Being an Army brat, my family moved around a lot, and when I was in the fifth grade, we were stationed just outside of Seoul, South Korea. The housing community was commonly known as “RGH” — short for residential government housing. Three-story cinderblock buildings painted bright green and white was what we and dozens of other families called home. There was a fence around the entire complex, but its main purpose was to keep non-Americans from entering — it did nothing to keep us from going out.
Both parents worked all day, and my brother and I were left on our own for the most part. We did have a housekeeper — everyone did, trust me, it’s not because we were loaded — but she spoke little English and pretty much let us do whatever we wanted. Well, what we wanted to do most was wander off base and visit the arcades and shops that littered the surrounding area. Now, at this point, I was 10 or 11 years old and the group of kids I hung with were of the same age, if not younger. We’d wave to the MPs guarding the gate and walk a few blocks in any given direction to see what kind of trouble we could find.
We usually wound up in an arcade. I’m sure you are aware of the typical American arcade, but where I was living at the time, the arcades were dark and dirty — and by dirty, I mean they actually had dirt floors, or at least concrete floors that had trapped the dirt from the streets over many years. The doors were iron grates and corrugated tin, and the dirt just seeped through every opening. Bare lightbulbs with pull strings lit the place along with a half-dozen or so arcade screens.
Every game cabinet had an ashtray resting near the joystick. I honestly believe that it was illegal NOT to smoke in South Korea in the early 80’s. EVERYONE in the arcades (and outside of them) had a cigarette in their mouth, and I didn’t think anything of it — both of my parents smoked — everyone smoked, this was before C. Everett Koop’s tenure.
My allowance at the time was 10,000 Won per week. Arcade games cost 100 Won, a coin almost the exact same size as a US quarter, so I could play 100 rounds of Galaga before I had to guilt my parents into giving me more money — which usually happened by Tuesday. We would play the usual suspects, Pac-Man, Centipede, Space Invaders, and my personal favorite, Donkey Kong. When we got really bold, we would hop on the subway and go downtown to Seoul to visit the “real” arcades, the ones in the underground shopping mall or among the shops of Itaewon. Now those arcades were like a Vegas Casino with all their lights and noise.
Some of my best childhood memories were from the two years I lived in South Korea, but most of those memories are the kind of thing you would have seen in Goonies or Stand by Me — did I mention that firecrackers were dirt cheap over there? My kids are about the same age now as I was when I lived in Korea, and being the helicopter parent that I am, I actually worry about them going three doors down to play with their friends in our crime-free suburban community. My sons don’t need to beg for quarters to plug into a machine — they have the entire world’s video game library at their fingertips in high definition — of course, they prefer to play a blocky, low-resolution game that let’s them wander into strange and scary places — at least there’s no cloud of cigarette smoke hovering in the air.
A bunch of my fellow Pop Culture League members are also writing about their earliest arcade experiences this week. For more awesome arcade memories, check out The Last Hometown, Mr. Smith’s Plastic Bubble, The Toy Box, Rediscover the 80’s, and more!
sounds like a great childhood ! I used to feel like I was in a different country when I would wonder into china town but you really where in a different country .That had to have been a great place for giant robot toys back then.
If only I had a time machine, I would go back and buy up all the Gundam model kits that were in every store.
That had to be fun for a kid to be able to go out and explore such a different part of the world.Great read!
The Toy Box says
Great story. Visually put me there with you with how it was written.
It was so reminiscent of my childhood, but replace the word “army” with CIA, and “Korea” with Bangladesh, and that’s where I was at that age. We did have a housekeeper as well, but sadly no arcades. At least we had an Atari and ColecoVision.
Very cool. Living in a foreign country as a kid is an adventure that everyone should have. Your view on things is definitely altered as a result.
Wow! What memories! I was never an army brat, but was stationed in Korea from 97-99. By then, the civilians on base were playing all the real slot machines on the army base officer’s clubs. And the golf course.
While I don’t play home console games, I do miss arcades.
Awesome, we should compare notes sometime. I often wonder what it’s like over there these days.
LOL! korean Arcade shops sound like some little peruvian shops nowadays, he he he: dirt everywhere!! concrete floor! calamina (corrugated tim)!! 😀 😀 😀
Happily, smoking is forbidden in public/closed/shopping/academic places here in Perú too.
awesome story, Brian! I am all too familiar with the youth’s Minecraft obsession!
Like to hear more about these “Goonies” and “Stand By Me” stories in future blogs…. perhaps a future topic for the League like “when my childhood was most like a movie” 😉
Ooh, that could be fun!
I was in RGH from April 1977 to June 1979. Between the pinball machine at the Teen Club and the Big Building arcade, that was the source of losing a lot of 100-won coins for me too. Good times…
Ha! A fellow RGH refugee!
You might get a kick out of another old article I wrote about my time in Korea: https://www.coolandcollected.com/when-i-was-12/
I was there around that same time! Wasn’t there also a place called the Blue House?
