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Forty-Two Years



Published December 26, 2013 at 5:36 a.m.

On this unseasonably warm afternoon, the customers in the backseat of my taxi were impeccably dressed — not chic, but classic. Byung wore a black suit, cream-colored shirt and light purple tie fastened in a perfect Windsor knot, obviously by an experienced hand. His wife, Jung-soon — a thin, articulate, bright-eyed woman — had on a blue silk dress and white kerchief.

Byung had undergone gallbladder surgery a week earlier at Fletcher Allen hospital. The procedure was “uneventful,” which is how you want your surgery to go. But, back home in Massena, New York, an infection set in and grew virulent, and he was transported back to Burlington via ambulance, with Jung-soon in tow. As I glanced at the couple in the rearview mirror, they appeared peaceful and relieved, evidence that Byung was over the crisis and on the mend.

Jung-soon had shared all this with me on the ride up to the Rouses Point Bridge, en route to their home. Byung had said not a word; he just sat in repose with a beneficent smile, nodding slightly at different points in his wife’s exposition. Now, on the Empire State side of the bridge, I felt like chatting some more, at least with Jung-soon, who seemed lively and game.

“So you folks are from Korea, I’m guessing?” I asked.

“We are,” Jung-soon replied. “We both came to Boston as students in the late ’60s. That’s where we met, and we’re now married 42 years.”

“Well, congratulations to you,” I said with a chuckle. “In today’s world, that’s an accomplishment. Especially if you still like each other.”

That last bit of repartee might have been a touch cheeky on my part, but it wasn’t a conversation stopper, thank goodness.

“My husband is a surgeon,” Jung-soon continued. “He was a medical student when he was stationed with the Korean troops in the Vietnam War. He served as a medic.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I forgot that foreign allies sent troops to fight with the Americans during that war.”

“But Byung didn’t discriminate. If someone was injured, he helped them. It could be a soldier, a civilian, even a Viet Cong fighter. When he left to return home, the Vietnam government gave him a humanitarian award. We still have it on the wall in the office. I don’t know what it says because it’s in Vietnamese. I think ‘Silver something,’ a Vietnamese patient once told me.”

As Jung-soon spoke, her wide-set, dark eyes shone with pride, the love and admiration for her husband filling the cab like a warm, gentle breeze. Though he remained silent, I could tell Byung’s feelings were reciprocal; his eyes had an identical glow.

“Did you have any kids?” I asked.

“Yes, two,” she said. “Our son just got his MBA, and our daughter is a lawyer specializing in real estate development. They both went to Harvard.”

“Well, it doesn’t get better than that! Were you what they call a tiger mom?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Jung-soon replied. She laughed softly, adding, “Well, maybe just a little bit.”

Byung suddenly cleared his throat, leaned forward in his seat and said, “Speaking of Harvard, let me tell you two stories, if I may.” He then began, and his tone was that of a keynote speaker at a commemorative dinner — very official, though sweet and slow, like the voice of a friendly great-uncle.

“There was a man who became a millionaire in the 1800s and wanted to donate money to Harvard University, 10 million dollars, to erect a new building. Everything was in place until he requested that his name be engraved on the building. The college officials told him no, hinting that he was insufficiently distinguished for such an honor. So, the man traveled out to California, to what’s now known as Silicon Valley, where an associate of his was attempting to launch a new college. The man donated his money to this effort instead of Harvard. His name was Leland Stanford.”

“Well, that is something,” I said. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, right?”

“Here is another story,” he continued, ignoring me — not that I minded. If anything, his voice was growing yet more sonorous, and I was hooked. “It also concerns gift-giving. When Napoleon Bonaparte was a struggling student in Paris, he would often stop at a local fruit stand for something to eat. Even when he had no money, the kindly fruit seller, a woman, would give him a free apple.

“Many years later he returned to that same shop. He was now the Emperor of France, but the fruit seller didn’t recognize him — he had dressed modestly for the occasion. He asked her, ‘Do you know who I am?’ When she told him no, he said, ‘You helped me years ago when I was a poor student.’ He then handed her a bag of silver coins, saying, ‘Next time, you’ll remember me,’ and left the store. Astonished, the woman reached into the bag and pulled out a handful of coins. Each one featured the portrait of her customer, Napoleon Bonaparte.”

Tales told, Byung leaned back in his seat, returning to his smile of infinite contentment. I had no idea to what extent either of his stories was true, but who cared? I returned the conversation to his more voluble wife. “So have you also pursued a career, Jung-soon?”

“No, I studied art history in college, but left school to raise our children. But the last couple of years I’ve been helping my husband in the office. He’s teaching me to assist with our outpatient surgery, and I really enjoy it. It’s fun.”

Jung-soon and I chatted for the entire drive across the North Country. Everything about her immigrant life I found interesting, but, more than that, I simply enjoyed her sparkling spirit. Just before we reached Massena, Byung surprised me by speaking for the second time.

“Do you know if Burlington has any observatories?” he asked

“I’m not sure, but you’d imagine there would be at one of the colleges. Actually, now that I think of it, I do know of an observatory — at Saint Michael’s College, just outside Burlington. I have no idea how powerful a telescope it contains, but I’m sure you can find out.”

“That’s Byung’s great passion in life,” Jung-soon said, gazing at her husband. After 42 years, the woman still seemed love-struck. “Every chance he gets, he wanders outside to study the stars. On clear nights, it’s hard for me to keep him in the house!”

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