Seoul, 1988: Olympic Gold for Yunoh

ONE of my fellow journalists was right. "If you asked me for just one word to describe the young people of Korea," he volunteered, "I'd say they're not mischievous, but playful."

I was soon convinced. Throughout the Olympic Games in Seoul we watched young people at work and at play. They were always smiling, courteous, and full of fun.

None more so than the National Servicemen, disguised as bellhops, who guarded our apartment in the Press Village. They wore sneakers, gray slacks, white knit shirts, and baseball caps.

The only exception was the supervisor of our building - a small, bespectacled, young soldier named Yunoh Chung (to use the Western form on which he insisted), whose rank entitled him to wear the special Olympic uniform of green blazer and tie, and whose erudition had entitled him to wear a red badge announcing proudly, "I speak English."

And speak it he did - with unselfconscious pedantry and the neatest American shading. What was remarkable was that he had never traveled out of Korea. He had learned his English at school and at college, by reading the King James version of the Bible, and through songs sung by his favorite Western singer, John Denver.

"What I like about John Denver," he explained, "is his cleanness of voice and verse. His appreciation of nature ... his songs about breezes and skies ... his ambition to fly higher than anyone else. I've really been helped by that.

"And I appreciate the longing for home and family in his songs. I feel that specially now when I've been away at university and on military service."

One night I asked Yunoh about the important influences in his life, and he didn't hesitate for a moment.

"Jesus Christ comes first in my life, especially that beautiful passage about love in First Corinthians. Also, the Confucian precepts about faithfulness and friendliness toward everyone.

"The happiest moments in my life are when I go to church with my family.

"I was born of goodly parents," he continued. "Their exemplary life is the best advice I've ever been given. But to enjoy this, one needs respect for one's parents.

"And I've learned a lot from the books of the late Pearl Buck. I love her characters who never give up, never lose hope. Perseverance and endurance ... those are qualities I've really learned to admire."

I worked all day, and Yunoh worked all night, our paths crossing only in the early hours of the morning.

As a result, I didn't see him in daylight until the morning we left Seoul, and it was a close thing!

When we checked out, he was away at breakfast. I had kept one picture on my last roll of film for a shot of the two of us outside the building where we had spent so many nights deep in conversation.

The countdown to departure went all too quickly. Still no Yunoh. In desperation I invited one of his colleagues to stand in for him in the farewell picture. Click. Yunoh's last chance had gone.

Outside in the gray morning streets, the press bus sputtered impatiently. I dragged my heels. Told them to wait a few minutes. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving the country without a last word with Yunoh. One last gentle handshake. Some promise of another meeting ... letters ... photographs.

The smoggy dampness of the morning made leaving just a little easier. Perhaps the Army had got him in the middle of the night. Back to base. Never mind the press corps. Time to go.

The door of the bus hissed open. I turned my back on the smudge of high-rise buildings that for several weeks had housed journalists, television directors, team managers, coaches, gold medalists, and ordinary competitors.

Suddenly I heard a shout behind me, and through the gloom came a tiny figure in green uniform, duffle bag bouncing on his shoulder, and a small package in an outstretched right hand.

"Wait!" he called to the driver in Korean. "Wait! I've got to see someone!"

The driver released the door and I sprang down to the road.

"I'm so glad I caught you!" Yunoh exploded with relief. "Here, this is for you. Open it!"

"In front of all these people?"

"Yes ... yes!"

The shiny wrapping gleamed in the half-light of a new morning. Paper flew in all directions. It was a small cardboard box. A quick jerk, and it came apart to reveal a small white porcelain bell. It tinkled delicately in the heavy autumn air.

"Just something to remind you of me ... er ... I mean, Korea," he said with gentle embarrassment.

He didn't know which way to look. Nor did I.

I glanced up at the huge boards that arched across the main road through the Village. On the reverse side - the outward direction - I noticed for the first time the words: "Au Revoir ... Bon Voyage. You came as a visitor. You leave as a friend."

Yunoh smiled warmly as he saw me react with emotion to the message.

He brightened, and his dark eyes - as my colleague had suggested - were not mischievous, but playful. "You have joined the YMCA." And then, with flawless timing, "And the YWCA!"

He delighted in my bewilderment, and then swooped to the rescue. "You Must Come Again. You Will Come Again!"

Suddenly I was grateful for the growling of the bus. It made parting easier.

I shook Yunoh's small soft hand.

It was time for me to go back to Boston, Yunoh back to his Army camp.

"Come again when I'm out of the Army," he said. "Then I can show you around Korea." And he meant it.

Within moments we were swept away through the city streets, leaving a small bespectacled figure in the middle of an eight-lane highway.

I thought of the photograph I hadn't taken of Yunoh, and was sad. But who needs snapshots? I had my porcelain bell in my carry-on bag, and notebooks of memories. I knew I had several books by Pearl Buck on my shelves at home, half a dozen Bibles, and a collection of John Denver records.

The mountains across the Han River showed their granite teeth in the growing light. And as I looked back across the wide expanse of rippling water the sun spread its gold through the arches of a dozen bridges. "That's for you, Yunoh," I thought.

He had been so busy keeping us from harm that he hadn't seen anyone win a medal in the 1988 Olympics; and who knew when the Games would come again to Seoul?

Yet he had served us unselfishly and well. "For you, Yunoh, it has to be gold!"

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