THE FLIGHT FROM THE AMERICAS
(Sent to Friends Sat, 8 Nov 1997)
My journey home got off to a good start. The bus from downtown Seattle was met, the Canadian border was traversed, and the Korean Air check-in was completed all without incident. It was to be over half a day in the air, against the wind, so I had plenty of time to read Michener, read more Michener, or just plain woolgather. Not in an epic-digesting mood, I ended up ruminating over my own odyssey, putting moments and anecdotes that wouldn't fall under particular themes into their proper pigeonholes.
THE START OF HEAVY THOUGHTS
As opposed to land travel, travelling by air always, always, always has those two deliciously fearful moments--when the airplane reaches the point of no return both on or above the runway. For me so far, the plane has always successfully defied gravity. If only my body could do the same.
I looked down at my belly with shame. I had allowed myself to disconnect my appetite safety catches in the name of vacationing abandon. And look what happened--I gained about eight kilograms over four weeks, having reverted to Yankdom. I have commented at length on the eating habits of Americans vs Japanese (click here to see it), but I'll say it again: Americans (estimates I've seen in the mass media range from 20% to over half of all Americans) have a social disease, called obesity. They eat too much because they associate high volume with better value; then, unable to waste food, find themselves cleaning up their plates.
And I reverted to being an American, with a vengeance. When staying with Bill and Lisa, I went berserk at the cheapness of American supermarkets, buying no end of bagel chips and liverwurst. Just for the taste of it, I scarfed down a calzone on top of a regular dinner with Joseph. John, defying his fiber diet, wallowed with me in the fast-food troughs of several Cholesterol Castles. And Doug: "I know the greasiest burger joint in all of Seattle. It'll make your blood congeal," said after our third stop at Taco Time. The whole trek, I don't think I visited a single salad bar, ever forwent that extra large fries, or turned down dessert at a family dinner.
As the ritual self-mutilation that is American dining took its toll, I kept muttering one of the most American slogans of all time: "I can't believe I ate the whooole thing!" Time, I thought, for a crash diet.
DOUG'S INSIGHTS INTO THE AIRCRAFT INDUSTRY
I looked beyond my belly to the floor and remembered Doug, whose workplace is under there. Doug, a mechanic for the airlines, told me all about his job and it was facinating. There is so much to know about the airline industry and it all matters. Flying is a common method of transportation in the developed world; within Japan, for example, despite being a market stunted by overregulation, 50,000 people take off and land *per day*. And in a deregulated market like the US air travel matters even more, and from many angles.
From a business angle, aircraft remains by value America's biggest export, and Boeing in particular has a unique way of keeping their prices down. Doug: "On the day of sale, Boeing brings the buyer aboard the newbuilt aircraft and takes off into international airspace. They then sign the papers and complete the transaction. A new pilot takes the controls and flys everyone to the buyer's country, having paid no American sales taxes. Which is a considerable savings, since we're talking about million-dollar machines!" How many other industries can escape both death and taxes by transporting its goods over borders so easily?
From a technological angle, Doug gave me the lowdown on the latest movies: "Any movie involving planes is pretty bad, but EXECUTIVE DECISION was the worst. Remember how Kurt Russell got aboard that hijacked jumbo? They followed underneath in a separate airplane, raised a connecting tunnel, and opened a belly hatch. That's just pure horse puckey. Not only is there no door like that on the undercarriage of a jumbo, there is no fucking way an airplane could follow underneath a jumbo like that. You know why there is at least one minute dead time on runways between landings and takeoffs? Because there is a horizontal tornado under any aircraft that size that must be allowed to subside. This means that the turbulence created by the undercarriage would not only have sheared away that connecting tunnel, but also mangled the lower airplane to bits.
"And how the hell were these guys, sneaking around above and below the cabin, able to get through so many bulkheads and structural integrity panels? People must think there are tunnels everywhere in planes!"
He went on. In fact, Doug hasn't seen a single Hollywood movie which unflinchingly obeys the laws of aerodynamics. I could emphasize; given what I know about Japan, I have seen distressingly few well-informed Hollywood movies on this land (click her to see what I mean), where native speakers were hired and cultural themes tackled with delicacy.
