He showed up one day as I was banging mud off my truck.
I choked back a laugh just looking at him. By any description, this lad was the runt of the litter. He was dressed in bits of GI with the black and white duds Korean kids wore. Dark black hair defied containment under a soft Army cap, jutting out in cowlicks refusing to be tamed. His wide, gap-toothed grin added to his comic book appearance; long olive-green socks hung like drapes over combat boots a few sizes too large.
One of the guys in my outfit must have given him my name. He walked up to me, looked straight into my face and said, “I’m gonna be your houseboy, Jockey MeGuire.” Young Korean boys were attaching themselves to outfits all over the peninsula and were called either interpreters or houseboys by our troops. Being the independent sort, I resisted temptation.
I peered down at him and replied, “No thanks, I don’t need any houseboy.”
“Yes, yes, you need itchy bon number one boy, that’s me, is all settled; I work for Jockey MeGuire,” he uttered.
Again, I chuckled a bit, but now at the youngster’s insistence. What surprised me was how well Korean kids spoke English, although I wasn’t exactly thrilled at how he pronounced my name. Trying to appear serious, I tightened my shoulder holster and replied, “Look, my name is Jack, Jack Mick Guire, you understand?”
“Yes, Jockey MeGuire, all time number one soldier.”
“The name is Jack and will you stop with the number one stuff.”
“Oh, yes, yes, you take rest now Jockey, let Choi Bum Sak clean truck all time number one.”
With that I had to walk away for fear of losing it completely. A moment later he pounced on the truck and began scrubbing away.
“What the hell?” I thought, from the beginning my chances were slim and nil. I shook my head, still trying to hold back a laugh and warned, “You better do a good job, Dirty Sock.”
His wide gap-toothed ridiculous grin beamed back and said, “Okay, okay, Dirty Sock all time Jockey MeGuire number one houseboy.”
Well, you know after that, all the guys in my unit called me Jockey, but the Dirty Sock handle stuck with him as well.
Life in Korea
At that stage of the war we were rolling up and down the Korean peninsula. My outfit picked up and delivered everything required to run an Army. Dirty Sock made most of these runs. Hell, the truck was his home. Our moves were just about daily, always edging north. The kids seemed to know where we were headed before we did; my gear was always packed in advance, which spoke reams for our Army intelligence corp.
It was late summer 1950 and thanks to the Korean kids, the motor pool expanded. Our company commander and the remainder of the officers used houseboys so no one complained. Early in the war, Division assigned a company of South Korean infantry to our unit to help with perimeter security. When we moved in convoy it gave the outfit a United Nations appearance.
Chow time was especially good theater. GIs were assigned government-issued mess kits while the Koreans only used round metal cans. On those rare days when the mess tents were doling out hot grub, the show began. The cooks on the chow line heaped spoonfuls of food, one on top of the other, into those tins. They relished topping off beef, mashed potatoes and hot gravy with peaches in heavy syrup. We watched in amusement as our Asian friends, equipped with large spoons, devoured their meals. After dinner they thanked everyone with a polite bow. Our guys would have paid admission for the show.
Our moves became more frequent now that the invaders were on the run. They were pushed back across the 38th Parallel from which they launched their attack. Part of our outfit remained in Seoul while the rest of us headed into North Korea. The war was almost over; we’d be home by Christmas if you believed the scuttlebutt.
My company commander asked me to make a run south to pick up our mail, which, for some reason, was being diverted to the rear. My orders included picking up an officer for the return trip.
Danny Davino, an Italian from Brooklyn, was assigned to ride as shotgun for the haul. Davino was the high-strung Mediterranean type, nervous as a cat in a dog pound. The last thing either one of us needed was trouble. Danny’s big problem was he moved constantly, one minute he’d be tapping his rifle butt on the floor plate, the next he was thumping his feet. He played the drums to no particular tune with an incessant staccato. Threatening him with a long walk worked like magic.
Driving those mountain roads was the experience of a lifetime; our precision bombing destroyed every bridge in the country and engineers rebuilt shattered roads around the destruction. Hordes of Korean refugees plied those roads as the war ebbed south and back north again.
