s modest income to support all of our expenses in both Chicago and Korea. To tell the truth, even with the capital loss, I was happy to be done with it all when we sold the condo in Chicago, and we were especially relieved to no longer have to concern ourselves with our troublesome tenants who were constantly demanding that we pay for costly repairs to the unit and always looking for a way to avoid paying the monthly rent in full. As I already mentioned, it was difficult to say good-bye to all of the furniture we had accumulated over a decade, much of which had been in my family for years and years and had the status of heirlooms to me. On the upside however, thanks to the services of the Hanjin International Shipping Company, we were able to save and ship to Korea most of our books which I treasured even more than the old furniture. We paid a considerable sum to hold on to the books, but as I sit here writing this in our third bedroom of our apartment in Pusan, which we have converted into a kind of small library, I feel a great sense of comfort and satisfaction surrounded as I am by the great number of books we have managed to hold on to in spite of our relocation to Korea and our frequent moves within that country.
There were twenty eight large boxes of books to be more precise about them, many of them from our time as college and graduate school students all those years ago. Allow me now to indulge my sense of pride and accomplishment concerning this small library I have carried in tow with me half-way around the world. The books for me are as cherished as are the backpacks which traveled with us to distant and foreign lands in the Far East. These days, although I am a committed expatriate, I am not as adventurous as I was when I first traveled overseas in my mid-twenties. While the old and reliable backpacks see much less action these days, my books have transported me intellectually far and wide throughout the distant reaches of the human mind. The manner in which I have organized our library reveals much about my education and experience. As we are short of shelf space in our small but cozy library, most of the shelves in the bookcases that line the walls are double stacked.
Although it took some time after the movers misplaced everything, I have once again organized our book collection by subject matter. Atop the bookcase on one side of the room are the numerous political science textbooks I have used to teach American Government and Politics at both the high school and collegiate level. Underneath the political science textbooks are several sections of religious books with a focus, although not exclusively, on Judaism and Jewish history. Within these sections are several prayer books in both Hebrew and English, along with several versions of the Pentateuch, or the Five Books of Moses. A few books on Buddhism and the Muslim classic The Prophet by Kahil Gibran, round out the religious section. Below the religious category are multiple sections of political theory, political philosophy, and philosophy, more broadly conceived. Beneath the theory and philosophy are books about race relations, race and politics, African-American studies and history, and African-American political thought. Next to these books are multiple sections under the category of social science – history, sociology, anthropology, economics, and other assorted social science books. Adjoining social science are books of fiction and literature filling up the remainder of the space on that side of the room. Across the room on the opposite wall we have still another large bookcase with books on language, including Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Thai, and Hebrew dictionaries. Next on that side of the room are Suji’s collection of biology, chemistry, assorted science, and mathematics books, along with numerous study guides and test prep books Suji likes to study in order, as she says, to relieve her stress. Books on psychology, medicine and self-help, as well as statistics are next. The remainder of the space is filled with numerous children’s books which we have saved from Joseph’s early childhood and which we sometimes use with his Korean cousins in their English studies.
Atop this same bookcase we have proudly on display some candelabra, my long deceased aunt’s ornamental Seder plate, a pair of traditional Korean masks or hahweital carved out of wood, a few family photos and photos of our son, and number of other collectible items and chatchkies. Draped across the top of one shelf is the honor cord in blue and orange, the school colors of my alma mater, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In addition to graduating from Illinois as a Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude, I also earned the distinction of being a Bronze Tablet Scholar. This honor is conferred upon all students who graduate in the top three percent of their graduating class, and these scholars wear the blue and orange honor cords with their caps and gowns during graduation ceremonies, and their names are permanently inscribed upon the tablets of bronze which hang in the Hall of Honors within the main library on campus in Urbana-Champaign. This University of Illinois tradition dates back to the year 1925. It was the awards and honors I earned and achieved at The University of Illinois that made graduate school at The University of Chicago possible for me, along with the generous fellowship I received there for graduate studies in political science.