"Still," Doug concluded, "I'll give them one thing: at least they killed off Steven Segal quick."
From a labor relations angle, it was fascinating to hear about the bureaucratic bungles in the world's largest factory.
Doug: "Boeing is rolling in dough and paying it's employees well, but their organizational system sucks. We have the classic Dilbert stuff, where our mechanics are kept on part time until they graduate up to management, but look at the procedure: We are assigned to small work groups and given particular tasks, and when work evaluations come up, we give group recommendations. Eventually we have one doofus who doesn't fit in and hinders our work. We can't have him fired because the labor unions will get on our ass. So to get him out of our way, we recommmend his promotion to management. That's why the full-timers often turn out to be the least competent people in Boeing.
"And it shows with management's stupid decisions. Boeing wants to make the 777 the next-generation aircraft, but it's only got two engines. The 747 has four engines, which means three can act as backup if an engine fails. But the 777, if an engine fails, has only one backup! This spells trouble for long-distance aircraft, but no sweat, says Boeing. Theoretically, the eggheads say that all will be fine, and engine safety tests, which have always been standard procedure, are largely unnecessary for this prototype. Why? Economics. Tests cost a lot of money and delay production. Since they're in a hurry to compete with Airbus, Boeing is rushing an unthoroughly tested airplane out to market, all to keep the accountants happy.
"But to be fair, the managers aren't the only idiots. The engineers and the mechanics don't communicate enough and stupid things happen. For example, the engineers design something that looks fine on a blueprint but can't physically be done. Let's say they draw up a print with Bolt 123-A in Subsection B. Once the prototype plane is built, Bolt 123-A turns out to be too far away for a hand to reach or a tool to twist. So the engineers now have to design a special 'Bolt 123-A Wrench', used only for that one bolt, which costs a hell of a lot of money to buy. And of course all mechanics that service Boeing planes must buy it. Boeing could avoid all this trouble and save their customers money by just moving the bolt, but we are rarely consulted enough at the design stage."
Then there's the national security angle. "I used to work on a black ops project, and since I've been debriefed I can tell you what it was. The Stealth Bomber. We were working on it day and night in total secrecy, and the CIA kept coming by to warn us about spies. They even gave us training courses in self defense, in case, say, we were driving and got hijacked and were told to smuggle them inside the hangar. So if you try anything funny while I'm driving, Dave, I'm gonna kick your ass CIA-style. 'Course, I coulda done that anyway."
Get to the point, Doug. "Oh yeah. So here we are snickering away as these suits tell us how to spot an industrial spy or terrorist. We're saying sure, some 007 piece-of-ass like Pussy Galore is going to seduce us just to find out about our hydraulics. And we're laughing all the way to a local bar where this easygoing kind of guy, real friendly, strikes up a conversation and buys us beers. Great, we say. But later on, he asks, 'So, how's work going at Boeing?' My friend pauses, and says, 'Hey, we said nothing about where we work. How did you know?' The guy excused himself and disappeared. We took our CIA training more seriously after that."
Finally, there's the urban folklore angle. "There was a very bad design flaw in airplane toilets that we never anticipated. Basically, an airplane toilet works by suction instead of flushing. Regular toilets would take too much water and increase the payload, so a valving system sucks the waste down by momentarily connecting the plumbing with the low air pressure outside. What happened was that this really fat person used the toilet and made a perfect seal over the seat. She didn't stand up when she flushed and it sucked her guts out through her anus. Killed her instantly."
TURBULENCE, DINNER, AND THE MOVIE:
I took my eyes off the floor and my belly, thought about going to the toilet, and settled for just looking around. Thanks to my First-Class upgrade, I was sitting in the 747's second-floor deck with several Korean executives, pinstriped and taciturn, who probably didn't know what to make of me. I must have been a sight in my summer garb, fat spilling over my belt and out of several apertures in my shorts (particularly the chafing-thighs zone, long since worn through), like a frog regressing back into a tadpole. In any case, I was definitely on the wrong lily pad.
