Squid Pancakes, Mushu, and Baby Dragons

I wish I’d gotten a pic of the most absolutely bizarre traffic jam of my life but I failed to do so because, you know, I was driving and laughing and examining rice close up. If driving a rattling, noisy, $400 dollar, 20-year-old Kia down a pitted dirt road in the middle of a random rice paddy near the Yellow Sea (Or West Sea if talking to Koreans. It’s a point of some contention) wasn’t odd enough for a pair of brothers from Alabama, we found ourselves starving and stuck behind an ancient Korean woman on a Rascal type mobility device. Running ahead of us at about two miles per hour, she sat hunched forward in her seat as if willing the scooter to greater speed. It’s an experience I can honestly say I have never had before. I like those.

We eventually got where we were going and took care of the first order of business. Lunch. A second encounter with ancient Korean ladies this day saw us tricked us into eating a squid pancake and fermented radishes. It’s actually much better than it sounds. I promise. I do think the two old women were in cahoots though and they thought to punish us for scooter tailgating. Then again, it could have been due to lack of mastery where the Korean vocabulary is concerned.


We then went to see the shrine of my Korean military hero, Admiral Yi Sun Shin. The man led an epic life that would rival any modern fictional work of political intrigue, martial prowess, and heroic struggle.



On reaching the top step of the shrine we noted a bowl of burning incense at the center and an attendant just off to the right. I would have loved to see what noise it made when struck, but hesitated upon seeing the attendant. The Brain wanted to take a pic, and taking a different approach to the preferred forgiveness-is-easier-than-permission tactic, decided to ask first. He then complicated matters by asking her if she spoke English. She answered with several bewildered and frightened looking blinks as if she was being addressed by frost giants. With him at nearly 6’7” and her at about 5’ flat, I could kind of see where this might have been a fear display. He then held up his phone and showed her his intent. She smiled from her new place on the ground (a reaction to his quick draw I think) and sighed with relief at not being offered the place of honor as his dinner. She gave us the go ahead and lots of little bows at the waist. On leaving I explained to my brother that I understood Koreans often have great trouble stating an outright “no” and that her blinks were a sign of her trying to mentally work out how she was going to say no without saying no. Then again, they could have been code blinks for help. I don’t claim to know how Korean distress signals work. It’s all just speculation at this point.


The we found Eddie Murphy!

Eddie Murphy

On the way to Admiral Yi’s ancestral home (about a block away) we pondered deep philosophical considerations such as how far away from a shrine could one place their grave and still hear the prayers offered at said shrine. His actual grave is like nine kilometers away from his shrine for some reason. If anybody wants to build me a shrine, please do so on top of my grave. My hearing isn’t what it used to be. Plus, I don’t know how this works either.


Complete with authentic 16th century track lighting in the master bedroom.


Beside the old home there stood a brick chimney for the fire that was used to pump heat under all the floors of the home. The Brain took the time to explain his vast knowledge of ancient Korean masonry practices and techniques. Knowing that masonry isn’t exactly cool, he tried to tell our father that he was admiring the fact that the well was close to the house instead of in the village center like Europeans wells, or in the next county over like African wells. Nice try, Brain. Here is the evidence of your fondness for brick and mortar work. I redacted his face because he’s a little funny about his image circulating on the interwebs.


As a fan of living history and mechanical apparatuses (apperati?), I was intrigued by the fact that the entire front of the house has these little folding door/windows. The cool part is that each pair are hinged vertically with one of each pair being hinged horizontally so that they could be opened and then swung upward to latch to the house’s eaves. I wanted to see these function as designed, but the Brain employed his highly evolved sense of impending disaster to divine (It’s like magic, really) my intent and reminded me of the temple incident and that this was somehow tantamount to me washing my hands on Buddha’s face. That’s a different blog post in my July archives if you’re interested. After reminding him that forgiveness is definitely easier to ask for than permission when you’re in a foreign land, he threatened to tell my wife and stated that if I thought after 20 years of marriage that my wife couldn’t reach across 4,000 miles and jerk my butt back in line, I was basically Forrest Gump.