Although I have spilled much ink in the writing of stories about my struggles in graduate school, at this time in my life, with all of those growing pains of my youth receding into the distant past, I can honestly say I am proud and happy that I chose to attend, in spite of the difficulties I experienced there, the university that is widely viewed as the most rigorous school in The United States. Suji knows this much about me, so she went out of her way to make certain that the small loveseat, which we call our reading couch, that Suji purchased online for our library was colored maroon, the official school color of The University of Chicago. I believe it was fitting that she did so, since many of the books which make the room a library, were purchased by me during graduate school. In spite of the trials and tribulations of my troubled early twenties, I know full well that the man I am today, as an educator, thinker, and writer, I am in large part due to the influence of my chosen schools, and I am and intend to remain a proud Illini and Maroon.
Sitting comfortably on the maroon couch and relaxing reading a great book, I am often transported in my thoughts from the book at hand through time and space to my youth and sometimes even to my childhood. Surrounded by my books, I can clearly recall my first visit to the home of my father’s cousin in the suburbs near Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory. These two research facilities affiliated with The University of Chicago and the United States Department of Energy, have their origins with the Manhattan Project during World War II. The Manhattan Project was the top secret program to develop nuclear energy and the atomic bomb during the War, before the Germans and Japanese could do so. University of Chicago nuclear physicist, the Italian born Jew, Enrico Fermi, had the distinction of overseeing the research that produced the first manmade sustained nuclear chain reaction in a laboratory underneath the football stadium on campus. Afterwards, Fermilab, located in near Batavia, Illinois was where Fermi and other University of Chicago physicists continued to carry out their research concerning nuclear energy. Affiliated with both Fermilab and The University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory in Lamont houses America’s first supercollider superconductor and is the focal point of much ground breaking nuclear research. In the next few years, the lab will house the most powerful supercomputer in the United States, a computer which will serve to ensure continuation of the path breaking nuclear research carried out there.
My father’s cousin, Charles, who I often referred to as my uncle even though he was really a cousin, worked for The University of Chicago as a nuclear physicist and computer programmer and expert at the labs. Charles and his wife Maggie played host one afternoon during my early childhood to our family, my father, mother, and three sisters, at their home in the suburbs. Both Charles and Maggie held graduate degrees from The University of Chicago. Maggie’s degree was in social work, a degree she earned from studying at Chicago after she finished her undergraduate degree at Vassar. The daughter of the president of a small but prestigious liberal arts college, Maggie was also a published poet who married Charles rather late in life, both of them in the mid to late fifties when they became engaged after meeting at a lecture event hosted by Mensa, the society for high IQ individuals of which both Charles and Maggie were members.
Charles, born several years before my father was born in the middle of the great depression of the 1930s, was a child prodigy in his youth. He graduated from South Shore High School when he was just thirteen years old. His teachers at South Shore High, understanding that Charles had mastered all there was to know for a high school student, concluded that there was nothing more they could teach the boy genius, and so encouraged him to enroll as an undergraduate at The University of Chicago when he was just fourteen years old. Completing his graduate studies and earning his PhD in nuclear physics before he was twenty-one years old, Charles spent his career at Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory, specializing in the use of sophisticated and cutting edge computer technology to conduct fundamental particle research.