Still, though I fit in better in cattlecar class, First Class on Korean Air isn't all it could be. Yes, there are bells and whistles, but they are soon eclipsed by bad design and service. For example, wines and champagne are brought around right after takeoff, and finger foods get served on nice little doilies, but you ingest them and wait forever until they get around to cleaning your table off. Yes, they bring you cloth napkins and silverware that is free of plastic wrapping, but the food is the basically the same, and it slides off the table during turbulence because it is not atop a tray with raised edges. Yes, the seats are bigger, there is more armrest and legroom, and you only have to sit next to one other person, but the biggest problem I have with flying remains unresolved--I can't sleep deeply. The chairs don't recline back to flatness (and I like sleeping on my side or stomach), the headrest had no stiff side ridges to support my nodding-off head, and in any case the headrest and footrest were too short for my body. We had none of the frills I keep seeing advertised in The Economist by the big Asian airlines--personal TV monitors, choice of movies, videogames. Even KAL's inflight magazine proudly announced that they had miraculously come up with superduper 180-degree reclining seats, but only on their newer aircraft. As KAL is famous for buying used planes and having one of the oldest fleets in the industrialized world, I was not hopeful for any upgrades soon.
What we did get instead was quite unsatisfactory. The female flight attendants, as they usually are on KAL, were surly, and not terribly punctual about answering request bells. And, startling for First Class, their English was not all that great (and they took a dim view of my speaking Japanese). Maybe this is because only Korean executives, not fat White punk tourists living in Japan, go First. But inexcusable under any circumstances was their choice of inflight movie.
No, it wasn't something like the farcical near-misses of AIR FORCE ONE or the crash and cannibalism of ALIVE! It was something as innocuous as a National Geographic special. In the African savannah, NG staffers were doing one of those "Call of the Wild" specials, and filmed this family of little boars being picked off by a pack of hyenas. The mother boar was powerless; one hyena distracted her while the other hyena carried away one after another of her sucklings, slashing its throat with a twist of its jaw. As a parent myself, what I find heartbreaking is watching babies suffer; an image that will stay with me forever is when NHK aired a special on Africa, where a group of African poachers mowed down a herd of elephants for their ivory. At the end, one ivoryless baby elephant was left alive, standing over her dead mother, with a look in its eyes of pure panic and sorrow. I switched off NHK then, and averted my eyes on KAL now. Not only do programs like these show the cruelty of predation, but also raise moral qualms about the photographer as voyeur--merely capturing instead of preventing savagery. Natural selection and survival of the fittest, I understand. But not over my dinner, please. It truly ruined the only thing I have constantly enjoyed on KAL flights--the food. The Korean beef turned into piglet, and I couldn't touch it.
FEAR OF FLYING
"Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC, "Couldn't get to bed last night, "All the way the paper bag was on my knee, "Man, I had a dreadful flight."
It was late in the afternoon as we approached Seoul Kimpo Airport. We flew past the thousands of apartment hives that make up the suburban Seoul landscape, colored very gold in the ever-hazy Korean skies. I was looking forward to getting out of this horrible compartment and back into Asia, but first we had to go through that fateful few seconds where the plane slows its engines, hovers, and falls down atop the runway like so much luggage. During the approach, my mind harked back on Doug again, and his word on why planes fall from the sky.
Summer 1997 seemed to be a bad one for air crashes--three happened in the few short weeks I was there, and after I left seven more (in one week) with the American military. Doug was always professional about crashes, running to a newsstand to find out exactly what happened every time. His word:
"Takeoff and landing, of course, are where most crashes occur. So many things can happen and not all of them mechanical. In fact, thanks to us mechanics, pilot error is the biggest reason for crashes.
"Korean Air in particular is famous for them. They have had nine serious crashes in the past twenty years, seven of them due to pilot error. Remember when KAL 007 was shot down by the Soviets in 1983? What the hell were they doing so far off the flight plan in Soviet airspace? Was the pilot so stupid as to have lost his way? It's happened before--a KAL flight in 1983 ignored the Anchorage control tower, took off from the wrong runway in the opposite direction, and slammed into a landing commuter plane.
