A watermelon story
By Kim Heung-sook
J was conscripted into the army in May of 2003. Summer arrived early that year or so he thought.
Crawling on the ground on all fours in the 30'C heat, he saw his sweat drop and settle down in the yellow dust. He had been well-known for perspiring profusely, yet he had never cursed his abundance that much before. The thirst was killing him and he missed the cool drinks and fruit that had helped ease his physical troubles previously in hot weather.
When the drill instructor gave brief moments of rest, J tried to summon the memories of the goodies he had had as a civilian to which he will return about two years later. A big bottle of strawberry-flavored milk, a tall glass of lemonade, a huge bowl of ``patbingsu" or the heap of ice flakes mixed with sweet red beans, among other things. To top them all, however, were ripe watermelons that appeased his hunger for water and food since early childhood.
Eating the fruit meant a happy struggle when he was very young. His mother cut the fruit into little cubic pieces so that he could eat them with a fork, but he liked the adult's way of eating watermelon better. He would choose big triangular pieces, hold their green bottoms with both hands, and bite into them deliciously. Whenever he finished eating, he had to wash his hands and face smeared with the juice, but the feeling of fulfillment was worth the effort.
At the end of every training day, J hoped to have watermelon, even a slice of it, yet his expectations were not met. He had to keep on beating his thirst with imaginary pieces of the fruit. When the six-week training ended, he and his fellow trainees were transported to different destinations. Only after getting off the bus did he realize that he had arrived at a medics' training institute in Daejeon, South Chungcheong Province.
With the summer maturing, it was hotter there than the prior camp and the drills he got as a medic-to-be were no less hard than the earlier ones. The most difficult thing was carrying a fake patient, usually the biggest man among the trainees, on a stretcher up the hills. No day passed without his dreaming of watermelons.
Then on a Saturday, he had a hunch about his parents being nearby. He knew that parents' visits were banned for trainees, but he couldn't help looking out the window. The glass was too small for him to see people and cars properly, yet his heart pounded at the sight of every black auto passing. When the anticipation grew too much to handle, he called his mother at her mobile phone and asked where she was. She said in her usual tone that she was in the family car driven by his father and was going home. He couldn't ask her if she had been nearby his institute.
A couple of hours later, watermelons were offered to the entire staff and trainees to their happy surprise. A trainee's mother was said to have brought as many as 60 watermelons to the institute. At first, the guards refused to accept the fruit in observance of pertinent military rules. However, the mother didn't back down. The guards had to phone higher officers who ordered them to reject the fruit. The guards conveyed the order to the mother, yet she wouldn't listen.
``I am not a fruit dealer. I bought 60 watermelons and brought them here to offer them to the trainees and others here. If you can't accept them, don't. I can't take them, either, though. As I told you, I am not a fruit dealer and I don't know what to do with all of these. Besides, I have a long ride home. Now, I will leave them with you and you can let them rot or throw them away." The mother spoke these words and began to unload the boxes of watermelons from her black sedan.
While trying to stop the mother, the guards called the officers again and the officers discussed the matter over the phone. A few minutes later, the guards were instructed to accept the watermelons and find out whose mother the lady was. The guards asked the mother who her son was, yet she refused to tell, iterating only that her son was one of the trainees.
The moment J heard about the lady, he instantly knew it was his mother. Who else could be so extraordinary as to bring 60 watermelons to a military center? However, he didn't say this out loud. All of the watermelons were consumed that evening. When J called his mother that night, he told her about the watermelons and how he and the others enjoyed them. Then she said nonchalantly, ``Good for you!"