It was the maroon couch and also our books in our small library in Pusan which brought back the vivid memories of my earliest experiences with the eccentric couple, Charles and Maggie. The books were everywhere in their modest home in the suburbs. I remembered that about their house as clearly as day. Book cases and shelves lined every available space along every wall in every room of the house. Still more books where stacked high upon chairs, couches, countertops, a coffee table, other table tops, and even on the floor in some places. I distinctly remember my mother, who was herself a college mathematics instructor, though not at schools as distinguished and prestigious as The University of Chicago, chuckling and chortling uncontrollably to herself as she perused through the veritable sea of books Charles and Maggie had crammed into their relatively small house. My father was more subdued in his reaction and estimation of the significance and meaning of the vast book collection his cousin had assembled there, since my father had grown up very close to his cousin in South Shore, and from experience already understood just what a great intellect this peculiar member of his extended family was. It was obvious to me at that time, even at my young age, that my father was at once in awe of, but also openly dismissive of the kind of life Charles had chosen for himself, or that, perhaps more to the truth, the kind of life that had been chosen by others for Charles due to the fact that he was a prodigy. My father had difficulty appreciating the life Charles lived with its abundance of learning and intellectual pursuits, and its dearth of the kind of activities and interests which my father viewed as more important and central to a life worth living. Among the kind of experiences and activities my father placed more stock in were sports and athletics, an active social life, and the careful cultivation of the kind of personal and social skills required to facilitate a successful life in the world of business, and also in one’s relations with friends, business associates, and even family. My father thought that spending one’s time in isolation, immersed in learning and intellectual pursuits, was all a terrible waste of time and a sure fire way to lead an unhappy and unrewarding life.
The influence of my father’s childhood experiences with his cousin Charles deeply influenced and shaped the philosophy of child rearing my father applied to the raising of my three sisters and me. Much to my father’s dismay, his cousin’ mother, who was also my father’s aunt, raised Charles almost exclusively on a steady and relentless intellectual diet of challenging books. While my father and all of his Jewish friends from the old South Shore spent as much time as possible playing sports on the O’Keeffe playground, so much so that they earned for themselves the designation as the O’Keeffe playground gang, Charles seldom joined them. His mother and his father, who was a book binder by trade, preferred to keep Charles almost locked up in his room in their South Shore bungalow, only, as my father would say, reading and reading and reading. Meanwhile, all the kids in the O’Keeffe playground gang, which was nothing like what one would refer to as a gang these days, were simply a bunch of kids in the old neighborhood spending as much time as possible playing baseball, basketball, and football on their beloved playground. Although my father more than once confessed to me that he grew up jealous and envious of his cousin Charles and all of his remarkable academic talent and achievements, he also often stressed how much he pitied poor Charles who grew up without experiencing the joys and exhilaration of sports and an active social life full of good friends and girlfriends with whom to enjoy and savor some of the good things in life.
When I visited the home of Charles and Maggie that first time in my childhood, the time when I witnessed what, at that moment, appeared to me to be the oddity and peculiar mystery of all of those mountains of books which one had to literally move aside just to find a place to sit on a couch or chair piled high with those books, I was at the time too young to understand the nature of my father’s relationship with his cousin and how it was influencing my own upbringing. Many years later, decades later really, my father finally explained it all to me in detail.
We, meaning my father, my wife Suji, and our son Joseph, were out to dinner for a traditional Korean meal at one of Suji’s favorite Korean restaurants on North Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. While my father fumbled with the chopsticks and struggled to eat what to him was the unfamiliar Korean cuisine, he spoke, as he was so often fond of doing, of the old days in the old neighborhood. He did not really like the spicy and heavily fermented Korean food, but he made a point of trying to eat as much of it as he could stand to in order to demonstrate his respect and appreciation for Suji’s culture and her place within our family. We had also arranged for this meal and discussion because it was then that Suji and I planned to announce our decision leave Chicago and once again return to South Korea. We felt quite guilty about the prospect of taking our son and the two of us away from my father for an extended period of time, and we feared that my father would take the news hard. We did our best to carefully explain and justify the rational of our decision to give up everything we had built for ourselves in Chicago, our whole lives and careers we had in that city, in order to start all over again back in South Korea. Suji spoke of the intolerable and painful homesickness and of her longing to live in close proximity to her sister, brother, and their children who were also Joseph’s Korean cousins. Suji’s parents had long ago, like my own mother, succumbed to death by cancer, so her sister and brother and their children were all that was left of her Korean family. I spoke of my bitter frustration at work at the selective enrollment high school where I felt I was bullied, mistreated, and abused by the administrators who singled me out for their contempt because they envied and resented my superior education and capabilities as a teacher. This was not any kind of a revelation for my father, who by that time was well aware of my troubles at work.
