For a Korean, Ken Paik was a very big guy … About six feet tall, I think.
I’m not sure about that. It’s possible that he was only, say, 5'9" and just seemed taller because of the way he filled the space around him.
Ken, who died a few years back after a long career in journalism, was one of the most outrageous personalities I’ve encountered in an industry that thrived on the outlandish.
He was already a staff photographer for the Kansas City Star when I started working there and over the years we were often teamed for big assignments. I always found these pairings … er, educational.
In those days newspaper photographers had a reputation for over-the-top behavior, (it’s no coincidence that the photographer on the “Lou Grant” TV show was called “Animal”) and Ken lived up to the best traditions of his trade.
His father was a high mucky-muck in the Korean government — the minister of education, I’ve heard — and Ken grew up under fairly privileged circumstances. Nevertheless, he enlisted in the Korean Marines, which suggests he wasn’t using Daddy’s reputation to coast.
The Marines of any country are usually a tough bunch, but Korean Marines were something else entirely. They hated Commies and were widely regarded as brutal and ruthless. I’ve been told by Vietnam vets that the Viet Cong weren’t in awe of the Americans, but the thought of being captured by our Korean allies (there were several units from Seoul over there) put the fear of God in them.
Maybe that accounts for why Ken seemed so intimidating. Even on his best behavior he radiated danger. That’s what I mean about him seeming six feet tall even if he wasn’t.
Ken came to the U.S. in the early '60s to study at an American university where, he once told me, his first roommate was a former U.S. Marine drill instructor. Thus his primary influence in learning the English language was a guy who found a way to work the most ear-blistering profanities into every sentence.
As in: "Ken, would you pass the *********** ketchup, please?As a result of this internship, Ken casually dropped horrifying nuggets of profanity into otherwise bland conversations. I’m pretty sure that by the time I ran into him he was quite capable of controlling this Tourette-like behavior, but I think he got a kick out of watching people’s reactions. (Not that he gave anything away…Ken also loved playing the inscrutable Asian).
You did not want to cross Ken. Once on his bad side, you were doomed. If he thought you were cocky, pretentious or full of yourself, he could make your life miserable.
One of my fellow reporters who came from a long line of celebrated journalists made the mistake of sharing this information with Ken, who concluded this fellow was an egoistic jerk and promptly gave him a humiliating nickname.
When they were ordered out on an assignment together, Ken would stand at the doorway to the newsroom and bellow: “Vomit, get up here!”
My two best Ken Paik stories show his personality to full advantage.
One took place in the mid-70s in Alaska, where Ken and I were sent to do a story on the controversy over building a huge oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay in the Arctic Circle to the fishing village of Valdez, where the precious stuff would be loaded onto tankers.
Ken was in his element in Alaska because at the time it was a favorite vacation spot for Koreans who wanted to visit the U.S. but didn’t have enough money to swing a trip to the Lower 48. Anchorage was just a puddle jump from Seoul.
That meant that Alaska was full of Korean restaurants, where we ate many of our meals. Ken was crazy about kimchi, a condiment made of cabbage, radish, onion and spices which, he claimed, Korean housewives would put in an earthen pot and bury in the back yard until it fermented to a paint-peeling potency.
I couldn’t handle kimchi, but Ken lived on it.
“How does a Korean know it’s time to eat?” he asked in the middle of one meal.
The answer: “His alimentary canal stops burning.”
Anyway, this particular tale takes place on a Friday night in Valdez. We were in a bar full of local fishermen who had returned from the sea with loads of crab, salmon and other seafood delicacies. Now they were unwinding in the local dive.
I was drinking beer and playing the jukebox. Had a nice buzz on.
Then I passed the bar where Ken was talking to a fisherman. I know he was a fisherman because he still had on those big knee-high rubber boots and an untucked plaid shirt.
What I heard Ken saying made my blood run cold.
“So, when you’re out on the boat for two, three weeks,” Ken was asking earnestly, “how d’you know your wife’s not…" and he described said spouse's betrayal in the brutally colorful language that came so naturally to him.
Oh, God, I thought. I’m going to die in Valdez, Alaska.
