I was reared on a small dairy farm that rested on the edge of the Red River Valley on the Minnesota side. I grew up in a rural farming community that was filled with a lush green forest of corn, amber waves of grain and intermittent dots of farm homesteads covered with thick deciduous trees. On these vast plains lived a curious little bird, in scientific terms, called a Charadrius vociferous. These small insignificant brown birds with long thin spindly legs made their nests on the ground in the fields and shoreline all over North America. The locals, where I grew up, name this bird by the falsetto cry it makes … kill deer, kill deer. I am certain, if birds could speak, they would poke fun at the killdeer’s pencil-thin legs and scrawny body.
What makes this benign lusterless outward appearance memorable are the bird’s acting abilities. This bird pretends to have a broken wing to draw predators and trespassers such as a curious dog or small children away from their precious eggs. It’s amazing to observe these birds screaming around and flapping their wings and then dart away when you get near them. The birds deserve an Emmy Award for their dramatic performances. I have fond childhood memories of chasing these small feathered friends and was tricked into believing they needed medical attention. I never located the bird’s eggs but remember seeing fluffy plumed chicks darting about like a group of frolicking school children on the playgrounds.
In my studies I learned that the killdeer birds were aboriginal to North America, so I was dumbfounded to see similar antics during my travels to Korea. At first, I thought the kids waving at the soldiers were the average child as we passed in our armored track vehicles. Moments later, I realized these masqueraders were actually professionals pulling a scam. These acting children reminded me of the pretentious wounded Killdeers back home on the Minnesota prairies. Like the birds, they played wounded. Instead of broken wings, they acted out with alligator tears and pouting faces. The familiar killdeer, killdeer cries of distress were replaced with childish voices begging for items, “M.R.E., M.R.E.,” “GI gimme M.R.E.!” The children were asking for prepackaged Army food called Meals Ready to Eat or MRE’s for short. I eyed the children with caution and was disrupted from my stare by my friend.
“Hey, Hansen! I ate part of my lunch during our drive and I’m gonna give the rest of my meal. Watcha think?” “I don’t care,” I answered. I deliberated for a second and focused the children back into view. “Hmmm, to be honest, I really don’t think they want your leftovers.” Barrick jumped off the vehicle before I could finish my reply. Barrick seemed like a towering giant compared to the two little girls and it was comical to see him trying to speak Korean with them. I watched with amusement as the little girls refused his opened MRE package. They gestured that they wanted whole MRE packages that lay on top of my armored personnel carrier. Barrick insisted that the items inside the familiar brown plastic bag were indeed still good. “See,” he contended as he held the sealed crackers in the air and made facial gestures that the items were delicious.
I could tell that the eldest girl who was around 8 years old, was getting annoyed. She huffed several times and then blatantly refused the offer by waving her hands for him to get lost. As he made his final offer, the older girl stuck her fist in the air and gave Barrick the bird!
Barrick turned to me in shock and asked in disbelief, “Did you see that? She stuck up her middle finger!” Barrick took a few steps back toward the track vehicle and looked back once more to watch the little girl stick out her tongue at him. He shook his head in disbelief and said, “Just to think, I felt sorry for her!”
Another soldier walked up to the small children and handed the youngest some candy, she appeared to be about 5 years old. The tiny fingers clutched the pieces of hard candy and she began to place a piece inside her mouth. Then fast as lightning, the eldest child struck the littlest one with candy in the face. She landed a couple of hard blows to the small cheeks with her open palms. The eldest child’s face filled with rage. Then as punishment, the larger of the girls pulled the thinning mittens off the smaller one and stuffed them inside her coat pockets.
We all stared at the scene with horror and disbelief. I asked my KATUSA (Korean Augmentee to the US Army), a Korean National soldier who was attached to our unit, to come with me and translate for me. I kneeled in the snow and gingerly grasped the eldest girl by the shoulders and asked her why she was hitting her sister. The girl pulled away from me and put her back towards my face. I got up and walked in front of her and kneeled. This time I asked her if she loved her younger sister and if so why she had hit her in the face. The KATUSA again translated my message, and after a few minutes of questioning the eldest girl’s strong cold glare dissipated and she began to sob in my arms.
The crying girl blurted out a stream of words and left my hug to embrace her little sister. After a short conversation, I learned that the children were forced to stand outside in the twenty degrees below temperature to beg for MRE’s from the passing US Soldiers that trained near her home. Her parents were poor farmers and they supplemented their meager income by selling the Army rations on the black market. As I was listening to her story I started to see the telltale signs of neglect. I noticed that the exposed fingers were red and swollen from mild frostbite and the cheeks chapped from exposure. The hair was matted and dull flakes of dandruff were present in their hair and the horribly tight clothes barely kept them warm from the chilling mountainous winds of Korea.
So many questions fill my mind as I recount this story that happened so many years ago. I wonder what asshole would teach a little girl the meaning of the middle finger. I hope I made a better impact on her and that she has learned to cherish and love her sisters, despite the burden her parents placed on her shoulders as an 8 year old. I revisit this story from time to time and ponder on how this girl is doing. Would she have been better off adopted like me and suffer like I, or was she better off to have been kept with her poor family in Korea? The “once in a lifetime” trip to see my “homeland” taught me more about myself than I imagined possible. I hope this girl has grown up to be a strong, independent woman who has nothing but happiness.