Hinges!!! Towards the end of our tour we crossed a bridge and these gigantic Asian dragon hatchlings made a mass under the bridge that one could walk on. The Brain again reminded me of the temple incident and my wife’s great reach so we opted to just feed them instead of hike on them. There are these little vending machines that will sell you like a pound of fish food for less than fifty cents so I got a paper bucket full. To my delight, the fish began stacking on top of one another in a pyramid-like formation to get to the food first. It looked exactly like the zombies in World War Z climbing the walls in Israel. Except that they were baby dragons. And the baby dragons were just koi and carp. So nothing like World War Z. Way to kill the mood, Brain.


I may have mentioned this in other posts, but there are practically zero trash cans in this country. There are also healthy fines for littering so I walk around with pockets bulging with empty bottles, coffee cups, and various scraps of paper and/or food wrappers. Basically like a really tall self-propelled dumpster that got lost on its way to the landfill and just keeps picking up more trash. The Brain had a better plan. A pair of Korean grandparents approached with their grandchildren and were as amazed as I at the baby dragons. So the Brain took my bucket of dragon kibble and offered it to the kids. He then bade me walk with him. Absolutely brilliant. My trash became pocket adornment for someone else in what was cleverly disguised as a random act of kindness.

I didn’t get a pic of the plaques posted near the exit. Apparently they were special in that only “filial sons and virtuous wives” were ever awarded these things. There were five. The only five I’ve ever seen. In a country with something like five thousand years of history, this comes out to only one filial son or virtuous wife every millennium. Way to set an impossible standard Korea. I still love you.


Death and Dirty Hands

While speaking with the Brain recently, he reminded me of a time in which I very nearly died because of his aversion to red clay. He didn’t initially go into detail about it and just referred to it as “The Dirty Hands Incident”. Seeing as how my entire childhood is rife with incidences of both literal and figurative dirty hands, I had to ask that he refresh my memory. Then it all came back to me in a flood of memory filled with innocence lost following a scene I am pretty sure was observed by Disney and replicated when Scar let go of Mufasa, except that the herd animals at the bottom of the ravine were already dead and there was really only one instead of a herd. Also, he momentarily refused to take my hand rather than let go so I could fall to my demise. So maybe it was nothing like The Lion King incident except that there was a ravine and two brothers.

The Brain and I stalked these woods with a small arsenal of BB guns, shooting at anything that sat still long enough. The Daisy Red Rider was my primary weapon, but I also sported a CO2 powered sidearm made to look like a Luger. Its barrel had a distinct bend to the left which made it great for shooting around a tree I suppose, but it was as inaccurate as a Red Rider. It was great though for shock and awe campaigns designed to impress my Lugerless contemporaries. None of this has any bearing on the story except that I just wanted you to know that nothing was in any real danger of the mild bruising our weaponry could produce IF we were actually able to hit a target.

*Just as an aside to any young people out there wishing to explore while armed with BB guns. If the muzzle velocity is so low that you can watch the BB as it arches in the general vicinity of that at which you are aiming, do NOT shoot at a coiled viper. Also, why are you sitting here reading this? Go get a BB gun and get into the woods. Avoid snakes.

