By Jonathan Bach
Jim Harrison was nine when a Milton-Freewater couple adopted him from Korea. The year was 1960, and his name then was Lee Chang-kun, according to his adoption papers.
Harrison’s retelling of his experience as an adoptee paints a poignant picture: A young boy traveling overseas to a new family. A mother dying of a deadly disease. A blind uncle who later thinks his nephew dead. And then, years later, a reunion.
In the United States, Harrison landed in a world completely different than the war-torn country from where he hailed. No longer did he guide men blinded by the North Korean army into town to find cigarettes they could sell on the black market, a responsibility he said he once had. His name changed, and he adopted the surname of his new parents, John and Pauline.
Harrison volunteers at the Round-Up, and many know him as a camp cook for pickup men and event attendees. In 1985, though, he crossed the Pacific in search of his lost Korean family.
Harrison, a self-proclaimed “war-baby,” often tears up when he talks about the two-week expedition and his brief childhood in Korea. He said his father, whom he hardly knew, was an American soldier stationed in the Asian country. But the bond between the man who sired him and his Korean mother was a forbidden one. “In those days, there were no interracial marriages,” Harrison said.
He said he remembers his Korean grandmother physically beating her daughter because she had given birth to a “half-blood.” He said his mother would nonetheless hide food for him so he would not starve. To be a witness to that violence “tore me apart,” he said.
He said his father transferred away from them when he was either one or two years old.
“I totally lost contact with him,” said Harrison.
He said his mother thought it would be better if they did not contact his father. But he said his father continued to send money and clothing. “We were so poor, we were lucky if we had two meals a day,” he said.
Harrison recalled his mother telling him, before she died of tuberculosis and he left the country, “We’re sending you to America, where money grows on trees.”
Decades later, as a grown, married man, he flew to South Korea’s capital Seoul. At that time, it was a city with underground malls that doubled as bunkers in case of air raids from the North. He traveled with his wife Pam and three-year-old daughter Sydelle.
He found his old orphanage and workers there helped track down his uncle, Lee Jae-yul. This was the same uncle he said he used to lead into town with a group of handicapped veterans to get cigarettes from the Americans to sell for a meager income. He said Jae-yul presumed his nephew was dead, but he made his way to the orphanage where the two embraced. Harrison said he could not see much of Jae-yul’s face because of his sunglasses, and his uncle’s wife had to hold the older man once they were out of their car, because she did not want him to fall. He could see tears streaming down his uncle’s cheek.
His uncle insisted Harrison remain one more night in his hotel before meeting with the rest of his lost family, feeling the whole affair might be a dream.
Harrison said that once he finally arrived at his uncle’s home, he reunited with the other 13 men he once guided into town. They asked him if he drank alcohol, to which he said yes.
The group partied hard that night.
Now, every year Harrison puts on a party of his own on the Round-Up Grounds.
The sun has set. Two brothers, the famed Severe saddlemakers, lean against horse trailers with their daughters. People gather around a fire in the middle of camp. Guitar and fiddle harmonize. “Everyone’s just sitting around, visiting and enjoying the music,” said Harrison, describing a typical night at his camp on the Round-Up Grounds.
Harrison cooks hearty meals for pickup men and Round-Up goers seven days and nights during the event.
The cooking gig, as so many things do, came to life over beers. It was 1989. Harrison said he saw a group of rodeo pickup men camped on the Round-Up Grounds behind the livestock. He brought over refreshments and, as they got to drinking, asked them, “So, what do you guys eat when you’re on the road?” Dairy Queen was among the contenders. Hearing that, Harrison offered to cook them fresh salmon on Saturday night come next year’s Round-Up.
The weekend meal evolved over 25 years into a full breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The owner of Jim Harrison Construction said curious people will now poke their heads into his camp and ask to come in. He welcomes them. As for money, he has a jar and asks people to donate however much they see fit for the food. While he said he doesn’t make a ton of cash from the cooking, he said the food he buys gets paid for. “I’ve never walked away from camp with an empty pocket,” he said.
A fan favorite is his chorizo casserole. He said it doesn’t last very long after it comes out of the barbecue. Onions, bell peppers, scrambled eggs and biscuits with the spicy meat make people come back for seconds and thirds.
On Wednesday nights during Round-Up season, Harrison and the pickup men even have a tradition of taking one whiskey shot for each of their friends who’ve passed away. “It’s just a tribute to everybody and everything that we stand for,” he said.
He calls what they stand for simply “the cowboy way.”