|This version of the January 2003 issue of PeaceCorpsWriters.org is designed to be quickly and easily printed from any printer. It includes all articles in the issue as well as new items listed in such departments as Opportunities for Writers and Friendly Agents and Publishers.
It does not include any information that appears in the yellow sidebars, information on the Current Issue page which provides links to each of the articles, or links, book covers, photos or graphics that appear on any of the pages. Nor does it include listings from 40 Years of Peace Corps Writers: The Tour, archived copies of RPCV Writers & Readers, any bibliographic listings or "Links of Interest."
Peace Corps Writers January 2003
Contents click on title to jump down to read. Or just print the whole thing.
Peace Corps Writers - Janary 2003: Front page
Six hundred and counting
Most people know a little Tennyson, but everybody remembers that into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred!
There were six hundred Confederate prisoners of war who left Fort Delaware in 1864, bound for Hilton Head, South Carolina, and the pages of the history books.
Its been six hundred years (okay, six hundred and two, but whos counting?) since Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type, which later made possible the printing press, and (Thanks, Jack!) spared the world six centuries of severe writers cramp.
Researchers believe that dogs are capable of understanding about six hundred human words (although they pretend to understand fewer than that).
Barry Bonds has hit six hundred home runs.
And now, and most important of all . . . out of the 166,000 RPCVs the Peace Corps has produced in a little more than forty years, the number who have achieved the status of published novelists, poets, essayists, travel writers, anthologists, biographers, memoirists, critics, historians, anthropologists, ethicists, self-help experts, how-to gurus, and every other sort of published writers, has reached the number of six hundred! Actually, its six hundred and two, and we definitely are counting!
Congratulations to all, and to the Peace Corps itself, for this handsome and continuing fulfillment of the Peace Corpss Third Goal!
Peace Corps Writers awards
Do you have a favorite book written by a Peace Corps writer that was published during 2002? Nominations are now being accepted by Peace Corps Writers for its awards for best books of the year written by PCVs, RPCVs, and Peace Corps staff. Please recommend your candidates for the following categories:
- Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
- Maria Thomas Fiction Award
- The Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award (for best short description of the Peace Corps experience)
- Award for Best Poetry Book
- Award for Best Travel Writing
- Award for Best Childrens Writing
Send in your nominations to: email@example.com.
State Department book of essays
The Bush administration has recruited prominent American writers to contribute to a State Department 6-page booklet of fifteen essays, and to give readings around the globe in a campaign started after 9/11 to use culture to further American diplomatic interests. The participants include four Pulitzer Prize winners, the American poet laureate and two Arab-Americans. All were asked to write about what it means to be an American writer. The essays Writers on America can be read at the State Department website, but the book will not be published in the United States because it is information aimed at foreign audiences.
Whats important here (besides the book) is that an RPCV writer dreamed up the idea.
This book originated as an intriguing suggestion by Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 197880), says George Clack, the State Department editor who produced the anthology. (Mark is an U.S. foreign service officer and a working novelist.)
According to Clack, If we were to ask a contemporary group of American poets, novelists, critics, and historians what it means to be an American writer, Jacobs proposed, the results could illuminate in an interesting way certain America values freedom, diversity, democracy that may not be well understood in all parts of the world.
Mark has a piece in the anthology, Both Sides of the Border, based on his Peace Corps experience. Marks next novel, his fourth, is entitled A Handful of Kings, and is set in Madrid, where he served as cultural affairs officer.
Writers and writers who read wanted
A national womans magazine has asked us to find short fiction for their publication that reaches over 4 million readers. The fiction editor is looking for positive short stories of less than 4,000 words that focus on women, families, and relationships. Stories must have positive, upbeat endings. Please send an email with the opening page and a very brief summary of the plot to firstname.lastname@example.org. If the story looks as if it is possible for the publication, we will forward it to the fiction editor.
And . . .
We regularly receive requests for Peace Corps writers to read at community events, libraries, and schools. If you are interested, please send your name, address, phone number to Marian Haley Beil at email@example.com.