In fact, my dilemmas at work were a much repeated topic of discussion between my father and I. He always responded to my angry and vivid depictions of my lamentable position at the high school in the same manner. My father always urged me to try to make peace with the Department Chair, the International Baccalaureate Coordinator, and the Principle of the school, all of whom, I believed, had conspired and colluded to keep me down and force me out. “If you can’t beat them, then join them,” was his advice, and he counseled me to do what they wanted me to do without putting up a fuss. Believing the thing to do was to keep my head down, my father thought that if I followed his advice and tried to bury the hatchet with the administration, eventually they would reward me for my respect, obedience, and loyalty by restoring to me my treasured gifted class full of those students bound for the Ivy League and similarly prestigious colleges. I never followed my father’s advice, mainly because I was convinced that it was my credentials alone, and not anything I had actually done or refused to do, that were the source of my difficulties at work. On more than one occasion, important people at the school had told me point blank that someone with my resume simply did not belong in a high school teaching position. They told me I had two choices before me to take. I could leave the job and find other employment more suitable for a Summa Cum Laude, or I could stay on, swallow my pride, and endure the inevitable abuse while continuing to live the life of struggle trying unsuccessfully to teach those lower level classes jammed pack by the administration, on purpose, with the worst behavioral and emotional disorder cases in the school. “For goodness sake Mr. Robertson,” they often reminded me, “You are teaching graduate school part-time in the evenings. It is time for you to make a choice about the kind of life you want to lead. Leave us and move on to bigger and better things where your impressive qualifications will be of more use to you, or stay here with us where we will continue to make sure you wallow in your misery with the horseshit schedules we intend to continue to give you.”
“It’s all because of my awards and my University of Chicago degree,” I told my father once again while I watched him struggle unsuccessfully to sample the variety of pancheon, or side dishes laid out before us on the table in the Korean restaurant on Lincoln Avenue.
“I know, I know,” my father said without sympathy in his voice, because he believed I could repair the broken relationships at work if only I forgot about my esteemed credentials and instead focused more on my social skills. My father the businessman always believed social skills and personal relationships at work were more closely related to career success than were impressive credentials and prestigious degrees, and even native intelligence. “Chicago, Chicago,” he said with rising frustration again. “With you Paul, it is always Chicago. All of your troubles and misfortunes in life start with Chicago. Damn it Paul, you are just like your Uncle Charles with your attachment to and obsession with The University of Chicago. All of your life, during the entirety of your childhood I have tried to raise and counsel you to live a different kind of life than the one you have chosen for yourself. But all of it was to no avail, all of my efforts were in vain and never did you any good. I never made a dent, I can see now. You ended up just like my cousin Charles in spite of everything I tried to do to ensure you would not become another Charles.”
“What do you mean Dad?” I asked my father. “What is so wrong with the kind of life I am living? Why don’t you approve of the person I am? Why do you basically reject the man I have become? What is the problem with growing up and living as a smart person?”
“I always feared you would turn out this way, just like Charles did. I never wanted you to become another Charles, but as I listen to you here before me still talking about The University of Chicago, I can see I failed you.”
“Explain Dad,” I urged him. “I am not sure I completely understand you.”
“Paul,” when I was a young boy growing up in South Shore and Hyde Park, my friends and I, all of the Jewish kids that were part of our group, a kind of club it was that we called the O’Keeffe playground gang, we were obsessed with sports. We may have called ourselves the O’Keeffe playground gang, but we were nothing like what people know as a gang today. We did not use or sell drugs, we rarely got into fights, we never defended our territory with violence like a small militia, and we did nothing illegal or criminal. We were just a bunch of Jewish kids who grew up together in the old neighborhood and who loved to spend as much time as we could on the O’Keeffe playground doing what young children are supposed to do; playing sports and having fun. Once in a blue moon there were some problems and scuffles between us and some of the Irish kids in the neighborhood, but there was nothing like the kind of violence one reads about in the newspapers today between the gangs that have made life intolerable and hopeless in many Chicago neighborhoods. Those Irish kids were funny. They would sometimes fight with us and beat one of us up on Friday or Saturday. Then, after church on Sunday morning they would come looking for us to apologize and ask for our forgiveness. But there were no guns or life threatening violence like there is in too many neighborhoods in Chicago today.”
