“Welcome to Osan, Republic of Korea (ROK) for the 1984 Korean District Talent Show” read the banner out in front of the Recreation Center. This recreation center was twice the size of the one back at Kunsan, Air Base where I had come from. The talent show was to pick out performers to represent the Tops In Blue which was a six month duty in a traveling show of the best of the United States Air Force. In my audition, I had managed to make the district show as one of five performers chosen from Kunsan to go to Osan by singing “Beat Crazy,” a song that I had composed on the guitar. The trip would take over four hours on a bus from my base in the south to Osan which is close to Seoul, ROK. I wish I could describe the excitement on the ride to Osan, but this was show business and we were all psyched for what was to come. We would all spend four days there to rehearse the show with the other Air Force contestants in the entire Korean district.
It was a magical time in my life which started when I arrived at Kunsan, Air Base in February 1984. Korea was a divided nation. South Korea was a democratic republic while the north was controlled by communist dictator Kim Jong-Il. We were there to uphold our support of South Koreans since the invasion of the North in June, 1950. My father had served in Korea during the war and now here I was thirty-eight years later. I was not thrilled to be here, but I would make the best of things while I was here. After all, I would only be here for a year.
Korea was cold. With the runway facing the South China Sea, the wind blowing in from the sea was as cold as anything I have ever experienced. One blast and I felt like a green popsicle, but thank goodness the base provided buses to get around. My duty section was in the main Base Supply building where I oversee base supply stocks levels and two Korean civilian employees. I know it sounds like a big job, but the reality was a much different story as the older Korean civilian told me, “You boss, you just sit there and we do stock levels.” So, I sat at my desk and watched them work. Needless to say, the days were painfully long. Both gentlemen had worked there for over ten years and there was very little I could add since I had never worked in this section before.
In March I was killing time at our recreation center when I saw the advertisement for the talent show. Before I left that evening, I made sure to sign up for the show. The song I picked out was inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA album which I played constantly. I had an electric guitar in my barracks room and since my roommate had a girlfriend to occupy his time, I was able to play my songs in the evening after dinner.
I am beat craaaazzzzzyyy
Whenever I hear the radio,
I am beat Craaaaazzzzyyy
Rock n roll all the time.
In April, I came to the talent show at the Kunsan Recreation Center where ten other contestants waited for their turn to perform. Four were vocalists, two were musicians, and three of us were musician vocalists and there was one who did stand up comedy. I sang my song using my electric guitar as I belted out the lyrics of my song. The director picked five of us to go to the district competition. Since it was sponsored by the Air Force, I did not have to take leave or make arrangements as this was considered temporary duty.
During the four hour trip, the vocalists were singing popular songs as I strummed along on my silent guitar. It was a cloudy day as it usually was in the late spring in Korea, but our spirits were high as the bus moved in the heavy traffic on the highway. As it turned out, this was the only major highway in the country that ran like an artery from south to north. The rest of the roads I experienced in and around Kunsan were two lane farm roads that could barely fit two way traffic through the endless rice paddies. Traveling on a relatively modern highway in this country was a brand new experience, but mixing in with some very talented people made the trip go much faster.
Osan is one of the biggest air bases in Korea and the recreation center had over three hundred seats with a stage that could support a full orchestra. Just walking into the auditorium, I suddenly felt a surge stage fright run through me like electricity. There were three men setting up the lights. There were rows and rows of stage lights hanging from a metal bar on the ceiling.
A lady holding a clipboard walked up to the five of us accompanied by Mrs. Hart from the Kunsan Recreation Center.
“Where are you all from?” The lady asked.
“Kunsan.” Mrs. Hart answered as we all looked at our shoes.
“Good, good.” She said with a nod, “I have room accommodations right here.”
She handed Mrs. Hart some tickets with room numbers printed on them. I was going to share a room with David Love, a young airman who was going to sing a popular song by Spandau Ballet. David was the favorite to move on to Tops in Blue since his voice was as angelic as his rugged good looks.
Later as we put our things away, David asked, “So what do you think?”
“Of what?” I shrugged.
“This place. Pretty cool, huh?” He smiled one of his winning smiles.
