LET ME FEEL YOUR PEPPER
Today, as an adult looking back at my younger self during early childhood in Korea, I find it interesting to recall how I dealt with my perceptions and feelings about my experiences having to do with nudity and sexuality.
My father often took our family to Song-Do Beach in the summertime to swim and picnic. We often rented a small boat and its owner would row us out away from shore so that we could swim off the side of the boat in cleaner waters. Waste disposal in the city surrounding this beach consisted of an open sewer system that all drained from the surrounding hillside houses and buildings directly into the ocean below.
Sometimes, without my parents, my brother Sterling and I would take a bus to the beach with a few of our neighborhood Korean friends. We would play in the sand and swim in the water with all the other kids. We would swim out to the platform on stilts that you can see way to the left in the picture. We would dive off the highest diving board on the platform after being dared by our friends. Sterling and I wore swimsuits but most of the Korean kids could not afford them. So, the kids ran around the beach and swam naked. Yes, girls and boys even up to the age of twelve were all playing and running around totally bare.
At that time, the girls did not develop sexually at an early age as many girls do now. I don't know if it was a protein deficient diet or just the meager wartime survival level diets that most of them had probably suffered.
How did I feel about all this? I really didn't think anything of it at that time. That is just the way things were. I guess I was aware enough of my modesty that at least I was more comfortable in a swimsuit.
Women would pull out their breast and breast feed their baby on a crowded bus with no attempt to cover up. That was natural and nobody gave it a second notice.
Parents were very proud to have a son and wanted to show him off to the world. When getting the baby boy's portrait done at the photography shop, the baby was always naked. The parents would spend five minutes getting the baby to sit with his legs splayed open and rearrange his genitals until they were satisfied he was ready to have the full frontal picture taken that would show his "manhood". You could walk by any photography shop and among the wedding portraits and other pictures on display in the shop window, a good portion of them were pictures of naked baby boys.
In Chinhae, a harbor city with a naval base about 22 miles northwest of Pusan, there was a hotel called the Railroad Hotel which was famous in that region for its natural hot springs bath house and a yearly cherry blossom festival. I recall on several occasions, when I was probably five and six years old, that we stayed at that hotel and rented the bath house. My father, my mother, my older brother Sterling, my younger sister Gwendolyn, and I would all go to the hot tub room, get naked, take a good shower, scrub ourselves clean, and then all soak in the very large tub of naturally hot spring water until we all came out looking as red as lobsters. At that time in my life, I never really thought anything about that. That's just what people did.
There was one practice in Korea that did make me feel very uncomfortable. When I was five and even six years old, if I ran across some old men squatting down in a group smoking long pipes and passing the time of day, they would often call me over to talk to me and gawk at the little "round-eye" "Yankee" boy. Invariably, one or more of them would reach to touch my private parts and say, "Let me feel your pepper." This annoyed me greatly and I would get away from them as quickly as possible, showing my obvious annoyance, telling them to "Leave me alone." They would all get a good chuckle over this.
I don't think this was any kind of sexual perversion or someone trying to get their jollies. This was a cultural thing - a custom. To them, it wasn't any different than patting a little kid on the head. In fact, my sister Wendy (that is what we called Gwen at that age) was always having people touch her hair. All Koreans have thick black hair, so Wendy's very fine blonde hair was amazing to them, and they just had to feel it.
In the 1990s I did read about a Korean tourist in America getting arrested for child molestation when he "felt the pepper" on some little American boy at a gas station on the west coast. It was in public and he wasn't doing it in secret. He did not know he was violating a law in our society. The Korean embassy was called, and the representatives from the embassy had to do a lot of explaining about how this was just a harmless custom in Korea before charges were dropped and the police let the tourist free.
A REALLY GOOD SPANKING
The Story of How I Ended Up Wearing the Photographer's Shirt and Bruce Hunt's Bow Tie
While looking through old family photos after my father passed away from cancer on 03-15-2009, I came upon this picture, and a strong and unforgettable memory swept through my consciousness. The smiles on the faces of those gathered for this picture belie the tension and drama leading up to the picture. This picture, with me in the middle, was taken shortly after I received a good spanking for the turmoil I had created.
I believe in the old adage, "Spare the rod and spoil the child." Most of the spankings I received were well deserved and helped to shape me into the man I am today. I was a mischievous and sometimes ornery young boy, and I seem to recollect getting more spankings than my younger brothers or my younger sister did. My older brother, Sterling, got the worst of it. My younger siblings probably learned to behave better just from watching us older brothers get punished and not wanting any part of that. Or, maybe my parents just tired of the process and tried other parenting methods on the younger ones. Who knows?