That was pure Paik. The guy was both tactless and fearless, bringing up in casual conversation the worst nagging anxieties of these seafaring men and then rubbing their faces in it.
Here’s the thing: Ken was an ex-Korean Marine. He’d be just fine in a murderous bar brawl.
I fancied myself a lover. I’d be dead meat in a minute.
Without waiting to hear the fisherman’s reply, I put my half-drunk glass on a table and headed for the door, down the street and straight to our motel, occasionally looking behind me to see if I was being followed by a torchlit lynch mob of pissed-off fishermen.
Several hours later an inebriated Ken showed up and asked where I’d gone.
“Those fishermen are great guys,” he said before falling asleep.
My other great Ken Paik story takes place in rural Tennessee outside Knoxville. The members of a snake-handling Pentecostal congregation made news headlines when the preacher’s brother, trying to prove he was anointed by the Holy Spirit, stirred up a cocktail of water and strychnine, drank it down during a service and dropped dead on the church’s steps.
As a result, the Tennessee attorney general said he was going to court to ban dangerous activities like fondling poisonous snakes or drinking corrosive substances during church services, thus setting up a church vs. state controversy.
Our editors thought Ken and I should fly down there and check it out.
Renting a car in Knoxville, we drove deep into the back country down narrow highways abutted by ditches in which old cars dating back to Model T days had been left to rust and sink into the muck. Finally we got to the tiny Holiness church atop a small wooded mountain.
There we met the head of the congregation, a working-class guy who’d never been to college and told us he’d never said a prayer until he was in his 20s and attended a revival meeting that changed his life.
Now he was a snake handler. There’s a line in the Bible that says that persons anointed with the Holy Spirit can handle poisonous serpents without harm, and members of the Holiness Church believed that by doing so they would prove to non-believers the power of God. The preacher's faith wasn’t the least bit shaken by the death of his own brother.
(For anyone interested in the subject, I highly recommend Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. Covington approached the subject as an academic, got sucked into the life and soon found himself addicted to the spiritual high he got during revival meetings. That’s the controversial aspect of his work…he asserts that certain types of religious mania have all the hallmarks of conventional addiction.)
The preacher took us to an adjacent cemetery where a fresh grave was topped by a massive floral arrangement. Made up of hundreds of blue carnations, it was in the shape of a telephone. A placard announced that “Jesus called.”
I shot Ken a warning glance lest he laugh out loud. He managed to keep his game face and went about methodically photographing the scene.
That night with about 20 other people we attended a revival at the church. There was preaching and Scripture reading. A small band (guitar, organ, drums) pounded out a Gospel tune.
At a certain point in the festivities the assistant preacher — a young guy with greasy hair who looked like he might have come to church after stocking groceries at a local market — danced over to a wooden crate, lifted the lid, stuck his hands in and raised them to show three or four writhing copperheads. He shuffled around with the snakes for several minutes while Ken snapped away, then put them back in their box.
At the end of the service the preacher announced he was taking a special collection. Because of the publicity generated by the church’s situation with the attorney general, he said, it would be a good time to go the extra mile and create situations to further impress nonbelievers.
With that in mind, he was taking contributions with which to buy a blowtorch. At next week’s revival, he said, members of the congregation would take turns passing their faces and hands through the white-hot flame.
There was a pause, and then Ken Paik’s voice rang out from the rear of the church.
He was flapping a $20 bill and shouting: “You can have this if you buy it RIGHT NOW!”
Possibly his attitude was deemed too mercenary. In any case the preacher said that the blowtorch should be bought with money provided by church members.
Afterward Ken and I bought a couple of six-packs with which to unwind and drove to the local drive-in movie theatre. The feature film, appropriately enough, was “Deliverance.”
Ken left The Star in the early ‘80s, becoming the graphics director for the Jacksonville, Fla., paper and then director of photography at the Baltimore Evening Sun, where he rose through the ranks to become assistant news editor. In 1992 he became a columnist for the New York City edition of Korea Times.
Along the way he won a World Press Photo award for his coverage of a famine in Ethiopia. He was also given the J. Winton Lemen Fellowship Award by the National Press Photographers Association for his work in the interests of press photography and for outstanding technical achievement in photography.
Ken died in 2006.