In Delft, the Netherlands: Plenty of porcelain, a tile workshop and the birthplace of Vermeer

This faithful rendition of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” took two master Royal Delft artists more than a year to complete. A total of 480 tiles are securely attached to listels on a wooden frame so that the 13-by-16-foot mural can travel to exhibitions. Otherwise, it is on display at the Royal Delft museum in Delft.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Perhaps the most famous of Rembrandt’s artworks is the 1642 masterpiece “The Night Watch,” which claims pride of place in Amsterdam’s vast Rijksmuseum. Measuring about 13 by 16 feet, it takes up nearly a full wall and is the largest oil painting he ever completed.

Its official name is “Militia Company of District II Under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq,” and it depicts the members of a civic guard, Amsterdam’s militia and police. In all, 19 guardsmen are accompanied by 16 other figures, giving a range of motion and emotion to the setting.

The captain, clad mostly in black except for a white ruffed collar and a red sash extending from his right shoulder diagonally across his body, dominates the center of the painting. With his outstretch left arm, a slash of light illuminating his white cuff, he’s making a point to the militia member to his left (the viewer’s right), Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch, who, dressed mostly in white garments, is a striking contrast to the captain.

Now imagine “The Night Watch” rendered in another medium, posing maybe even a bigger challenge than what Rembrandt (1606-1669) undertook. He had a range of colors to choose from on his palette, and his genius is evident in his use of shadow and light.

What I’m referring to is this work almost exclusively illustrated in shades of blue and white, and painted on ceramic tiles. It took two Royal Delft master artists more than a year (1999-2000) to faithfully copy Rembrandt’s original, the most difficult piece the famed porcelain company has undertaken to date.

The tile “Night Watch” was executed to coincide with an exhibition at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague (about 20 minutes by tram from Delft). The 480 tiles, each more than 7 inches square (18 cm), are not cemented on a wall at the Royal Delft museum, but securely attached to listels on a wooden frame so that “The Night Watch” can travel. It is nearly equal in size to the painting.

This tribute to the Dutch master can be seen, along with hundreds of other more delicate examples of fine porcelain plates and vases and other shapes at the factory and showroom in the city of Delft, an easy train trip of less than an hour from Amsterdam. And better yet, you can also take a workshop to make your own Delft tile.

I had long wanted to visit Delft, not just because of an interest in pottery and ceramics but also because it was where Johannes (aka Jan) Vermeer (1632-1675) lived and painted his sublime portraits of everyday life during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century.

One of Vermeer’s works, “The Little Street” (circa 1658), also gets the tile treatment at Royal Delft. The house on the right in his painting shows the dwelling at the address Vlamingstraat 40-42, in which an aunt of Vermeer lived with her children in Delft.

Porcelain was first brought to the Netherlands from China in the early 17th century, by ships of the Dutch East India Company, which were importing spices and other goods. Affluent Dutch families and European royals enthusiastically purchased the distinctive blue-and-white ceramics and the imported dishes adorned many a banquet table.

When warfare in China severely curtailed availability but demand remained strong, Dutch potteries sprang up in Delft to fill the void. At one point, about 32 potteries were turning out their version of the original glazed earthenware product.

By the 1800s, English potteries, particularly Wedgwood, and competition from European makers fabricating less expensive products were drawing business away from Delft. Dutch companies also were falling behind in innovation, leading to an overall downturn in the industry around Delft.

With this combination of conditions, by 1840, only Royal Delft, founded in 1653 (as De Porceleyne Fles, which translates as the Porcelain Jar, the shape of which figures in the company’s trademark) was the sole original house still in business. While Delft Blue might be the most recognizable, over the next centuries, other glazes joined the collection (and were later retired).

To commemorate the 325th anniversary of Royal Delft, the company produced a line of “Black Delft,” inspired by Chinese lacquerware.

Among the more unusual was a process called “Black Delft,” inspired by Chinese lacquerware, where red, blue and yellow designs stood out against a black background. This earthenware was introduced in 1978 to mark Royal Delft’s 325th anniversary.

