Living History, Part Two

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: The Shetland Isles, Scotland

Living History

One day in Seoul, we were waiting for the elevator in our hotel. When it opened, we joined two little old ladies (and I do mean both little and old). Our room was on the twenty-ninth floor (it was a multi-use building, with offices and apartments on the lower floors), so I had a couple of minutes to study them. One was holding a large package wrapped in brown paper; the shape suggested a framed wall hanging. The other had a ladder.

These two woman had to be eighty years old, but there they were, in the elevator of a big-city high rise, getting ready for a little DIY decorating.

I did some quick math. The Korean War started in 1950. That was seventy years ago. If those two women are eighty years old in 2020, they would’ve been ten years old at the beginning of the war, thirteen when it ended.

Now, I did some reading about the Korean War when we were there. South Korea (technically the ROK) was pretty much flattened, and the economy was completely devastated. For decades afterward, there was widespread hardship, famine, and deprivation. The hard work that powered the economic recovery (South Korea now has one of the world’s biggest economies) is difficult to comprehend.

So perhaps it makes a certain amount of sense that those two little old ladies were lugging their own ladder around in the elevator. I mean, if you spent your youth surviving a war and rebuilding a country, brick by brick, investing your own blood-sweat-tears, how hard can it be to hang a picture on the wall?

I find that kind of math fascinating. I did it in Berlin, as well. We were on the city bus at rush hour one day, surrounded by people going to work—men, women, old, young, wearing everything from business suits to coveralls. At some point, I saw a man who looked a little older than Lee, wearing a suit that reminded me of all those years when Lee dressed up in a suit and wing tips to go to court.

That was when I started doing math. Being in Berlin, we had been learning about the Stasi, and the former German Democratic Republic (what I knew, growing up, as East Germany). The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, in the fall of my senior year of college. I remember that, vividly. Lee, who is a few years older than I am, had graduated from law school and was in the early years of his career.

So if the man in the suit was, say, five years older than Lee, he would’ve been maybe thirty-three when the Wall came down.

It would be entirely plausible that he might have been a practicing lawyer in 1989, working as a prosecutor for the East German government. It would be equally plausible that the man in coveralls sitting across from him had been a dissident, or political prisoner, or maybe just an angry young man with a penchant for bootlegged rock music.

I sat on the bus, thinking about that math, and wondering about those lives. What would it be like to live through a change like the fall of the Berlin Wall? What are the chances that your neighbor, in 2020, is the judge who sentenced you to an East German prison? Do you now live peaceably in a united, democratic Germany? What happened to all those old resentments?

Math. It brings history to life.

From my writer’s notebook:

There’s a Ninja museum in Iga, Japan. A couple of weeks ago, the museum closed at its normal time, 5:30 pm. A few minutes later, thieves entered, broke down the office door, and walked out with the safe, which weighed over three hundred pounds. They got away with almost ten thousand dollars. Start to finish, under three minutes.

Ninja museum.

Take care,


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