Flying to Korea
The flight to The Hermit Kingdom, as Korea was once known, took me to the other side of the planet, and it took a long time. Was it thirteen hours? A seemingly endless amount of time to a young man who by that time in his life had only traveled by plane a handful of times. I love being in the air, but it wasn’t always like that. Thank God, people do change.
Before coming to Korea at twenty-nine, I’d only flown around the U.S. a bit on my own, in my late twenties. Otherwise, my experience on planes was with my mom, dad, and sisters Mary and Nancy, when I was a boy. And man, oh man; I used to get air-sick.
I recall the first time we flew. I’d recently become a teen-ager. I had the biggest, roundest, shiniest wave of brown hair that hung across my forehead, and a big smile with bigger-than necessary teeth. Friends will laugh when they learn or recall that technically, my mouth was too small (‘Not any more!’, they’d say!), and so, I had four molars extracted! My eyes were still brown then. They are hazel now. I had on a dark blue leisure suit. Whew! What a picture of nerdiness! But, who doesn’t love regailing about how stupid he looked in the seventies? And the best part is, if you were a kid in the time of giant collars, giant neck-ties, and giant bell- bottoms, you can’t really be blamed, right? I mean, I was being dressed by my parents! It’s not like I wore those skin-tight, beige, flegm green, and black-striped pants cause I wanted too (well, actually, they were my favorites)! But the leisure suit I didn’t fancy. My dad was a proud and diligent employee of Brannif Airlines, and “you dress nice when flying with family employees.”
Well, I have this memory of rolfing into one of those nifty white barf-bags with the plasticized exteriors and the bread-wrapper-like ties at the top…. Aren’t they cool, honestly? They would make great lunch bags, I’ve always thought!
And that wasn’t the end of it. After apologising to the person to the left of me (I was a very polite kid), I rested a bit, and on the way out of the plane, had to hurl again, and the stewardess saw me holding the discharge back and when I got to her in the line, she pushed me into the lav saying “get in there!” Ah, yeah, I love flying.
Then I read about “grunts”, deep breathing, and yelling. Well, I don’t yell on a jetliner, but I had read that fighter pilots used to do this thing called a grunt, before they started wearing bladder suits to prevent blood from pooling in different parts of their bodies.
You see, when fighter pilots are zooming around the sky at supersonic speeds, their blood wants to suddenly collect on one side of their bodies or the other, depending on which way they are rapidly turning. I suppose that’s not such a big deal if they’re going right or left, but it isn’t great for them.
But did you know that when fighter pilots go up or down at high speeds, the consequences can be far greater. The blood rushes in and out of their heads, which can cause them to black-out; you know, lose consciousness. That’ s not good, especially since they’re traveling at several hundred miles an hour (these days, up to 1400) several thousand feet above the earth. And people are shooting at them from other planes traveling as fast! So before bladder suits were introduced, which fill with air in different places at different times to pressure the blood to remain where it should-in certain parts of the pilot’s bodies-they would flex the muscles in their legs and stomachs to keep blood there and balance its distribution. This is a grunt.
I started doing them on passenger planes when the planes hit turbulence, or when they hit an air pocket, suddenly dropping in altitude, which if you have the experience of, you know gives you a sudden sickly feeling in the pit of your stomach. I still do it. Sound a little dramatic? It works. It keeps you from getting nauseous. And, I do deep breathing, too. It was a little of this, and a little of just maturing that caused me to outgrow air sickness.
And by applying these methods at amusement parks, I can now ride the craziest roller coasters, and other rides. Yelling helps, too. The yelling keeps fresh air entering and exiting your body, maintaining diaphragm action, so it isn’t shocked by the movement of the stomach and other organs caused by responses to the violence of motions associated with inertia. This keeps the breathing more regular, and lessens vertigo and motion sickness from having the wind knocked out of you and offsetting your sense of balance.
This deep breathing also helps on ships in violent seas. Later I’ll tell you about my hydrofoil trip from hell, going from Korea to Japan, when the craft was rising out of the water about five to ten feet or more each time, and falling every several seconds pounding the ocean’s surface countless times, making everyone on board sick, except me.
Back to the skies: I have always loved flying on commercial airliners. When I was thirteen, my family had gone to Florida, and then on to Texas, I think-a year later. I was excited out of my mind to be going not only on an airplane, but to be heading to see the Saturn rockets that took twelve Americans to the moon (all of whom I worshiped). The machines would be gargantuan, lying in wait in stages on the grounds of the The Kennedy and Johnson space centers, to dazzle me out of my wits. Their enormous size and realism turned out to be a “giant leap” from the photos on my bedroom walls and in the many books I regularly poured over in my spare time and at the library in Lynbrook, Long Island, where I grew up in New York.
