The Stars at Night! Are Big and Bright!

Our plane landed just one hour after leaving Busan.

I looked outside my window and laid eyes on Jeju-do, the largest island in South Korea.

Travel had been a whirlwind ever since we arrived in the country, less than one day before the United States squad started their first round World Cup schedule.

I was still coming to grips with how small South Korea was compared to my home state of Texas.   In fact, it occurred to me this might be just the second time I’d ever been on an island, the first being Honshu just a week before.  Up until that point, life had been spent 100% on continental masses.  Although Jeju-do was only 50 miles away from the mainland, I felt a sense of remoteness and isolation.

As we taxied, I looked out my tiny window.  Although the hazy weather thwarted any attempts to survey all but the landscape closest to the aircraft, I still strained to pick out features like the new World Cup stadium or the island’s famous volcano.

Soon we arrived at the terminal, and I started to get excited.  Waiting for us inside was Shupe, an old friend of ours from the Bruce Hall days.  He had been in South Korea for several years, living simply while teaching English and scuba-diving.

Jim and I deplaned and found ourselves in a moderately-crowded terminal.  As expected, a majority of those present were Korean, although we did encounter some of our fellow football fanatics.  We had just touched down before a separate plane carrying the Slovenian squad, which was scheduled to play Paraguay the next day.  Their fan contingent was gathered just outside security, waving all sorts of banners and signs written in their native language.  Despite all of my years learning Spanish, Japanese, and German, I was fascinated at how foreign Slovenese appeared.

We still hadn’t encountered Shupe.  Jim and I started to question if we had gotten something mixed up.

Suddenly, a leather-jacket-wearing dude with sun-bleached blonde hair and glasses jumped out from behind a thick column.  It was Shupe.

Thrusting his forefinger high in the air, he belted out at the top of his lungs, “THE STARS AT NIGHT! ARE BIG AND BRIGHT!

And like any good Texan, Jim and I instinctively dropped our bags and responded. Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! “DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS!!!”

All surrounding Koreans turned their heads and looked upon us with wonder.  Awe-filled whispers of “Ahhhh! Texas!” filled the room.  Flashes went off as some captured the moment in photographs.

The First Folio

I drove down Church Street while Yancey kept a lookout for Mason Croft. I was still getting used to shifting gears with my left hand.

“There it is!” he gulped at the last possible second before I was to drive past.  Making a hard left, I pulled our car into the parking lot across the street and got my bearings.

The car had been so warm that I found myself reacquainted with the English chill when I opened the door.  I slipped a cap over my ears, zipped my jacket, and set foot in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Mason Croft was your typical English building, red-brick with white-trimmed windows and the air of dignity that came from age instead of notoriety.  Nothing on its exterior was remarkable or obviously declared it was home to The Shakespeare Institute.  I remember feeling slightly disappointed, figuring that any such facility located in the birthplace of such a great man should have been showier.  After all, everything across the pond screamed with some sort of advertising plastered on its facades.  “McDonalds!” “Taco Bell!” “UNT!”

Yancey and I walked inside Mason Croft and were greeted by several people.  Before we could introduce ourselves, one of them quickly figured out who we were. “You’re Jim‘s friends?  From Texas, correct?” she said  We nodded.

“Texas!” she declared once again, with a tone of disbelief.

“Umm, yes,” we said.

The others in the room picked up on our origin and soon came a fount of questions about our home state. Everyone present was a student at the Shakespeare Institute, and Jim was famous for being the Texas boy who wore cowboy boots each and every day.  The most detailed questions centered around pronunciation, a stickler for descendants of the inventors of the English language.

“You all don’t have Texas accents.  ‘You all’.  It’s ‘y’all’, isn’t it?”  They continued to practice as if they were participating in a foreign language class.  “Y’all.  Y’all.  Y’all,” this mantra they repeated until satisfied they could pronounce it better than us natives.  Others not y’alling were practicing the way to pronounce oil. “Awll! Awl!”

Once sufficient mastery on their part and mocking on ours, we graciously informed them of their success in properly vocalizing our state’s trademark colloquialisms.  At least we weren’t asked the inevitables such as, “Do you ride longhorns to school?” and “Where are your cowboy hats?”

Although these people we were meeting were quite interesting, there was one person I was dying to meet: Kate.  A Shakespearean from Hungary, Jim and Kate had struck up quite a relationship during the time both were studying in Stratford.  In the emails and phone calls I received from Jim, he spoke about her in ways he rarely had done for anyone else. It was definitely something more than just friends. And because Jim didn’t own a camera, I had never seen what she looked like.  So I scanned the room, trying to guess which one was Kate.

Then Jim finally arrived.  Upon his entrance, his classmates boomed, “Texas!,” the nickname he earned due to said boots — or to his green pullover emblazoned with “NORTH TEXAS” in giant letters.

It had been several months since I’d seen Jim, as I was in transition between Dallas and Austin while he had moved to Alabama — then England — during that time.  I had to travel half the world to meet up with him!  Our reunion was heartfelt as we gave each other a strong hug.  Jim turned to Yancey, an even older friend of his, and likewise welcomed him.  It wasn’t unusual for me to be in England, but Jim was somewhat surprised Yancey had made it.

Jim took a moment to ensure we’d been introduced to everyone present.  After getting the name of the final person present, I was disappointed to find out that Kate was not present.  We would have to meet her another time.

Soon, someone popped up to leave.  Several other people said their goodbyes to us then also disappeared. We asked Jim what was going on. He asked his classmates to wait up then turned to Yancey and me.

“Do you want to go see Shakespeare’s First Folio?”

Be the Reds!

The flight attendant gently shook me awake.

“Sir, we’re about to land. Please return your seat to the upright position.”

It took several moments for me to process her words, I had been sleeping so deeply. On this leg of the flight, I was fortunate enough to have a window seat. I looked outside but could see nothing but the inky blackness of the Yellow Sea below. The lights of Incheon International Airport soon blinked into sight, and after a routine landing I was on the ground thousands of miles from home.

One-and-a-half decades of dreaming of Asia were finally coming true. I was in Korea on opening night of the 2002 World Cup.

We filtered out of the airplane and sifted ourselves into evenly-spaced lines at customs. Incheon was a brand-new airport, built on an island far west of the capital Seoul. Built as a shiny yet inanimate ambassador to those like myself that had never set food in Asia, it was designed to be large and efficient. No less than fifteen booths were manned with customs inspectors, a far larger number than I had seen in my previous foreign travels. Behind the booths was a broad balcony overlooking the lower floor of the airport and its baggage claims and shops.

Either I was still asleep, or processing passengers seemed to take longer than expected. Yet after moving in the air for fourteen hours, I was in little rush to move any faster than I had to.

Suddenly, the air was snapped by a sonic boom of human design. It began downstairs in the baggage claim area. Like an tsunami of sound, it swept upwards into the customs area and blew past us, so concussive that I felt the hairs on my arm snap to attention. It was a loud roar, a cacophony of humans cheering, and the building shook from its power.

Before we could process what happened, a door on the far right wall opened up. Out popped the customs supervisor.

He was yelling something in Korean as he briskly approached past each agent’s stand. Occasionally, he grasped an agent by their shoulders, looked steady into their eyes, and quickly exclaimed the same untranslatable news.

Several agents popped up and ran off downstairs, leaving their boothes unmanned and us standing in line. If we so chose, we could have snuck into the country illegally without gettng our passports stamped. Those agents remaining were high-fiving and hugging one another. Quickly, the roar subsided, the absent agents returned to their posts, and our processing continued. We still had no idea what had just happened/

I got through security, headed downstairs, and scanned the crowd, hoping to find the friendly face I expected. Behind me, I heard a familiar voice.

Spam!

Noone else in Korea could be expected to answer to that name. I whirled around, and there was my best friend Jim. He had been on a separate, earlier flight to Korea — he had apparently made it alright. We embraced in relief at seeing one another.

I asked Jim what the hell was going on. The roar, the ensuing chaos. “Oh, you mean everyone celebrating the South Korean team scoring?”

It turns out that the noise was the collective celebration of an entire scoring their second goal of the night against mighty Poland, during the World Cup opening game that was ocurring right at that very moment.

Jim waved his hand towards the several flat-screen televisions mounted in the terminal. Each was broadcasting the game live. Jim explained that when Korea scored its earlier goal, the entire building exploded in a similar celebration. The scary thing was that everyone, from security guards to shopkeepers and cab drivers — abandoned their duties upon each score. Each left their post in a rush towards the nearest television, which would replay the glorious, impossible moment several times. The World Cup was amazingly important to South Koreans, so much so that they’d be willing to leave the airport momentarily defenseless in order to share a moment as a nation. The place could have been robbed blind, or a bomb set off, and noone would have noticed anything but Hwang Sun-Hong pounding home what would prove to be the only goal needed by The Reds.

Now that both of us had arrived, we had a ride to meet. We went out to the curb, where Jim introducted me to our driver for the evening. He was to drive us the long route from Incheon to Seoul, where we would be staying at the home of a family whom we had never met before. We could only hope they spoke English.

April 9, 2022

Everything was loaded in my truck Kilgore. I returned to my vacant apartment to perform one last survey and ensure that I didn’t forget anything before hitting the road to Austin, my next in a long string of hometowns. Just as I thought, nothing remained — except for my time capsule.

A petty cash box purchased from Office Depot, I had spent the past several years collecting the flotsam I intended to bury the day I finally moved out of Bruce Hall for good. Each item represented both my current time and place in the world:

  • One of my laminated ID cards from the North Texas Premiere Soccer Association, within which my team The Mama’s Boys competed
  • The operating manual to my first computer, a Intel 386SX with added math co-processor
  • Various photographs of family and friends, all of which I hoped I would remember
  • A VHS video cassette featuring a Kenmore advertising campaign, a separate contribution from my ex-girlfriend and fellow creative Margo
  • Tassles from both my high school and college graduation mortarboards
  • A small tin of Spam, my calling card
  • A black spiral-bound journal filled with sentiments from cover-to-cover

One by one, I added the items to the box, never pausing to consider their symbolism. After all, I had stared at these trinkets for over a thousand days, ever since I decided to create a time capsule on April 9, 1997, the day that the population of Bruce Hall buried a time capsule in commemoration of its 50th anniversary. With so much time cohabitating with such trinkets, they held no more intrigue. However, the last item in the list forced me to pause and ponder its contents.

In my hands was the black journal, whose insides I never once saw. For the past three years, I carried the journal everywhere I went, asking everyone I met to write whatever they wanted inside. I promised them I would not read the journal until I opened my time capsule a quarter of a century later. Contributors were not bound by my self-imposed trust, and in fact I encouraged them to read it. Sometimes, the journal would disappear for days, as my friends took the time to read it cover-to-cover. On occasion, I would hear a report that some daring things had been written inside. I know that some of the authors were girls I liked at the time, and for years I wondered if they used my journal to confess any romantic sentiments.

My mind returned to the present and the journal before me. Right before I was to hide the book for decades, I was tempted one final time to sneak a peek. Doing so would spoil the wonderful treasure I created and the joy I would feel when rediscovering it,. This chance to preserve a slice of my youth was too precious. With a grin, inside the box went the book. I gently closed the lid, turned the lock, and slipped the tiny key into my pocket, where it sits to this day mingling with my other keys.

Nearby was a stack of white vinyl stickers, each adorned with the green University of North Texas logo. Leftover as spirit giveaways from years of attending student housing conferences, I peeled the backing off each and adhered them to the outside of the time capsule, layering them like shingles on a roof. Soon enough, the entire box was uniform in outward appearance and quite well-sealed against the elements. The only feature exposed was the clear plastic window behind which I slipped the following note:

Ahoy, fellow spelunker!

This is my time capsule that was buried during the ancient 20th century. It is intended to remain closed until April 9, 2022, twenty-file years after I first began to amass its contents. Please do not remove or open this time capsule, as I plan to return that Spring day to retrieve my belongings. So if you are reading this, please put it back where you found it — and consider yourself invited to that day’s opening festivities. I look forward to meeting you then.

As ever,

Matthew

My time capsule was complete. Now came time to secret it deep within the bowels of Bruce.

Because I had already turned in the master key, the prime regalia of my recently-vacated job as hall director, I borrowed the submaster key from the key box downstairs. It would prove good enough to get me where I needed to go. Soon enough, I was on my hands and knees, crawling in dark passages, hiding my treasure in a dark, dank location known only to myself and Jim, in case I am personally unable to return 22 years from now.

I emerged from the expedition with caked dust on my shoulders and the musty smell lingering within my nostrils. It was a melancholy scent, as the fact I could smell it meant all of my work, my purpose, at Bruce Hall was now complete. It was time to leave Denton behind, and along with it the bittersweet memories of the past year spent trying to ride things out.

I returned to the key box both the submaster and my apartment key. Then I headed out the back door, hopped in Kilgore, and drove away to my new life.

Spicy? Or Mild?

The great exterior to Steve’s BBQ, before it burned down. Photo from Democratic Underground
Most every day, I bumped into Jim and would ask if he was up for lunch. Most every day, he said yes. And most every day, when I asked him what he was in the mood for, he would chirp, “Steve’s BBQ!” At that point, I had lived in Denton for about five years. Although I was familiar with Steve’s, I can’t say I ever made a visit.

Steve’s BBQ was a Denton staple. Located on the east side of downtown, it’s red-and-yellow striped facade and belching smoke could be seen and smelt a mile away. The tiny building was both business and home for Steve Logan, a gruff, matter-of-fact gentleman who had been cooking barbeque for nearly two decades. Legend has it that he started the place, then later sold it and absconded to Jamaica, where he did God knows what. While abroad, he heard through the grapevine that the new owners just weren’t doing things right. So he came back to town, purchased his former business, and resumed barbequing with a secret rub recipe that also returned to Denton. In reality, he secured the recipe from a friend with the help of some beer, but I always perfer the myth.

The first time I visited, I went with Jim and Rob. “Have a snack and you’ll be back” proclaimed a sign on the front door. Walking inside was like stepping into the Tardis: the inside was bigger than the outside, but just slightly. It consisted of one room with some tables and bench seats. Pale light filtered through the small front windows and an opening to the kitchen behind the rear counter. Everything was dim and monotone, a dark tint of raw umber. Besides us, the place was deserted.

One of the first things I noticed were strange rectangular carvings decorating the walls. I couldn’t tell exactly what they were, so I approached one in order to make a more detailed inspection. Although murky, I could have sworn that its surface held some sort of text. I squinted my eyes, inspected further, and made out the words, “Harry Connick Jr.” This rectangle, along with the others surrounding it, were autographs of celebrities that had eaten here. And each one was laminated with so much soot and grease that they were virtually indistinguishable from the brown walls on which they hung.

Steve Logan. Photo from the film Barbeque: A Texas Love Story
As I approached the back of the room, I could hear the voice of Chuck Woolery echoing towards me. I came up to the counter and before me was Steve.

He was sitting on a low chair, crouching next to his smoker. Although the smoker was indoors and lazy sparks occasionally shot out, Steve’s attention was fixed on a nearby television that was broadcasting Love Connection.

Taped to the countertop were ragged sheets of paper which once held a neatly-typed menu. These days, the papers were tattered, covered with handwritten corrections and changes. If I didn’t know better, one would think these were the original menus from 1983.

Steve got up from his chair, greeted us, and asked what we’d like. I ordered the chopped beef sandwich.

Steve then asked, “Spicy? Or mild?” I shrugged and ordered mild.

Rob was next, and he ordered the pork ribs, which the menu said came with beans. He asked, “Can I substitute the beans for coleslaw?”

Steve looked at him and barked, “The menu says it comes with beans.” Rob silently stared, blinked a couple of times, then said, “Well…ok.” Never contradict The Menu, sayeth the Lord.

Our food was warm and smelled delicious. But after only a couple bites of my sandwich, I found myself reaching for water because the barbeque was so freakin’ hot. As the years passed by and I became a regular at Steve’s BBQ, I would come to discover that although Steve is polite enough to ask you, “Spicy? Or Mild?”, it’s always going to be spicy, no matter what. So you might as well always respond, “Spicy!”

Years after I moved away from Denton, I heard through the grapevine that Steve’s BBQ burned down. As I mentioned once before, the building served a dual purpose as both restaurant and home. When it went up in smoke, so did everything that Steve Logan owned because he didn’t have insurance.

It’s a testament to both him and the local community that that donations for rebuilding started to pour in. The local bank setup a relief fund, local entrepeneurs stepped up to the plate by donating money and services, and area bands like Centro-Matic performed benefit concerts that raked in much-needed cash. Steve has plans to rebuild the place just like it was , with the exception of two small changes: he’ll use a steel frame instead of wood, and this time the smoker will be outside. I have no idea where he’ll watch his Love Connection, but I do hope that he brings back those worn-out paper menus. Oh yes, and the grease-lacquered walls.