My Visit To South Korea

Crafts in a war zone?

by Mike Hartnett (April 15, 2013)

First, a little background: During the cold war, Congress threw money at the military, and so no one was very concerned about the craft stores on military bases making money, or even breaking even.

But budgets were cut after communism collapsed, so the plan was to try to make the stores better so they wouldn’t be a drain. Someone at the Air Force decided to hire Jackie George, a columnist for Craftrends magazine, to work with the store managers. Jackie, a former craft store owner, had been giving numerous seminars on retail management at industry trade shows.

There was to be a meeting of the managers of the stores in the “Pacific theater”; Jackie would give seminars on running a store, and I was invited to tag along and talk to the managers. The year was 1994.

The meeting came shortly after a trade show in Calgary that Jackie and I were attending, and the Air Force arranged our transportation from Calgary to the base at Osan and back home. All our flights were commercial, and why the Air Force arranged it the way they did, I have no idea.

We could have flown from Calgary to Seattle to Seoul, but apparently that was much too simple for the Air Force. Instead, they had us fly from Calgary to Spokane to Seattle to Tokyo to Seoul, where a military shuttle would take us the 30 miles to the base.

Start to finish, it was 27 hours, numerous time zones, and across the international dateline. It gave new meaning to the term, “jet lag.”

At the Seattle airport, I picked up a copy of the new Timemagazine that had the North Korean dictator, the grandfather of the current leader, on the cover, and behind him were angry red flames. The headline: “The Winds of War.” He was angry because the U.S. had sent specially equipped radar planes to Osan; he said this was an act of war and he would retaliate.

So we finally arrive at the base’s visitors’ motel. (Yes, in addition to craft stores, bases have motels for visitors.) We’re almost incoherent from jet lag, we’ve flown into what looks like will be a war zone, and the motel clerk says, “Sorry, we’re all filled up. You’ll have to stay off base.”


The Hotel

Our civilian guide takes us to a hotel a block away. Blocking the front door are about a half dozen hookers. (Trust me, the way they were dressed, they were hookers.) We squeeze our way between them and enter the tackiest hotel lobby I’ve ever seen.

We walk to the front desk and realize the clerk behind the desk is sound asleep.

We wake him up and ask for two rooms. He looks at me; he looks at Jackie, who was very attractive, and says, “Why you want two rooms? You no need two rooms.”

That was the last straw. I pounded my fist on the desk and said, “GIVE US TWO ROOMS!”

The clerk shook his head, thinking, “Those crazy Americans,” and gave us two keys. The rooms were on the second floor, and there was no elevator, and certainly no bellmen.

We lugged our suitcases upstairs, and Jackie was worried about going to her room. “Let me see your room first.”

The room was as tacky as the lobby; there were so few lights in the room, you couldn’t read in it. But it seemed to be clean, so Jackie walked down the hall to her room.

Then I heard her scream.

I ran to her room. She was standing at the doorway, wide-eyed, pointing at the bed.

There on the pillow was a little gift from the hotel management. But instead of it being a chocolate or a mint, it was an unused prophylactic.

I disposed of the prophylactic and returned to my room and was asleep in about a minute.

The next morning I went into the bathroom and discovered a very unusual shower stall. The tub was triangular, much too small to sit in. But it worked ok and so I took my shower. When I finished and reached down to pull the plug, I realized the drain was not in the shower but in the bathroom floor, and the plug was at the bottom of one of the tub’s walls.

Apparently the way it worked, you took your shower, did everything you needed to do in the bathroom, then when you were leaving for the day, you reached down and pulled the plug. Then you jumped out of the way as the water rushed out onto the bathroom floor and down the drain.

The People & The Store

I have nothing but good things to say about the people – the store managers and the members of the military we met while eating at the officer’s club. Smart, nice, and accustomed to living under the gun.

The store was very rudimentary. No typical fixtures and a very limited inventory. It also had a good sized room filled with woodworking equipment the airmen could use. (The Air Force did not make the distinction between “crafts” and “hobbies.”)


We spent a day in Seoul and I was struck by two things that puzzled me: Seoul is a world capital, but the architecture is pretty ugly. The streets were crowded, but you saw very few elderly people – almost no white hair.

When I returned home, I read about the Korean war and learned the answers to my questions. During the war, Seoul was conquered four times. First by the communists, then by the South Koreans/Americans. Then the Chinese entered the war and took the city back. Finally our forces retook the city. Think how destroyed the city must have been when the armistice was signed.

Forty years later, Seoul is a world capital of 10 million people. Apparently during the rebuilding, there wasn’t time for architectural niceties.

And why no elderly people? The war killed 3.5 million people.