So the question is a legitimate one: how did the author of these words find himself detained—pleasantly detained—in the shadow of an enormous aircraft carrier docked on the eastern coast of South Korea? And why were his polite, civil, and curious detainers so excited (at least initially) about the possibility that he of all people could be a real spy or a real terrorist sent in from some cave on the other side of the planet to blow up the goddamn ship and send its flaming wreckage sinking down into a pit at the bottom of the sea?
The answer is simple tourism and dumb luck. I’d heard about the ship and I had fond childhood memories of sitting in a fighter cockpit at the USS Intrepid museum in New York City (the line was always so long you had to wait for half an hour and then you could only stay inside for a few seconds); the aircraft carrier came to Busan to scare or provoke the North Koreans, and I, meanwhile, had spent days scoured the sultry, sweltering city like a rat after a vat of cheese, burning myself red as a lobster and providing my old age with entertainment in the form of skin lesions and tumors in the process. This is how these historical oddities come to be.
I had no idea the ship was docked at a US military base; I just thought it was moored alongside a pier somewhere, but as it turned out, after yet another sweaty afternoon of plodding through the sludge and grunge of the city, that the whole enterprise was sequestered on the far side of a green mountain, ideally suited to keep the South Korean populace from getting too good a look at the antics of the American military base, which in its design was totally antithetical to the metropolitan character of the country: wide open avenues, enormous, straight spaces, almost more like an airport or a doodle in an architect’s notebook than a real place. Wide lines stretched into the horizon infinitely and indefinitely: this was an illustration of perspective, a miniature America, which in its character must always possess an endless frontier and easily-defensible fortifications.
Now how did this accidental spy come to be? It all began at the gate. The taxi dropped me off, I chatted with some South Korean guards, who were totally confused by the fact that I was talking to them and had absolutely no idea what I was saying, then I approached an enormous, towering, and exhausted American soldier, who appeared to have been guarding the gate for the entirety of a particularly brutal summer day, where beads of sweat break out on your chest after twenty or thirty seconds in the sun. He asked for my ID, I gave him my driver’s license, and I was on my way; a convenient tour bus roared up beside me, the door hissed open, another soldier leaped inside, and I climbed in after him, sitting down at the front as he made his rounds down the aisle asking for identification. He didn’t ask for mine.
During the short drive to the ship I became aware that something was rather amiss with this entire situation. I was on a tour bus packed with curiously normal Americans who were discussing, without the slightest trace of irony, how much they had hated or enjoyed the latest Twilight movie. That was eerie enough by itself. The depressed guy nursing a hangover next to me had tattoos painted all over his muscular arms and was Hispanic, two facts which made it unlikely that South Korea, which prefers, above all, blond white malleable women and pasty, easily-ridiculed young WASPs, would have hired him as an English teacher.
Meanwhile, outside the bus, there were Americans jogging along the wide-open avenues (wide enough to drive a whole carrier through!) and, except for the bus driver, not a Korean to be seen anywhere. As we drew near to the carrier I found myself wondering what kind of strange, magical kingdom I had strayed into.
A long line of people stretched to some tents set up by the pier where one’s dilating nostrils could catch the smell of white bread and blackening hamburgers: I got at the end, asked a random guy if this was the line for food, he said yes, and then looked at me as if I were suffering from severe mental retardation, which is not far from the truth; I got out of the line and walked over to a small gatehouse, where people were boarding the ship after showing their IDs.
I asked a tall uniformed blue-eyed man with one of those pudgy, handsome, and ducklike American faces where the tour was—“Hey man! Where’s the tour?”—and he replied, with some concern flashing over his scruffy cheeks, that I wasn’t supposed to be there and that I should leave. I thanked him and crossed the street back over to some of the Korean busdrivers who were squatting in their peculiar Korean way by the curb, and attempted to ask, in my usual shameful Hangukmal, for a taxi, but at that point the same ducklike man waddled over to me with some other soldiers and asked me to stop: I was detained.
During the next two hours, as the blue dusk darkened into night, and as scores and scores of soldiers from all walks of life—southerners like hippopotamuses on their hind legs, wiry acne-laden rednecks with names like “Mr. Big Dick”, handsome city-type second-generations, out-of-place old timers who couldn’t get enough of the military, happy beautiful women bearing dizzying amounts of cleavage (one is starved of cleavage in South Korea: the taste of water is that much sweeter after a year of sojourning in a desert as arid as the tortured surface of the planet Mercury), elephants babbling stupid questions to officers on duty, boyfriends and girlfriends wide-eyed and arm-in-arm, muscular ankylosaurs, human tanks rolling through with cannons deployed and other generally large people—passed me in a sort of fashion-show, parade, panoply, or grotesqueriad (which any collection of humans inevitably becomes), I found myself the center of attention for a small number of soldiers, who crowded around me, shifted their chairs, and snapped up whatever nervous nonsense I rattled off to them, because, truth be told, I was at that point somewhat frightened, and my imagination had no trouble forming the various scenarios that awaited my accidental penetration into a high-security area: latex gloves snapping on wrists, cold fingers worming their way into my hitherto virginal anus, Brittany Spears music, etc., etc.