“In the summertime we all hung out at Rainbow Beach at 79th Street, the same Rainbow Beach where I met your mother for the first time many years later, after I had already graduated from Miami University of Ohio and was already working for Inland Steel. When we were still kids, long before our college days, when we were not on the playground or beach, we could be found hanging out at the movie theater in South Shore where we could spend all day watching films and newsreels about the War for less than 50 cents. All the kids in the theater, we always cheered loudly when the newsreels showed us an allied advance or victory, and just as loud and boisterous, we booed and hissed whenever the newsreels pictured the Germans and the Japanese. After spending all day long at the cinema, we would head on over to Mitchell’s Ice Cream Parlor for the best chocolate chip and fudge Sundays or chocolate phosphates in the entire city. It was a good life we lived there as kids in South Shore, a special time in our lives that, to this day, fills us with all sorts of warm memories and recollections.”
“The reason why I am telling you all of this now is because I want you to understand how my cousin Charles missed out on all of the fun. While me and the gang were playing ball at O’Keeffe or swimming at Rainbow Beach, Charles was locked up in his room pouring over his books all day long. That was the way my aunt raised him, and she just never permitted him to spend his time playing ball, swimming at the beach, or hanging out at the cinema with the rest of us. After Charles graduated from South Shore High at the age of thirteen and soon after commenced his studies at The University of Chicago, things only got worse. As you can imagine, he was always studying and reading, and he never got to experience what one might call a normal adolescence. I always thought it was very sad, the kind of life Charles lived, and I swore to myself when I was old enough consider marriage and dating your mother, that I would never raise my own children the way my aunt raised Charles.”
“After most of the white people left South Shore and your mother and I moved our family to the South Suburbs in the early 1970s, your mother and I agreed we would do everything in our power to prevent you from turning into another Charles. When you were just a young child Paul, only five or six years old, we could already realize we would have to make a concerted effort to prevent you from being swallowed up by a life of books and learning. You were already so inquisitive at that time. You asked so many questions constantly about everything imaginable, we knew even then that you were very smart. If we were not careful, we believed, you might end up like Charles and become a bookworm, a one dimensional scholar with underdeveloped social skills and a weak body and constitution, and yes, I hate to talk about my cousin this way, but our greatest fear for you was that you might grow up to be, like Charles, a social misfit.”
“That was why Paul, when you were growing up, I pushed you so hard to focus on sports and friends and social life. And what a great athlete you were, thankfully nothing like that recluse, my cousin Charles. You made the all-star team every season you played in our town’s wonderful little league. You were a great swimmer and spent your summers hanging out at the local park district swimming pool with all of your friends, having great fun like all young children deserve to have fun in their lives. You had friends, real true blue friends with whom you are still in contact today. I was even proud when you and your buddies raised a little Hell during high school, just like a young man should. Our plans for you seemed to have worked out the way we wanted them to, and you were nothing like the loner and cloistered bookworm that we feared you might become. You grew up as a well-rounded kid all through grade school, junior high, and high school where you were a four-year athlete on the cross-country and track and field teams, and earned your varsity letters on championship squads. We were also pleased to send you off to college at The University of Illinois, even though it was not your first choice or dream school. But we wanted you to attend a Big Ten school where there are excellent students who study hard, but who also recognize the importance of athletics and know how to have some fun in life. In essence, we were determined all through your childhood and adolescence and your high school years, to steer you away from The University of Chicago. It was one of my biggest fears, realizing as I did just how smart and studious you were, that you would somehow eventually end up at that university and be transformed into the one dimensional hyper-intellectual sophisticate I never wanted you to be.”
