Metallica, Maine lobsters, tiny cards, little hellions, superstitions, Suwon & whole different ballgames.
I believe in magic even though I don’t. I don’t believe that a wave of the hand and a magical word will change anything, that a charm held a certain way has any power outside of someone’s mind. Despite that, I believe that the Metallica song “Whiskey in the Jar” catches lobsters, and that Park Sae-Jin is a magical name.
As a kid it was easier to believe in magic and superstition, like when I found a bunch of keys strung on a piece of wire. Bad things started to happen. I cut my finger. The Houston Oilers lost a football game. I was convinced it was a jinx, so I hid them in some bushes. When I found them a year later, by accident, I skinned my knee. Then I went from thinking it was bad luck to knowing, somewhere deep in my being, that it was. I threw them in the river in a mud flat. They are probably still there.
On the other hand, I have bought little lucky souvenirs while traveling, like a golden Buddha in Hong Kong, a cross from where they have the Holy Grail in Valencia, a magic hand from Brazil, a glass blue eye from Lebanon, a magic bullet from Morocco and a dream catcher from Wounded Knee, South Dakota. I have a bunch of them; I don’t know if I really believe that they are lucky, but they can’t hurt.
I tutored a businessman and his wife while I was over there, and the couple had given me a different Korean name to use when we spoke Korean. The little girls were angry when they heard about that; they said that didn’t those pabo (stupid) people know that my name was Park Sae-Jin?
I was twenty-eight when I moved to Korea to teach English in 1996. I taught kids, mostly. They came after their regular school day was over to ECC Nam Suwon, our language institute on the south side of the city of Suwon, about an hour south of Seoul. It was terrible at first. I couldn’t get the kids to behave. Being abroad wasn’t easy either. Living in a different country is the sort of thing that looks good on paper until you’re on the other side of the world, staring down the business end of a one-year contract. All of the little things, like buying groceries, getting to work, paying your bills, are a whole different ballgame when you can’t read, write, or speak the local language. Little by little I learned to do all of those things, by taping Korean words all over my apartment, making flashcards, memorizing the alphabet and learning some phrases. I ate mostly Korean food, gambled with my neighbors downstairs over tiny cards, and used only chopsticks and a spoon for cutlery. I didn’t own a fork. By the time I left, seventeen months later, I was a fairly functional Korean.
Getting a feel for teaching took time as well. After five or six rough months, I realized one day that it was my class. It seems like a self-evident concept, but it took a while for it to sink into my skull. It didn’t matter if the kids were difficult or not; they were just kids. There were no excuses. I had full responsibility for every class I taught, because ultimately if the class went poorly it was because I did not do a good job of teaching. Part of teaching is classroom management, so I had to find a way to keep the little hellions in line. I learned that you can never be more of a hard-ass than you are on your first day. Start out on the authoritarian side for the first couple of weeks and then be nice, because if you try the other way around, when it is time to drop the hammer, no one will take you seriously.
I also found out that positive reinforcement trumps negative reinforcement. I gave out tiny stickers that cost next to nothing for a hundred a sheet. Every kid started out the class with the potential to get three stickers. If they acted up, they lost one. If there was a rowdy class, they would all lose one at the same time. If one kid was refusing to behave, I let the pack take care of it; every kid in the class lost a sticker if some wiseacre wouldn’t shut up or sit down. They self-policed after a while. I learned to be fair and enforce the letter of the law, and the rules came to really mean something to them. I gave them little blank books; when they filled the books, they got prizes. The school owner doled them out—small things like pencils, pens or miniature notebooks—and the kids loved them. They loved them because they represented an entire page of stickers, all of those little rewards boiled down to a mechanical pencil or a fine-line pen. After I took total responsibility for my classes, learned to be hard for the first few weeks and nice after that, and started using the stickers, my job became almost easy. A lot of the kids that had been so difficult in the beginning cried when they found out I was leaving a year and a half later.
Two of the best students were good friends, a couple of girls about nine or ten years old. One was hyper and always had more to say than her level of English would quite let her articulate. The other girl was shy; her mother had died. Having had the same thing happen to me, I identified with her. They gave me a Korean name and called me Park Sae-Jin, because they had the same family name, Park. The first name was a combination of parts of their names to make a man’s name. They were delighted when they made it up, and handed it to me written in Korean letters on a piece of lined paper, drawn in a thick highlighter outlined in pen. They told me that when I was in Korea, it was my name. They were very serious about this, as serious as the rules for stickers in class. It wasn’t some passing thing; to them, that was my name the rest of the time I taught there. I tutored a businessman and his wife while I was over there, and the couple had given me a different Korean name to use when we spoke Korean. The little girls were angry when they heard about that; they said that didn’t those pabo (stupid) people know that my name was Park Sae-Jin?
He is an optimist anyway, but it came on the radio and one time he said, “Have you noticed how every time this song comes on we nail ’em?” and the next string of traps came splashing up loaded with so many lobsters that I could barely keep up with all of the banding and measuring.
