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Diver Dan of Itaewon
By Roderick Eime
17 October 2011

A good mate of mine, Pete, was a police diver and had his heart set on one of those battered old pearl diver helmets for his pool room.
You know the ones. The sort Diver Dan wore during his submarine trysts with Miss Minerva the mermaid queen. Who? Well maybe you need to be over 50 for that. Just Google him for heaven’s sake.

Anyway, these clunky old helmets apparently retail for two grand plus down at The Rocks (Sydney) and some aren’t even for real.

Now, Pete had heard that these helmets could be had in Korea, some place near Seoul apparently. When I told him I was heading that way, he asked “Mate, could you keep an eye out for one?”  

“Sure,” I replied earnestly, like I’m just going to fall over one somewhere. Still, I gave him my word.

Two weeks later, after touring the length and breadth of South Korea, crossing the DMZ into the mysterious North, getting chased by irate little red flag-waving commie guards, passing out on some Kim Il Hooch and finally we’re heading back to our departure point at Incheon. But wait, there’s a delay. Time for shopping? Okay. And the bus heads off to some place en route to the airport near a US Army base called Itaewon.

Our bus heads down the street past all manner of wares. Leathergoods, watches, high fashion, tailors, shoes .. it goes on and on. We’ve done a full lap of the district and our driver is looking for somewhere to park the big Hyundai coach. He spies a berth at the far end and slots it in. We disembark in search of some bargain loot but... hang on, what’s this? Our omnibus has disgorged us onto the pavement in front of some junk shops and what is spewing out onto the street? Diver’s helmets by the dozen! Big ones, brass ones, alloy ones, battered ones, shiny ones and even little ones. Nooo!

“Sir!” I say walking into this maritime emporium, “I’m looking for a helmet.” A rather stupid announcement considering I’d just stepped over a dozen on my way through, “but I’m not sure what sort. May I use your phone?”

The obliging proprietor cheerfully hands over his phone and I dial Sydney. “Mate, you won’t believe where I am .. yeah …. nuh … better than that, I’m in a junk shop full of divers’ helmets. True .. what am I looking for?”

My instructions are clear. Avoid the replicas, and that’s not so easy because they are pretty smart, and grab one that “looks like the guy died in it!”

There in the corner is an authentic early 20th century Korean pearl diver helmet. Dented, scuffed and forlorn, this is the one. My new friend dutifully constructs a packing box from raw cardboard with all the skill of an origami artist, US$200 is applied to my Visacard and off I go. Pete is beside himself, it’s perfect. Now every time I pop in for an ale, he turns on the light installed inside and I retell the story – and it gets better every time.

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Keywords: light, pretty, Seoul

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