"This August, KAL's Guam crash was simply 'a controlled flight into terrain'--the pilot misjudged where the mountain was and missed the runway by three miles. Sure, Guam's 'glide slope indicator' was down and there was fog everywhere, but visibility wasn't that low, other planes before and after landed without problem, and, according to the 'black box', the pilot had disabled his 'ground proximity warning system'. In any case, he had deprived himself of choices because of low fuel--Guam's so far out in the Pacific that he couldn't go elsewhere in case of emergency. But that pilot had flown this route plenty of times, so he should have known what what potential conditions were. The point is, as usual, KAL goofed. I'm surprised you fly them so often.
"Anyway, it's not just Korean Air. Pilot errors happen on any commercial airline because there is a lot of stress, especially on long-haul flights. In the cockpit there are three seats--for the pilot, co-pilot, and navigator--and two must be filled and alert at all times. Even if somebody needs to go to the toilet, get a snack, or take a nap, only one can do anything other than man the controls at any time. Problem is the job is boring. Takeoff and landing are the only reasons the pilots are there, and they're not allowed to do anything but look at their instruments. Not even read a book! They are allowed to talk, but 14-or-so hours in a cockpit exhausts most conversation. So when it's time to land, pilots may be fatigued and judgment-impaired. That's why they get a lot of vacation time. Fly the world's longest non-stop route--Tokyo Narita to NY Kennedy--one time round trip and you get the rest of the month off.
"But that's another reason why I think Boeing's 777 is so stupid. They want to eliminate the navigator and make the cockpit a two-seater--to save the airlines some staffing money. Two engines, two pilots, one backup at all times? Can't do it and expect to maintain our safety record.
"Still, sometimes you're going to crash and there's not a damn thing you as the pilot can do. Terrorists bombed KAL and the flight over Lockerbie. Airports get overbooked and there are some near-misses. And that ValuJet crash in the Everglades? You know why they couldn't find much more than a hole surrounded by itty bitty pieces of fuselage, and no bodies? Because that jet nosedived into the swamp at 500 miles an hour like a bomb. Those illegal oxygen cannisters in the cargo bay leaked, ignited, fanned white hot with the difference in air pressure, and burned through all the control cables. Can you imagine the pilots trying to steer and finding that none of their controls responded? Can you imagine the passengers as the cabin filled up with smoke and the flames came up through the floor? What a nightmare. Makes you want to take an ocean cruise, huh?"
Now I know why they don't show inflight movies dealing with airplanes. I guess even law-of-the-jungle videos would be a bit less unsettling. Still, KAL didn't censor their on-board copies of TIME and NEWSWEEK magazines, which just happened to have full (and critical) coverage of the Guam crash:
"FLY THE RISKY SKIES... The airline is the world's third largest cargo carrier and ranks 12th in passengers; some industry analysts think its management understands freight handling better than people moving." (NEWSWEEK 8/18/97, pg 18-20).
It certainly heightened my experience as we came bumping down like so much luggage onto the Korean Peninsula.
PRAISE THE LORD AND PASS THE GARLIC
Despite what I may think about their national airline, I like South Korea itself very much. It feels like I've come back to the Japan I once experienced, when I was young and illiterate, and when the country itself was less rich but no less esoteric. It also makes me write topically, with one lobe tied behind my back, like Dave Barry "doing" Japan. Full of wide-eyed observation, but with absolutely no clue about what's going on.
So let's "Barry" Korea. Start with the architecture. The buildings in Seoul, covered with Hangul I can't decipher no matter how hard I try, are shaped like normal for Pacific Asia--square-upon-square, built for expediency, not esthete. Hidden away amidst them are a few traditional buildings with the upturned roof corners, built precisely for maintaining esthete, and even more colorfully painted than in Japan.
Next, eats. The food here is not at all like the US at times--far more vegetables and fish, far more things you wouldn't dare get used to, but you do, because everyone around you is enjoying them and not dropping dead. Here, as opposed to Japan, one gets spicier miso, leaner meat, and the garlic that is the Korean mainstay (as The Economist puts it, "Koreans use a meal as an excuse to eat garlic"); it is very healthy, and Japan would do well to get over their phobia of the smell. Then you have that GI mainstay--Spam, which everyone seems to abhor, except starving battlefield GIs and the Koreans. Like nowhere else on earth, Spam is so popular here that it is sold in gift boxes. And only in Korean cuisine is Spam even close to tasty.
