Figure 1: Kimchi (spicy, fermented Korean cabbage; the chief iconic and beloved Korean foodway.)

Figure 1: Kimchi (spicy, fermented Korean cabbage; the chief iconic and beloved Korean foodway.)

I was reaching for the Bacchus-D™ when last I wrote. If there ever was a miracle drug to cure hangovers then credit the Koreans way back when for inventing the Bacchus-D™ brand of hangover remedies. The stuff they sell today as an energy drink containing ethanol under the global Bacchus brand is weak p**s and laughable compared to the Bacchus-D™ jet fuel restorative that any Peace Corps Volunteer could purchase back in 1973 for just 700 won (a buck) by walking into any pharmacy (yakguk) or drug store (yakbang). Believe me, if you drank makgeolli and wrote poems till 4 a.m., in the morning and had to teach 50 middle schoolers wafting kimchi breath in your direction four hours later, then Bacchus-D™ was “the little bottle that could” sober you up.

But even at a buck a bottle it was almost a too-expensive necessity for a Volunteer subsiding on a paltry Peace Corps wage. So, when I hit Jeju Island in February of 1973 and began to search out all the best makgeolli huts, I also began my search for a “Fountain of Bacchus-D™,” a hidden fount from which the magic elixir flowed endlessly and at a rock bottom price. It took me a year, but to show you the sort of genius I was back in the day, I found a little pharmacy where I could get Bacchus-D™ for FREE! The tale of how I accomplished that epic feat begins a short time before I even thought about joining Peace Corps and venturing off to Korea, and thence to Jeju Island. That story begins in 1971, in El Monte, California, near Los Angeles.

Figure 2: The Tom Nicholas family and me (in the mustache), 1971.

Figure 2: The Tom Nicholas family and me (in the mustache), 1971.

Fresh out of college I was spending a lot of time working with a Gypsy (Romani) tinplater named O Toma le Georgesko (“Tom”) Nicholas. I met Tom in 1967 when I was looking to do a MA thesis topic on territorial behavior among Gypsy-Americans residing in Los Angeles. I discovered that most of the Gypsies in L.A. were secretive and self-employed in informal and underground (that is, illegal) economies. It was tough going to find a Gypsy who would even talk with much less confide in me.

Then I met Tom and his family and we fast became intimate friends. He had a mobile enterprise specializing in the hot-tinning of bakery bowls. It was dangerous work requiring skillful manhandling of a propane torch and muriatic acid. He also repaired kitchen equipment (pots and pans and such). He took me on as his apprentice/partner. We travelled widely throughout the American West and I learned the tricks of his trade. I willingly, totally, “drank the Gypsy Kool-Aid” and immersed myself in their lore and lifestyle. All my good Lutheran upbringing went out the window. Nearly every night was a party and there was no time to sleep. Gypsies burn the Candle of Life at both ends. I could hardly keep up with them. The average Gypsy in the United States in 1970 lived to be 48 years old. In other words, the Gypsy lifestyle was a death sentence.

I wasn’t living at home, but when my Dad first heard that I was working and living with Gypsies, and then saw me adopting their values and habits — and observed how quickly I was aging — he mightily disapproved. To try and smooth things over I once invited Tom’s family over to my Dad’s house for a birthday party, but it didn’t go well. Both my Dad and Tom were stressed from the outset. I knew Tom was uncomfortable being around non-Gypsies (he gave only me a pass; but that’s a long story for another time) because Tom grew up believing outsiders are unclean (impure). He and his wife Lodi lasted about an hour in Dad’s house among strangers before they became visibly ill and so rounded up their kids and drove off without eating dinner. They did take some birthday cake along at my Mom’s insistence, but probably trashed it on their way back to their Gypsy community in El Monte. After they left, my Dad spent the next two hours counting the spoons and candlesticks.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved my Dad. He was just old-fashioned and prejudiced when it came to Gypsies. He assumed they were all thieves. Dad also hated motorcycles. Most importantly, his custom was to do everything “the Army way.” That applied to raising his kids and making sure they made smart choices in life. So I should not have been surprised that when I finally made the tough decision to give up the Gypsy Life to join the Peace Corps, Dad did not respond with a big “Hooray!”  No: his reaction to my joining the Peace Corps was that it was even a worse decision than spending my life among Gypsies. Dad almost begged me: “Why can’t you just go back to college, study math this time, become an engineer, then settle down and raise a family?” Too late: I had made up my mind; I was off to Korea.

Figure 3: My Dad and the “spite Harley”, 1973.

Figure 3: My Dad and the “spite Harley”, 1973.

Dad got his revenge a year or so later. I was by then a Peace Corps Volunteer living an adventurous life on Jeju Island. Out of the blue I received a letter from Dad. This was very surprising since my Mom usually wrote letters to me from home and her letters indirectly included any “regards” from Dad. This letter he had sent himself. “Somebody must have died!” was my first thought. But no: inside the letter was a photograph and a brief message: “Guess what, Volunteer? I won a Harley Davidson in a contest. It’s black and loud and has a lot of chrome. See the photo. The Harley shop that runs the contest says I can take it home — or take a cash substitute. What should I do? Love, Your Father.” Dad was a big tease from the get-go. He knew I had always wanted a Harley Davidson and how he so despised them. Alas! I knew he had already taken the cash. I called it “Dad’s spite Harley.” Years later Dad and I would laugh about it, but at the time I could have killed him.

Instead, I spent a long night drinking makgeolli downtown, at a joint near the Sanjicheon Stream footbridge. One morning a month or so later I stumbled into an unfamiliar pharmacy and there discovered my “Fountain of Bacchus-D™”– and a lot more!

Figure 4. The future Mrs. David Nemeth in her pharmacy smock, 1974.

Figure 4. The future Mrs. David Nemeth in her pharmacy smock, 1974.

I couldn’t wait to write home and tell Dad.

Next Week: You Can Return But You Can’t Go Back (Part 2).

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