Thursday, June 10, 2021

Complex Sobon and the Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea


I've just begun reading about Menachem Kaiser's first "treasure hunt" in Riese, Silesia.  He has a team of guides and is entering entrance #2:  "The entrance was low enough and narrow enough that to enter you had to lie flat on your back, feet poking in, and drag yourself forward and downward -- immediately there's an incline -- until your feet touch flat ground.  Andrzej went first; he wormed his way in briskly and with dust-raising gusto.  Jason, not a small man rested his Leica on his chest and maneuvered his way in.  Then me, then Janek.

"And we were inside Complex Sobon.  How can I describe it?  In the most immediate, material sense it was as you might imagine.  What I mean to say is that it was extremely tunnel-like: dank, cold, dark, just wide enough to walk in pairs and low enough that I could reach up and touch the ceiling, which was, along with the walls, unsmooth rock; the tunnel was reinforced, unfinished.  A deep mountain cavity.  We walked up a small slope and then down a small slope and then through a puddle that went up to my navel.  Here I had my first shiver of experience of what Andrzej and Janek and Joanna and all the other explorers and treasure hunters were hooked on: there is no way not to feel a real ringing thrill as you're wading through naval-high water inside a hidden tunnel, the weight of the water hugging your waist inside your overalls, the hole of daylight behind you shrinking away."

Back in the days when my friends and I had our first access to a car, Probably when we were fifteen (which would have been about 1948), and it probably belonged to Clifford Pedersen.  His family had more money than did Clifford Duhn's or mine, we drove down to Point Fermin in Palos Verdes, took what little gear we had and went "skin diving."  We didn't do anything that qualified as "free-diving" because we didn't know how.  We made some spear guns but then never managed to spear a fish.  Nevertheless we had fun.  One day we notice what looked like a cave half way up Point Fermin.   We climbed up and crawled inside.  It was just as snug as the entrance Kaiser described.  Once inside we discovered evidence that it had once been a gun emplacement.  During the California "Japanese scare" shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, California readied itself for an invasion.  We had discovered one of California's gun emplacements.  All serious hardware had been removed, but we liked it and decided it would be our "secret fort."  Thus, every time we went skin-diving we visited our fort. 

In 1953 while I was in Korea I received a photo from the two Clifford's.  They had finally learned how to spear fish.  The photo had several fish on a beach towel which they were smilingly behind.  Each Clifford proudly held a spear-gun which was more expensive than any we could afford when I dived with them.   In the letter that accompanied the photo, they wrote that our old "fort" had been buried.  There had been a rock slide from above and the entrance was now completely covered.  We all three reflected on the many times we had been inside, and of course, because it was a "secret," we had never told anyone where it was or when we would be in it.

During my thirteen months in Korea I spent three of them on Jeju Island where there was a small Marine Corps early warning station.  Jeju Island is where the famous Korean women divers would dive for sea-weed delicacies abalone and small fish.  I had hoped to do some serious diving for fish while I was there.  I did do some modest diving, but inasmuch as I had no gear it was nothing like what those women did.

The women I saw when I was there free-dove in just swimming suits.  Being in a nostalgic mood, I just checked Youtube and see that there are still women diving off Jeju Island, but they now have proper swimming gear, just as the two Cliffords did in the photo they sent me.  There is a Jeju-island lady touting the book she published (in 2013):  The Youtube video is called The Women Divers of Jeju Island.  Brenda Paik Sunoo spends an hour talking about it.  Her book is entitled Moon Tides: Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea.  Some of these women are in their 80s. 

I have wondered how I would be doing if I stayed closer to the sea and hadn't been knocked down any stairs.  Would I still be diving?  My lungs are still good.  I think I might still be able to do it.  But much of the water I dived in had become a bit toxic.  Maybe if I'd continued to dive in that water I would have joined the two Clifford's both of whom died of cancer.

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