Then we come to my mainstay--Korean women. After said dry spell in the US being bored or disappointed, Seoul reminded me why I live in Asia. I was agog at so many gorgeous, thin women with beautiful tans, high cheekbones, and high skirts. Although Korean fashion sense to me was less sophisticated than Japanese (too many gaudy colors with strange cuts and seams, and the predilection for narrow-oval thick-framed granny glasses is offsetting), Korean women are strikingly beautiful--skin that actually shines with the heat, doesn't need makeup, doesn't get blotchy with age, and is stretched over wonderful facial structure. Both women and men have the "downturned-eyebrows, drop-dead" look in their eye when putting on their "neutral" face, reminiscent of the Slavs in Europe. And although I prefer Japanese women for their sweeter public disposition (and their sager choice of not shaving their eyebrows into Jean-Harlow oblivion), I think Korean men, who look stunning in uniform, are far more handsome then their chinless, cheekless peers across the Sea of Japan.
But I was belaying my trip across that body of water to see another person in uniform, and not a native of this land. A blond Caucasian, as a matter of fact. I was here to see John's wife, Beth, as she wrapped up her tour of duty here for the US Air Force.
BETH, AIR FORCE STAFF SERGEANT
JOHN'S THIRD AND LAST WIFE
A former student of John's in Chicago, Beth married John over ten years ago and hasn't looked back--this is expressly the last marriage for both of them. The first time I had met her was a few years ago in Hawaii, of all places, where she was stationed at Hickham AFB. I had gone out there to meet John for the first time and she was a welcome addition--a woman with good sense, forever optimistic but clearly pragmatic. I could see why old curmudgeons like Chaplin, Hearst, or John would want younger women like her around--they make for sunny households and mood-swing mitigators. In Hawaii, she served as a cushion between John and I, who at times were clashing like castanets.
But in terms of MY relationhip with Beth, I have to admit some funny feelings; as she is only two years my senior, I am loath to call her "mom"--although that is legally what she is. So when people who had to know asked us our connection, she just said, "Well, um, he's my husband's son", which was quizzical but sensible.
She greeted me in Korea as she did in Hawaii, with a big hug and a broad smile, only this time instead of lei she had on fatigues. "Hello soldier!", I said, gawking at how thin she had become after a year here with no husband. "Hello yourself. Welcome to Korea!" she replied, humping one of my bags grunt-style and directing us to the Seoul subway.
We would spend three days in Seoul without a moment of idle chatter. Our first conversation was about genetics. Beth: "Y'know, seeing you at the airport like this reminds me of Hawaii, when I first laid eyes on you. I knew it was you immediately. We had been wondering how we were going to recognize you. Neither one of us had seen much more than baby pictures; it was like trying to picture Nelson Mandela before his release. We kept saying, 'Is that him, is that him?' with every disembarking male your age. But when you walked out, I knew. You have John's look. It's indelible."
As we arrived downtown, I realized that I would not be staying in a Yogwan, one of the cheap dives that are nice and warm in winter and especially in summer. "You can see Korea courtesy of the US Military this time." Beth made full use of the extensive US military apparatus over here, finding me digs that only servicepeople or their kin may use. My bed was in an USAF safe house that about a century ago was a Japanese nobleman's home, complete with garden and high walls. The US commandeered it during the Korean War, made it a command center, and never gave it back. Now, plaster peeling and poorly insulated, it is a weathered dive for forty bucks (US dollars, Korean Won not accepted) a night. All jetlagged out, I said it would do just fine, and she left me to catch some fitful shuteye in the humid Seoul night.
FINDING A BIT OF SEOUL TOGETHER
Although Beth had been here for nearly a year, she was out in Osan, enough distance from the capital to limit her Korean experience. Close to the front lines of an increasingly destabilizing North, life on base was all about trying to be in a state of readiness; with little leave, language, or compunction, she had not toured or gotten to know her host country at all.