The architecture in Delft (above) is similar to that of Amsterdam, including the tall, narrow houses along the canals.

I was in Delft in October 2013, after the crush of tourists had left for the season. Delft feels like a calmer, more compact Amsterdam. You can walk along the canals and admire the narrow canal houses’ decorative gables and cornices, just like in Amsterdam. Delft’s 17th-century wealth came from 200 breweries (80 percent of output was exported) and textiles.

Delicate lace curtains cover the windows of well-tended residences in Delft.

Not far from the main square are well-tended low-rise residences, fronted by white-lace window curtains featuring dainty designs of birds, animals and flowers. Potted plants lend color to the scene and climbing vines snake up the brick facades. Just like Amsterdam — and much of the Netherlands — bicycles are everywhere.

From my bed-and-breakfast, it was about a 15- to 20-minute walk to the Royal Delft factory (Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles in Dutch). This route was lined with trees in full autumnal colors and substantial two-story brick houses, again well-looked after, but clearly a step up in price and square footage.

A sign explains the trademarks that appear on the bottom of every product produced by Royal Delft. The artist painting a vase will have had at least five years of training. She’s sitting in front of a nautical-themed tile mural.

I checked in to confirm my workshop appointment, then spent my free time waiting for my class walking around the museum’s wide-ranging collection and factory floor. I didn’t have a guide but was allowed unhindered access among the artists painting tall, cylindrical vases, asking questions and taking photographs. (The self-guided tour said painters train for five years and one of the brief films said 10 years, so even with the discrepancy, it’s still a lengthy process.)

The factory floor was quiet except for one man clad all in white was stacking the kiln for firing. Shelves, counters and cases were lined with myriad sizes and shapes of molds, and vases, plates and tiles in various states of completion.

My workshop had just two other people, a mother and daughter from Israel. They both choose to paint plates, while I made a tile. At our work stations, we had two paintbrushes — one with a few long bristles to use in outlining and the other with shorter, stouter bristles for filling in — water, a black paint containing cobalt oxide and a fractured piece of pottery. We used these as our test swatches, to practice how much paint we needed, adding water to dilute the coloring, and to get used to the brushes.

We had a choice of drawing our own designs or selecting from the workshop’s collection. I did the latter, settling on a tulip — an appropriate representation considering the Netherlands’ long association and revenue-producing history with the flower.

Our instructor lightly traced the outline making charcoal dots on my tile, which measured about 5 by 5 inches square. Then it was up to me to decide how thick the lines would be, which parts I would fill in completely and which I would leave white.

This is the tile I made at my Royal Delft workshop.

It took more than an hour to complete. My tile’s black-and-white appearance would be transformed to the well-known Delft Blue by a chemical process when it was fired.

Many weeks later, my tile arrived in the mail. It was well-wrapped in a small parcel and the tile was in one piece. A special souvenir from a lovely few days in Delft.

There are enough attractions and small museums to explore, all within easy walking distance, that visitors should consider Delft as a base for two or three days, especially if you’re interested in an easy side trip to The Hague.

Don’t miss the Vermeer Center, which has copies of all 37 paintings the artist did, though there is some disagreement on several that are attributed to him. Nowhere in Delft is there an original Vermeer. You’ll have to visit the Mauritshuis, home of “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” or the Rijskmuseum for that. The Vermeer Center also explores his painting techniques and has a replica of his studio.

On the market square, drop into the New Church (Nieuwe Kerk) to visit the ornate mausoleum of William I (1533-1584), founder of the House of Orange, and other royalty. Then cross over to check out the imposing Town Hall opposite the church.

A short stroll from the square is the Old Church (Oude Kerk), final resting place of Vermeer, and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), inventor of the microscope and discoverer of bacteria.

Also worth a visit is the historical museum, Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof, site of a former convent. It was in this building that the Protestant William I was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic. The bullet holes remain evident on the staircase wall where the shooting happened in 1584. Also of interest is the antique Delftware collection, silverware and tapestries.

Many cheese shops offer tasting samples and also sell wine and other delectables.

