The discussion about miracles began after a TV programme, as so many discussions, debates, and heated arguments do start these days – with the occasional settlement being a divorce in the family. The programme was one of those great BBC epics combining a look at the vastness of space and the never ending cosmos, the search in the other direction for the smallest itty-bitty bit of the universe. Miracles, yes or no? Is there a God?
It was the miracles that caught my attention. There have been a number of miracles in my life, I'm pretty certain of that. But for some reason the TV discussion brought back memories of the one occasion I know for sure I experienced a miracle.
To me, without a doubt, a miracle occurred on a railway freight wagon tightly packed with men, women and children, all running from the South Korean capital Seoul to Taegu and Pusan, a tiny part of the human southbound wave set in motion by the sudden entry of a Communist Chinese army into North Korea, a move that had United Nations forces retreating all along the front, and hundreds of thousands of civilians seeking safety in the south.
My unit reached the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and we had just started setting up camp in the half built Kim Il Song University, perched on a hillside and overlooking the city, and down below the one narrow road that led from north to south, when the Chinese crossed the border.Within hours of arriving we were told we would not be staying.
But getting away proved a problem. For two days and nights we stood on the hill as most of the UN forces slowly edged their way south, bumper to bumper, down the road and across the single bridge that spanned the river on the southern outskirts of Pyongyang. There was a miracle of sorts – the Chinese did not use their air force to wipe out the bulk of the UN's forces – an act which would have almost certainly led to the use of nuclear weapons and World War Three – something that some American leaders were keen to do, anyway. Eventually, we were able to get on to the road and make our way through the city as rear guard demolition squads were busy blowing up anything that could prove useful to the advancing Chinese.
After a number of very small miracles my unit found its way to Seoul, where some of us were detailed to make our way even further south to the port of Pusan and then Sasebo, in Japan, ready to set up a base for our entire unit if all UN forces were kicked out of Korea. Everyone, from brass hats to the lowliest under-paid private, was now taking the Chinese very, very seriously.
And so a handful of us found ourselves in a railway freight yard in Seoul, with one wagon assigned to the unit's advance party at the tail end of a long line of wagons almost hidden from view by hundreds of Koreans, mainly women and children, desperate to find sanctuary inside the wagons or on the roofs. As soon as we had completed occupation of our wagon I stood guard with the sergeant at the door of the freight car looking down at the crowd crying for room in our wagon. Many held children high in the air as though pleading for us to at least take their infants.
'There's room for about 40 people in this wagon, and there are only 10 of us. Why don't we take some of the women with children?' I asked. The sergeant agreed. 'But no more than 30. If we're too crowded it could be dangerous'
An English speaking Korean army captain standing below the door, a small daughter holding either hand, interpreted our intentions to the crowd – and with difficulty we prevented a stampede as we allowed 30 on board and barred the way to others. The captain who had helped us begged us to take his daughters and he would find a place on a wagon roof. We agreed. I undertook to care for the girls, and when we bedded down for the night I shared my blanket with them.
The engine, so antiquated it might well have been built by Robert Louis Stephenson himself, finally chugged its way out of Seoul hauling some 20 freight wagons filled to bursting with desperate, fearful men, women and children – and every square inch of the roof tops was covered with equally fearful men, women and children who not been able to beg or buy a a place inside the wagons An unknown number of the roof squatters – especially among the elderly – vanished on the journey south. It was said to be the coldest winter in 50 years, and constant freezing winds from Siberia that came in ahead of the Chinese, along with intermittent snow showers, were killers, especially of the elderly, the young and the homeless.
At the end of the journey just a handful of witnesses were able to report on the frozen remnants of humanity, unable to maintain their hold on to a household bundle or a rope, who slid silently over the side and vanished in the darkness of the abandoned Korean countryside as the ancient engine hauled its rocking, rattling line of equally ancient wagons.
As the train shuddered on its stop-go stop-go run south there was no movement from the soldiers and women and children in our wagon apart from one soldier told off to make sure a commandeered stove was refuelled during the night. Some soldiers slept silently, others snored. The only noise from the women and children was coughing and sneezing. The captain's children slept soundly under the warmth of my blanket and rubber poncho, one on each side snuggled against me as I sat, back against the wall and stared across the wagon at the women and children surrounded by their bundles of household goods and wondered where they had come from and where they were going. Some like me were still wakeful, for I could see their eyes, unblinking, in the dim flickering light.