“But then, what did you do? You had to, almost just to spite me and stymie all of my plans for you, you had to make essentially straight A’s at The University of Illinois, and graduate at the top of your class as a Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude, and Bronze Tablet Scholar. Those distinctions along with all the other scholarships and awards you earned led to the full-ride graduate school fellowship at The University of Chicago where you wound up, despite of my efforts during the entirety of your life to prevent you from winding up there. So here you are today with your wife and my precious grandson, telling me you have to return to Korea because you and Suji believe the American dream is dead for the two of you the way they mistreat you at work, and it is all because of The University of Chicago.”
I had to laugh and sigh, once again, listening to my father express his disappointment and disagreement with some of the most crucial decisions I had made in my life , including decisions regarding the central importance in my life of scholarship and learning. The two of us, my father and I, had always clashed concerning these matters, and he refused, even at his advanced age and when I was an adult with a family of my own, he refused to relinquish his quest to lead me and push me away from the books, towards which I felt fundamentally drawn, and to constantly reiterate his opinion that I needed to spend more time on the tennis court, at the gym working out, and socializing with my friends and co-workers. In his view I would be a happier person if I was more devoted to enjoying some of the good things in life instead of wasting my time with the books and scribbling away in my notebooks, writing those arcane stories few people, if anybody, would ever appreciate or even read. My father was older at that time, as was I who was no longer a child or adolescent to be guided and shaped by my parents’ own views concerning what amounted to their version of love and affection, but the same dynamic existed between the two of us, and I knew he would never fully embrace or accept me as the man I was and also knew I wanted to be.
My mother, before she was taken away from us by breast cancer at far too young an age, sometimes sided with me in these endless disputes with my father concerning the right view of the purpose of life. Though she often chided me to “Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses,” I will always remember with a smile how she would confide in me after listening again to another one of my father’s lectures concerning what constituted the essence of a life worth living. “Don’t pay any attention to the big dummy, your father. Go back to The University of Chicago and write your dissertation. Forty-five years as an accountant and systems analyst, and still I have to help the big dummy with the math half the time.”
The truth was that my mother had endured a cloistered childhood full of books, reading, and study, much like the childhood Charles had experienced. Though she was not the prodigy that Charles had been, she was razor sharp smart when it came to mathematics, and she was once offered a fellowship to study education at The University of Chicago before our family left South Shore and moved to the suburbs. My father prevented her from accepting the fellowship and enrolling in graduate studies at Chicago because his experience with Charles made him uncomfortable with the school, and because he believed my mother, with three of her four children keeping her busy at the time, would never be able to balance family life with graduate school at such a rigorous and esteemed institution. My mother spent the entirety of her adult life in rebellion against the kind of bookish and isolated childhood the she lead growing up in South Shore. Immersed in books and study as a child, as an adult she lived a hyper-kinetic life, always on the go, spending her time rushing from one activity to the other in a ceaseless effort to make up for lost time. She ran from aerobics class to coffee with her numerous friends, to tennis, then to walking around and around the block and all over town with the sound of her Walkman so loud she was in danger of blowing out her eardrums. Rejecting the bookish little girl she had once been, as an adult and parent she focused most of her energy and attention on tennis and exercise and cultivating her many friendships and in general trying to have some fun in life.
“The big dummy,” she told me, did not know a thing about what it takes to be a successful academic. My mother, as a professor, more fully understood the sacrifices required for such a career. She was pleased that I, like two of my three sisters, had decided to remain in the field of education, in spite of some of the speed bumps in the road of life that had slowed me down as I pursued my career goals in my early twenties. Mother had been gone from us for more than a decade at the time Suji, Joseph, and I were talking with my father at the Korean restaurant on Lincoln Avenue about our plans to relocate back to Korea. Hearing the news of our plans directly from us, my father waivered from frustrated dismay at what he considered the folly of our decision, to excited interest in the possibilities for adventure and a better life that lay ahead of us. In the end his consternation dissipated and he showed us his support for our decision by giving us his blessings for a happier future overseas.