When I got back stateside, I went back home to Bernard, Maine, and started lobstering with Cooly, an old friend from high school. I made more money in a week than I had in a month teaching overseas. I loved fishing, especially when we caught a lot of lobsters—had what we called “smashing hauls.” Somehow, in 1999, Cooly started getting superstitious about songs. Each day, I woke up before four in the morning. I would turn MTV on and watch a few music videos while I ate cereal and drank coffee in the dark and quiet. When I heard the song “Space Lord” by Monster Magnet, or “Celebrity Skin” by Hole, we seemed to do better. It was silly, but it got so Cooly would ask me as soon as I got into the pickup truck, “Did you hear ‘Space Lord?’ How about Hole, ‘Celebrity Skin?’” If I said no, he would look slightly dejected; if I said yes, he’d laugh happily. And we did seem to do better when we heard those songs, but it was never like “Whiskey in the Jar.”
It is one of those things that I still feel foolish for believing, but I saw the results of it again and again, so even though my rational mind knows that it is coincidence, I am certain it isn’t. When we were out on the water, whenever we heard Metallica’s cover of “Whiskey in the Jar” on the radio the next bunch of traps would come up gilled with lobsters. It wasn’t played often, just once a day or two, but when it came on we would totally hammer them. It was Cooly who first noticed it. He is an optimist anyway, but it came on the radio and one time he said, “Have you noticed how every time this song comes on we nail ’em?” and the next string of traps came splashing up loaded with so many lobsters that I could barely keep up with all of the banding and measuring. That time I shook my head and brushed it off as a curiosity. Then it happened again. And again. It is not that it worked some of the time, or most of the time; it worked every single time. After a good dozen times in a row, we would just yell as loud as we could when we heard it, and we would have a great run of traps.
That October, we tried to set the all-time single-day-catch record at Thurston’s wharf. We were hauling traps at the Outer Ledge before dawn, and I needed lights to see well enough to band the lobsters. All day we raced against time and didn’t take any breaks. I ate sandwiches or some Chunky soup right out of the can on the way from one string of traps to another. We started off strong, but toward the end of the day most of the traps were coming up empty. We figured we had about nine hundred pounds before our last string. It looked like we weren’t going to beat the 1,010-pound record Cooly’s father had set a couple of weeks before. I sunk inside. We had been so close. Then “Whiskey in the Jar” came on the radio. Cooly turned back at me from the wheel and smiled. I nodded. The music echoed off the rocky shoreline and the evergreen trees to our starboard side. It felt like a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter with a few seconds left. The next string, off Placentia Island, was one of the best we ever had, and in a place that had been awful the week before and was terrible the week after. Trap after sweet trap came aboard gilled, dripping with seaweed, kelp and snapping lobsters. We steamed into the harbor in the dark with 1,096 pounds.
That winter, in Argentina, I became friends with Jacqueline. I had to get back to Brazil, where I was teaching, and although I had hoped to hang out with her one last time, the bus was leaving right away and I had to take it. In the Buenos Aires bus station, loudspeakers played a different version of “Whiskey in the Jar,” by a band from the 1970s. I called Jacqueline to tell her I wasn’t going to make it back into town. She said she knew she wasn’t going to see me again this trip. I told her I was sorry, but I had to get to Brazil. In the background, I heard something almost overlapping what I was hearing in the station.
Trap after sweet trap came aboard gilled, dripping with seaweed, kelp, and snapping lobsters. We steamed into the harbor in the dark with 1,096 pounds.
“What are you listening to?” I asked.
“Metallica,” she said.
“What song? ‘Whiskey in the Jar?’” I asked.
“You can hear it?” she asked, and I could, although it was fighting with the other version playing in the bus station. It was a coincidence, I know, but it is still the only time that I have had heard two versions of a song on either end of a phone call. Sometimes even now I listen to the song only in snatches because I want to save the whole thing for something serious.
I still don’t believe in the magic in those things, for good or ill, at least in my rational mind. But it is hard to tell that to my heart. It knows “Whiskey in the Jar” is the luckiest lobstering song in the world, full of happy good fishing magic. The rational side of my brain thinks my attachment to the song is just like how those Korean kids held the prize pens and pencils in such prestige, when they were really just junk. But that rational side of my mind was flabbergasted into silence the day I bought my ticket to leave Korea. I went to a travel agency and bought a flight to Vienna. I was going to spend the money I had saved on a trip to Europe, so that when I finally did go home I would have flown around the world to get there. The travel agency was full of desks under fluorescent lights, like a police detective squad room from the 1970s. I had a seat across from one of the agents while he plugged dates into a computer and waited for a price. I got a great deal. I counted out the money in cash on the table and handed it to him. As he recounted it, I glanced at his nametag.
His name was Park Sae-Jin.
Franklin H. Price is an underwater archaeologist, scientific diver and boat captain. In addition to academic journals, his writing has appeared in Diver, Sea History and Alert Diver, among other publications, and has been translated into Russian in Yuri Senkevich Traveler’s Club. His undersea photos and images have been featured in Dive Training, Atlanta and US Airways Magazine. In his spare time, he trains in and coaches grappling, kickboxing and mixed martial arts. He lives with his wife, Margaret, in Tallahassee, Florida.
Lead image: Anastasia Taioglou