Places to buy souvenirs (Delftware isn’t cheap) abound, as do cheese shops. You’ll also come across the odd windmill, and many opportunities to buy tulip bulbs. The price isn’t a bargain, but if you do buy, make sure there is an official-looking agricultural sticker that says the bulbs are cleared to be brought into the United States. Otherwise, they’re likely to be taken away at U.S. Customs.

Quick reference: Royal Delft: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Workshops are conducted at 2:30 p.m. daily. Minimum of two people. Reservations are necessary and can be made online or by phone. Price depends on what shape you choose to make and if you are also taking the factory tour. Because the tile must be fired, you won’t be able to take it with you. Royal Delft will deliver it to your hotel or ship it to your home, at an extra fee for postage and packaging. In country, deliver will be in about 10 working days. Shipping abroad will take several weeks. You can special order a tile, vase or plate that an artist will complete (order can be placed online). The showroom has a wide selection, an an equally wide price range. Make sure to check the sale area where the discontinued designs may have a lower price.; +31 (0) 15 760 08 00.

I stayed at the Hotel Leeuwenbrug, a converted warehouse not far from the train station. My room was at the back of the hotel and I could see the spire of the New Church from my window. The rooms in front overlook the canal.


1981 Boston Marathon: The story of runner 4646

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text. All rights reserved.

I wrote this column for the Norwich (Connecticut) Bulletin, where I worked as a sportswriter in 1981. I was about four years into my career then. Looking back, I might have made a few changes to the text and I’ve added a few clarifications in brackets, but the sentiments hold up over time. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos from the race. I’m running the column here as a tribute to the person profiled, to all Boston Marathoners past and present, and to the supportive crowds. The 121st edition of the race was run today, April 17.

Runner number 4646 crossed the finish line almost two hours after Toshihiko Seko set a [course] record Monday [April 20, 1981] in the 85th Boston Marathon.

By then the crowds along Boylston Street had thinned considerably. A few remained long enough to see 73-year-old Johnny Kelley cross the finish line in his 50th straight Boston Marathon. But the majority who were left were waiting for friends or loved ones.

Some were waiting for both.

It had grown colder as the afternoon stretched toward dusk. In about an hour, a gentle rain would begin to fall.

Runner 4646 followed the other runners as they hobbled into the garage area underneath the Prudential Center. Hours before members of the press swarmed in an anxious cluster here to record the comments of Seko and New Zealand’s Allison Roe, the women’s winner, who also set a [course] record.

At times the remarks of the winners were rendered inaudible by the static rustling of 500 mylar blankets, a silver aluminum foil-type of wrap designed to retain body heat.

By now just about all the reporters were gone, sending stories across the world about this country’s oldest marathon. Mostly, there were just other runners around when runner 4646 found a person dispensing mylar blankets.

[Japan’s] Seko and Roe had won their titles, worn their laurel wreaths and medals, been embraced by the media horde and had left.

This runner, a bit hoarse from the exertion of the race and tired-looking, was never in contention for the awards. He wasn’t even one of the 6,845 official entrants. But finishing the race was as meaningful to him as everyone else who managed to cross the line after starting in Hopkinton 26 miles, 385 feet away to the west.

He was running as part of the American Medical Joggers Association, a group of doctors and dentists that hold a race in conjunction with the marathon, that also provides medical assistance along the route and at the finish.

The time of 4:07 [four hours, seven minutes] and some seconds he couldn’t remember exactly was not the runner’s personal best. That had come in 1979 with a 3:39, the first time the 55-year-old had run Boston.

Perhaps a bit disappointed this spring’s time had not been faster, he said he had trouble getting his pace.

“It’s easy to set a nice pace and to glide when you know there are no obstructions or people to worry about, whereas in a marathon there are people all over the place,” he said Tuesday morning after reading that [American runner] Craig Virgin, who finished second to Seko, had been bumped along the way by an enthusiastic crowd.

This was the runner’s ninth marathon, a large accomplishment for one who had only taken up distance running four years previously.

It began one day near his home in Coral Gables, a suburb of Miami, Fla., when he saw runners in the Orange Bowl Marathon bouncing down the road.

