About this time every year, on cusp of Fall turning into Winter, and after Daylight Savings has kicked in, I often wake up in the dark singing a little ditty that my Dad memorized in the Army and then never quit singing for the rest of his life. The song is titled “$21 a Day – Once a month.”

The lyrics begin:

“They wake you up at 5 o’clock in the morning

For 21 dollars a day, once a month …”

But when my Dad sang it, it went this way, and loud:

“OH, they wake …  you up… at FIVE O’CLOCK in the MOOOOOOOOOOOOOR-NING,

For TWENTY-ONE DOLLARZ ZADAY ONCE A MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON-TH …”

And that was it. He only knew the first two stanzas. I asked him a long time ago: “Where did you learn that song, Dad? He said “I learned it in the Army…” and then paused, and then continued … “from a WOODpecker!” I didn’t know what that meant. It was an Army insider’s joke, I guess. But, I gathered that he must have sung this song a lot, and probably in the company of his war buddies, his comrades. So when I ran across the following photo recently of my Dad crooning with his pals somewhere in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific during World War 2, guess what lyrics boomed inside my head?

That’s right! “TWENTY-ONE DOLLARZ ZADAY ONCE A MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON-TH …”

Figure 1: Wartime camaraderie: My Dad (hat in hand) clowning around with other low-paid Army pals on some war-torn Pacific Island. Thanks to John Dorough for this photo.

Figure 1: Wartime camaraderie: My Dad (hat in hand) clowning around with other low-paid Army pals on some war-torn Pacific Island. Thanks to John Dorough for this photo.

 

If I live to be a hundred, there are some words I will never succeed to spell correctly, no matter how hard I try. One is “camaraderie.” This photo sums it up its meaning to me: a mutual trust and friendship earned through some sort of fraternal bonding; a shared rite of passage, or a trial by fire — like in war. Some say men have it and women don’t. However, I am certain that I have observed camaraderie among the Jeju Island haenyeo (diving women). Camaraderie must be profound and complex. Perhaps undefinable (and damn hard at least for me to spell!).

The Peace Corps Volunteers serving on Jeju Island during my experience there had an odd sort of camaraderie. But let me say first that adjusting for inflation the average down-country PCV serving in Korea during 1973-1974 may have made less than $21 dollars a day once a month. Of course I wasn’t getting paid to duck incoming sniper fire. And don’t forget that the priests and nuns over in Hallim Town on Jeju worked for free! And they had to wrestle with the Devil day in and day out.

Anyway, getting back to the topic of camaraderie among Peace Corps Volunteers on Jeju Island,  it was a rare occasion that brought island Volunteers together when I served on the island. And even when they came together they each seemed to be “elsewhere”; that is, lost in their own contemplations:

Figure 2: A rare convergence of the low-paid Jeju Island Peace Corps Volunteer flock in 1974. Strange birds, each more likely than not lost in his own thoughts.

Figure 2: A rare convergence of the low-paid Jeju Island Peace Corps Volunteer flock in 1974. Strange birds, each more likely than not lost in his own thoughts.

 

The Jeju Island Volunteer experience back in the day gave each of us a lot — sometimes too much — to contemplate. For example, in the above photo, that is me in the center, gazing out the window. I believe we are in a bakery shop that was once located at the foot of the steep hill that climbs from Old Jeju City up to and past the site of the KAL Hotel. If so, from where I am sitting I could view the street and sidewalks clearly through the plate glass windows.

One weekend morning in December or January I was bundled up and sitting in that bakery looking out that same window and saw a dirty, old Jeju pony hauling an overloaded cart filled with black yeontan (charcoal) cylinders in the middle of the street and headed up the steep incline. The pony was advancing at a painfully slow rate. The frigid winds were beginning to blow sleet outside. Buses and taxis headed uphill were increasingly honking their horns and attempting to pass the poor animal. Their big wheels were spinning to gain traction as they attempted to accelerate. Passing the pony at close quarters they spattered the beast with ice shards and slush. Downhill-bound wheeled traffic had all but ceased to roll due to the treacherous ice on the road surface. These vehicles just slid into the curb at odd angles to wait out the storm. It was a dangerous situation. I hesitated to get involved in the plight of the pony, and events were moving fast.

Those few pedestrians on the sidewalks had nearly all paused to observe the predicament of the yeontan deliveryman, who was now growing frantic in his attempt to keep the pony moving. He was yelling and running about, alternatively pushing the cart and then rushing to the fore where he would roughly yank about on the old pony’s chest halter. I could see the pony had commenced to shiver then shudder violently as it continued to strain forward without much success.

Then it simply ceased trying and gave up the ghost. I had waited too long to lend a hand. First its front hooves began to skid and slide about on the rapidly freezing pavement. Then suddenly it fell to its knees. The deliveryman quickly grabbed a wheel chock that dangled from the cart’s side and positioned it flush against the downhill side of the cart wheel. No sooner had he done so than the pony keeled over on its side, head last, and then lay motionless there. The sweat on its hide began to freeze white under a thickening blanket of wind-borne sleet.

At that point, the pedestrians who had paused to watch resumed trekking up and down the sidewalks. A policeman on foot casually walked into the slippery street to begin directing traffic around the stalled cart. The deliveryman meanwhile was beside himself with frustration and perhaps grief. He wailed, mouth agape, while attempting to lift up the dead pony’s head. I was stunned by the scene and sick at heart. Could I have helped avert the tragedy? My stomach churned and I left my table to go into the restroom. When I returned to pay my bill I could not but look again out the window and onto the street. Sleet pushed by the wind was sailing nearly horizontal outside. Amazingly, the policeman, the overladen cart, the deliveryman and the fallen pony were gone. Had I been in the john that long? It was as if the sad event I witnessed had never even occurred.

I have heard that island peoples, due to their unique geographic environments, have more in common with each other around the world than they do with peoples bred and raised in continental or peninsular habitats. Perhaps this observation was truer in past times than it is in present times. Personally, as a continental person, living on Jeju Island was in many ways a steep learning curve. You can disagree with me about the uniqueness of small islands and their peoples, and cite specifics, but consider first the extent to which the following two metaphorical saws reveal — each from the kernel of wisdom within its own nutshell — the essence of small islands and their inhabitants:

“A small cup soon overflows.”

“A small pot boils quickly.”

To what extent do these pithy sayings about small islands and their inhabitants apply to the example of Jeju Island and its indigenous peoples? I’d say they apply to a great extent, and I think myriad pertinent examples may come to mind if Jeju World Wide readers pause to contemplate these sayings long enough.

Those JWW readers who are teaching English to islanders of all ages might treat these adages as hypotheses to motivate some critical thinking and writing exercises among their students. Or, perhaps the students can discuss the meaning of these two adages and then afterwards bring photographs, graphs, art works illustrations, and so on as illustrations that validate the hypothetical truth claims, and this might lead to further discussion. For example: I use them as captions for the two illustrations below:

Figure 3: “A small cup soon overflows.” Photo: Yonhap

Figure 3: “A small cup soon overflows.” Photo: Yonhap

 

Figure 4: “A small pot boils quickly.” Artwork by Nam Gung-hyung.

Figure 4: “A small pot boils quickly.” “Shinmyung” by Nam Gung-hyung.

 

 

Next Week: Artificial Islands

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