Then, from off of the top of one of the bundles, a little girl of perhaps three or four clambered down and on unsteady legs crossed the jerking floor and stood in front of me for a moment. Her great wide eyes were watery with a cold, and snot ran unheeded from her nose. She was obviously seeking warm and comfort, for on hands and knees she made her way up the blankets and crawled on to my lap. She remained sitting half upright, her head rested against my rib cage – and I assumed she was asleep.
I looked down at her head – and fought an impulse to scream and hurl the sleeping child from me, as far, far away as possible. For in the dim flickering light I could see her head was covered with a mass of wriggling, crawling lice.
Most human beings have their own burden of fears and fantasies that they carry from childhood to the grave. One of my burdens – a particularly heavy one – has always been fear of lice. It seemed in my younger years that my hair was forever being examined at home and school by parents or nurses wielding their favoured weapon in the war against lice – the fearsome looking spike toothed steel nit comb.
Despite all the examinations never a nit or a louse was ever found in my head, partly due to the cleanliness of my mother's house and my strict observance of her mantra, repeated almost on a daily basis, 'Don't get near dirty children!' We all had a fair idea of who the 'dirty' children were – even though no accusing adult fingers were pointed in their direction.
As the years went by I never saw a louse, but I was constantly reminded of them and the horror I felt whenever I thought of the unseen dirty blood suckers grew and grew. So all through the night, and what seemed a never ending stop go stop go journey, I sat with my back pressed against the shaking, swaying wall of the freight wagon, two children laying beside me, the infant cradled by one reluctant arm against my chest – and not for one instant did my eyes cease to gaze at the vermin filled head that was so close to me.
Time and time and again I sent a mental anguished prayer skywards, the kind that small children make,'Please, God, I'm doing something really, really good here – so I would be most grateful if You would arrange matters so that not one, I repeat not ONE, louse gets on me! It's not a lot to ask.' A child's bargain with God.
The night, of course, was not endless. It only seemed that way. At last, the dawn came, the infant woke and without a sound, made her way to her mother. The captain's daughters sat silently staring at me with unblinking eyes until I gave them some biscuits and a drink from water bottle. They said something then, but of course I couldn't understand any of it. I assumed they were thanking me – and just smiled back – although I was not in the mood for smiling, for at that moment I had an urgent need to scratch a sudden itch in my back, then another on my belly, and shortly afterwards my legs were itching. I thought my prayers had not been answered. Fortunately, the torment faded, the freight wagons braked for the last time – and we were in Taegu.
The station platforms and the rail tracks were covered with a mass of people, and within minutes they were joined by our own little band of refugees who scrambled from the wagon with their children and bundles of household, helped down to the platform by soldiers uncertain as to their own future. As the mother of the infant I had so reluctantly cared for reached the platform, child in one hand, she turned bowed to me, smiled, spoke what I assumed were a word or two of thanks, then hurried off to join the lines of people slowly filing through the military barricades that were the only exits from the station. The last sight I had of them was being ushered through by soldiers, and like every other Korean traveller that day being sprayed with DDT by Red Cross workers. Lice borne epidemics were causing as much concern for some people as the approach of the Red Army.
The army captain collected his daughters, and with a great deal of bowing thanked me – then told us two riders on our wagon roof had fallen during the night. 'They were both very old,' he murmured. “We could not catch them in time.' I felt shame at my own concerns – but that didn't stop me from rushing away and, without stopping at the barricades, locating a military unit, based in a school just minutes away from station, where hot showers were available.
In the shower I scrubbed myself from head to toe with a large bar of carbolic soap. I put my clothes and blanket under the shower and used the same bar of soap to wash every square inch of them. After drying clothes and blanket in the boiler room I scrutinized every crease and cranny to make sure nothing nasty was hidden. They were as clean as a whistle. It was a miracle! Not ONE louse could I find. My fervent prayers had been answered! It was a miracle!
But just to make sure, I gave body and possessions a fair dose of DDT from a spray someone had left on a shelf in the showers.