A roaring wall of frothing waters and churned umber mud, crashing trees, tumbling boulders, came sweeping down into the ravine, drowning all in its frightful path.
As we fled before the rushing waters, Kim slipped and fell, his legs pinned by a fallen tree. There was only a moment to choose between saving myself and turning back to help my friend.
There was a time when the sound of rain drumming on a tin roof meant contentment, a time when hearing it brought on contemplation, pleasant thoughts. Not anymore. Now it evokes different sensations. Fear and regret. I hear and remember it was rain deprived me of a small fortune and imposed a dangerous decision.
It happened in South Korea in 1964. I’d been earning my way as a roving expatriate, doing occasional articles for several stateside papers, teaching English, copy-reading for English-language newspapers and anything else I found suitable to my temperament and talents.
In the spring I found myself in North Kyongsang province near the southern end of the peninsula. I had gone to the old walled city of Kyongju in hope of meeting and interviewing the archaeologist Choe Chung Chai, who was then conducting an extensive search for the treasures and artifacts of the Silla Dynasty. Unfortunately, Dr. Choe had moved deep into the mountains before my arrival and I found no one who could direct me to his site.
I was disheartened by this turn of events. Because most relics of the Silla Dynasty have been lost or destroyed since that ancient culture reached its peak some 10 centuries ago, Choe’s work and, particularly, some recent finds were of great importance and interest to the scientific world. An interview would have meant an article with some sales potential. And, I was desperately in need of ready cash.
Uncertain where to look for the scholar, I sat off in the direction of Taegu. After a time, I sought shelter from the increasing heat of the day and the dust stirred up by my Jeep at a wayside inn.
Except for the proprietor, I was alone in the place. A cool drink and the relaxed atmosphere produced a pleasant lethargy and, soon, all thought of action was forgotten. I don’t know whether it was minutes or hours later, but the mood was finally broken by a commotion outside. Curious, I went to investigate.
Sprawled in a slice of shade beneath a nearby pine, I found several Koreans engaged in noisy conversation. They looked up at my approach.
Suddenly, one of them leapt to his feet and came hurriedly toward me. He had seized my hand and was pumping it vigorously, smiling broadly and babbling like a madman in pidgin English, before I recognized him.
Kim Young Joo had been the driver for an American Army officer friend of mine. I had met him the year before on a clandestine tiger hunt up near the DMZ (but that’s another story).
After this initial exchange of greetings, Kim and I left his companions and returned to the shelter of the pub.
“So, tell me what you’ve been up to,” I asked once we were seated inside. “When did you leave the Army?”
He told me he’d been discharged a month before and had returned to his home at Taegu to seek work. But, there were too many men and not enough jobs to go around. So, he had gone off into the mountains to prospect for ginseng and gold. He’d found a little of both, but not enough to make him solvent.
Out of supplies, he’d come to this village in hope of getting a grubstake from local merchants. To his dismay, none were interested.
I was. I knew that before the war there had been extensive gold mining operations in the north and I remembered reading of Jack London’s prospecting during his stint as a war correspondent in Korea. But, I didn’t know there was gold in these southern provinces.
Kim told me there was much gold in this region, though the deposits were practically unexplored due to the recent disturbances of the war and the current economic instability.
Now was the time, he said, for the small prospector to move in and make a killing. Soon the economic picture would improve and then the big companies would come and lease all the best sites.
I’d been bitten more than once in the past by the gold bug. With this and my own economic situation in mind, there’s no need to detail our discussion further.
The next morning we pooled our meager resources, purchased supplies and headed into the hills.
For better than three weeks we explored and our luck was surprisingly good from the beginning. We panned bars on river bends and dry-panned gullies and channels in the flats.
There was gold, and we were finding it. Not enough to cause a rush, but enough to pay expenses. We were confident of a big find any day.
One morning we began working a spot with particularly good sign in a narrow ravine. Removing the surface dirt from the rocks, we overhauled the dirt left in the cracks and began finding flakes and tiny nuggets we could pick out with our knives.
We’d been picking at the rocks about a half hour when Kim suddenly let loose with an Apache cry.
I turned to look and he was pointing at an outcrop and jabbering excitedly in a mix of Korean and English. The sun danced with a flickering light along a dark streak across the surface of the boulder.
Barely daring to breath, I took my hammer and knocked off a chunk for closer examination. It was gold. We had made our find!
I won’t detail the sweat of the days that followed as we sank a shaft in pursuit of the vein or the dreams we shared as we labored. Suffice it to say, we were certain we had made our fortunes.
So men are deluded and oblivious to Lady Luck and how she may cast a jealous frown and take away all in a matter of moments.
Time had passed quickly and another season was upon us. And, with the beginning of summer, came heavy rains.
Situated between the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, the mountains and valleys of Korea are subjected to summer deluges equal in intensity to the monsoons of India. Along with the treacherous seas and the barrier mountains, those torrential downpours had in the past helped the Hermit Kingdom fend off invasions by the Japanese, Chinese and Russians.
But, we were too busy thinking of gold to be concerned about a little thing like rain.
Unprepared when the flash flood came roaring down our ravine, all our hard work and dreams were drown in a sea of mud.
I must have seen Kim fall, for I doubt I would have heard him cry out above the thunder of the flood. I hesitated, gauging the freight train approach of the tumult.
Fear can paralyze a man or provide him the adrenalin to do what he must, and none can say how he will react until faced with such a predicament. I see it as neither courageous or foolhardy on my part. There was no time for second thoughts; I had to try. Kim would have done the same for me.
Somehow, I have no memory of how, I managed to pull him free and we made it to higher ground. Miraculously, save for an assortment of bruises, he was unscathed.
“Yellow Metal Devil,” he muttered as we sat on a hogback watching the waters destroy our work.
“Yellow Metal Devil?”
“Almost got us,” he said, nodding. “My people say devil him watch gold. Never bring people luck. Kill anybody try to take his gold.”
“You don’t believe that nonsense, do you?”
Rubbing his bruised legs, Kim said, “He no let us take gold, huh?”
We could have gone back to work after the waters receded, but Kim refused to consider the idea. He was disillusioned and frightened. I suppose I had lost my taste for the task as well. We gathered what we could salvage and went away from the mountains.
I returned to Seoul and other things. Kim headed back to Taegu to seek the job he hadn’t found before. Our paths never crossed again.
The rain – or was it the Yellow Metal Devil? – had won.
(This story originally appeared in the Aug. 1998 issue of Gold and Treasure magazine)