Kathy G says
Thanks for sharing! I lived in RGH from 5th to 6th grade then moved to the main base in Yongsan for another year. It was a great adventure, indeed! We used to go out the South gate in RGH and head down into the subway tunnels for shopping or ride the go carts, mud ball fights on Dead Man’s Hill, sneaking into that haunted house across from the tennis courts (only once or twice), air hockey/arcade games at the youth center, chilli dogs across from the commissary, the pool..that was 1984-1987. It was a different world and we had such scary freedoms!! I think somehow we must have had more street smarts than kids these days.
Wow, I was there in 82-84 for 5th and 6th grades — I bet we rode to school together! I may not remember the names of all the kids, but I definitely remember the epic games of War we had on Dead Man’s Hill.
I was there from 82-85, 1st through 3rd grade. I remember sledding down Dead Man’s Hill and the snowball fights over the fence line.
Wow.. I was in Korea 75-77 and lived in RGH building 6 ..memories of me and my older brothers.. Will last a lifetime the Blue House Big Building and the Hills were Steep.. It was a party everyday..IN RGH
Fantastic, another RGH resident! 🙂 Yes, those hills were steep!
Wow, just decided to google rgh, I lived there up to 76, went to SAES, cool to read your blog….
Glad to provide a blast to the past for a fellow SAES alumni!
Nice! I accidentally came across your story. I was in RGH at the same time and the same age as you were. Now I’m reminiscing about those fantastic games of Manhunt, the haunted vacant house, the 3rd floor balcony you could access from the men’s restroom window, the youth center. I remember my friend CL (you probably might too), got too friendly with one of those hydrogen balloons on top of a building, seared off his eyelashes and eyebrows. What crazy freedom we had. I busted up laughing about your helicopter parenting, I’m the same way. Those were really fun times.
Hmmm, I don’t remember any hydrogen balloons but I do remember a large propane tank incident. 🙂
Kevin O. says
Wow, this brought back memories,Ii was there 80-83 and then 84-88. we lived in RGH in the houses at the top of Deadmans hill.and the last time we stayed in the houses on the backside of the Big Building. We lived in RGH until they built the new houses on south post.Does anyone know why the called it deadmans hill, i never knew
Celia Thornton says
Is that where the woods was- above a large stone wall and behind the apartment buildings on RGH? If this is the same place I’m remembering, I regularly played in those woods. I lived in a duplex on RGH, but had friends that lived in the (3 story?) apartment buildings. I was there from ’84-’86. Loved going to the Big Building- great pizza place and of course the pool! And I think it had a DYA (Dependent Youth Activity Center) where I could play video games for free.
Kevin O. says
lol your not talking about Cortez L.are yo?, I remember what you are talking about…….wow
Jimmy E Busha says
I remember that! Cordell Lxxb! Had to use x’s to block out real last name…I was there at RGH around that time…took taekwondo class there in the lower level of the big bldg. FUN times!
I lived on RGH 1980-1982. Can’t believe how much inflation took place over 2 years. The shanty arcades around RGH during my time were 50 Won… or the exact same size as a nickel. Hard to believe we’d walk around the unguarded streets outside of RGH at the ripe age of 10. But that’s what we did. I also recall finding the batting cage a few blocks away from RGH. I played baseball and loved going to hit the rubber balls for the same 50 Won piece. And yes, we had a housekeeper too. Spoke a little English and taught us a few Korean words. Good times.
I’ve heard stories from others about that batting cage, but I have no memory of it. I guess we stuck to the shops more.
Robert Mateer says
Those are awesome childhood memories. My Dad was stationed at Yongsan, when I was younger before we got orders for Japan. I spent a lot of time in those arcades. They charged ¥50-100 in arcades in Japan. I was disappointed when I found out that there was a big difference in what I could and couldn’t do with my allowance in Japan vs. Korea in the 80’s. ¥100 is roughly over ?1,000. It was like paying 10¢ a game and then going somewhere it costs $1.00 a game. Not that it makes any difference, but i believe the RGH acronym stood for Rental Guaranteed Housing. They built 300 units near Yongsan and 100 near Camp Carroll down in Taegu. It was housing for families that couldn’t get quarters on base, but wasn’t officially Base housing. Anyway, thanks for sharing the memories.
Celia Thornton says
I also lived in RGH in 5th and 6th grade and attended SAES on Yongson. When in the 80’s were you there? We were there from 1984-1986- sadly missing the ’88 Olympics but seeing all of the buildup to the big event. My younger sister and brother and I loved to explore off post and I remember buying gum and candy with my won. And going to the Big Building- where the pool was. Air raids, blackouts- loved every minute.
We may have crossed paths — I was in Korea for 5th and 6th grade in ’83-’84. I remember the blackouts and watching the SR-71s’ afterburners fly by in the dark night skies.The olympic fever was starting to ramp up as we were leaving — lots of new construction all over the place.