Anyway, the Hards, the Hunts, and the Spooners are the three Korean missionary families depicted. We had just had dinner at the Hunt's house in Pusan, Korea, and I had run off afterwards to play in the neighborhood with my Korean friends. This was a farewell dinner for the Spooners who were leaving Korea and the adults wanted to get one last group photo of all of us together.
When everyone gathered for this photo, I was nowhere to be found. They called and called my name, but I had wandered back to my neighborhood a few blocks up the mountain and did not hear them calling. Frustration mounted as my siblings were sent out to find me and returned empty handed.
When I finally did return some time later, I got a big lecture and a good spanking. Since I had soiled my clothes while playing and was not presentable for the occasion, my father's secretary, Mr. Sim, who took this picture, lent me the shirt off of his back and "Uncle" Bruce (Reverend Hunt) put one of his bow ties on me.
When this picture was snapped, everyone was in a bad mood over my irresponsible behavior but hid their displeasure well with their made-for-camera smiles.
When Sterling was five years old, before leaving for Korea, we were visiting our grandparents, Ernest and Anne Hard. Grandpa Hard ran a large apple orchard in Red Hook, New York. My father was the oldest of ten kids so we had lots of aunts and uncles of which several still lived at home and worked in the orchards.
Sterling was always ready to jump into water. The creek outside had a small pooled water area that was perfect for jumping in and cooling off in it. Every day after his post lunchtime nap, Sterling would run outside and jump into the creek. One day, while he was napping, several of his uncles dammed up the creek so that it filled up with water much deeper than usual.
When little Sterling ran out and jumped in, he went down deep with the water over his head. He came up wide-eyed and sputtering for air. His uncles had a good laugh.
Five years later while visiting the grandparents, we went swimming down the road from the orchards where the stream had a deep pooled area that was a favorite local swim hole. Sterling dove right in without first exploring the depth. He came to the surface with blood all over his face. He knew he had bumped his head but had no idea that he had a big gash that ended up needing stitches.
When I was four years old, we left for the mission field in Korea by cargo ship. Going across the Pacific we encountered rough seas and stormy weather the whole way there.
When the ship was rolling severely from side to side, Sterling and I entertained ourselves by trying to stand upright in the hallways by leaning into the rolls. It seemed that the ship would tilt so far that while still on my feet, my face would sometimes come fairly close to the floor. Well, I lost my footing once as I tipped beyond my balance point and banged my head into the corner of a door frame. I ended up getting stitches over my eyebrow from one of the crewman who had some medical training for just such emergencies.
Having arrived and settled in Korea, my parents had three more children, Gwendolyn, Nelson, and Gregory. The youngest, Gregory, loved to climb as any kid would in their terrible twos.
One day he somehow got up onto the flat overhang that jutted out under the roof and over the windows. He was crawling along the edge when Sterling saw him fall about eight feet straight down onto his head. He sat right up and looked dazed.
Sterling rushed him inside and our parents examined him and kept an eye on him the rest of the day and all through the night to see if there were any danger signs that might appear. Greg suffered no injuries of which we are aware.
The guardian angels were working overtime with us hard headed kids, and by God’s grace, we all made it safely through childhood.
HIKING WITH DAD
Though there were not that many occasions due to his busy schedule, I always enjoyed hiking with my dad.
As a small child hiking along mountain paths far above our house, I enjoyed the thrill of trying to keep up with my father and listening to common sense things he would teach about the outdoors.
Hiking up mountains to visit old Buddhist temples or monasteries was always an adventure. We once visited a monastery and were invited to eat at the table with the head monk. We were given a tour of tunnels carved below ground in solid granite. There were small rooms cut into the rock along the tunnels in which the only access was a small hole about four feet off of the floor that a man could crawl through. We were told that monks would go into the little pitch black rooms carved out of rock and stay for a year at a time. They meditated and worked on astral projection.
Once, we parked and hiked up to Haeinsa Temple where the 13th Century Tripitaka Buddhist scriptures carved on 81,258 wooden printing blocks was stored. With some persuasion of the monks by my father, we were allowed to visit the library, and Sterling and I got to actually hold one of the tablets. I hear that, now, no one but a few chosen monks can touch or even go near the collection.
We had a small cabin get-away high up on Chiri Mountain along with other missionaries. It was a long hike up and everything used up there had to be carried up. I hiked up with slip-on rubber shoes with no laces and wearing no socks. Even as a teenager I could not keep up with my dad.