He said to himself, “Next year I’m going to run with those guys.”

And so he began his training. At first it was five miles in the morning at the nearby University of Miami track before going to his office.

“Then I went to 10 miles and I thought I was Superman. I was amazed I could travel that distance. I used to carry dimes and move them from one pocket to the other to keep track of the laps.”

Forty dimes, enough for the 10 miles, made a considerable weight in his tennis shorts, a sport he had played for years and still does.

“I had always done a mile or two after tennis, but before it became a national craze it never occurred to me to do long-distance running.

“Then I graduated to street running,” he said, mapping out a scenic route near his home, which took him down a bicycle path under the shade of the huge banyon trees which line the streets.

The distance kept growing and soon the runner entered his first marathon, recalling, “I’m a competitive person by nature. I thought it would be a nice achievement. It was a physical challenge. Like the old saying, the mountain was there and I had to climb it.”

His first marathon was on a hot, humid mid-January day in Florida. The course began at the Orange Bowl near downtown Miami from where it took its name, and passed by the spot [where] the runner had seen the competitors a year earlier.

His time on that sultry Florida day was 4:34.

He kept up his training with middle distance runs and races, shedding 20 pounds from his six-foot frame to come down to 180. Although never heavy, the weight he had put on over the years had vanished.

In retrospect, running marathons is a great deal of fun, but while you’re doing it, there are other adjectives that might apply.

Some claim that marathoners are crazy. Others say they are special.

Runner 4646? He’s special. He’s my father.

A touching gesture, days after the race

My words and photo appeared from top to bottom down the left-hand column on the front page of the Bulletin’s Sports section on Wednesday, April 22. The Boston Marathon is always run on a Monday, and my overall coverage of the 85th race appeared in the Tuesday paper.

A few days later, the sports editor — my boss — told me that the publisher wanted to see me in his office. I had been working at the Bulletin for only about three months, and in the normal execution of my job, I would have little to no contact with the publisher.

My editor didn’t give anything away.

As a fairly new employee, I couldn’t think of anything I had done that would warrant this meeting, and wondered if I was going to be cautioned or reprimanded about something. Or was my job on the line?

The Norwich Bulletin, established in 1791, was at that time family-owned. Its daily circulation was 36,000, and on Sundays, 42,000. A chain owns it now and its circulation numbers have tumbled, like many newspapers around the country as digital has come to the forefront.

The sports editor, Tom Perry, had hired me away from the newspaper I was working at in North Dakota, The Minot Daily News. We had met at a summer youth baseball national tournament we were covering in Williston, N.D., and shortly after he got back to Connecticut, he offered me a job. He was willing to wait several months until I gave notice, took an already-booked vacation to Australia and New Zealand and relocated to Connecticut.

So I hadn’t met the Bulletin’s editor or co-publishers in an interview situation as a condition of my being hired.

I don’t remember the layout of the Bulletin building now, but I know I walked from the newsroom through a hallway and possibly through the press room.

When I got to co-publisher Donald Oat’s office, there was a brief greeting and he handed me a plaque.

It was a copy of my article about Runner 4646 on a gray metal plate, squared off over three columns, and mounted on a sturdy piece of dark wood. I was floored at this kind gesture, and even though I’m sure I thanked him, I’m also sure that whatever I said was inadequate.

It was, simply, the single nicest thing that anyone in management ever did for me over a newspaper career that spanned 35 years.

I gave the plaque to my father. It used to hang on the den wall in Coral Gables. When he died in 2006, I brought it to Georgia.

On Easter Island at Rano Raraku, the quarry ‘nursery’ of the moai

Nearly all the moai on Easter Island were carved from hardened volcanic ash called lapilli tuff in Rano Raraku. A total of 397 full and partial figures have been identified in the quarry. On the island overall, 887 have been catalogued. In the foreground, that’s not just a big rock; it’s part of a broken moai.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the third post about my adventures. See March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts.

