Tag Archives: Robert Holewinski

Review of One Year There: A Soldier’s Year in South Korea in 1968 by Robert Denis Holewinski

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Review of One Year There: A Soldier’s Year in South Korea in 1968 by Robert Denis Holewinski

I met Bob Holewinski at my fortieth high school reunion in 2010; he’s married to my former classmate. When Deb mentioned on Facebook that he’d written a book about his year serving in Korea during the Vietnam era, I bought the Kindle edition. Like Holewinski, my husband also served in Korea (for thirteen months, starting in January 1969). That connection piqued my curiousity about Holewinski’s experience.

Two years passed before I even looked at the book. Why? Because it’s written in free verse. I procrastinated reading the poetic military memoir because I expected it to be an epic like the Iliad, which I suffered through in high school, and remember nothing about. So, I saved it for some undefined future date.

In the meantime, Deb shared on Facebook that Bob had written another book, and a few months ago, mentioned he is a talented artist. I checked out his paintings on the websites that sell them, and they so impressed me that I shared them on ARHtistic License.

Then, I felt guilty that I’d never read Holewinski’s book, and decided to tackle it.

The good news is, it’s a much quicker read than the Iliad (I finished it in two days), and for me, much more engaging.

One Year There

Holewinski says he wrote the book to “purge the phantoms that have been dwelling inside me since living ‘One Year There.’” As it turns out, poetry is the perfect medium for his story. With its lack of paragraphs, punctuation, and capital letters, the poems peel away any artificial barriers that might separate the reader from the raw tension and emotion pouring from Holewinski’s words (my apologies–I don’t know enough coding to make WordPress match the author’s indents):

i run up the long hill
to a dark and damp bunker
half sunk down in the ground
half built up with sandbag walls

covered with a plywood and sandbag roof
there I charge through the narrow entrance
breathing fast heart hard pounding
alone
waiting
looking out through the slit openings
with dripping moisture the bunker smells
of oiled canvas damp earth and i wait
alone
come on
come on
where is everyone already

Stationed at a nuclear missile base in South Korea, a high-priority target of the North Koreans, Holewinski lived with danger unimagined by average citizens stateside, who watched coverage of the Vietnam war on the nightly news. Only the worst Korean incidents garnered any press, such as the capture on January 23, 1968, of the USS Pueblo by the North Koreans. After eleven months of negotiations and a public apology by the United States government, the eighty-three crew members were finally released from their detainment.

When Holewinski’s unit was in training, being prepared for their assigned duty in Vietnam (and being cautioned that they would probably not be coming home alive), the Pueblo’s capture altered their orders to serve in Korea, but the risk of dying in action remained high.

In One Year There: A Soldier’s Year in South Korea in 1968, Holewinski records his memories about the countryside, the locals, and his fellow soldiers. Spoiler alert: if you don’t want some story details, skip these bulletin points:

  • While his unit fills sandbags in an attempt to contain a flooding river, a drunk sergeant falls into the rushing waters. Though clinging to floating debris, when he slams into a log jam at the bridge, he loses his grip and is pulled under the surface. His body is never found.
  • The mayor of Hasangoni, where the military base is located, negotiates deals with the officers to enrich himself and possibly benefit his villagers.
  • While on emergency bivouac, soldiers dressed in their winter gear observe an old papa-san wading through an icy river carrying his bicycle.
  • A soldier from Florida experiences snow for the first time.
  • A village girl who clears tables in the mess hall falls in love with one of the American soldiers. When his tour is over, he returns stateside without even saying goodbye.
  • The murder of Martin Luther King causes a rift between the Black and white soldiers.
  • A busload of Korean orphans visits the camp, accompanied by the nuns who care for them. The children, wearing traditional costumes, sing folk songs and perform ethnic dances for the troops. Then they are treated to a full meal in the mess hall, with the soldiers waiting on them. After that, the kids hunt for Easter candy and receive gifts of clothing, books, and games. This is one of the highlights of Holewinski’s tour.
  • A soldier who’d returned home re-enlists (because he can’t find civilian work back home), and is shunned by the draftees.
  • An imminent attack sparks an evacuation of the camp—including its nine nuclear warheads.
  • A soldier purposely breaks his hand, hoping to get sent home with a medical discharge. Instead, he’s treated in the infirmary.

Robert Holewinski Self-Portrait

In some places, the line breaks seemed wonky to me. I don’t know if it was deliberate on the author’s part, or if the formatting was distorted from viewing it in a large font on my Kindle. (What I use so I don’t have to put on my reading glasses.)

Holewinski successfully captures the tension, danger, and despair endured by military in a combat zone. His poetry flows economically, with the emotion coming through without wordy explanation. As someone who has never experienced military life, I found it illuminating. I suspect that One Year There would especially resonate with anyone in the armed forces.

Art of Robert Holewinski

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Art of Robert Holewinski

As a young soldier stationed in Korea during the late 1960s, Robert Holewinski filled his off-duty hours painting scenes from Disney movies. It wasn’t until after he returned to civilian life that he began studying the old masters. “There have been four influences for me,” says Holewinski, “Van Gogh, Cezanne, Whistler, and early Picasso. Many of my landscape paintings have been compared to Van Gogh’s brushwork, which is quite a compliment for me.

“For me, seeing and ‘feeling’ the brushstrokes is a very important aspect of a painting. I generally think that real art in painting began with the Impressionists as they broke away from trying to create a photographic image on canvas. And not only did Vincent show his brushstrokes, but he made them part of the design of the painting, creating a sky with swirling blue lines. I would say that my interest in art and paintings really started with the works of Van Gogh with his use of color and brushstroke.”

Street_in_Old_Quebec_City

Street in Old Quebec City by Robert Holewinski

While living in Washington, D.C., Holewinski made weekend forays into the countryside of Virginia and Maryland. When the landscape spoke to him, he’d pull over, place a canvas on the hood of his car, and get busy.

“Ninety-five percent of my paintings begin with a photograph that I have taken during our travels,” says Holewinski. “In the past I would have made sketches at the location to then later use for a painting.  A photograph is a better source as it captures not only the image but brings back the exact feelings I had when I took the photo.”

Click on the images below to see enlargements and titles.

Holewinski worked for thirteen years as a creative product and package designer for Johnson & Johnson, and then landed his dream job with The Walt Disney Company as a Product Design Manager. He still paints character portraits for Disney.

I particularly like his Italian landscapes and city scenes.

And lighthouses.

“My process is fairly simple,” says Holewinski. “Using one of my photos, enlarged on a copier, I paint standing up with a fresh sheet of 140 lb. watercolor paper taped to a wall. I paint in oil on heavy 140 lb. watercolor paper instead of canvas because it decreases the drying time of the oils and lets me work without smearing wet paint which is what happens when working on canvas. Most of my paintings are roughly 18 x 24 in size. I do not rough sketch anymore, but rather use black paint and my brush to create an outline image on the paper. From there I work on the entire painting, advancing it in total. I usually let the almost complete painting ‘rest’ overnight, and the following day I evaluate what I have so far created, and then make adjustments, add  color, apply the last brushstrokes. On average, my paintings take around four hours to complete.”

These paintings hint at Picasso’s influence:

Holewinski paints in his garage studio:

Robert Holewinski’s work is available through UGallery and ArtPal. The original oils run $750-$1475. Prints start at $5.97.

All images © by Robert Holewinski