Our inquisitive natures led us to explore a ravine we’d stumbled upon during one of our explorations. There was a cool stream of crystal clear spring water ran at the bottom of this small canyon strewn with boulders and lumps of Alabama red clay.  We began at its shallowest point on higher ground and worked our way deeper into the abyss. As we reached the end of our long trek, the walls seemed twice as tall as the ancient pine and oak that clung precariously to the edges. These old growth trees were huge and blotted out the sun where they arched over the expansive void between the cliffs. At the end of the canyon we met a rain swollen, silt blackened river and no outlet other than the way we’d come. A great buck had apparently tried to leap from one cliff to the other. He’d failed and plummeted to his death, dashed on the water smoothed boulders below. At first glance we could see through the scraps of remaining skin that his fall left him with no single unbroken bone. It was truly impressive. Despite our fascinating discovery, the sun would be setting soon and we required sustenance. Rather than trek back up the way we had come, we opted for a climbing adventure. The short cut was not simply a matter of expedience however. At some point we became convinced of a possibility that was of no concern on our way down. The thought of a flash flood striking suddenly out of the clear blue sky imbued us with superhuman speed and primate-like climbing abilities. In short order, we had scaled the vertical face on the southern wall of the ravine. It could have actually been a side affiliated with any one of the cardinal directions since I was pretty terrible at telling directions, but in an arbitrary proclamation I deemed it the southern cliff. The Brain went up first and I followed closely in the hopes that I could save him should he fall. Knowing his proclivity for maximizing every opportunity to gain new stitches, it was just the right thing to do. He skittered over the lip unscathed and looked down at me with a blank look on his face. This is it, I thought. Today is they day he deposes me as the heir apparent. I also marveled for a second at the realization that he was still clean. Loose dirt and scree began to give way under the crushing bulk of my 110-pound frame. I handed up my trusty Daisy Red Rider then reached out my dirty and now bleeding hand.

“Brother,” I pleaded. “Take my hand. Pull me up”.

He looked at my hand, his visage blank and calculating.

“Your hand is dirty,” he stated in a flat, mechanical tone.

I held myself in place by the crook of my left arm around a rapidly loosening root while he poured the contents of a canteen into my hands for cleaning. Then and only then would he save me from the same fate as the once proud buck lying dashed hundreds of feet below.

Despite the fact that it was I that had a brush with death, it seems that the Brain suffers some misplaced trauma and to this day has something just shy of a phobia regarding red clay. I’m pretty sure it’s his way of coping with an uncomfortable affection for an older brother he nearly killed. Me? I just have a fear of asking people for help because they might dump their backwashed water on me. Shudder

The JX-1

Being the sons of an Army aviator, my brothers and I aspired on occasion to becoming unstuck from the earth like our father did. Obviously not just like he did. He was a helicopter pilot and we simply didn’t have the technological prowess to recreate a rotary wing aircraft out of scrap lumber and pilfered bicycle parts. Something along the lines of a glider would have to suffice. After days of scrounging wood scraps and pulling any exposed nails from any available source, we began construction of the JX-1 Albatross. In case you aren’t familiar with the naming conventions of experimental aircraft designed by grade schoolers, JX-1 meant that this was the first iteration of the (J)ohns e(X)perimental glider. I chose the moniker “Albatross” since it was a glider and we hoped to stay aloft for extended periods of time much like the plane’s namesake. Also like the plane’s namesake, we really didn’t expect much in the way of graceful landings.

Construction of this type begins with the straightening of nails which is typically achieved by placing them on concrete and smashing the fingers holding them repeatedly with a rock since your father got sick of things coming apart due to missing nails and hid the hammer from you. With each new mangling of a finger I found myself flailing about on the rough concrete patio. My curly hair would stick to it like Velcro. My t-shirt did much the same and became a mess of little cotton pills, pulled threads, and runs. I’d wipe tears with little bloody hands and prep the next nail for rendering it into aviation quality material. It was a true test of my resolve, but I would not be deterred.

Have you ever tried to tackle a wood working project with little more than a rock? It is challenging to say the least. I know that my father was trying to instill a sense of independence and self-reliance by keeping his power tools from me, but fifth graders rarely understand paternal motives and it seemed to me that my father didn’t share well and was overly cranky when he flew nights and I used power tools near his bedroom window during the day. Honestly, I wouldn’t have trusted me with them either. I am talking about the kid who couldn’t operate a roll of duct tape without losing a tooth that wasn’t even loose. In retrospect, I really did bleed a lot as a kid. Aaaaaaaand I’ve gotten off topic again.

