Setting aside 19th century Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (whose example is peerless) few in the world would have more right to claim “Been there, done that!” when at Death’s door than the author-adventurer Jack London (d. 1916) — and he only survived to be forty years of age. Let the record show also that Jack London was castaway on Jeju Island – although vicariously – in the person of Jack Strang, a crew member of the Sparwehr; a Dutch merchantman that sailed uncharted seas between Java and Japan in the mid-17th century until it came to grief in a stormy night time shipwreck shortly after departing Japan.
The doomed vessel, according to Strang, was half-owned by his shipmate Hendrik Hamel. Wait. Is this story beginning to sound very familiar? It should if you know anything about the history of Jeju Island’s intercourse with early Western travelers.
Jack London borrowed some detail from the real Hendrik Hamel’s classic account of his own 17th century Sparwehr shipwreck on Jeju Island when writing of his surrogate Adam Strang’s adventures there in The Jacket (1915). London had in fact himself skirted Jeju when as a journalist sent to cover the Russo-Japanese War. He sailed the straits between Busan and Inchon in 1904. He missed his chance to visit the Island at that time, but the literary vehicle of The Jacket, which in fact explores the topic of astral projection, eventually brought him back to The Blessed Isle.
Peace Corps Korea offered book lockers to its Volunteers to take to their sites, to ward off boredom. Although it is impossible to be bored on Jeju Island, it did rain a lot. Many a stormy night I hunkered down in my rented room and dug into the book locker. It was a gold mine, given my personal taste for fantasy, science fiction, geography and biography. I had Asimov, Vonnegut, a dozen or so National Geographic magazines, Ray Bradbury, and a Jack London reader. London and Bradbury seem to have been driven by the same muse; the quirky genius of anything goes.
Which brings me back to The Jacket. I don’t know why, but The Jacket was published in England with a different title: The Star Rover. I think that if Bradbury had written it, this is the title he would have preferred. Two of my Bradbury favorites are The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. There is an uncanny similarity between the London’s The Jacket and Bradbury’s Illustrated Man that bears on my own Jeju Island Peace Corps experience.
In The Illustrated Man a mysterious woman agrees to nurse an injured carnival worker back to health. She may be a witch from the future. While he is under her spell and unconscious she proceeds to cover his body with tattoos. She disappears. His tattoos turn out to be supernatural storybooks that “come alive” when anyone stares at them. Similarly, in The Jacket, the power of astral projection takes the protagonist, a prisoner confined to a punishing straightjacket, into storybook worlds. The prisoner becomes the shipwrecked sailor Adam Strang of the Sparwehr in one of these astral journeys.
My Peace Corps story from Jeju Island is a mash-up of the fugitive literary observations and interpretations I have made above. When I arrived on the island in February of 1973 I had scarce few personal possessions. I brought three jackets. One was a thin windbreaker. One was a heavy winter jacket. The third was a loose-fitting, four-pocket denim jacket, with a hemline that reached my fingertips. I got a lot of use out of that third jacket and discovered it was perfect for classroom teaching, though a mite informal in the eyes of the school principal. I am wearing it in Figure 2 in my previous essay. Note that it makes a large fabric canvas for creative embroidery.
What a magical transformation! This is how I become the Illustrated Peace Corps Man of Jeju Island: It was late in my second year of Peace Corps service. I would soon be leaving my post and returning to the United States. My students, all middle school girls, sent a contingent into the teachers’ room unexpectedly about two months prior to my departure date. They made this request: “Please let us borrow your blue jacket for a few weeks.” I agreed and gave it to one of them the next day. The next time I saw it was the week of my departure (So much time had passed I had been beginning to wonder if I would ever see it again).
But there it was, along with a hundred or so smiling faces. What a perfect going-away gift! Each student involved in the conspiracy had embroidered an iconic image of the Jeju Island cultural landscape, or the name of a landmark place, or their own names. Also included were my favorite food and drink items – and even a portrait of me!
Next week: The Illustrated Peace Corps Man (Part 1)