Thirty-Eight

The world can be mapped with lines. Longitude lines run north-south, through both the North Pole and South Pole. Latitude lines run east-west, in concentric circles around the globe. Unlike longitude lines, latitude lines never cross one another. Therefore, they are sometimes called “parallels.” Some paralells are well-known for one reason or another. There are the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, at 23.5 degrees north and south of the equator. There are the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, at 66.5 degrees north and south. There’s the 49th parallel (north), that forms part of the border between the US and Canada. In fact, a lot of parallels form political boundaries between nations. But the one I’m interested in today is the thirty-eighth parallel north, which for a time was the border between North and South Korea. At the end of World War II, when Japan was defeated, Korea (which Japan had occupied for several decades) was under the authority of the United States and the Soviet Union. The 38th parallel was determined to be the dividing line; north of that was under Soviet control, and south was under American control. Before long, these areas became the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Each government claimed sovereignty over the whole Korean peninsula. It is no surprise that war was around the corner, and the erstwhile allies, the USSR and the USA, took opposite sides in a war that became as much about ideology as about land. The war became a stalemate after a few years, and an armistice was signed in 1953. Yet the war has technically never ended. The two countries are still divided by a demilitarized zone, which no longer follows the 38th parallel, but is close.

Just about everything I know about the Korean War (apart from what I’ve learned at Wikipedia over the last half hour) comes from the television show MASH. MASH was based on the movie of the same name, which itself was based on a book by Richard Hooker, who served as a surgeon in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.) unit in Korea. The television show became a national treasure, one of the most critically-acclaimed shows in the history of television. It was on the air for eleven years, more than three times as long as the war itself lasted. It followed the exploits of the doctors and staff at M.A.S.H. #4077, located in Uijeongbu, South Korea. It began as a comedy, with Drs. Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) and Trapper John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers) abusings their fellow doctor Frank Burns (Larry Linville) and nurse Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit). Over time, through changes in cast and writers, it lost some of its comic elements, and became a drama. Hawkeye and Hot Lips remained for the whole series, with new relationships with Drs. B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) and Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers).

I remember watching a whole lot of reruns of MASH when I was in high school. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen every episode, but I think I probably got close. I have a few strong memories of MASH:

  • I recall that when I was a preschooler, I had a babysitter who always used to watch M*A*S*H when she was watching me. I had no interest in watching such a boring show when I was three. I have this vague memory of being curled up in a blanket on the floor while she sat on the couch watching.
  • I am haunted by the 2-hour finale. If you don’t know how the show ends, you really should check it out. (The episode, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” was (and remains) the highest rated television episode in history. It wasn’t surpassed in viewership numbers for seventeen years, until Super Bowl XLIV.) Anyway, one of the plots in this episode is about Hawkeye working with a psychiatrist to uncover a disturbing memory. The image of that memory still bothers me to this day. It’s powerful stuff.
  • I once learned about a game called “Monkees = Monkees.” The idea of the game is to match a band and a television show with one another, based on the following criteria: overall aesthetic “soul,” time period, longevity, commercial success, and critical response. The game is called “Monkees = Monkees,” because the obvious match for the band The Monkees is the television show “The Monkees.” (Some good matches are The Black Crowes = That 70s Show and Hall and Oates = Bosom Buddies. I vividly remember that one of the examples the creator of the game gave was U2 = M*A*S*H, because both are incredibly popular and critically acclaimed, and both started off kind of fun, but eventually got self-important and preachy.

Now I really want to go binge-watch MAS*H.

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