I was big enough to climb into the car by myself, but my little brother Simon needed help. It was Dad’s blue ‘54 Pontiac, which he loved, and still drove now and then. He didn’t take care of it though, and the upholstery was torn, exposing crumbling foam rubber that we would pick at. I liked the smell of the car, musty like damp earth. Dad didn’t tell us where we were going, or maybe he did and we didn’t understand. I think I was wearing the dark brown sweater Mom knit for me, that flared out at the bottom like a gown. I didn’t like it because it was scratchy. Mom and the baby, Norman, didn’t come. We had just eaten dinner, and it was getting dark.
It wasn’t cold out, but it was damp and misty. We drove a long time, to the far outskirts of Tuscaloosa, where the houses are far apart, surrounded by fields. The streets were dark. I became scared because Dad was muttering in Korean, and though I didn’t know Korean well, I could tell we were lost.
Finally we arrived at something like a utility building, like you might find on a farm, with metal siding and a flat roof. There was a single light mounted on an arm above the door, making a halo in the mist like a dandelion grey with seeds, and before the door, a small concrete pad. No windows. Everything else was dark. Dad told us to stay in the car, and he got out and disappeared in the dark. There was no sound, maybe because it was too cold for crickets to sing. Dad was gone a long time, and we were scared. I think my brother whimpered a little. Our breath fogged the windows.
Dad came out holding something in his arms. It was a puppy, a tiny German Shepard. Dad put him in the back seat, and the puppy immediately hid his face and burrowed behind me into the seat. He stayed hidden behind my back, small and warm, the entire ride home. Dad said the puppy was scared and that we should just let him be. I sat up straight, stock still, trying not lean on him. We named him Charlie. As near as I can figure, it was 1967, and I was three years old.
My parents met in Alberta, Canada in 1963. Mom was in medical school, and Dad was teaching math nearby. We moved to Alabama in 1965. We were the first Koreans ever to live in Alabama. There had been a few grad students at the University, but they had all moved back to Korea.
Dad used to tell people that he came to the U.S. using a Department of Defense connection or some program involving NASA, which is based in Huntsville. But both explanations make no sense. Dad’s kind of math is not useful for space programs or defense. It does not apply to physical reality.
Is it even possible I remember something from when I was three? The image of the light above the door in the mist does not seem like something I could have seen in pictures or on TV. Anyway, our TV was black-and-white. But I was already reading a little then, Dad would tell me when I was older. Could it have been something I read? We were scared, but somehow that feeling is a different memory, but parallel, like a sound track synchronized with the video. Maybe I was feeling Charlie’s fear, and I remember it as if it were mine.
Would Dad leave us in the car like that? I think so, because he did that again about a year later, when my little sister was born. He drove us all to the hospital, and told us to wait in the car. We must have stayed there for hours, ducking under the window when strangers walked by. He came out, and he said he was sorry, which was unusual. But I also remember that he was happy. He didn’t notice we were tired and scared and hungry. When we were older, he would leave us in various places around the University, like in the faculty lounge at the math building. Mom was working then, and summers he had to put us somewhere. Once a professor came out, no doubt to see why unsupervised children were hanging around the faculty offices. He was a kind old fellow. He told me Dad was the most absent-minded professor in the department. Your father would not turn in grades for weeks, he said, shaking his head. I drank in that information. Children always listen carefully when an adult talks frankly about another adult, but even then, I was trying to figure out what was wrong with Dad. I was maybe ten years old.
I have talked to a few psychologists, and they say Dad may have some kind of dissociative disorder, as well as whatever emotional issues that predate the war, but not post-traumatic stress disorder per se. That might explain his strange fits of rage and his inability to see things sometimes. Years ago, my brother bought him a coffeemaker, the kind that takes pods, and during a visit I noticed the water reservoir, which was clear plastic, had a thick black layer of mold growing on the inside. He had been using it that way for months. I realized early on that he does not really see facial expressions, so whenever he took pictures of us, I would make faces. He would contentedly take the picture again and again.
In pictures I am always hanging all over Charlie. He grew fast, and he soon looked full grown even when I was still toddling around in that brown sweater. We used to absolutely manhandle that dog. We would stick our fingers in his mouth and pull his lips back to make him smile. We would poke his eyes. We would ride him like a pony, gripping his thick ruff and feeling the craggy bones in his shoulders shifting under his fur. Eventually we got too big, though, and no matter how we scolded and demanded, he would just sit and whine. And he was always with us, following us all over the neighborhood like a fourth brother. Once we went to a birthday party in the neighborhood, and he could not come with us to that back yard. He managed to climb a chain link fence to get to us, gouging his belly on the sharp wires on top. Another time the family went swimming at the community pool on McCovey Drive, and we left him tied to a tree just outside the fence. A few hours later somebody came around looking for whoever owned the big German Shepard. Charlie had fought so hard to break free and find us that he’d wrapped the rope around his leg and body. The guy said he was worried the dog would break his own leg. Dad got Charlie untangled and we took him home. He had lost his voice from barking so much. Dad was angry, not just because he felt guilty about Charlie, but also because somebody had intruded into his business and had, implicitly, criticized him. After that, I would whimper and cry whenever we put a leash on Charlie, so eventually we stopped taking him places.
We fed him leftovers from our table, mostly white rice. I thought that was wrong somehow, but my parents said dog food was too expensive. They both had lived through the Korean War, of course. The idea of special food for a dog must have seemed crazy to them.
The Korean War killed between one and three million Koreans, most of them civilians. When it began, the division between North and South Korea had only existed for five years, so it hardly makes sense to distinguish Northern and Southern casualties. They were all Korean. If the correct figure is three million, that would be about one out of every ten Koreans then living. After the war, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world for decades. Dad actually served in the South Korean army, but was captured at his desk and spent most of the war either in a prison camp or trying to escape it. He told us once that he saw a sweet potato skin on the ground in the prison yard. I suppose it had fallen from a garbage bin. To hide it, he stood on it until he could pick it up without anybody seeing.
Charlie slept out in the yard. At first he whined and pawed at the door to be let in, but after a few years, he stopped. He still wanted to come inside when there were thunderstorms, though, and one night he slipped in the door when we were putting out food. Mom swore in Korean and kicked him under the chest. He slid across the floor, leaving a wet streak, and scrambled out. I remember Norman watching, mouth open, too shocked to cry. I went out to see if Charlie was okay, but I couldn’t tell. He licked my face. Decades later, I read a book that said “traditionally,” Korean families never let animals into the house. It didn’t say if it was traditional to abuse your pets.
I used to try to research Korean culture, because there were no other Koreans around, and I don’t know what was normal for Koreans. I wanted to understand what happened to us. It would be comforting to know that my parents are not unique. It would exonerate them, a little.
From 1910 to 1945, Korea was ruled by the Japanese, who established a kind of apartheid system within Korea. Ethnic Japanese in Korea attended separate schools, got better jobs, were given use of the best farmland, and so on. To force Koreans to assimilate into the Japanese, they required Koreans to adopt Japanese names.
Knowing these things helps me understand Dad’s strange disconnection and violent temper better, though I still don’t understand other things. I don’t know why he never spoke about his family, for instance. When I was about 20, I was astonished to learn he had a sister living in Atlanta. He’d never even mentioned her name.
I’m told that for a Korean man, Dad was unusually involved in raising us. I remember him reading to us, and apparently he taught me to read that way. When we were older, he would take us to play tennis late at night, though we didn’t really want to play. The courts were hot and sad and covered with insects from the lights. Dad said that when he was growing up, only the Japanese schools got to have tennis courts. That meant nothing to us, but Dad often said things that were puzzling or somehow not real.
I have asked my brothers if they remember getting Charlie, and they don’t. Of course they were even younger than I was. On the other hand, I remember many things from our childhood that they don’t, like the time Mom took us to pick chestnuts out in the country, and the spiny husks pierced the soles of our sneakers. Or the time we shucked corn with our next-door neighbors around a big table. They had a little girl named Pumpkin.
But my parents don’t remember getting Charlie either. I don’t know why Dad got him in the first place. I was too young to say I wanted a dog, and even if I had, I would have been told I was selfish and spoiled. Eventually I learned to stop saying what I wanted, even when I was asked directly.
Maybe I made up that entire trip—the night we got Charlie. I wonder if I just wanted to have a start to the story, because there wasn’t really an ending. I don’t remember how he died. That part is missing. At a certain point, he simply disappears from my memory. I felt sad nearly all the time then, but I don’t know if Charlie’s death caused any of it.
We got another dog soon after, a big puppy—something like a Saint Bernard. Dad probably thought it was better for us not to dwell on sad things. That was his way. We called the dog Brownie. But Dad came in the kitchen door one day and said he’d run Brownie over, and he was dead. Dad looked sad for a second, then he went upstairs to his study. We never saw Brownie’s body. That might have been the moment I began to despise Dad a little.
Or maybe I just feel guilty about not remembering how we really got Charlie. But it feels so real to me. I even remember remembering it. I think of it as my very earliest memory. Dad is 92 now, and his memory, always bad, is fading. He still has that old Pontiac in the garage, though. It has these odd, balloon-like tires, with sidewalls so thin they wrinkle like old skin. They are completely flat, but they are irreplaceable, or so I’m told.