Words by Robert Neff, Photos from the collection of Robert Neff
In this humorous anecdote from the turn of the 20th century, an American diplomat and a mob of Korean children strike up an unexpected friendship based on practical jokes.
Horace N. Allen, the American minister to Korea from 1897-1905, found that his fondness for bicycle riding drew the attention of Korean children in his area, whom he described as being “mischievous as well as appreciative.”
Allen liked to ride his bike in Seoul and the surrounding countryside. One spring day found him resting in
“a pretty grove” outside of Seoul “that sheltered a tomb.” Allen leads us to believe that what happened next was purely by accident but, knowing Allen and his penchant for pranks, that seems questionable.
A group of rambunctious boys were raking up pine needles and twigs to take back home for their family fires or to sell in the market and had not seen Allen take up his position behind the grave.
Bald-headed and with most of his body hidden by the grave mound, the back of his head looked strikingly like
a skull. When Allen suddenly stood up and turned the horrified boys screamed in terror and fled, “leaving their tools, while the small ones, being outdistanced, howled in despair lest they be caught by the man rising from the dead.”
One can easily imagine Allen laughing at the children’s fear, but his was not the last laugh.
Bicycles at this time were still quite rare in Korea and the appearance of a Westerner astride these strange contraptions tended to inspire both curiosity and fear – especially in children.
At a long narrow bridge just east of Seoul, Allen frequently encountered a group of children who eagerly awaited his arrival. Allen admitted that “it took some coaxing at first to induce these boys to trust themselves upon this strange machine, but when one had tried it and had ridden proudly over, ringing the bell all the way and smiling broadly through the grime on his happy face, there was no fear.” Fear turned to curiosity and the desire to prove to their peers that they too could conquer the strange wheeled contraption led to Allen being mobbed by the children all clamoring for their turn.
Allen was actually quite proud of himself and decided to put his new found friendships to the test. Not too far from the bridge was “an ugly little ditch” that Allen could not cross except by dismounting and carrying his bike over it. He gathered some of the boys together, showed them a large flat stone, and, while handing out some coins to each boy, explained to them that he would like them to make a bridge over the ditch. The boys readily agreed and soon had a nice little bridge made from the stone and covered neatly with dirt. Finally, Allen’s dreaded nemesis, the ditch, had been conquered.
On his return trip, Allen was relieved that he would not have to dismount. He raced down the hill and onto the little bridge, but instead of safely crossing it his front wheel fell through it and stopped the bike, sending him flying over the handle bars.
“The little rascals had removed the stone and put in a bridge of twigs neatly covered with earth,” Allen recounted. “I could not see them but I knew they were looking and were enjoying me limping home along with a disabled wheel.”
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