Saturday, December 13, 2008

Recovered Memory

The last time I was in Korea I experienced something so strange that it left me puzzling over it for days. In 1998 I was stationed at Camp Casey, a U.S. Army post adjacent to the city of Tongduchon. Along with an official Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that dictated matters of jurisdiction and the limitations of U.S.-Korean relations, there was an unofficial policy that would send American servicemen into the local community for brief periods, to give the Americans a glimpse of down-home Korean life, and give Koreans some assurance that we were not all drunken vandals.

One day in early September I was "volunteered" to take part in one such excursion. A group of about ten of us were taken to a rice farm and we were quickly put to work harvesting the rice. We removed our troop boots, rolled our BDU trousers up to our knees and stepped into the cold mud of the rice paddy. We were each given a sickle and shown how to cut the rice plants and place them in a pile at the end of each row.

Once I had begun to work, something other than the cold mud sent a chill through me. I suddenly had the distinct impression that I had harvested rice some time and somewhere in exactly the same way. I was not particularly expert with the sickle, which needed sharpening, but I was moving quickly and rhythmically, unlike the other soldiers who were doing what soldiers always did - appearing to be working while not working at all.

For the rest of that day and for several days after, I wondered about that strange feeling I had experienced in the rice paddy. I knew with some degree of certainty that I had never set foot in a rice paddy before in my life. So where had that feeling come from? My mother had once told me how she had been walking with a friend down a street in Stuttgart, Germany in the 1950s, and she had experienced something like what I had done in the rice paddy. Nearing the corner of the street, my mother stopped and told her friend that she had been there before and to prove it she described in detail what was around the corner. Despite aerial bombing only a decade before, what she and her friend saw when they rounded the corner was close enough to how she described it that she came to believe that it must have been a memory from a "former life".

Not at all prepared to accept that my experience had no logical explanation,* I simply left the experience unresolved and went on with my daily duties. Then, on September 6, I was in a bar on Camp Casey when I saw a picture of a familiar face on the TV screen halfway across the room. I could not hear the sound for the loud music in the bar, so I walked quickly over to the TV. The man in the picture was Akira Kurosawa and the news was reporting his death at the age of eighty-eight.

And then I made the connection in my head - that I had not physically harvested rice myself, but I had seen barley harvested in the same way in Kurosawa's film Seven Samurai. It was the scene, just after the film's intermission, in which the character Kikuchiyo, played magnificently by Toshiro Mifune, flirts with a young girl who, along with many other villagers, is harvesting the barley. Kikuchiyo hands the girl his sword, which seems enormous in her hands, takes the sickle from her and starts cutting a row of barley, laying the cut plants at the end of the row. The scene takes place at a point in the film when we have already learned that Kikuchiyo is a farmer's son, so his handling of the sickle attests to this revelation.

Somehow this scene had sunk into my memory only to resurface years later as an actual experience. Such is the power of art, in which fictional characters are as real as living people and events in their fictional lives mingle with our own memories. For a whole morning, up to my knees in cold mud in a Korean rice paddy, I was Kikuchiyo, the son of a farmer who wanted to be a samurai so much that he gave his life defending a village that was not his own against a band of bandits.

* It has always amused me when people come forward to report UFO sightings. When they think they have exhausted every possible explanation for what they have seen, they resort to an impossible one.

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