We were rolling along nicely, making good time, when I heard tapping. I looked over at Danny and he shouted, “It ain’t me, it’s in the back.”
I slowed down to a crawl when I heard a familiar voice say “Jockey MeGuire, Jockey MeGuire.”
I pulled over and stopped. Dirty Sock came bounding from the rear and quickly jumped up beside me. “Doggone stupid kid falls asleep in truck,” he said, mimicking the way I chastised him.
“No, you’re brilliant, smart enough to get me court-martialed,” I shouted.
“It’s all a big mistake, Dirty Sock sleeping in truck,” said the boy.
Suddenly Danny’s rifle discharged, the bullet ripped a dime-sized hole in the rooftop of the cab. The sound was deafening, but my first reaction was to slam on the brakes. Dirty Sock, meanwhile, threw his arms in the air, fell forward holding his chest, “Number one houseboy takes bullet for Jockey MeGuire.” He wailed.
“You’re gonna take one all right,” I angrily replied, my ears still ringing from that blast.
Davino was fumbling with his M-1, ejecting all the shells from the clip. “Jesus Christ, Mac” he hollered, “I just squeezed off a round, but I swear to God I don’t know how it happened.”
He was visibly upset, his face pale with remorse.
“All right, pick up those loose rounds, put another clip in that rifle and keep your fingers off the trigger from now on.” I said in as calm a voice as I could manage.
I jammed the truck back in gear and proceeded on our course. “By the way Dirty Sock, tell me, when did you decide to become a stand up comic?” I queried.
The boy just lowered his eyes, sensing wisely enough my patience was stretched to far.
A few hours later we arrived in Seoul. I was surprised at how much mail accumulated. The load actually filled the truck to capacity. I reminded Dirty Sock to hide amongst the sacks and be quiet. We picked up the replacement officer, a very West Point-type captain.
His combat fatigues were pressed better than my dress uniforms. He looked at me and said, “I’ll ride in the back, Sergeant.”
“We got quite a load of mail back there, Sir.” I stammered, while looking apprehensively at Danny.
“You can sit in the front, Sir. I’ll ride in the back,” Danny offered.
“No soldier,” he insisted, “your job is shotgun. I’ll take up the rear,” he replied as he swung over the tailgate.
I looked at Danny and winced, but minutes later we were motoring again.
Trouble on the road
I wanted to get back to our company as quickly as possible. A GI’s lifeblood is a letter from home and our mail had been held up for months. Guys would read their hometown newspaper until the ink wore off, plus it’s an instant trans-fusion of morale.
The ride was smooth, but dusty though those mountain roads. Moving along a steep grade I noticed the brakes were soft. We were moving fast so I tried pumping them up, then I tried dropping gears, but we were moving much too fast. I looked over at Danny, but he was fast asleep, leaning forward on his rifle. We were going downhill faster than I’d ever experienced and my jittery nervous friend, the incessant foot tapper, was in the arms of Morpheus. If he only knew his side of the road dropped off into a deep canyon, he’d faint.
Pulling left, I tried brushing against the bank in an effort to slow down. The truck was literally bounding after hitting a series of large bumps. I was standing upright trying to reach the emergency brake, but I couldn’t. If I released my grip on the wheel we would have bounced into the canyon. In desperation, I shouted, “Pull the emergency brake,” but Davino snored on, still clutching his rifle.
Again I hollered, “Pull the emergency brake,” to no avail. I have no idea how far we traveled down that mountain road, but I realized we were approaching the bombed-out bridge. The engineers had bulldozed a new road around the mountain of crumbled steel and concrete leading to the river. At the speed we were traveling, I knew in my heart we’d never make it, but we skidded sideways, kicking up clouds of dust until finally entering the river in about six inches of water. Our impetus took us halfway across before we came to a halt. I jumped into the riverbed, ran to the passenger side of the truck reached up and tossed Danny out into the water.
I remember seeing a figure appear from the back of the truck. Sure enough, it was the Captain. Mr. West Point’s face was ashen. His uniform, his hair, looked like someone who has been tumbled in a clothes dryer. “You’re a crazy lunatic,” he screamed. “A raving out of control, madman,” he screeched.