This mood wasn’t helped by the single soldier on duty, a rather handsome woman whose everyday surname I will never forget (but will not post here), who decided that the most proper course of action was to shout at me like I was at boot camp, and, in her angry officiousness, declare that although I was an American citizen I would be questioned (therefore precluding that indefensible defense known even to the natives of North Sentinel Island: “But I’m an American!”). Such was the strength and power of her tone that, I kid you not, my lips quivered, and I felt myself on the verge of bursting into tears like a little baby.
Thankfully she only harangued me for a few seconds: it took about half an hour of heavy breathing and random smalltalk to recover even a modicum of my composure. And of course for the rest of the night I entertained scenarios where broad-chested Ian demanded with swift pointer-finger that this lowly cretin speak to me more civilly and some such nonsense; in reality it was doubtless better that I played the part of the submissive and, like a kicked puppy, mumbled agreements to whatever threats the leather-clad german-sounding dominatrix spouted off. Later in the evening I saw her break cover and speak with remarkable warmth and friendliness to one of the soldiers I was talking to, which was a kind of Tolstoyan epiphany. “Nikolai Rostov realized that the mad dog Dolokhov was actually a loving son and brother…”
I figured out what was going on when this same soldier, a very kind, large, handsome, and proud Texan, declared that although I probably wasn’t a spy or a terrorist, I would have to stay with them until they could hand me over to the proper authorities; the key here is the fact that he mentioned the words “spy” and “terrorist” while referring to me. Then I knew why everyone was so curious, why everyone was glancing my way with flashing eyes, and why all of them were probing me with seemingly innocent questions—they thought I was another John Walker Lindh! Really! How exciting! Another international sleuth nabbed by the plucky young do-gooders of the US Military! Eventually this effervescence grew stale and went flat when they learned that I was just some lucky moron and little else; their curiosity shifted to that of the rare encounter with an American living overseas who was in no way affiliated with the military, views of the populace on regional politics, different countries we’d seen, and such like. The most serious and suspicious question was rather accusatory and interrogative: “You’ve lived in South Korea for a year and you can’t speak the language?” In retrospect I should have burst out laughing, but all I said in reply was that Korean is a damn hard language to learn. The Texan told me all kinds of interesting things, and believed that the carrier was in the area just to train with the South Koreans, and that the fact that the Cheonan had just sunk a few months ago thanks to the impolite firing of a North Korean torpedo was just an unfortunate coincidence. In other news, a mountain of bullshit was recently discovered growing out of the earth like a volcano on the Korean peninsula…
After all kinds of handing over back and forth from this group of officials to that group of officials I was finally driven over to the gate and allowed to leave on rather good terms. Only after half an hour in a taxi did I begin giggling maniacally over the volley of machine gun bullets I had just dodged like one of the agents in The Matrix, weaving in and out of their paths with the powers of charm and luck (divine farr) rather than any sort of physical skill, how close I had come to making the acquaintance of the CIA’s famed underground torture bunkers scattered like subcutaneous pustules all over the planet, and god knows what else.
But the disturbing fact remains that I was only caught because I was innocent of any wrongdoing: I’m pretty sure that anyone who looked American and who possessed some form of American ID could have gotten onboard that ship. The crew consists of over five thousand people, which means (and I asked them about this) that the individual soldiers can’t remember every face, and that they must see new people all the time. The unfortunate Gargantua who checked my ID at the gate has probably, unfortunately, hopefully, and subsequently been sacked—and, if nothing less, the entire military is lucky that our enemies in the world are apparently not intelligent, charming, or daring enough to execute the kind of stunt accidentally perpetrated by some halfbreed Jew twiddling his thumbs in Busan: perhaps they assume that you have to dig a hole under the gate or swim across the Sea of Japan or parachute in from a passing crimson-colored cropduster to break into a high security area, when in reality the best infiltrators always stride in calmly through the front door and strike up a chat with the guards before blowing the entire place to kingdom come.
The thrill of adventure is as tasty as a beautiful woman’s kiss: I’m leaving for Turkey in one week and five days: stay tuned for more. I don’t plan on dancing ballet with the military a second time, because I will not escape a second time, and I am doubtless being watched by any number of fedora’d spies and spy satellites as it is, but life is too short to keep to the beaten path, and further inquisitions must follow.