The RPCV archival project
In 1986, at the 25th anniversary of the Peace Corps, sponsored by the Returned Volunteers of Washington, D.C., and the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, I organized the first panels on Peace Corps writers to discuss the writings of PCVs. At one of those sessions, Suzy McKee Charnas (Nigeria 196163) made the suggestion that the written documents of RPCVs should be collected and saved. At the time there was a small collection of artifacts at the Smithsonian Institute. A committee was formed that included Suzy McKee Charnas, Roger Landrum (Nigeria 196163), Margaret Pollock (Korea 197981) and myself. Writing letters and making contacts with a variety of libraries, we received replies expressing interest in hosting such a collection from both Notre Dame University and the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, and it was decided that the Kennedy Library was the natural place for such a collection of documents written by RPCVs. Today, The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Collection of the John F. Kennedy Library is the repository for personal materials that relate to the individual and group experiences of those who served as Peace Corps Volunteers from its inception in 1961 to the present. The Collection has letters, diaries, journals, photos, oral history interviews, and other items of unique archival value.
In this issue
In 1997 Bob Klein (Ghana 196163) began to look back at his Peace Corps years in Ghana with the first group of PCVs to serve overseas. He then traveled across the U.S. interviewing other Volunteers from the famous Ghana I, as well as former Peace Corps staff, deselected Trainees, and faculty members who trained the Peace Corps Volunteers at the University of California at Berkeley. Klein also went to Boston to listen to oral history interviews kept at the Kennedy Library, and the National Archives in Washington, D.C. for further research into the creation of the agency. In 2001 he completed the first draft of Being First: A Memoir of Ghana I. With his research and book, Klein is hoping to be a model for other retired RPCVs to do the same kind of research on their Peace Corps experiences. We are pleased to publish, as part of our on-going To Preserve and to Learn column, the opening chapters of Being First in which Klein writes about the establishment of the Peace Corps, meeting President Kennedy in the Rose Garden, and arriving in Ghana on the afternoon of September 1, 1961.
We also have . . .
Mishelle Shepard (Czech Republic 199496) tells us how to Travels Right through Prussia; Carol Welsh (Honduras 1962-64) shares her reading from the 40+1 Conference; Andy Trincia gives us another installment of his life in Romania as a PCV; there is Songs From Africa by David Kendall Grant (Chad 1990-92); a Letter from Mauritius written in 1973 by Suzanne Clark; and we have Talking with . . . Paul Eggers (Malaysia 1976-78), who won the Maria Thomas Fiction Award in 2000 for his novel Saviors and recently published a collection of stories. Besides all that, there is a list of recent books by RPCVs; reviews of books written by RPCVs; and in Literary Type, gossip on all of these writers and much more.
In the November issue of Mens Journal there was a collection of articles published under the title 60 Things A Man Must Do in His Lifetime one of which was Become an Expat by Bob Shacochis (Eastern Carribean 197576).
When you teach grad students, those brainy, dreamy, slack-ass selves who have been squeezed through the educational intestine into the relatively expansive bowel of never-ending higher education, you have a recurring thought each time you enter a seminar room and scan the robust, nascently cynical faces of the whatever generation horseshoed around the table, receptive to the morsels of your wisdom: When are you guys ever going to get the fuck out of here?
And I dont mean finish the degree, get a job, a life. I mean turn your life upside down, expose it, raw, to the muddle. Put out, as the New Testament (Luke 5:4) would have it, into deep water. A headline in the New York Times on gardening delivers the same marching orders: IF A PLANTS ROOTS ARE TOO TIGHT, REPOT. Go among strangers in strange lands. Sniff, lick, and swallow the mysteries. Learn to say clearly in an unpronounceable language, Please, I very much need a toilet. A doctor. Change for a 500,000 note. I very much need a friend.
If you want to know a man, the proverb goes, travel with him. If you want to know yourself, travel alone. If you want to know your own home, your own country, go make a home in another country (not Canada, England, or most of Western Europe.) Stop at a crossroads where the light is surreal, nothing is familiar, the air smells like a nameless spice, and the vibes are just plain alien, and stay long enough to truly be there. Become an expatriate, a victim of self-inflicted exile for a year or two. Sink into an otherness that reflects a reverse image of yourself, wherein lies your identity, or lack of one. Teach English in Japan, aquaculture in the South Pacific, accounting in Brazil. Join the Peace Corps, work in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, set up a fishing camp on the beach of Uruguay, become a foreign correspondent, study architecture in Istanbul, sell cigarettes in China.
And heres the point: Amid the fun, the risk, the discomfort, the seduction and sex in a fog of miscommunication, the servants and thieves, the food, the disease, your new friends and enemies, the grand dance between romance and disillusionment, youll find out a few things you thought you knew but didnt.