“The statues in the quarries number altogether over 150. Amongst this mass of material there is no difficulty in tracing the course of the work. The surface of the rock, which will form the figure, has generally been laid bare before work upon it began, but occasionally the image was wrought lying partially under a canopy. In a few cases the stone has been roughed out into preliminary blocks, but this procedure is not universal, and seems to have been followed only where there was some doubt as to the quality of the material.”

— “The Mystery of Easter Island” by Katherine Routledge, published by Adventures Unlimited Press in 1919

Before Katherine Routledge’s expedition to Easter Island — embarked upon from Southampton, England, in a custom-built 90-foot schooner in February 1913 and completed in June 1915 — what was known about the moai (the images she refers to above) was largely down to a few visiting European or American ships in centuries previous, none of which stopped for very long.

Notations in personal diaries or ship’s logs were mostly made by crew members with little specialized scientific training, thus rendering their observations somewhat unreliable, though some fine illustrations of the moai are accurate likenesses.

No outsiders had ever immersed themselves longterm in the legends and oral histories of the island’s inhabitants, no one had made a full inventory of the number of stone figures in and out of the main quarry, and no one had spent many months roaming the landscape, studying the topography, taking photographs and making drawings.

In other words, Routledge’s “Mystery” was and remains a seminal work on everything Easter Island. Some of the conclusions she and husband William Scoresby Routledge made have been disproved or challenged, but they were the first to examine, document and theorize in depth about who likely carved the moai, how they did so and how the figures got from the quarries to their final resting spots atop ahu — ceremonial platforms — around the island.

Katherine often took the field lead, as when she delved into earlier inhabitants’ rituals and pre-missionary religion, spending hours listening to and recording on paper the remembrances of the few remaining elders with personal links to the past.

Routledge, a native of Darlington, England, attended Oxford University, enrolling in 1891 when she was 24. Her class choices and major were limited, as they were for all women. She read modern history (Americans would say majored in), but she was not a trained archaeologist or anthropologist, and neither was her husband, who did not complete his medical degree. She was not allowed to attain a degree at the time — they were not granted to women, even if they had fulfilled the requirements of their course of study.

She relied instead on her nearly inexhaustible curiosity and innate intelligence to make strides in understanding the people and places on the isolated island west of South America. When the Routledges’ self-funded Mana Expedition reached its destination after a year en route in March 1914, only about 250 inhabitants lived on Easter Island.

Katherine was in her late 40s. She spent nearly 17 uninterrupted months on the island — her husband sailed the Mana to Chile and back several times — and it was she who wrote up the voluminous notes about the expedition’s findings into a well-received book.

Easter Island, aka Rapa Nui, was likely settled by ancestor-worshipping Polynesians, who journeyed east from another island, traveling a distance of about 2,000 miles, possibly around A.D. 600 to 900, though no firm date has been established.

They believed that the moai captured an important clan member’s spiritual power or mana (the name of the Routledges’ schooner and expedition was no accident), and a statue would be commissioned to commemorate that person’s death.

Easter Island has no written history, other than the pictographs carved into rare wooden boards known as “kohau rongorongo.” Routledge was unable to find anyone who could translate the rongorongo, though she concluded through the elder interviews that the individual glyphs jogged a teller’s memory, an aid as it were, associated with a full story. To this day, a Rosetta stone for the tablets, few of which exist, has yet to be discovered.

The head of a moai was estimated to be a quarter to a third of its size. These standing figures have full bodies hidden in the earth. Several expeditions have dug down to expose the height, taken measurements and examined the debris in the strata, then replaced the earth.

As for the 150 moai that Routledge cited in Rano Raraku, one of the island’s volcanoes, more recent anthropological excavations put the number at 397, with the figures being in various stages of completion or destruction. Some moai are as short as 6 feet; others top out at more than 26 feet. Most were likely constructed from about 1000 to 1600.

It’s simple to understand Routledge’s enchantment with the quarry, on the eastern side of the island. From every vantage point, there is something of interest to ponder, be it the off-kilter moai themselves, their positions on the grassy slopes, or the view east to the 15 moai at Ahu Tongariki and the Pacific beyond.