“So long as this big move allows you to keep your family together, I think you are making the right decision,” he finally conceded. “I know how homesick for Korea Suji is, and I can understand, considering your troubles at work Paul, Suji’s great disappointment in what must seem like the unmet promise of America for the both of you. Hopefully you will all be happier back in Korea again. You will be a professor, just like your mother was Paul, and that is probably a more suitable position for you than the post of unfulfilled and underappreciated high school teacher. It will be painful for me not to be able to see Joseph or the two of you on a regular basis, but if you really think you need to do this in order to keep your sanity and the family intact, then I give you all my blessing and best wishes for good health and happiness.”
Suji and I thanked my father for doing his best to understand why we felt we needed to leave Chicago, and our conversation over the Korean food became more relaxed and even jovial. My father in reality was not the “big dummy” my mother had joked about, and he could spin a yarn and tell a story as well as anyone I knew. He was a great talker and story teller, and I always enjoyed listening to him talk, especially about the old days and his youth in his beloved South Shore. His one fault as a story teller was an unfortunate predilection for repetition, a defect which had always tried the patience of my hyperactive mother. Nonetheless, I often wondered if my own proclivity towards telling stories in written form had been passed down to me from my father and all of those hours upon hours I had spent listening to him talk about the old days.
With the mood at our table substantially lightened after my father gave us his blessing and approval for our plan to move back to Korea, I decided to use the opportunity of his high spirits to entice him into telling us more about Charles and how my father’s experiences growing up with his cousin had influenced the way my parents decided to raise me. It did not take much to get my father to wax nostalgic and sentimental, since if there was one thing my father was always ready to do, it was to talk and talk and talk at length about the good old days.
“Back when we were just kids, young children growing up in the old South Shore, well you have already heard me so many times tell you how important O’Keeffe playground gang was to me and my friends. You also know how we stuck together and maintained contact into adulthood. Most of the gang moved to the North Shore after the neighborhood changed with the white flight and turbulent times in Chicago during the sixties with the civil rights movement and riots and Vietnam War dividing not just Chicago, but much of America into opposing camps. Instead of moving north like most of the gang, your mother and I moved our family south because I had to commute to the plant at Inland Steel in East Chicago, Indiana several times a week when I was not working at the Inland Steel Building downtown the rest of the week. But we kept in touch with the old gang, and for many years I saw the guys at the Bears games where we all held season’s tickets together. That was until my severe asthma in the cold Chicago winters forced me to give up my season’s tickets, just as my luck would have it, the very season before the Bears and their coach, Mike Ditka, had the greatest season in the history of the team and won the Super Bowl in 1985. The Bears, the Cubs, the White Sox, the Bulls, the Blackhawks, anything even remotely related to sports, none of that held any interest for Charles. He could care less about our great sports traditions in Chicago. His entire life revolved around nothing except books and study, no matter how hard I tried to encourage my cousin to live a more balanced, and I thought, enjoyable and meaningful life. But I could not influence him and he lived a life that was completely and utterly one dimensional. As a young man he never dated anyone or expressed any interest in girlfriends or the opposite sex like the rest of us did. In fact I remember, before your mother and I married, but after we had met on Rainbow Beach, Charles’s mother, my aunt, finally realized that there was something abnormal about her son’s social isolation. This was the same woman who raised her son cooped up in his bedroom with his books, while the rest of the gang and I were playing ball at O’Keeffe or hanging out at the beach. My aunt finally acknowledged there might be something wrong with her son, and she pulled me aside and asked me to do her a big favor. This was after I graduated from Miami of Ohio but was not yet married, so I would spend my free time, when I was not working at Inland, enjoying many late nights out on the town with the fellas from the old gang. Chicago, this great city, afforded us endless opportunities for fun and good times, and we were just like you and your buddies in high school, raising a little Hell every now and then, just as young men should. But my aunt, when we were young and a little wild, she said to me, “Nephew, can you do me a favor? Can you take out your cousin with the boys, and can you see that he meets a girl, a woman? Charles has few if any diversions in his life, and a woman friend would do him some good. What I am asking you nephew is, can you take Charles out with you and your friends sometime and see that he gets laid?”