“Yeah. Room seems nice.” I noticed that the room we were in was bigger than my barracks room back in Kunsan.
“I mean that stage.” He sat down on the edge of his bed.
“Yeah, it’s impressive.” I agreed.
“I don’t know…” His voice tailed off.
“What don’t you know?” I asked, scrunching my face.
“This is bigger than I thought it would be.” He sighed.
“You’ll do just fine.” I assured him.
“I hope you’re right.” He nodded.
The next afternoon we had our first rehearsal. Some of the band was there to run through some of our music, but since I composed my own song, I had to run through it hoping they would be able to follow my tune. It was rough at first since the drummer tried to follow my erratic tune, but in our second run through I began to feel hopeful that my song would be rocking. The bass guitarist seemed to enjoy the rapid beat as he plunked his strings. When I sat down, Mrs. Hart gave me a thumbs up. I felt as if the world was my oyster and I just found a pearl.
One of our instrumentalists played the bass guitar and made it speak a language I had never heard before. His whole routine took about five minutes, but in that short amount of time, he had given new meaning to playing the bass.
Another of our vocalists sang Tina Turner’s “What Love Got to Do With This?” and when I closed my eyes I could feel her voice fill my whole being.
I began to feel my song may not be the show-stopper I was hoping it would be.
“Break time.” Mrs. Hart told us as we completed the rehearsal, “Be back in an hour for another run-through.”
I walked out into the air outside. It was a clear day and the sun was beating down after a morning of rain. The humidity was as strong as it was back home in New York. There were kiosks and food carts all along the main street on the base. I had some Korean barbeque beef called bulgogi served on a bed of cabbage. I sat on a bench in the park under a tree on this very pleasant late spring day. I closed my eyes and tried to run through my song.
When I returned to the recreation center, everyone was ready for another rehearsal. One of the members of the band approached me.
“We all like your song, sarge, but keep in mind, you are the one setting the tone. Let’s work on an intro. When you nod your head, we will join you.” It was the bass player and he was speaking from years of playing for the Air Force band.
“I will do my best.” I assured him, but my experience was very limited. I resolved to do what I could to keep up my end of the performance.
“Just relax and have fun.” He smiled, “We’re here to have a blast.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“We are members of the Air Force Band Asia. We play all over Asia.” He nodded.
I could not imagine what his life must be like spending all of your time living out of your duffle bag, never knowing what base you headed for. The romantic notion of living such a life was something I could only dream about.
I got on stage since I would be the leadoff act. There were twenty acts slated for the Korean District Talent Show. I was not thrilled by my position in the show, but I was determined to make the best of things. This was a once in a lifetime experience and I wanted to be a part of it even if I was leading off the show.
I nodded and heard the band fill in the open spaces of my song. I was so tempted just to stop and listen to my song come to life, but when I finished the bass player gave me a thumbs up. Once again I felt I had found a pearl in my oyster.
Once again, I went out front to sit and listen to the other nineteen acts. Each act seemed to get better. David sang his song note for note, our bass player added some movement to his notes and Tina would have been awed at the way her song was sung by our vocalist. Even our comedian got a lot of laughs from the band even though they had heard his shtick before. Once the comedian told me that telling jokes for these talent shows was risky at best because you never know what jokes will get a laugh and which ones will flop.
It was dark when we finally left the auditorium and the air was cool now that the sun had set.
“Let’s get some dinner.” David suggested pointing to a restaurant across the street from the recreation center.
“Sure.” Mrs. Hart agreed as the rest nodded.
We walked in and were greeted warmly by a Korean waitress who handed each of us menus.
“I like kimchi.” The vocalist proclaimed as we were seated at a round table with a lazy susan in the center.
“I’ll stick with the bulgogi.” I nodded.
“I’m in the mood for some fish.” David opened his menu.
“So how do you think it's going?” Mrs. Hart asked.
“I think it’s going great.” Our vocalist replied instantly.
“I was a bit flat.” David put the linen napkin in his lap.
“How about you?” Mrs. Hart turned to me.
“I think it will be fine.” I took a sip of my water.
