“Skidoo” as in “Let’s skidoo!” was a popular American slang term during Prohibition in America. In those days, if you and your gal frequented speakeasies it meant “Let’s get out of here while the getting’s good”: that is; after a few drinks but before the cops arrive.
Fifty-two weeks ago I got lucky when Jeju World Wide Managing Editor Todd Thacker published an essay I wrote about my arrival by airplane to Jeju Island as a Peace Corps Volunteer in February of 1973. He asked to see more short manuscripts in the same nostalgic vein and this encouragement propelled me into a productive writing mood. Once I pried open that old crate of Peace Corps memories, so much direct and tangential material spewed forth there was no shutting the lid on it – till now.
“Fifty-two-weeks-and-out” seems about right for finally wrapping up my year-long Peace Corps memories column. I’ve been noticing as I dig down into its depths that lot of the stuff still in the old memory crate is highly radioactive and must never see the light of day, and will not – if can just stop writing now. And so I shall end the series with this column. I can almost hear a collective sigh of relief from those many Peace Corps Volunteers, Jeju islanders, family members and friends who out of pure luck have escaped being featured in one or more of my rambling essays during this past year. All considered, and no holds barred, I suppose I could have written “ten thousand essays” (a lot) related to my Peace Corps Volunteer experiences in Korea. Yet sometimes loss of memory is a good thing.
I sat down last week and figured this out: If the first half of my life was photographed in Super-8, with different movie segments from my birth to the present day each directed by a different big-name director, then Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”) is the director who took full charge of my Peace Corps Volunteer service experience on Jeju Island. My experience was very much that magical and adventurous under his direction. I met a good share of champions, fair maidens, spiders and trolls in that mystic place.
Who then, I asked myself, directed my early childhood and youth through high school years? That would be Alfred Hitchcock (“Notorious”), because my first few decades on Earth were very film noir. The star of that movie was not me but my mother, a femme fatale who at the time she married my dad could strike up an oneiric pose at the drop of a hat:
Suffice it to say that after first laying eyes on my Mom in college my Dad never had a chance: He was the football hero; She, the homecoming queen. He was putty in her hands. This movie was pure Hitchcock. Since I was the first-born son and the darling of her eye, I pretty much lived this Life-of-Riley-as-directed-by-Hitchcock until I began to meander away from the nest.
My meandering away from home began my life-as-directed-by-John Ford (“The Searchers”) decade. In this episode I was part adventurous man of the West and part suburban drifter, meanwhile traveling in exotic company – but mainly going nowhere (as described in #40, Oct. 1).
When I discovered the Peace Corps option as a potentially life-changing and viable opportunity in 1972, that’s when Peter Jackson stepped in to direct the next few years of my life as-a-movie. This was when my Dad according to the script roared “Peace Corps? No way!” and my Mom straightaway vamporized him with her dream dust till he changed his mind. To nobody’s surprise in the Nemeth clan, Mom at middle age still had the old magic!
Two mighty forces then combined to shape the trajectory of my life as I parted ways with Peace Corps Korea and returned to America in December of 1974. To say that marriage gave my life story a powerful boost and a trajectory would be an understatement. On leaving Peace Corps as a married man I had achieved the confidence, momentum and motivation to direct the rest of my own life story. And so I launched my career in higher education.
My wife and partner for this final episode had the right stuff. She inspired me to seek to earn a Ph.D. at UCLA. My dissertation topic focused on the shaping of the traditional Jeju Island agricultural landscape under Neo-Confucian influence. The upshot of my long road to a higher education is that, for better and for worse, I came to intellectually fetishize the Jeju landscape as an example of “enlightened underdevelopment.” I idealized traditional Jeju Island its Korean Neo-Confucian context as a “sincere” landscape populated by a “virtuous” people in search of “propriety.” The theories and practices I deployed in support of my arguments have been varied and provocative over the years, resulting in mixed responses. I plan to passionately persevere with this project as long as time permits.
I grew into my role as successful and satisfied university professor mainly because Hae Sook, my wife, has been an adept and artistic companion during our 40 years together. She is romantic, a trusted friend, and as a Korean born and bred she has always believed in my life’s work. Hae Sook has been consistently supportive of my “enlightened underdevelopment” concept and project. She even moved to Tennessee for her Ph.D. program in order to advance our research collaboration, but postponed those plans and rejoined me in Toledo when I became seriously ill. I regret that on my account she could not continue on with her higher education.
We have returned to Jeju on many occasions during the past four decades, sometimes for long research and teaching sojourns at Jeju National University. This past October, we visited once again (see JWW #41, Oct. 8).
At the time of our visit the Jeju provincial government tourism planners were enthusiastically projecting the arrival of 13 million tourists a year to Jeju by 2020. Frankly, any strategic tourism plan that invites such a crush of humanity to tread on what little remains of the original unique and fragile Jeju Island ecosystem seems an unsustainable and unconscionable plan
Before I skedaddle there are two loose ends I need to tie up in this final essay. First, I promised to announce the winner of the “Mystery Island” contest (see JWW #42, Oct. 15). Mr. Rich Pretti was the big prize winner, having been first among JWW readers to correctly identify Aoba (Ambae; Leper’s Island) in Republic of Vanuatu as Jeju Island’s “mysterious” fraternal twin. I have since learned that the Vanuatu national anthem is named “Yumi, Yumi, Yumi” (no joke) and so, for reasons of self-preservation, I have decided to scratch a planned visit to Aoba from my bucket list.
I also promised to publish here my latest updated list of the names of Peace Corps Korea Volunteers who served on Jeju Island between 1966 and 1981:
Finally, there is one panel embroidered into my denim jacket by my Jeju Island middle school girl students in 1974 as a goodbye gift that appropriately sums up my Peace Corps Volunteer experience there during 1973 and 1974:
Time to skidoo!