Without the use of a saw my middle brother and I were able to cobble together something that vaguely resembled an aircraft if you really used your imagination. It was experimental after all. It was based on a giant triangularly shaped piece of plywood we liked to tell ourselves was a delta wing configuration. I pulled it out of one of those large dumpsters used at construction sites to cordon off large quantities of tetanus. I didn’t learn this was the true purpose of these bins until I limped home dragging my prize and having to explain to my mother that it was ok because I pulled the nail out and I wouldn’t even have to straighten this one. I brandished my rusty prize and she took me for my third or fourth tetanus shot. Who knew that these things were a series? I didn’t. I’m on like the tenth one in the series.

Upon this delta wing foundation, we mounted the cockpit. It was an old ammo crate I’d pilfered through a hole in the chain link fence of the ammo dump when we lived in Panama. I was enamored of it for some reason, but for the sake of technological advancement, we removed the lid and voila! a place for the pilot to sit once it was nailed to the wing. The lid became a vertical stabilizer that wasn’t quite vertical nor stabilizing, but this was just a prototype, so it was fine. I can’t tell you where the bicycle tires came from, but we had two of them for rear landing gear and a wagon’s front axle for the nose of our plane.

There were no controls in the cockpit. I guess that in my thought processes we would just test it at this stage and gently land a few feet away after a brief and triumphant glide. I envisioned it like the flight of Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose, but unlike Mr. Hughes, we would take the Albatross on more than one flight. There were just a few more blocks to check before we made history.

For one, we did understand that planes needed lift and thrust to make things work. While we didn’t have thrust, lift seemed an easy enough thing to attain. The massive hill leading down to our house would have been optimal, but I’d been all but banished from it by neighbors pursuant to bicycle and go-cart incidents. Really people. It’s a road, not a parking lot for your new cars. We did have a nicely sloped roof though and I enlisted the aid of The Brain (my middle brother) and Twinkle Toes (the tip-toe everywhere he goes little brother) as porters to move the Albatross from now pock-marked and blood stained construction site to the Cusp of Glory (as I called my newly christened runway. They held our creation there as I silently (no need to wake dad until we had proved air worthiness) climbed down to secure a retaining rope to a large stake driven into the back yard.

To my immense sadness, I would not be the test pilot. My hands were so badly mauled that they were only fit to cut the bonds that held our creation to the earth and I was still limping from my recent discovery that my right foot is really awesome at finding things like nails. The Brain declined the honor with the simple statement “I’m not getting in that thing”. He’s quite intelligent, but has a hard time expressing his thoughts in a non-hurtful manner especially when he’s getting emotional. I understood fully as I too was flushed under the onslaught of excitement and emotion so intense it threatened tears. So I bestowed the honorific title of Ground Crew upon him. Twinkle Toes tried to decline the place of honor as well but acquiesced when we politely insisted. At the time I didn’t understand why he did so with a fearful look at my right hip.

That look became clear once I’d taken my position by the stake to which the Albatross was tethered. I drew my machete from its scabbard and raised it above my head, reveling in the moment. The Brain had vanished altogether. I assumed he was in the front yard so that he might witness our creation take flight. I stood majestically like some Greco-Roman hero poised to strike the head off a dragon. I held the chrome plated decorative machete over my head and watched as a single ray of sunlight broke through the clouds and glinted off its surface. Before I could bring my blade down in its intended arch, my father emerged from the back door of the house with sleepy eyes squinting against the reflected sun light off my blade. There was an audible ping as my machete glanced off of trees in the woods behind the house. I figured that if he couldn’t find it he couldn’t take it away and I was sure he was blind at the moment and couldn’t see where it went or if I even had it.

I was made to free Twinkle Toes from his place of honor before I could lower my masterpiece back to the ground. The JX-1 was subsequently dismantled and Project Albatross was shut down in its entirety. As the project manager, I was placed on indefinite administrative leave through an all too familiar term uttered by he who would remain the only aviator under our roof: “You’re grounded”.

(Image is dad in the cockpit, Germany, 1988)