On Thursday, March 12, the Moffett family will gather at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey to attend a memorial service for Samuel Hugh Moffett. He was my father’s uncle. My great-uncle. He was also my father’s second cousin once removed, and my second cousin twice removed. But in the Moffett family, we simplified family relations. To most of us, he has always been, Uncle Sam.
Uncle Sam was born on April 7, 1916 in Pyongyang, Korea, and he died on February 9, 2015, fourteen months shy of his 100th birthday. He was the third of five brothers born to Samuel Austin Moffett, one of the first Presbyterian missionaries in Korea. My grandfather, also born in Pyongyang, was the oldest of the five brothers. And because Samuel Austin Moffett’s second wife was also the cousin of his first wife, my grandfather and Samuel Hugh Moffett were simultaneously half-brothers and second cousins. It has been said that the five brothers liked to joke around that they were not half-brothers and second cousins, but instead three-quarter brothers.
Uncle Sam was a missionary, preacher, historian, professor, and ultimately, a Presbyterian statesman. But in my mind, he was first and foremost, a great storyteller. On Thursday, the memorial service should not be a sad occasion, but instead, a joyful celebration of his long and very productive life. We should not be sad that he has passed away, but instead, happy that he passed away peacefully and rejoice in his ability to touch so many people during his lifetime. But in all this celebration, there is one thing I cannot be joyful about. And that is for the loss of the great storyteller and all the stories that lived within him.
Uncle Sam was an American, but his stories were not the typical American ones of white picket fences, carefree picnics, apple pies, and Fourth of July parades. No, having been born in Pyongyang in 1916, his stories were of the exotic. In fact, they were not just stories, they were full-blown tales—peppered with Korean words and Korean tigers; the Taedong river; the Japanese, who did their best to kill his father and eradicate the missionaries and the church; and later, of his life in China and his own battles with the communists who, like the Japanese, could not tolerate Western religion and earnest missionaries.
In our family, there is a legendary story of Uncle Sam proving that George Washington was a Korean. He told this story sometime in the early 1960s, in Korea, and both of my parents who were in Korea at the time, heard him prove it. They still talk about that story today, and how brilliant it was. Unfortunately, that story is now gone. The legend of that telling lives on, but no one wrote the story down and now there is no one else to tell it. Even if someone had written it down, it is doubtful that anyone would have been able to tell it like Uncle Sam.
The last story I heard Uncle Sam tell was at a Moffett family reunion in 2010. My notes are very slim, but here is what I piece together from them. If you are reading this and you know Sam, close your eyes and imagine, once again, his great voice recounting this. If you don’t know him, imagine a, still mischievous, 93-year man, with a soft, but solid preacher’s voice, and an innate, true historian’s desire, to tell a really good story.
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“The year was 1949. After getting my Ph.D., I decided to go to China instead of Korea. Mao was in power at the time.
“You see, it really was very difficult being my father’s son. Dad had died, but his influence in Korea was still very great. I could become my own person much better in China. So in 1947, I went to language school in Beijing and taught at Yenching University. But eventually I ended up in Nanking, teaching at the seminary there. Soon after I got there, the state department closed. Things were not looking good. The Mission decided that families with children should go. I stayed, but we were on the wrong side of the line. And I was always very careful what I was saying. From Reader’s Digest, we knew that the communists could come in and kill the foreigners at any time.
“Then, there was also a rule that no foreigners could teach for more than two years. And after two years, they arrested me for embezzlement and I was taken down for a people’s trial. I was sent to a dark room. I don’t know for how long. Then, one time, a guy came into the room and spoke in Korean to me. They had me adding up long pages. I lost track of the days.
“One day, they brought me out for the people’s trial. There was a huge crowd assembled. Someone, he must have been the man responsible for running the trial, he was shouting for at least an hour to the crowd. He must have been laying out the case against me to them. Finally, he stopped. He asked them, “Is he guilty? This running dog of the imperialists?”
“The crowd shouted, “GUILTY!”
“I wasn’t worried about being found guilty. Because what really counted was what the man was going to say next and what he was going to charge me with. Was it going to be espionage? Or sexual sin? I was really hoping for embezzlement because the punishment for that was much less than the others. Then he asked the crowd and they all shouted, “EMBEZZLEMENT!”
“I was so happy I almost shouted “Hallalujah!”
“After it was over, the man walked past me and said, “I was a graduate of Nanking University.”
“They took me back in, and asked me to sign a letter saying that I had $100 and that I would leave tomorrow morning. I went home and packed. I looked all over for the money, but all I could find was $97. I knew that if the communists stopped me on the way out and saw that I only had $97 when I was supposed to have $100 that I could be arrested again. But I didn’t have time and I didn’t have the money. The next morning I took my things and went to the train station to catch the train which was going to Hong Kong.
“At the station, I met Guinness, one of the British missionaries. He and his wife were sending their son, Oswald, out of the country, and they asked me to watch him on the train to Hong Kong. That first night, I wanted to say prayers. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew my papers were going be examined sometime. With us, there were also three Methodist women. They played bridge all night.
“We finally got down to Canton. The communists boarded the train and started examining all the passengers. I still only had $97 and the letter stating that I had $100. While we waited, I started talking to Oswald. He looked at me and he said, “But I have three dollars in my pocket. What do I do with it?”
“Well! I took the three dollars and told him everything woud be fine. And when the communists came around and examined my papers, everything was fine.
“When we got into Hong Kong, the one thing I really wanted was a milkshake. And so I went and got one.”
* * *
Though there will be many ways to remember Uncle Sam, I think this one is as good as any. Uncle Sam, in Hong Kong in 1951, after being tried and found guilty in a people’s trial in communist China, and being allowed to leave the country alive. His arriving in Hong Kong, and spending perhaps one dollar of the precious one hundred dollars that he had in his possession on a milkshake. I hope it was vanilla, and I hope it was the best milkshake of his life.