Of all the historical and cultural sites I toured, the greatest amount of time — about 2.5 hours — was spent in Rano Raraku, sometimes referred to as the “nursery,” because 95 percent of all the moai originated here. And though I enjoyed every minute of my time on Rapa Nui, the quarry is where my thoughts return to time and again.

Standing on the moai is absolutely forbidden.

Of the moai that are upright, many are buried up to their necks or shoulders, exposing about one-third to one-quarter of the total height. The island’s carvers had to judge the proportions as they worked and keep in mind how to balance the weight and height so that the moai could stand when finished.

No easy feat for men who didn’t do mathematical calculations as we know them, and who were sculpting ever larger monuments. The most colossal of all the moai was more than 68 feet in length — its head being nearly 23 feet of that — and estimated to weigh 200 tons (or 400,000 pounds). It’s still attached on an exterior slope high up in the quarry.

Later expeditions using modern technology have identified a total of 887 stone figures around Easter Island, crafted from a hardened volcanic ash known as lapilli tuff. Only about 50 have been restored vertically atop ahu.

To complement the small team hired in England for the expedition and en route, the Routledges engaged local translators and workers to help in their field study. Laden with food, supplies and equipment, they took long walks or rode horseback to reach various sites, where they often camped for extended periods.

Scoresby Routledge hypothesized that a team of about 54 could carve a moai in less than 16 days. Later researchers think this was wildly optimistic, both in the size of the team and the speed of its work, if for no other reason than the steep slope of the quarry wouldn’t have allowed the workers the physical access Scoresby assumed.

A more realistic timetable would be up to two years to complete each moai. Generally, the figures were constructed lying on their back. Some were carved horizontally, some vertically, and some with the head pointing downward. This would indicate that the carvers made an assessment with regard to the suitability and width of the rock to be formed into the wide base.

Two enormous incomplete moai, heads pointing in opposite directions, were abandoned in situ.

The elongated, oversized nose, heavy brows, lengthy torso, hands and arms (not all statues had these appendages, and they were delineations on the torso, not separate limbs), ears and closed lips were fashioned before the underlying stone was chipped away, like the keel of a ship.

Once freed, it’s believed the moai were pushed down earthen ramps — a pulley system also might have been involved — utilizing gravity and momentum to reach a prepared pit, where they could stand upright. (Pity the team if a moai broke apart at this or any other point. The figure would be abandoned, with many months of work for naught.)

Decorative carving could then be added to the back and the moai polished. Today, refinements are more noticeable on some moai than others, because not all figures were so decorated and natural erosion over the centuries has weathered them away.

“Mystery” includes photos of an alley or gutter surrounding incomplete moai, the space from which the workers accessed the statues. The varying amount of detail also suggests that as carvers’ skill evolved, so did the rendering of the facial features.

Only later, after their final transportation from the quarry and when the moai were positioned atop an ahu, were eye sockets completed. White coral (for the sclera) and red scoria (for the pupil) were inserted in a priestly ceremony. Thus “awakened,” their power was in full force. The eye socket discovery wasn’t made until 1978.

This figure reveals a three-masted ship on its torso. One can only wonder what islanders thought of the men in masted vessels who came to Easter Island in the 18th century.

Quarry visitors will see on the torso of one of the unearthed moai a likeness of a three-masted ship, a commemoration, perhaps, of that islanders’ 18th-century interaction with European explorers.

Farther along the path to the right is a most unique moai, one that Katherine never saw. It was fully excavated in 1955 by Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyderdahl and his team. This figure is sitting on its legs folded under its body, its head is smaller and rounder than the other figures and its chin juts out instead of the vertical jawline of the other moai.

This is Tukuturi, the only kneeling moai unearthed on the island. Some researchers think it may have been a prototype that never caught on. In the distance, on the left near the shoreline, is Ahu Tongariki, with its 15 moai restored upright to their ceremonial platform.

Why this moai, known as Tukuturi, which means “kneeling,” is so different from all the others is just one more of the enduring mysteries of Easter Island.

