For the entire 52-week account of Dr. Nemeth’s time on Jeju Island as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s, you can download his new e-book free of charge. JejuWorldWide would like to thank Dr. Nemeth again for his generous contribution. — Ed.
A good portion of my youth was spent on sandy beaches in Southern California. Perhaps that is why I felt so at home during my Peace Corps days on Jeju Island. Hwasun Beach, for example, reminded me a lot of Zuma Beach, north of Malibu, where mesmerizing and spectacularly-carved clear-water breakers pounded the white sands day in and day out.
In a previous column I made mention of “Arnold” the Aussie strongman, champion from Hallim Town, and shared one of his legendary exploits. “Arnold” reminded me of bodybuilders and weightlifters that had caught my attention and earned my respect ever since I was a child at play at the original Muscle Beach, located south and adjacent to the gnarly Santa Monica pier.
I grew up there amidst the cigarette butts and sand admiring the aesthetic of musclemen and acrobatic daredevils close at hand. The bravest would sail on the swinging rings 30 feet above the sand then dramatically dismount in triple-flips with twists. Some were professional stunt men. I also reveled in their macho representations as pulp fiction superheroes in the funny books and on the silver screen. Charles Atlas ads, for example, were in all the DC and Marvel comics to which I was addicted in my childhood.
Many of the athletes and show-offs at Muscle Beach worked for peanuts as extras in Hollywood movies and bunked in the “Muscle House,” an inexpensive rooming house for “health fanatics” just across the boardwalk from Muscle Beach. At an early age I willed myself into believing that I might grow up to become one of them. By the time I reached their age Muscle Beach had been moved from Santa Monica Pier to Venice Beach, near the original Gold’s Gym. By that time the Muscle House had changed owners and abandoned its romantic raison d’etre.
I would often walk the hardscrabble shoreline in Jeju City back in 1973-1974 recalling such childhood memories. And now at an advanced age I am here writing my recollections of Jeju City! How odd.
Although I moved inland from Santa Monica while still young, I did succeed in becoming a body-building weightlifter during high school and have continued pumping iron since for the best part of 50 years. While this particular essay is grounded firmly in my Jeju Island Peace Corps experiences, a bit more background context helps set the stage.
I caught the body-building bug in high school from a big kid named Larry (wait for it!) Stonebreaker. He was huge, and he rode a black British BSA motorcycle. Around the schoolyard he often wore his older brother’s gaudy size-3X silk reversible military tour jacket with dragons and tigers and “KOREA” embroidered on the back.
Larry looked and acted every inch his name. No stone was safe. Our school was full of stock characters straight out of the movie “Grease” (which was in fact filmed in part right across the street from my high school). There was a plethora of toughs among my fellow students, but Larry was the toughest. The year was 1958. The tune “So Tough” by the Cufflinks was at the top of the hit parade. Tough attitude was everything and you would encounter it everywhere: in school, at the Big Boy drive-in restaurant, at the drive-in theater. Everywhere. Looking back, it seems every high school boy with attitude carried a switchblade knife. Stonebreaker alone in my high school “didn’t need no stinking switchblade” He could melt one down with one stare — or so it seemed to me at the time.
Larry hung around with a stocky little guy named Toby. They were tight and inseparable like Steinbeck’s George and Lenny. Mainly, they were muscular and lifted weights — and I wanted to be just like them — and also to wear a jacket just like Larry’s that featured on the back in big letters some unknown far-away land named “KOREA”.
I looked up “Korea” in a geography book in the high school library and acquired a notion to visit that place one day. The book said Korea was shaped like a rabbit and the map verified it was so. I saw the rabbit ears pointing north and the business end pointing south. Also, there appeared to be a sizeable piece cottontail about 80 or so kilometers off the south coast of the Korean peninsula that was named “Quelpart” on the map in the book. I asked around at school about that: “Where’s Quelpart?” asked my teachers; I also asked the librarian; I asked my dad, who was worldly. Nobody had ever heard of it.
Next: We head to Quelpart.