An Axe – Courtesy of MARS

     One afternoon in early 2011 my son, Jack, called three times from Kuwait. We finally got a solid, 2-way communication established on the third attempt. Still, he was delighted to have the Magic Jack telephony equipment working in his BOQ room, which reminded me of a story of an overseas call made from my BOQ hallway in Korea. Make that two stories about BOQ hallway calls from Korea.

     When I arrived in Korea in January 1974 I was assigned to an infantry battalion on a small compound named Camp Hovey. Most of the officers of that unit were billeted in a single-story, cinder-block building. It was what was then known as bachelor officers quarters (BOQ). In an odd twist of the norm, most of the occupants were married!  Since their wives were not allowed to reside in Korea they logically took residence in the BOQ. It was a suitable place for young officers to reside. Given attitudes and personalities of the its occupants, it earned its nickname as Combat Alley. The Alley was special for several reasons: it had sixteen separate rooms (later called bunkers), central heating (but not cooling), and running water! Most other living quarters in our sector of Korea were un-insulated Quonset huts that had few if any separate rooms, no central heating, and no running water. Heating in those buildings was supplied by a free-standing, carburetor stove with a 5-gallon diesel can as a fuel source. Bathroom facilities for its occupants were in separate structures.

    As I entered Combat Alley for the first time late one, very cold, winter day, I noticed a large fire axe embedded in the door of the room diagonally across from mine. After I made a cursory observation about the axe, a fellow lieutenant explained in a matter-of-fact tone that the room’s first lieutenant (1LT) occupant had been playing his trumpet the night before going on mid-tour (R&R). Despite repeated pleas from other officers, the 1LT refused to cease and desist his so-called music. With little fanfare, an annoyed officer exited his own room, grabbed the axe from its place above the fire extinguisher and planted it in the door. It would remain there until the 1LT returned from his mid-tour in about a week’s time. The axe-in-the-door response to an annoying  trumpeter seemed reasonable to me. Truth be told, once you got to know the 1LT , you wondered why the axe-wielding officer had stopped at the door!

    A few days after his return to Korea from R&R, the 1LT coordinated a MARS (Military Affiliate Radio System) call to his wife who was back in the States. A portion of conversation spoken into the wall-phone in the BOQ hallway across from the bathroom went something like this:

  • 1LT: “I love you, over”, followed by a period of silence while the wife spoke in his ear.
  • 1LT with a whine: “No, I love you more, over”, followed by another period of  silence.
  • 1LT with more whine: “No, I love you more than you love me, over”, followed by a nanosecond of silence that was pierced by captain who yelled from a bathroom stall across from the phone: “Lieutenant, shut the hell up and let her love you more!” The very public MARS called ended shortly thereafter.

   Several months later I got a turn at MARS when I placed a call to a nurse I’d met at a classmate’s wedding at West Point following graduation from Ranger School. Ours was a relatively short-lived, platonic relationship of about 12.5 months…11 of which I spent in Korea with no mid-tour leave taken! During those 11 months we wrote each other frequently and sent occasional voice recordings on cassette tapes; I still have her recording of President Nixon’s resignation speech. I initiated the MARS call from the same Combat Alley hallway phone that the above 1LT used. It should be noted that it was the only phone in the BOQ. I began by calling the Korean operator at the Camp Hovey communications center and asked perfunctorily “Camp Casey, please”. Once connected to the operator at Camp Casey that was a mile or so out the front gate of Camp Hovey, I requested an overseas call and provide the Casey operator with the requisite telephone number. The Casey operator (also Korean) spoke enough English to initiate the overseas call, contacted Casey-39, a communications site on a mountaintop rising steeply just north of Camp Casey. Casey-39 (always an American male) called the Korean operator at Camp Red Cloud that was 11 miles south of Camp Casey. The Red Cloud operator then called the Korean operator at Camp Yongsan, which was another 15 miles south in Seoul. By then I had been patched five times: Hovey to Casey to Casey-39 to Red Cloud to Yongsan. (A ‘patch’ was literally a patch cord with a plug at one end that connected an incoming call to a line that ran to a distant site of another phone system.) The Yongsan operator then patched in a local MARS station who sent a short-wave radio transmission to a MARS station in the States. The Stateside radio operator in turn called an American phone company operator who placed a long distance call to the nurse’s home in New Jersey.

   Once that final connection was made, the American MARS operator provided the nurse with a basic set of instructions on how to participate in the ensuing simplex call: say “over” when finished speaking and when ready to listen to my reply. If the process itself wasn’t difficult enough, the time delay added by the radio interface made for long pauses between the end of one transmission and start of the subsequent reply. Of course the call was no more private for me than it was for the 1LT. She later wrote in a letter that the call from MARS was a novel treat – I agreed. I don’t recall if there was any razzing at my end or who might have monitored the conversation at her home! We knew for certain that the MARS operators themselves were listening to our full conversation so that they could switch their radios from transmit to receive in a timely manner. And of course the land-line operators in Korea were regularly monitoring their segment of the line.

   Any phone call made from Camp Hovey to any distant location – MARS or otherwise – was invariably interrupted by a Korean operator with the repeated phrase: “Are you finished?” “Are you finished?” Sometimes it didn’t matter if we were finished or not…the operator would break the call down…meaning she would literally unplug us from her patch panel. If, in an attempt to get our line re-connected, we yelled into the phone for help from the Camp Hovey operator (assuming she was even listening at that opportune moment), or if we tapped the phone cradle incessantly to get her attention, we could kiss our re-connect good-by. Generally once we lost an intervening patch we just gave up on the call and attempted it again on another night – and hoped for a more cooperative operator! If we were actually through talking and the call remained plugged in by happenstance, we’d tap the receiver a number of time until a Korean voice inquired, “Are you finished?” at which point we’d offer, “Yes, break it down”…and every connection from Camp Hovey to any called station in Korea would sequentially pull their patch cord.

    All that to say this…I was thankful that Jack had access to Magic Jack and concomitant communications technology now available so that he could talk regularly to me and to his fiancée and without others being party to his personal calls!