When my father was retired and back in the United States, I invited him to go on a hiking trip along the Appalachian Trail above Brandenburg, Tennessee. David Baiocchi, Rob Erwin, and I had hiked this trail several times before and knew the ropes. We had all of the best and most up to date hiking boots, packs, sleeping bags, and other equipment. Dad cobbled together whatever he could and wore some old tennis shoes that had holes in the toes.
My older brother Sterling had borrowed a sleeping bag from our younger brother Greg and met us in Brandenburg. Due to food allergy problems, Sterling had a very limited diet. He bought a dozen eggs in a Styrofoam container and carried those in a plastic bag on our hike. By the time we reached our first campsite, almost half of those eggs were broken.
With holes in his shoes and carrying all of his own equipment, my father, in his 70’s, led out front the whole way and only stopped to rest when the rest of us wanted to rest. I must say, he put me to shame with his stamina.
The first night we stayed in a stone bear shelter with a chain link front to keep the hungry bears at bay. At that altitude, the temperature dropped to near freezing at night. The sleeping bag Sterling had borrowed was not rated for that low of a temperature and so he tossed and turned and shivered for several hours trying to get warm. Finally he got up and went outside to start a camp fire.
He grumbled, mumbled, and stumbled around in the dark while trying to build a fire with wet kindling covered in frost. Well, by then we were all awake and went out to help. Though I had some Trioxane fire starter, Sterling would have none of it. He was tired, cold, and angry and wanted to prove he could do it on his own. So, the rest of us just stood around watching with amusement until he finally got a fire started. We had no other choice but to stand around the fire and swap stories for the rest of the night.
David Baiocchi’s cousin, Joel Dufour, got into a long conversation about religions and theology with my father while hiking. Joel extolled the virtues of the Hindu and Buddhist religions. He went on and on about the Dalai Lama, the Indian gurus, and reincarnation. My father finally had enough. He asked Joel, “If the people of India are so advanced spiritually and keep reincarnating at a higher state of existence, why is India such a backwards, impoverished, hell hole?”
My father went on to tell Joel that he had studied Sanskrit in India and had read the Hindu and Buddhist religious texts. He told Joel that he taught comparative religions at several seminaries. He then told Joel he had met the Dalai Lama and was invited into his home to peruse his personal library. “You met the Dalai Lama?” Joel asked awe struck. That pretty much ended the conversation and all of Joel’s bluster. My dad did have a tendency to name drop on occasion when it suited his purposes.
Now that he has passed on, I sure do miss those hikes with my dad. I will see you soon, Dad. My faith and hope is in Jesus Christ as was yours. We will be re-united someday and enjoy more hikes together.
MURDER ON THE MOUNTAIN
My father was an Orthodox Presbyterian missionary in South Korea for 35 years starting in 1954. Although he had many responsibilities, he tried to take the time to do things with us kids. One memorable summer when I was about 13 years old, Dad took my older brother Sterling and me on a camping trip. We hiked half way up a steep mountain and found a small area of flat ground on which to set up camp.
As we began to clear the ground area and start pitching our tents, we heard a distant, but loud, gong sound. We stopped what we were doing for a moment while the sound hung in the air for some time, trailing off into a faint hum, and then silence. We determined that it was coming from the top of the mountain. We resumed working. A few moments went by, and then another haunting gong sound jolted our senses. We resumed setting up camp as it was starting to get dark and soon learned to ignore the gongs.
We got a fire going and, as we neared the end of our campsite setup, we realized it was getting really dark and we had been working faster and faster. Actually, the gong sounds had been getting progressively closer and closer together and just as we realized that we were working in a frenzy in time with the ever increasing tempo of the gongs, there was a blood curdling scream from on top of the mountain that made our hairs stand on end. My heart stopped. The gongs stopped.
We froze in place as we looked up the mountain and watched twenty or so lights in a row, winding down the mountain. The lights got closer and closer as we realized that the lights were torches that must be being carried by people zig-zagging down the switch backs on the mountain path. Our hearts were pounding, and we started to talk about what we were going to do when the group reached us. We did not know their intentions, who they were, or why they were out at night after that terrifying scream.
Sterling took the machete and hid in some bushes on one side of the camp and I took the camp knife and hid behind a tree on the other side. Dad stayed out in the open by the fire. We were ready for a surprise welcoming party in case there was trouble.
When the group reached us we discovered it was a bunch of Buddhist monks from a temple near the top of the mountain. They had seen our campfire and had come in force to investigate. They informed my father that there had been a murder on that mountain at a campsite a few days ago. Once they realized we were not dangerous, they cautioned us to be careful and be watchful. They told us it would be better if we broke camp and headed back down the mountain.
