Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Roads of Grace
(If you click on an image you will be able to see it at full image size)
I wake up in the dark and it takes a moment to recall why my watch is beeping. All around me young men my age are sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags like mine. There’s another room down the hall where the girls are sleeping. The floor is cold which makes my back hurt most mornings and the room is cold enough that my breath makes puffs of steam. I sleep with my clothes on, especially my double pair of socks. As long as my feet are warm the rest of me is okay. This cold air is really hell on film chemistry. You’re supposed to use warm water to mix photo chemicals in.
I reach into my back pack and take out my camera, a Nikon F single lens reflex I picked up in a pawn shop in Manhatten a couple months ago. I flip out the tiny rewind lever and switch the sprocket gear to reverse and start rewinding the day's film. Guys are snoring. Somebody’s mumbling. We’re a lean bunch, young men at the height of hormonal madness and pledged to celibacy. Metabolism revved high without a woman’s clever skill to give it relief. Men without anything resembling a sex life except what you can do alone when no one is around.
I hear the film snick off the take up reel, give it a little twist, and pop open the back of the camera.
Digital cameras won’t be invented for another fifteen years. The internet is still a nameless military project being played around with in some university computer labs. I haven’t met my wife yet. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a kid yet. I’ve only fucked once in my whole life, and my religious sect leaves me constantly racked with guilt over it on top of my unbearable daily need. Sex is a curse for me, not yet a literary game.
I cup the hand rolled cassette of film in my palm and stash it in my shirt pocket and fish around in a suitcase, trying to stay quiet. The stainless steel tank feels like ice. A little more spidering around with my hand and I fetch up a plastic bottle of Agfa Rodinal, a squat square bottle of ascetic acid for stop bath, and a plastic bottle of Kodak Rapid Fix.
I put the bottles on the floor. The floor of the old farmhouse is made from wood planks that are generations old. The wood is covered with a kind of thick linoleum matting that makes it a little softer to walk and sleep on. Under the house is a crawl space between the floor and a kind of second foundational floor. Soon the little grandma of the house, a tiny, wiry old lady who looks like Mammy Yokum, will awaken with the kind of instinctive interior clock that roosters and animals have, and pull some frozen wood from a pile out next to the outhouse and start a fire. When the fire is going good she’ll put some rocks in it. When these rocks are good and hot she’ll pile them in the crawl space and the floor under the sleeping bags will start to get really warm. That’s central heating in the Korean countryside, the same way they’re done it for a thousand years. But till then I have the kitchen to myself.
I take the steel film tank and bring it into my sleeping bag and zip up over my head so I’m cocooned in there. This is as close to light tight as I can get, and with high speed film like Tri X pan you have to be very light tight. This is my private space on the road. I roll film in it. Sleep in it. Sometimes quietly jerk myself off in it when I can’t stand it another second. Celibacy sucks when you’re young and single. I can’t imagine yet what it will be like to be married and sleep every night with a woman and reach for her whenever you’re feeling it.
I pop the top and take out the reel and pry the bottom off the film cassette. This film comes off a 100 foot “bulk” reel of Tri X I bought in a camera supply before I left Manhattan for Korea. It’s the only way I could afford to shoot like crazy. Memory cards haven’t been invented yet either. When you’re out of film you’re out of luck.
With thumbs and careful patience I roll up the film on the reel, screwing it up a couple of times, starting over, watching out for kinks. Finally the reel goes back in the tank, and I’m able to pop the top back. By this time I’m sweating from concentration and breathing my own steam.
The villages are slapped together and fascinating. There is food everywhere you go. The people we stay with are often poor but the group leader carries money and buys food for the group which the women cook. At every meal there are oceans of fermented cabbage, even for breakfast. Kim Chi is brewed is gigantic clay jars and eaten over the cold winters, and is the ultimate comfort food for a Korean, king or peasant, rich or poor. Everywhere you go, any where in the world, food is the universal symbol of welcome.
I step through the sleeping bodies and go to the kitchen. There’s a little sink connected to a fresh mountain well and I mix up a batch of Rodinal and pour it in the tank, checking the time on my watch by moonlight. I chose Rodinal because I expected the locals not to have any hot water to dissolve chemical crystals in and Rodinal is a liquid so it mixes well, even in cold water. They don’t have electric lights here. I shake the tank gently for the required time, plus a guesstimate of a few extra minutes for the cold water, drain it and mix up a little acid stop bath and pour that in for a minute. Stop bath turns off the developer. I pour that out and mix up some film fix and pour that in. Film fix is to preserve the image engraved in the silver halide of the film base so the light doesn’t burn it away after you take it out. It doesn’t “fix” your image if you’re a lousy shot. That’s Photoshop. That hasn’t been invented yet either.
I rinse it out and pop the top. This water isn’t so good for photochemistry because its icy cold and it has impurities. What you drink is barley tea they make in a big pot on the stove after thoroughly boiling the water with toasted barley grains. That's what people everywhere drank before water purification was invented. Beer. Wine. Boiled coffee and tea. It was simple water that would kill you. Here in the country unboiled water will make you all kinds of sick.
I’m in the middle of one of the great adventures of my life. And the great thing is that I had time to plan for it and exactly what I would do. A group asked me to go to Korea with some other young folks and participate on a good will tour of the mountainous rural country of Kang Won Do. This isn’t the Korea that tourists and soldiers see. This is plain folks Korea. The group I’m with travels from town to town, staying with local people, very often in farm country. It’s March 1984 and there’s still snow on the ground.
My camera and my little dark-room-in-a-sleeping-bag rig travels everywhere with me. Factories. Opera theaters. Farm houses. Mountains. Dirt roads. These are people and a way of life I will never see again anywhere and its my first exposure to the way the rest of the world lives. It’s a hard scrabble life, yes, but its also small town life where everybody knows each other. Its tribe and family with farms worked by father and son going back hundreds of years, and three generations of people living in the same small house.
In 1984 this is a country on edge. North Korea is just on the other side of the mountains. When I turn on my little transistor radio half the stations are jammed. We’re jamming North Korea’s broadcasts and they’re jamming ours, all but the music stations. When you go through the road tunnels in the mountains you see dynamite charges planted in the walls, ready to bring down the tunnels if the north suddenly invades. Secret tunnels are constantly being discovered in the hills and forests, dug by the North Koreans to send troops through if they’re suddenly ordered to go. One of the tunnels we were allowed to see has a guy planted in front of it with a 50 cal machine gun on a tripod. The gun is pointed at something that looks like a door. Somebody listens for sounds behind that door, 24- 7. It seems weird and other worldly.
I pull the film off the reel and a flashlight beam waves around the wall. The old farmer is staring at me, he doesn’t know what to make of me standing in the kitchen like a burgler with my tools. “Mool-aye oh??” (what is this?) He points with the flashlight
“Pee-lim ee-sayo.” (There is film) I hold up the film strip so he can see. My Korean is very broken and my accent is so goofy most people can’t tell what I’m saying anyway. “Moon-jae up sayo. Ne?” (no problem, yes?)
He shakes his head and mutters something bubble-bubble with the word “mee-kuk” in there somewhere which means “American.” I think he’s saying Americans are nuts.