A blog of general comment by one of L.A.'s best known commentator/essayists. Humor, drama, pathos, satire and, well, everything else.
When I think about it, which I do this holiday time of year, the images return in a dream like quality, shimmering in a muted sunlight, almost but not quite in focus. If I concentrate, the scene begins to emerge slowly from that corner of the mind where memory is stored, and eventually I see it in a wide screen panorama: my first snow.
I had seen snow before only in pictures, and the reality was dazzling. This was more than the simple beauty of the revelation’s purity, the gleaming dusting of white on white, outlining the whole day with its iridescence. This was a remaking of the world from war’s ugliness to the natural beauty of things.
I realize that seeing snow for the first time is a child’s delight, but this was something beyond a toddler’s wonder. I was seeing how the simple existence of a snowfall in the night could transform a reality, shifting it into a new perception. I was seeing napalm-burned trees, bomb craters, shrapnel-sliced vegetation, military squad tents and artillery pieces disappear in new outlines beneath the brush of winter’s creation.
It was as close as I have ever come to believing in God.
The year was 1951. I was a young Marine reservist, called to active duty and shipped off to Korea after a year of combat training in the States. The 7th Regiment had been pulled off the front lines after 90 days of brutal fighting in the northeast section of Korea and placed in reserve just a few days before Christmas.
It was to be a melancholy Christmas. I had seen friends die on hills distinguished only by numbers and I had been the hand maiden of death for those I knew only by the generic term “enemy,” round Asian faces that bob like toys in my dreams more than half a century later.
There was a kind of numb joy being in reserve, knowing that the likelihood was we wouldn’t be under attack that far back from the main line of resistance—although an occasional mortar shell, flung from beyond our perimeters, and the shadowy presence of an infiltrator caused moments of alarm.
I along with others who were witnessing carnage for the first time remained numb to the relief of being out of combat, still discussing among ourselves in reverential tones the friends we had lost in blurred instances of a shattering explosion, or the silence of a sniper’s bullet. We mourned them with disbelief as though the surreal nature of death among the young had never occurred.
I awoke early on Christmas morning, the day the world change. There had been no sound to alert me to the alteration outside of the squad tent six of us occupied. Rain had pounded on the canvass of our roof before, and wind had howled through the open flap, but there was only a whisper to the night that had just passed, nature’s restorations offered in silence.
I poked my head from the tent and stared. Everything was white. What had existed the day before, the charred reality of war’s existence, was gone. I have tried many times in the past to describe the beauty and the magic of what I saw that morning in Korea, the absolute transformation of worlds in the space of a few hours.
The sky was an iron gray and the air was still; no snow was falling. But the whiteness was blinding in its reality, transfixing me in an isolation of oneness that in itself was peculiar, feeling alone in a company of men whose involvements were stark by comparison.
I have seen snow many times since then, blanketing the mountains and pine trees from a cabin window; I have played in the snow with children and grandchildren, and have witnessed its churning on mountainsides criss-crossed with sleds and skiers. They slip from memory like a river’s current, rushing away the bits and pieces of nostalgia to be retrieved later, at a place downstream.
But always in the forefront of my thoughts, tucked just a whisper behind the travails of today lie the images of the first snow on a Christmas in Korea where for a breathless moment we had a space in horror where peace and dignity combined to remind us of what was possible, and to give us hope in the midst of a war that beauty was a more enduring reality, if only in a snowfall on Christmas.
Al Martinez is a Pulitzer Prize winning essayist, former columnist for the Los Angeles Times, author of a dozen books, an Emmy-nominated creator of prime time television shows, a travel writer, humorist and general hell-raiser. Try him. He's addictive.
Joanne Cinelli Martinez is composed of artist, poet, gourmet chef, interior decorator, photographer, volunteer, and all around intelligent person; also the life long partner and care taker of the simple but happy little man who runs the blog. She views him with suspicion and uncertainty. It is a cautionary love story.