I was also happy to be going to see my silly Uncle Charlie, who had fought the Japanese, and later the North Koreans and the Chinese in that strange Asian region called Korea.
How surprised I would have been to hear from some clairvoyant, that I would be heading for that peninsula one day, in the infinitely unimaginable future. It was, unlike the space centers, a place no one except Uncle Charlie and Uncle Georgie (and of course my knowledgeable dad) knew the location of, much less anything else about.
If it isn’t abundantly clear to you already, it was almost painfully obvious to everyone who knew me as a boy that I had dreamed of becoming an astronaut. My own loving mother-who was prone to saying “Carl, you’re a world of knowledge”, once said, “Carl, do you ever talk about anything else; you’re gonna go buggy on the subject!”
‘I spoke about the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Skylab missions, non-stop. The space shuttle, though the most complex machine man has yet to make, left me flat, for some reason. Maybe it was because it had that very pedestrian name, “shuttle”; making you think of a bus, or that rickety train that runs from Grand Central to 42nd Street; not very fitting for a craft strapped to three rockets that throttle human beings and heavy hard wear at 17,000 miles per hour into an orbit around the earth in a state of constant free-fall (which makes first-time astronauts hurl, themselves, and that’s no joke in “zero-gravity”).
I did “space work” with my childhood friend, Richard Dee. This meant we would get together at my house or his, spread our papers, pamphlets, and books on space and space travel out on the table, and study, read, discuss, or even make cassette recordings on tape-recoders about all this. I had once presented my “space files” in my third grade class, explaining what I knew about the space missions. Somehow, I escaped being called a nerd, but I was known-from about junior high until about high school (when I joined the wrestling team and got a new nickname), as “Space Man”. On the wrestling team I was known as “Cal”. Thank the universe it wasn’t “matt-back”, which I would have deserved!
Alas, as far as riding in rockets is concerned-instead of airplanes-as the years went on, I would learn that there is a universe of difference between a dream and an ambition. I would also learn that politics touches everything, and so astronauts started dying in space, and on the way to it.
And later, in Korea, I would also learn the reason my dream never materialized into an ambition, coming to fruition: I found I have hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Hypoglycemia can continuously derail your educational, occupational, and social life without you knowing it, especially when you don’t know you have it!
I’ll confess that yet, the boy in me now-though I am forty-four-still occasionally fantasizes (albeit only for a few minutes) about flying in space, and really, the dangers involved are a small concern-especially, I suppose, since I am dreaming.
And so, sixteen years after boarding a plane to Florida to gawk at rockets and space modules and to bore my parents with detailed descriptions of them and the men that flew in them, I would be boarding a plane to Asia, to pursue a different “dream”, and where I would learn I needn’t leave Earth to visit another planet! I only needed to go to South Korea, and Japan!
I first landed here, on “Planet Korea” as I like to call it from time to time, on April fourth, 1996-in the dark. I liked it that way. That made it more mysterious, I suppose. And, it made the next day a second arrival, so to speak, since things are different, between night and day!
After coming through immigration, I was sped from Kimpo airport, on a “stand bus” of some kind. I remembered Kimpo as I had heard my first boss out of high school, Martin Lent, used to stand guard, outside a gate, here, when he was in the air force. In the pitch dark, as his son, my junior high school friend Adam, used to tell me. The day I landed, men were clad in tight black uniforms and black Berets, carrying black machine guns and pacing in slow-motion in pairs. I held on to a strap surrounded by people with black hair on the speeding, rickety bus. The vehicle careened, rocked, and rolled like a boat on waves in an amusement park, through a strange landscape of hospital wall-colored cement buildings and shadowy alleys that carved out squat neighborhoods populated with dilapidated structures; all teeming with hoses and vents and generators and other modular shapes. I was in Bladerunner…
One of my best friends since childhood, Adam Hoffman-then an assistant professor at Korea University, and now a full professor in the states–balanced himself next to me and spoke in his usually confident way about the locals. I asked if they could understand what he was saying, as he conveyed anecdotes and humorous sentiments. He replied, “Nah”, adjusting his glasses at the bridge of his straight, John Lennon-like nose with a long finger, “I’m talking too fast for them.”