“You are brave. Singing original songs is a bit risky.” An expression close to pity passed on her face. “The band seems to have adjusted. I was a bit concerned.”
Her assessment caught me by surprise. I had felt good up until that moment and I’m sure it showed in my face.
“You’ll do just fine, don’t worry.” She coughed, “I’m sorry.”
It was okay. I looked at the others around the table. They were still flying high on their own clouds and were full of hope that they would be chosen as the best in the show. I on the other hand knew the reality of my chances.
When I got to the room, I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. We had one more day of rehearsal before the show the following day.
The next day it was gray and heavy clouds hung in the sky when I walked to the auditorium. The mood was as gloomy as the threatening skies. One of the acts was in jeopardy because the vocalist had laryngitis. He was drinking tea with lots of lemon in it, but it did not seem to be doing any good. The comedian was a beat off on his delivery and when I did my song, it seemed the band was struggling to keep up with me. No thumbs up this time.
“You lost us, sarge.” The bass player shrugged, “You gotta set the beat, just like your song says and keep it steady.”
“I will.” I sighed.
“Keep your chin up, sarge.” He patted me on the back and then downed the rest of his coffee.
It is hard to keep up the spirits once they have sunk a bit when you are a performer, but as the old adage says, “The show must go on.”
It was raining when lunch came and our gang ordered a pizza so we could eat in the auditorium and not get wet.
We told stories about ourselves as we polished off three pepperoni pizzas. I talked about being stationed in Michigan before I came to Korea and about growing up in central New York. David was a California kid who had dreams of making it big in show business. Our comedian said that he was inspired by Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy, but he especially was fond of Robin Williams. Our vocalist grew up in Oakland and had memories of street gangs and schools that felt more like prison than an institution of learning. She enlisted in the Air Force to avoid the life offered to her in her own neighborhood. Mrs. Hart was not in the military, but her husband was in charge of some of the MP’s who manned the gates on base.
“Being the wife of a military cop can be rough.” She admitted, “I know he loves what he does, but sometimes I am not so sure.”
We did not rehearse the next morning, but we had a dress rehearsal in the afternoon with a two hour break before the curtain. From what I found out, the show had been sold out at ten dollars a ticket. Dress rehearsal went by fast and from what I remember, everyone did great.
The two hours in between was torture. I walked around the base, but my mind was a thousand miles away. I wondered how things were going back in Kunsan and I thought about everything I could besides what I would be doing in two hours. It rained for a bit, but then it cleared up for what can only be described as a blazing orange sunset.
I walked into the auditorium fifteen minutes early. There were only a few performers there. I would wear a blazer and a white shirt to go with my jeans. I wanted to appear as the down to earth guitarist I pictured myself being. David was wearing tight pants and a wide collared white shirt opened to the middle of his chest. Our vocalist was wearing a sequined gown and our bass player was dressed entirely in black.
“Are you ready?” Mrs Hart asked me as the Air Force Band Asia began tuning up in front of the closed curtain.
“Yeah.” I gulped.
“Break a leg.” She patted me on the back.
I looked at the microphone in front of my mouth. It was turned on. I plugged my guitar into the amplifier and then stood like a statue in front of the microphone.
There was music. Something jazzy. Something that would get things rolling.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are proud to present tonight’s Korean District Talent Show to you. Please take your seats and give a warm welcome to our first act…”
That was all I heard as the curtains opened and the stage lights nearly blinded me. I could not even see the Air Force Band seated in front of the stage.
I hit my guitar strings. I began to sing.
Somewhere in the second verse, I noticed that we were not in sync, but I continued to play. My words seemed to be a half beat ahead of what was being played. When I got finished, I heard the applause. It was polite at best. I felt as I walked off stage when the curtains had closed.
“You did good.” David patted me on the back.
“Thanks, man.” I tried to sound cheerful. But when David got on stage, he sang the best version of his song I had ever heard. The audience came to their feet and I knew right then, David had been the chosen one all along. At the end of the show, he was named as the Best Performer in Show. I watched him walk up on stage and receive the award.
After the show, the bass play in the Air Force Band gave me a thumbs up. It was far from the prize I had sought, but it was a consolation prize that I carry with me to this day.