Youll learn to engage the world, not fear it, or at least not to be paralyzed by your fear of it. Youll find out, to your surprise, how American you are 100 percent, and you can never be anything but and that is worth knowing. Youll discover that going native is self-deluding, a type of perversion. Whatever gender or race you are, youll find out how much you are eternally hated and conditionally loved and thoroughly envied, based on the evidence of your passport.
Youll find out what you need to know to be an honest citizen of your own country, patriotic or not, partisan or nonpartisan, active or passive. And youll understand in your survivors heart that its best not to worry too much about making the world better. Worry about not making it worse.
When you come back home, its never quite all the way, and only your dog will recognize you.
We couldnt have said it better. Read on.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers
A Moment in History
The First Ten Years of the Peace Corps
(Reissue first published in 1971)
by Brent K. Ashabranner (Peace Corps Deputy Director, India/Country Director 196469)
Garden City, NY: Doubleday
Looking at Ground Zero
by Kevin Bubriski (Nepal 197579) www.sover.net/%7Ebubriski/
Songs from the Street
A Native New Yorker Comes of Age in the Fifties
by Karen S. Kendler (Nigeria 196566)
Writers Showcase Press
No One Will Hire Me: Avoid 15 Mistakes and Win the Job
by Ron Krannich (Thailand) and Caryl Krannich www.impactpublications.com
Manassas Park, VA : Impact Publications
by Peter Lefcourt (Togo 196264) www.PeterLefcourt.com
Simon & Schuster
by Peter Lefcourt (Togo 196264)
Washington Square Press
by Peter Lefcourt (Togo 196264)
Washington Square Press
In Revere, In Those Days
by Roland Merullo (Micronesia 197980)
Revere Beach Elegy
A Memoir of Home and Beyond
by Roland Merullo (Micronesia 197980)
by Lucia St. Clair Robson (Venezuela 196466)
Travelers' Tales San Francisco
edited by James O'Reilly, Larry Habegger, Sean O'Reilly;
Steve Van Beek (Nepal 196668) (contributor)
Travellers' Tales Inc.
by Steve Van Beek (Nepal 196668)
Thailand: Wind and Water Books
How to Forge Your Brand for the Future
by Nick Wreden (Korea 1974-76) www.FusionBrand.com
Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle
(revised 4th edition of Nicaragua: The Land of Sandino)
by Thomas W. Walker (Colombia 196365)
Literary Type 1/2003
FY Queen Noors new book Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life is coming out this March. In her recollection of being a teenager in America, she recalls, The Peace Corps topped the list of career goals in my diary . . .
Paul Karrer (Western Samoa 197880), now a teacher in Castroville, California, has two short stories appearing in March. You have To Try, Mom is being published in Chicken Soup for The Mother & Daughter Soul. A second story "Uncle Mikey and The Much Famed Winged Bean," set in Samoa, will be published in Volunteer Tales. Paul may be heard reading his short stories or editorials once a month on radio KUSP 88.9 FM, Santa Cruz, California.
Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal, written by Laura M. Ahearn (Nepal 198286) and published by the University of Michigan Press in 2001, won Honorable Mention in the Edward Sapir Book Prize, sponsored by the Society of Linguistic Anthropology. Laura teaches at Rutgers University in the Department of Anthropology.
For anyone wishing to read the translations of dozens of Nepali love letters that were the basis for the book, they can be found at the U of M Press site (in PDF format).
Authors Arthur Dobrin and his wife Lyn Dobrin (Kenya 196567) have maintained their connection with Kenya and are now raising funds to construct and equip the Sema Academy at their former site. The building is expected to be completed in June. Recently the Dobrins sent 36 computers to Kenya with the help of the Canaan Foundation, a Connecticut-based program whose goal is to bring computer literacy to schools in Kenya.
The Dobrins continue to seek donations for the Sema Academy through the The Kenya Fund, a project of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island in Garden City, New York.To learn more about Sema Academy and making a donation, check out their website.
Joby Taylor (Gabon 199193) is coordinator of faculty development in-service-learning at The Shriver Center, University of Maryland,/Baltimore Country, and teaches an urban education course for students tutoring in Baltimore City public schools. He had an article published in the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Volume 9, Number 1, in the fall of 2002 entitled Metaphors We Serve By: Investigating the Conceptual Metaphors Framing National and Community Service and Service-Learning. While it sounds academically deadly it is, however, well written and would be of interest to anyone who serviced in the Peace Corps.
In addition to all that, Joby is a Ph.D. candidate in UMBCs interdisciplinary Language, Literacy, and Culture program, and, since 1996, has directed Visions Guadeloupe, a summer service-learning program in the French West Indies.