“I tried and tried to comply with my aunt’s request, introducing my cousin to all the eligible women I knew from the neighborhood, but nothing ever panned out. Charles was a hopeless case when it came to the female sex, and all he focused on was his work and research at The University of Chicago, and later at Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory. He had no time for or interest in women, so the fellas and I eventually concluded getting Charles laid was a lost cause. You can only imagine, many years later, how shocked and surprised we were when Charles finally met Maggie at the meeting of their Mensa club, and for the first time in his life showed any kind of an interest in female companionship. When the two geniuses married, Charles was fifty-four years old, and Maggie was a few years older than him. As I already mentioned, this was the first time Charles knew a woman, and by the word “knew” I mean it was the first time in his life that Charles ever slept with a woman, the same woman he married such an advanced age for newlyweds.”
“I can’t tell you how everyone in the family was so relieved to see Charles finally happy with the companionship of another human being, let alone a woman and wife. We immediately realized that Maggie was the best thing that ever happened to Charles. Maggie, a social worker and poet, knew just how to entice Charles out of his shell, and she taught him how to enjoy life more than he ever had before. Charles often claimed that the happiest time in his life was when he commenced his studies as The University of Chicago at the age of fourteen. That was the first time in his life, he told me, when and where he felt like he fit in and truly belonged. He studied with and learned from many people who were just like him, as smart as he was and with similar interests. At South Shore High School, and before that in grammar school, he had been bored sick because none of the schoolwork was challenging enough for him to hold his attention. But at The University of Chicago, the students and professors there were geniuses just like Charles, and they all believed it was normal and expected to spend their entire lives in the library or at the lab with their noses buried in their research and their precious books. Nonetheless, despite Charles’s oft proclaimed love for the university, I firmly believed Maggie exerted a greater and more profound influence on him. After Charles retired from the labs with a comfortable pension at a relatively young age, something which he was able to do due to the fact that he began his career as a nuclear physicist when he was very young, Maggie took him traveling around the world, introduced him to many friends, and in general opened up an entire new universe of experience for Charles.”
In his sixties, then, more surprising and unexpected than even his marriage with Maggie, Charles did something that would have had my aunt rolling over in her grave had she been able to see it. Charles began to train and compete as an avid long distance race walker. The two of them also travelled all around the country in their converted live-in Volkswagen van, like a couple of latter day hippies, visiting friends and family all across America, Maggie working on her poetry and Charles having the time of his life finally coming to enjoy an athletic hobby and pastime. Charles was so proud of the numerous medals and ribbons he won in his age group category as a race walker, and he placed the medals and ribbons on display in his home the same way you Paul, the great athlete that you were, keep and treasure that large box of medals, trophies, and ribbons and varsity letters you won for baseball, cross-country, and track and field during your childhood and later during high school.”
After listening to my father tell us yet another story about the old days and his friends and family, I thanked him for indulging my never ending curiosity about his personal history and past. Back in Korea, in our apartment in Busan, where I sat upon the new maroon couch Suji had purchased for our small library here, I glanced around the room and read many of the titles of our precious collection of books, which I revere in the same way that Charles must have revered his much larger collection. All of them were gone and passed away now; my father, Charles and Maggie had all died while Suji, Joseph, and I were living in Korea. Though they may be gone, they are not forgotten, and I relish the opportunity to sit here on the reading couch in silent meditation as I recall all I can remember about their lives and personal histories. I also remain eternally grateful that for some reason I possess the talent and inclination, through the writing of stories like this present one, to refuse to allow all of those family tales to fade into the oblivion of a forgotten and unappreciated history.