Quick reference: Many agencies offer daylong tours that include Rano Raraku. Peter, the co-owner of the bungalow where I stayed, Hare Swiss, booked for me with Mahinatur. 35,000 Chilean pesos, about $52. Multicourse, sit-down lunch was included. A hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and a water-repellant windbreaker are recommended. The next day, I did two half-day tours with the same company. The guides are multilingual. He or she will explain what you’re seeing in English and likely Spanish. Understandably, a lot of South Americans visit Easter Island. Here’s the website link; it’s in Spanish.

At the DMZ separating South Korea and North Korea: Weird barely covers it

Closest to the camera are Republic of Korea (aka South Korea) soldiers, standing rigidly and ever-vigilant. In the distance, atop the stairs of the gray concrete building, a North Korean soldier looks south. This is the Joint Security Area of the DMZ.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Several weeks ago, you may have seen a photograph of a dark-suited, gray-haired U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson standing in front of a window framed by blue curtains.

The curtains and window weren’t the only things behind him. Lurking just outside was a North Korean soldier, a Fujifilm camera obscuring his face, with the lens pointed at the back of Tillerson’s head and presumably any officials that the soldier could get in the frame.

Talk about the ultimate photobomb, which other visiting officials have also experienced.

But that’s what going to the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea is like: totally surreal. Technically you’re in a war zone, because only an armistice — not an official peace treaty — was signed on July 17, 1953, when Korean War hostilities ceased.

But it’s also a popular tourist attraction, with many companies offering excursions to the site, a mere 34 miles (55 kilometers) north of Seoul, so less than an hour’s ride. Though there was cautionary language from the American and Republic of Korea soldiers who met and escorted our USO-organized tour when I visited the DMZ in November 2007, the experience was curiously nonthreatening.

It didn’t have a jolly, amusement park vibe, of course, but neither was the tone menacing, despite a military presence nearly everywhere we looked. It was more a feeling of all parties understanding their duties and restrictions rather than anyone looking to trigger an international incident, though the American soldier’s briefing detailed several violent episodes dating to 1976 (two U.S. officers were killed) and 1984.

The U.S. soldier, an Army staff sergeant (I am intentionally not naming him), said that about 600 ROK soldiers were stationed nearby, as were a smaller number of American servicemen at Camp Bonifas. The phrase, “In Front of Them All,” the camp’s motto, was painted on a blue water tank.

(Currently, about 28,000 U.S. soldiers are stationed in South Korea.)

The Military Demarkation Line bisects the peninsula, snaking gently southwest across about 155 miles, starting above the 38th parallel, from the Sea of Japan on the east coast, near the small town of Hwaijinpo, to the Yellow Sea on the west coast and islands. A buffer of 1.24 miles on both sides of the line comprises the greater DMZ.

Many countries fought with the United States and South Korea against the North Koreans and Chinese during the Korean War (June 1950-July 1953). Their contributions and sacrifices are commemorated in this monument.

Estimates are that more than 1 million mines remain from the Korean War (1950-53). The line is heavily fortified with barbed-wire-topped, double-chain-link fencing, an antitank wall, watchtowers and obstacles, and vigilant armed soldiers on foot patrol. Visitors see only a very small portion of this close to the Joint Security Area.

The world situation was calmer 10 years ago, and our visit went as scheduled. Tour organizers reserve the right to cancel at the last moment, especially if tension is high, as it seems to be in more recent weeks.

Tillerson, then on his first Asian swing as a cabinet member, with stops also in Japan and China, told CNN: “Certainly, we do not want things to get to a military conflict … but obviously, if North Korea takes actions that threatens the South Korean forces or our own forces, then that would be met with an appropriate response. If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe required action, that option is on the table.”

Panmunjom (it has various spellings), the “truce village,” in the Joint Security Area, is a small swath of the limited territory that’s open to tourists. While some groups journey down from the north, far more arrive from the south side of the DMZ.

It was standard procedure that each JSA visitor was required to sign a form absolving the U.S. and South Korea from any liability should anything untoward happen during the tour. Identification was also examined closely, and we were given badges to wear.

The United Nations flag sits on a table in the Military Armistice Commission briefing room. The French military men are at the back of our group. 