In contrast, I had plenty of experiences, since I had been to Seoul several times and, as a tourist, had nothing else to do but look around. And although I know as much Hangukmal as I do Deutsch, years of learning how to travel anywhere made for reasonably smooth communication when I needed it.
Two noteworthy experiences I had which show heart and linger in the soul:
When walking around a huge Korean bookstore, I asked about finding a basic Korean phrasebook (how touristy--I always scoff when people do that in Japan!). I used Japanese, which had worked in all the major Korean hotels and fancy stores I visited. But not here. The salesladies then called over a septagenarian man who addressed me in English. Communication was smooth, and, after getting me what I wanted, he asked me the inevitable question:
"Where are you from?"
When I told him Japan, his eyes lit up and he clicked into Japanese: "Does that mean you speak their language?" "Hai, hanasemasu ga," I replied. And suddenly out poured from him a whole bunch of pent-up Nihongo. He had learned his language during the Japanese colonialization, and was amazed that even Westerners were now learning it.
He grasped my arm. "Now you learn KOREAN! The languages are so similiar! You must learn about OUR country!"
I was amazed at two things: 1) his passion, in contrast to Japan's relative indifference towards foreigners learning their language, and 2) his surprising positiveness towards having the remnants of Japan's occupation lying latent within him. He really wanted to speak Japanese with somebody, even if it was only little old me.
The other experience took place when walking around the dirty technical marketplaces in Seoul's equivalent of Akihabara. I chanced to find a middle-aged nameplate maker who had spread his wares across a sidewalk. I came up to him to ask him if he could give me a sign in Kanji and Hangul that would make me look like I had an important position in a company. He was unable to help, understanding neither Japanese nor English. So I gestured for a pen and began to write my request in Chinese characters as meaningfully as possible. He got it--older Koreans in general can read a surprising amount of Kanji. He wrote back in characters that he only had Hangul-and-English and Kanji-and-English--nothing that a Japanese would see as Hangul-and-Kanji.
Fine, so what's so charming about this anecdote? The fact that this standoffish man, suddenly liberated from a language barrier, began to find out where I was from. I wrote "Japan" in characters, and of course that just made him even more inquisitive. He wrote: Why am I there? I'm married to a Japanese, one kid. He then pulled out sheaths of paper, drawing maps of China, Japan, and Korea, and excitedly gave me a history lesson on how Chinese influence came to Korea and Korean influence went to Japan. We spent a good half hour just furiously scribbling at each other.
In the end, he smiled and asked me what signs I would like. I chose the Korean equivalents of "Division Chief's Office" (buchou shitsu), "President" (shachou), and "Office" (jimusho), in English and Hangul. They are now hanging up outside my school office, eliciting several comments.
The signmaker, with a gleam in his eye, threw in one sign for free.
Beth, a Chinese linguist, also was up on her characters, and probably knew far more than I. This became a surprising communality, since I realized that people who study character-based languages begin collecting Kanji like baseball cards. "This (•Ä) means 'rice', this (’p) means 'shame', this (”Ý) means 'fart'." We found ourselves furiously scribbling away at each other as well, but with running commentary in our native tongue. As Chinese and Japanese are suitably similar but different, there was a lot to share.
As I said, we had nary a moment of idle chatter as we walked around town, savoring the foods, seeing a few sights, and feeling the military atmosphere that pervades the streets of Seoul. Seoul, only a few dozen kilometers on flat plain from North Korea, seems to be on a permanent state of alert; the Korean military and its forced conscription gives all Korean boys ample opportunity to patrol the streets, like Guardian Angels, but with riot shields and loaded weapons. This is the biggest contrast with Japan: Korea looks fierce and ready to fight at any time.
Which brings us to the highlight of our trip together: visiting North Korea. Seriously. One thing that Beth could arrange, via the military's entertainment and travel networks, was a side-trip to a border town within the DMZ called Panmunjom. As this AMERICATREK part is already plenty long, I will break here and talk next time about the outing: how we caught a mere glimpse of probably the world's craziest country, and got an earful from the American military on the likelihood of either a war or a peaceful resolution to this half-century of stalemate.
Panmunjom travelogue next.
(Click here to go to Americatrek Part Six)