When I was 12…

Pardon the interruption, but this post will stray a bit from being entirely pop-culture oriented. You have been warned.

When I was 12, my family was stationed in Seoul, South Korea. We lived in a small apartment in government housing, 10 miles or so from the main military base. We were pretty much living with the “natives,” save for a fence that ran around the perimeter of our small base. Here’s a picture that shows what was just beyond that fence…

South Korea housing

It was 1984, and my parents both worked during the day, leaving my older brother and me to our own devices. At that point in time, the American military presence in Seoul was much appreciated, and little American kids received much fanfare by the Korean citizens, which was great for me!

As I detailed in my last post, the year 1984 was an incredible one for pop culture in movies, television, and music. I missed it. I spent 1984 with one American television channel, provided by the armed forces, which tended to play a lot of Sesame Street and General Hospital.

VHS machines were the new thing and being in Korea, most of us had one, since it was pretty easy to get one cheap. Families would have relatives back home in the “States” record TV shows and ship the tapes to them in Korea. I got to watch the A-Team this way, but not much else. I remember the big deal movie to watch was the miniseries called The Day After, which was about the day after a nuclear war. This was especially poignant to those of us not too far from the DMZ.

I was surrounded by other latchkey kids, and we basically formed our own version of Lord of the Flies from sunrise to sunset. I cringe at the thought of all the mischief we got into during the two years I lived in Korea. I know what the city looks like from the top of a radio tower, and I also know which cigarette lighters make the biggest explosions when thrown against a building. We would hop in cabs, buses, or subway trains just to see where they would take us, never mind the fact that none of us could read or speak Korean, but somehow, we always found our way back home.

If we wanted to buy music, there were plenty of options. We usually bought from the street vendors with pushcarts full of bootleg cassettes. At that age, I had no idea what a bootleg was, but I did find it strange that all the writing on the tapes was consistently misspelled. I think the first cassette I ever bought was the J. Giles Band’s Frees Frame.

bootleg McDonalds restaurant in Korea

Even the restaurants were bootlegs.

When I wasn’t exploring the public transit system, my days were filled playing “war” with a dozen or so other kids. We would run through the woods, build elaborate forts and traps, and of course were all decked out in camouflage, since all our dads had closets full of the stuff. We threw rocks, used slingshots, and sometimes, if we were lucky enough, one of the boys would bring a BB gun. But the weapon of choice was usually “grenades” made up of a bunch of firecrackers with their wicks twisted together.

Most of my allowance went to firecrackers. We would blow stuff up all day long. Everything in Korea was so inexpensive, I could have probably bought my first car if I had saved my allowance for a month. For a couple of dollars, I would buy bags of plastic models and explosives–you can probably imagine how that ended up.

(No joke–two months after leaving Korea, I got a letter from my best friend with a photo of him in the hospital burn ward, after a bad experience he had with a propane tank.)

We weren’t totally deprived of Hollywood entertainment–for that, we had the “Big Building” at the top of the hill. The Big Building had a pizza parlor with a Donkey Kong machine and a comic book spinner rack–whatever money I had in my pocket went straight to those two things. Off-base there were lots of arcades, where I spent plenty of time playing Galaga, Missile Command, and any other machine that didn’t have a smoking teenager glued to the joystick, but that Donkey Kong machine was THE place to be on base.

The Big Building also served as our movie theater on Saturday nights. The movies that were shown were usually many months behind the U.S. releases, but more often than not, they were several years behind. I remember seeing Return of the Jedi for the first time on a 10′ screen, while sitting on a folding metal chair. I didn’t feel the need to go to many movies that year.

1984 is probably the most vivid year of my childhood memories, and it’s a minor miracle that I survived it. For the two years I lived in Korea, American entertainment was experienced at arm’s length, and when I got back to the states, I had a lot of catching up to do.


league of extraordinary bloggers logo This is the latest post in response to the weekly blog challenge presented by the League of Extraordinary Bloggers. This week’s topic asked you to recall when you were 12 years old.



  1. says

    Great post, Brian – I LOVED this! Were you all stationed anywhere else? It’d be awesome to hear those stories on day.

    It’s funny that 1984-itis seems to be going around the blogosphere recently. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Cold Slither Podcast (@coldslitherpod), but they recorded a podcast episode solely dedicated to that year. If you’ve got a chance, you should check them out.

    Also, I had a yard sale find today that specifically made me think of you. Stay tuned!

    • says

      Thanks Will. This post was quite a departure for me, so hitting that “publish” button came with a little trepidation. 😉 Being a military family, we moved around a lot, but after Korea we headed to Virginia and stayed put.

      I haven’t checked out the Cold Slither Podcast but I’ll have to do so now!

      Can’t wait to see what you found today. I had a bit of luck myself. Details soon…

  2. says

    Fantastic post, especially for those of us that have never been outside the US. I had mentioned on Shawn Robare’s blog, Branded in the 80’s, how much I’m digging this topic because I feel I’m really getting to know my fellow LXB’ers. It’s always more fun reading about pop culture through someone’s experiences with it.

    • says

      Thanks Dex! What you mentioned is certainly one of the unanticipated bonuses of the League. I really do look forward to each and every post everyone puts up each week, as each post is just another piece in the big puzzle. 😉

  3. says

    Great read Brian! I love hearing stories from back in the day(they conjure up memories of my youth). I wanted to be involved in this one, but the NHL Playoffs have had me glued to the t.v., and not the computer.


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