The most bizarre part of our visit might have been the few minutes we spent in the Military Armistice Commission briefing room. That’s a fairly stiff title for what is a not-very-sturdy light blue building (flanked by other similar buildings), with simple tables and chairs and a line running horizontally on the floor.

The interior looks more like a struggling company’s boardroom than a venue for politically charged meetings and negotiations. The 1953 armistice was signed here.

On one side of the line you are officially in South Korea; on the other, you’re in North Korea. You can be sure that every person on our tour crossed the line and had his or her picture taken standing in “enemy” territory.

This was one of the few areas where photos were allowed. Outside, peering into North Korea, we could see an ever-watchful soldier, facing south, standing on the top step of an imposing gray concrete building. The windows were covered by shades, but it’s likely that the inhabitants were monitoring the activity just across the way.

The equally attentive ROK soldiers, chosen for their height and solid physique, we were informed, wore black helmets and sunglasses, and stared north. They carried sidearms but not rifles. Their posture was rigidly immobile.

A friend had met me in Seoul for part of my trip, and he accompanied me to the DMZ. Some of our group were obviously off-duty American soldiers, their closely cropped hair being a give-away.

There were also four French men in their distinctive military attire.

The USO tour included several other brief stops; see the website listed below for an itinerary.

The most interesting by far was the Third Tunnel, which was one of four that North Koreans dug into South Korea, though as many as six others are suspected.

Third tunnel
This sculpture outside the Third Tunnel indicates the wish by some for reunification between the two Koreas.

The Third Tunnel, about three miles from Panmunjom, extends more than 1,400 feet south of the border between the two countries, drawn at the 38th parallel after the end of World War II.

The tunnel, which reached 240 feet in depth, was revealed October 17, 1978, after a North Korean defector coughed up details of its existence.

It was estimated that the North Koreans would have been able to mobilize from 10,000 to 30,000 soldiers an hour, with light weaponry, through the tunnel. Given its dimensions — 1.1 miles long, 6.6 feet high and the same distance wide — those numbers might have been overly optimistic.

Photos weren’t allow here either. Inside, water dripped from the ceiling and walls, creating puddles on the path. Naked light bulbs and spotlights provided dubious illumination. We had to wear blue hard hats to guard our heads, which we inevitably hit anyway, even though we were hunched over a good deal of the time.

Visitors who are even slightly claustrophobic might want to wait outside. The first section leading from the welcome center was at an 11-degree incline, and this same stretch had to be negotiated on the way out of the tunnel.

We slowly proceeded single-file, like a sluggish line of overfed ants. When we reached as far into the tunnel as we were allowed to go, we looked into a hole in the rock that might have been North Korea — or not. No signage gave any clues to whether we had crossed any boundaries.

At the turnaround, we had to squeeze by the other side of the line we had just been in. The tunnel was hacked from igneous granite, but that didn’t stop the North Koreans from claiming that they were extracting sedimentary-rock based coal (they painted the interior black) — not planning a surprise incursion. Exploring the tunnel took less than an hour.

One curious benefit of the no-man’s land that is the DMZ: Wildlife has thrived. Sightings of red-crowned cranes, Asian black bears, a type of goat relative and musk deer have been reported. In fact, the cranes winter in Korea, as do black vultures arriving from Mongolia. The Worldwatch Institute notes that as of 2016, the forest and grassland cover is home to 50 mammal species, 1,100 plant species, more than 80 fish species and hundreds of bird species.

Quick reference: USO DMZ tour, 7:30 a.m. to about 3:30 p.m. daily, except Sundays, Mondays and national holidays. Departs from and returns to Camp KIM. $92. A lunch stop is made but you pay extra for that. A passport is required. Casual clothes are acceptable, but ripped jeans, flip-flops, T-shirts, shorts and miniskirts are not. Reservations must be made at least four days in advance. You cannot visit Panmunjom independently, as in drive a rental car there. Other companies offer tours but check the itinerary to make sure they include Panmunjom and the Third Tunnel.

For information on other DMZ sites: