It’s not a place I ever thought I’d love or a place I had ever even wanted to love. Like all great romances, she was thrust upon me without any real choice in the matter. It was 1998 and I was in the Navy. They said I’d be heading to Turkey but when my orders came in, I was told that it would be S. Korea I’d be calling home for the next two years of my life. I was young, single, and ready to meet any and all challenges in my path. I had hoped those challenges would be waiting in Hawaii. The universe, however, sent me a little further East.
It was day two when I crawled out of my room in the south hooch, still jetlagged and rotting in the same clothes in which I’d arrived thanks to Korean Air losing my luggage. It was morning so people were either working or sleeping from a late shift. I wandered for a bit and eventually found my way to the building where I was to meet my new boss. After explaining the reason for my extremely casual attire, I got the tour and was told I’d have a few days to settle in before I’d be added to the schedule. I welcomed the respite and headed back to the hooch. By this time, a few of my fellow residents were home getting ready for dinner and the night’s festivities.
Todd and Ted were my first two friends. Todd was short, but what he lacked in height he made up for with smarts. He was extremely quick-witted, and talked twice as fast. He processed information like a human computer and was always busting somebody’s balls. He also sported quite the dashing mustache. In appearance, Ted was Todd’s polar opposite; tall, heavy, and kind of intimidating. Everything he owned smelled like cigarette smoke and he listened to death metal almost exclusively. How it happened I’ll never know, but I somehow convinced both of these guys that I was cool enough to hang with so they invited me out.
Still on East coast time, I was starting to hit my wall around midnight. The crew was still getting ready. Todd casually informed me that we’d be heading to Wally’s for a few pre-game beers and to chill with him for a bit before hitting the bars. Utterly confused, I looked at my watch (because we still wore watches back in 1998) and said,
“It’s midnight. The bars will be closed by the time we leave Wally’s.”
Todd laughed and laughed. Then Ted and a few others joined in.
“You’re in Korea, son. The bars are open till dawn if they even close at all.”
I should have taken the clue right then and there that I’d have a long, drunken, two years in store, but like any good newbie, I just shrugged my shoulders and said, “o.k.”
It was around 2AM when we made it to the “hill.” It was called “Hooker Hill,” but the affectionate name wasn’t literally applicable. The district, Itaewon, was a popular nightlife area close to base and the hill housed a dozen or more bars and yes, it was on a hill.
As we strolled through the streets, I felt more relaxed than I thought I would tramping through the city of what was still a very foreign country to me. 2AM there felt like 8PM in the states. The streets were busy. Vendors were still pedaling food and the bars were just getting going. Todd insisted I try something called a meat stick. A man named Mr. Lee made them and, according to the crew, were to die for. I said sure, and after downing three, finally asked what kind of meat it was. Nobody knew and I doubted Mr. Lee would have said anything other than cow. Clue number two that I was very far from home and all things I considered normal or even “safe” were now suspect.
I remember my first walk up the hill like it was yesterday. The street was bustling with drunk G.I’s, and military police regularly patrolled to make sure nothing got out of hand. The bars were brightly lit, some with lights against plywood signs and others with neon. They tried to cater to the American contingent by giving the bars names like, “The Cowboy Bar, and “Heavy Metal.” At the very top of the hill, though, was a bar I’ll never forget – Polly’s Soju Kettle House. After a tour of the finer establishments and a couple flashings of bare breasts by some of the juicy girls, I found myself at a table at Polly’s.
Soju is a white liquor traditionally fermented using rice, but can also be made using potatoes or tapioca. Its alcohol content varies from about 16.7%, to about 45%. It’s a lot like vodka but because of different fermentation and ABV percentages, it depended on where in the country it was manufactured as to what you’d get at the bar. Polly’s specialized in what was known as a kettle. They’d take a plastic one-liter bottle and cut off the top so it looked like a really tall plastic cup. Then they’d ask what flavor you wanted (I picked orange) and put some ice in there, some kool-aid, and a 2 full bottles of soju. Then they’d bring it to the table with some small plastic Dixie cups. Each person would pour from the one-liter container into their Dixie cup and drink. Remember, though, in 1998, there wasn’t any real regulation on the ABV, so how drunk you got was a total crap shoot.
Like a true asshole, I took my Dixie cup and drank up. Having already touted myself a seasoned drinker, I blurted out, “This is nothing. I could drink that whole thing by myself.” Almost as if uttering some magic phrase, Ted just slid the still ¾ full jug over to me and said, “All yours, buddy. Drink up.” The rest of the table acted about as casual as they’d been walking through the door. No red flags. No setup. No sideways glances. So I drank that son of a bitch down. Once complete, I held my head high and raised my arm high over my head in triumphant victory. New friends laughed and half-applauded. I was, as Nuke Laloosh would say, announcing my presence with authority.
The announcement, however, came at a cost. About fifteen minutes after finishing the kettle, my new friends wanted to venture onward. I was buzzed at this point and felt the bladder filling so I told them I’d be right back. As I walked to to the bathroom, it hit me like a Tyson left hook. My brain was somehow still functioning as crystal clear as it would have been sober. My body, on the other hand, was completely uncooperative. I stumbled and staggered, sweaty and breathing heavy. I came back green in the face and that’s when they all started laughing. Apparently my claim to be able to drink it all was something all the newbies say and it had become a sort of initiation or rite of passage. Their looks of indifference upon hearing my boastful proclamation were, in fact, practiced and well-rehearsed.
Thank god I had sense enough to memorize a few helpful Korean phrases on the plane ride. I flagged a cab and mumbled the phrase to take me back to base. Using the universal language of the drunk, I was able to somehow communicate to the driver that he needed to pull over exactly four times on the two-mile ride home so that I could, as gracefully as possible, puke on the side of the road. I tipped him well and staggered up what seemed an endless hill to get back to South Hooch.
It was mid-afternoon the next day when Ted and Todd knocked on my door, curious to see if I was still alive. Great friends, right? Ted explained that everybody does what I did and told me about his first night. He said that when he got up to head to the bathroom, he could barely walk. He said that he couldn’t hold his beer and manage his zipper with one hand, so he placed his head against the wall to stabilize himself while he peed. What he hadn’t seen was the broken bottle and spilled beer at his feet.
“My head was against the wall, I’m peeing, and my feet start sliding out from under me.”
He’d go on to tell me that, while he could feel it happening, he was physically unable to stop the unfortunate chain that followed. His feet completely gave way. His head fell straight down splitting his chin open on the top of the urinal. The force and gravity sent him flying backward where he landed flat on his back. According to Ted,
“So there I am, lying on my back in a puddle of beer and glass. My chin is gushing blood. My dick is hanging out of my pants, and I’m moaning and groaning when in walks a group of three Korean guys.” Apparently the sight of my sorrowful friend sent them away in a hurried fashion, mumbling terrified as they did.
I was hung over. My body ached. I never wanted to see another soju kettle in my life, but hearing Ted recount his soju misadventure had made me laugh my ass off. It also let me know that I’d claimed my rite of passage and that I’d be in good company for the next two years.