Just then Dirty Sock appeared, looking much like the Captain. He eased close to my side brimming with admiration and said, “Jockey MeGuire, you number one itchy bon all time driver.”
Well, it’s all in one’s point of view I reckon, but the Captain wasn’t buying it at all. He stumbled forward, trying to pull himself together. “Sergeant” he stammered, “this circus is over, consider yourself under arrest, I’m driving from now on.”
I looked at the Captain for a moment and replied, “Sir, I know it was a rough trip, but I lost the brakes, not much I could do about that.”
Danny meanwhile struggled to his feet. “What happened? I fell asleep back there a ways.”
The captain leered at him and shouted, “You’re a disgrace to the uniform, get your rifle off the ground and get back in that truck.”
Danny dutifully followed orders and hopped back in the truck. Flushed with power, Mr. West Point looked at me and said, “You and that Korean National will ride in the back.”
“I’m sorry, Sir,” I replied. “The truck is signed out to me, I’m under company orders, Sir.”
“You’re refusing a direct order?” He shouted.
“No, Sir, I’m proceeding with regular orders.”
“We’ll see about that,” he retorted.
That was it. Knowing Danny wished to survey the brakes, I pulled over to dry land. One good reason for having him ride shotgun was his mechanical ability. He slid under the truck and hollered for me to pump the brakes. Minutes later he re-appeared and said, “They’re good now; all I had to do was bleed them a bit.”
At that, Mr. West Point moved to the back of the vehicle and clambered aboard.
Dirty Sock jumped in next to me sporting his wide smile and we were back on the road. We finished the trip in strained silence.
The men were ecstatic over the mail. Chow time was unusually quiet, although one guy complained the cake his mother sent was all crumbs.
Joe Cann, the Company Commander, plopped down next to me as I polished off my C-rations. He was a regular Army guy with a sense of humor.
“Hear you had brake trouble, Mac,” he chuckled.
“Yes, Sir, sure did shake that Captain up,” I replied.
“Oh, yeah, he mentioned something about that,” he said. As an afterthought, he looked at me real serious like and said, “By the way, the Chinese entered the war. The South Korean Army is picking up a lot of these houseboys.”
I reckoned he was trying to tell me something, but they couldn’t take Dirty Sock, he was only a kid. Minutes later my concerns were answered. The ROK Army was rounding up every kid in the compound. Soldiers posed rifle ready around a large group of recruits. The candidates stood at attention four deep. Dirty Sock, looking a trifle older among his countrymen, stood in the rear line. His eyes looked straight ahead. He appeared taller; his shoulders were square and military. An Army hard hat matured him beyond his years.
A Korean Army truck pulled in front of the group. The officer in charge shouted commands, forming them into single file. Two soldiers yanked the tailgate down, another soldier jotted down their names as they boarded. My friend, looking very much alone, was last in line. As I moved closer to the truck one of the guards brought his rifle up smartly. The officer shouted again, bringing the man to attention. I looked at Dirty Sock and asked, “Can I help in any way?”
He shook his head and replied, “Korean Army say no is no more argue.”
“Well, look, you take care of yourself, don’t get hurt, okay,”
“I be good soldier like Jockey MeGuire, Communists have big trouble with Dirty Sock.”
I couldn’t find any more words, plus the line was moving closer to the truck. Finally, I held out my hand and my friend held onto it tightly. The only thing I had of value was my pocketknife, so I pressed it into his hand. Dirty Sock held it up proudly as he boarded the vehicle. As they moved away my young friend flashed that absurd gap-toothed smile.
The boy left quite an impression on me so I thought of him often. The war escalated with China’s intervention. We went up and down the Korean peninsula once again. A few months later I received a letter from him, but it was unintelligible. There was a return address so I replied, giving my address in the States.
Ten years after the war, I received a well-written typed letter from Korea. My friend survived the war with only a slight wound. He sent a photo of his wife and son — a boy named Jockey with a wide gap in his smile. A business card dropped out of the envelope with the name Doctor Choi Bum Sak printed across it. He signed the letter, “Your number one friend, Dirty Sock.”
I found out later from an Army buddy that Danny Davino contracted Lou Gehrig’s disease; until then I never felt guilty about throwing him into that river.