As the monks left to return to their temple, we watched the line of torches wind slowly back up the mountain. It was a surreal scene. We quietly discussed our options but ultimately decided to stay the night. We took turns staying up for guard duty and to keep the fire going.
I did not get much sleep that night because every sound I heard jolted me wide awake. I was really happy to get home the next day and sleep in my own bed that night. I slept like a baby.
HIT AND RUN
Score: Gregory 1, Hoodlums 0
My brother Nelson was six years old and my youngest brother Greg was four years old when I took them for a walk downtown to see a movie. I was thirteen and in 1962 the Korean theaters still showed a lot of American westerns, Tarzan movies, and the like.
My brothers' muscle posing at the swimming pool at the US Army base where my mother taught school is an indicator of the tough guy mindset we kids had, even at a young age.
After the movie, at about dusk, we were walking home through the marketplace when we came upon a big crowd watching a fight. We were curious and decided to watch what was going on.
There was a circle perimeter of about ten gang members keeping the crowd back while one muscle bound punk was mercilessly beating up some poor rival gang member who had evidently got caught in their territory.
One hoodlum in the circle motioned to me and my brothers, telling us to leave. With ill-conceived hubris, I retorted, "You're letting everyone else watch, why can't we?"
Several of them menacingly confronted us and told us in no uncertain terms that we were to leave immediately. Not wanting to lose face, though I was intending to back off and leave so as not to get beat up, I said, "You sure are tough when backed up by all your buddies. I wonder if you could handle one on one with me?"
Backed by his cohorts, he moved toward me, and I started to back-peddle. The verbal posturing had gone too far and it was time for us to leave.
Suddenly, the hoodlum let out an "OOF" sound as he doubled over and sunk to his knees. Little Gregory had drawn back his fist and punched the hoodlum right between the legs.
Alarm bells went off in my head and abject terror hit me as I picked up Gregory in one hand, grabbed Nelson's hand with my other, and ran for my life. By the time the hoodlum recovered and three of them started chasing us, we had a good head start and had already ducked down a back alley. Three or four alleys and turns later, we stopped to catch our breath and look back. We had lost the pursuers. A lot of yelling at Gregory mixed with wheezing and gasping for breath changed to laughter and joy at having escaped.
We laughed all the way home talking about our great adventure. Mom and Dad did not find out about this incident until years later at a story telling session at a family reunion.
OUR DOG FLUFFY RETURNS HOME SAFELY
Our dog Fluffy was a prolific rat catcher. He caught rats in our yard almost every day. If a rat ran for cover under one of the 55 gallon drums of gasoline in the corner of our yard, Sterling and I would tilt the barrel up and Fluffy would snatch the rat up in his jaws, roll the rat around in its teeth so that you could hear all the bones breaking, and then deposit the dead rat at our feet. The rat would not have any lacerations or broken skin.
Fluffy's diet consisted of barley with some little salted fish (Korean "Medichi") in it along with occasional kitchen scraps. But even with this boring diet, he would not eat the rats.
Fluffy was also a good guard dog. The threat of burglary was ever present, so having a dog that would warn us of any intruders into our yard with growls and barking was indispensable.
At the top right of the picture you can see the edge of Yong Do Island. On the far side of the island (way off to the right of the picture) lived our best friends, the Wrights. Sterling's classmate, Robert, and my classmate, Judy, were the children of Robert Wright, M.D., a heart surgeon who came to Korea as a Baptist missionary. One summer, my dog Fluffy, my brother Sterling, and I went to stay with the Wrights for several days while my parents were away on a preaching engagement. Fluffy ran off and got lost.
We could not find him after several extensive search missions into the surrounding neighborhoods. When it was time for Mom and Dad to take us back home, Fluffy was still nowhere to be found. Sadly, we returned home empty handed.
Three days later, to our glee and amazement, Fluffy showed up on our doorstep. This was incredible because Fluffy would have had to find his way across the island which was several miles long, cross the bridge (in the picture), and find his way through the city back to our house which was right below where this picture was taken from. You can see the layout of the bay and the city he would have traversed.
Now the really amazing thing was that Fluffy made it back without being eaten. Yes, as a "stray" dog, he was fair game for someone's dinner table. This was post-war Korea and people were hungry.
Sterling and I often went on trips to little country churches with my father when he was invited to preach. On these occasions we usually stayed at the preacher's house and ate the meals prepared for us. We made it a point to not ask what we were eating when we did not recognize something, but, on one occasion we found out we had just eaten dog tail soup. As it has been written, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."