SOUTH SIOUX CITY | It doesn't take long for a talk with Gerald Muilenburg to swing around to vegetables.
Sure, he's got stories about serving in the Korean War, but he likes to tell stories about raising the thousands of tomatoes, potatoes, onions and other vegetables that he sold for years at roadside stands in South Sioux City.
"I sold them across the street from Hy-Vee for many years," he said.
He raised and sold chickens, turkeys and ducks, too. He also boarded horses and raised miniature horses.
He'd still be doing it, too, if it hadn't been for a visit to the doctor's office two years ago at age 84. The doctor apparently didn't approve of a man Muilenburg's age spending long hours working in a truck garden, then sitting at a produce stand.
"The doctor said that's enough," Muilenburg said, laughing and shaking his head in disbelief.
His service in Korea also comes with humorous explanations. After growing up in Sibley, Iowa, and graduating from high school in 1948, Muilenburg received a business administration degree from Central College in Pella, Iowa in 1952. Following college, Muilenburg received what he jokingly referred to as his "letter of congratulations," or his Army draft notice.
"I contemplated just enlisting in the Air Force. I decided I'd just let things go the way they're supposed to," he said.
After completing basic training, Muilenburg declined an invitation to attend Officer Candidate School. His reason, he said with a grin, was that he didn't want to spend a day more in the Army than was necessary.
Seven days later he was on his way to Korea, where he arrived in March or April 1953 and was assigned to the 5th Regimental Combat Team.
"They issued us a rifle and live ammunition at Pusan, then put us on a train to Seoul. I didn't know where we were going."
Muilenburg was sent to regimental headquarters in the Cheorwon Valley. His first night there, he was assigned to walk guard duty. Being just on the other side of a hill from the front lines, Muilenburg said he wasn't going to be ambushed by enemy troops.
"All I could think about, because I'd seen it in movies from World War II, was where guys sneak up behind guards and slit their throats," he said.
So Muilenburg walked with his gun held high, the bayonet pressed against his nose to protect his neck from a sneak attack.
"I'm surprised I still don't have an impression from (my bayonet)," a laughing Muilenburg said. "No one was going to slit my throat."
No one got a chance. The following day, Muilenburg received notice that he was being sent home because of a family emergency. It wasn't until he got back to Seattle that he found his father was seriously ill. Muilenburg was home for 30 days, during which time his father's condition improved. Muilenburg was sent back to Korea, arriving on July 27, the day of the cease-fire agreement that ended fighting.
Muilenburg ran a Post Exchange, or PX, a general store for the soldiers. Still wary of possible enemy attacks, Muilenburg now also had to keep an eye out for soldiers aiming to steal supplies, specifically beer.
"The war was over, but still, we had barbed wire around the store and a walking guard," Muilenburg said, chuckling at the memory of needing to guard against fellow American soldiers.
Muilenburg was sent home in December that year and arrived in Sibley on Christmas.
"Three days later I was driving a truck for dad's propane business," he said.
Muilenburg ran Bernie's Gas Co. in Sibley until 1967, then started ABLE Construction in South Sioux City and operated it until 1980, when he moved to Houston and worked as the general manager for a development company.
He returned to South Sioux City in 1991, when he started his truck garden.
He has since sold that land and his farm equipment and bought an acreage with his wife, Lee Ann. There's still a garden in the back yard.
There's still laughter, too, when Muilenburg talks about Korea, though he gets serious when thinking of those who had to hunker down in bunkers along the front lines.
"I didn't have it near as bad as some guys did," he said.