To order a copy of the Journal, go to www.umich.edu/~mjcsl/; or to receive a photocopy of the article, write to Joby at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dan B. Fleming, Jr., a professor emeritus of education at Virginia Tech, has written a book on where we all or most of us were at 1:30 pm EST November 22, 1963 when President John Kennedy was shot. The book is entitled
Ask What You Can Do For Your Country: The Memory and Legacy of John F. Kennedy, and was published by Vandamere Press this last December.
Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory, wrote a short foreword for the book that includes a chapter Kennedys Children Remember. The recollections come from Jerry David (Morocco 1962-64), Alan Guskin (Thailand 1963-65), Romeo M. Massey (Colombia 1962-64), Tom Scanlon (Chile 1961-63), Robert Steiner (Afghanistan CD 1962-64), Dick Weber (Cameroon 1962-64), Peter Weng (Indonesia 1963-65) and Jim Bausch (PC/W Trainer 1963). [Guess she didn't realize that there were women serving as PCVs then!] (This book should not be confused with Karen Schwarzs excellent oral history of the Peace Corps: What You Can Do for Your Country, published in 1991 by William Morrow and Company. You can Buy this book used at Amazon.com for prices starting at $2.25.)
Barry Vogel (Peru 196466), producer and host of Radio Curious, a northern California Public Radio program from KZYX&Z, interviewed Patricia Taylor Edmisten (Peru, 196264) about her Peace Corps novel, The Mourning of Angels. A CD of the show, which aired on Christmas Eve, also includes an interview with anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead and is available for purchase for $10.00. Write Curious@pacific.net.
George Packer (Togo 198283) author of The Village of Waiting, and most recently, Blood of the Liberals, has a moving essay in the January 13, 2003 issue of The New Yorker entitled, The Children of Freetown and the efforts of one man from Staten Island, New York who tried to help the war amputees from Sierra Leone.
www.MirandaZine.com is the website of Kate Haas (Morocco 199093). In addition to her stint in the Peace Corps, Kates past careers include apple-picking, editing, and teaching high school English. She's currently a stay-at-home mom and the publisher of Miranda, a zine about motherhood and other adventures. Several issues feature stories about her experiences in Morocco; the current issue has her tale of getting a Berber tattoo. Kates a born storyteller, and her stories are smooth, spellbinding, says Zine World, a reader's guide to the underground press.
Visit Kates website for ordering information, to view a sample article, read what other critics have said and see illustrations.
J. Randolph Ry Ryan (Ecuador 196466) journalist and political activist, died in Boston of a heart attack on January 2, 2003. In the Peace Corps, he was assigned to be a university instructor, but he also worked on a road construction project. Known as an international crusader, Ry, as he was called, came to work at the Boston Globe in 1978 as a copy editor and by 1982 he was the lead writer on the Globe team that produced a special 56-page magazine entitled War & Peace in the Nuclear Age, which won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting the following year.
Noam Chomsky of MIT, who met Ryan in Nicaragua about 20 years ago, said last week that through the 1980s Ryans editorials and op-ed columns in the Globe constituted some of the most important work on Latin America. William Goodfellow, director of the Center for International Policy in Washington, said in an obituary on Ryan in the Globe that, Ry was almost alone among journalists writing for mainstream publications saying that what we were being told about the war in Nicaragua was just not true.
After leaving the Globe in 1996, Ryan worked in Bosnia first as a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, then as a political analyst for the private International Crisis Group, and then helped to train Yugoslav journalists for the International Research and Exchange Board. In 2000, he helped plan the UNs special session on social development held in Geneva, and he had since been a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. There, he worked to derail the Bush administration appointment of Otto Reich.
His passing was lamented by U.S. Senator John Kerry who called Ryan an indomitable spirit. Ryan was planning to join the senator on a 40-mile windsurfing excursion from Falmouth to Nantucket later this year.
Married to Jasmina Vujosevic, one of Yugoslavias leading print and broadcasts journalists, John Randolph Ryan was 61.
Cathy Riggs Salter (Thailand 196770), a former teacher and now a consultant for National Geographic Societys Geography Education Program and Geographic Bee, had an article published in April 2002 issue of National Geographic on The Missouri River of Lewis and Clark.
Cathy is also a columnist for the Columbia (MO) Daily Tribune and Boone County Journal.
Poet Edward Mycue (Ghana 1961) is featured at the website of Staceys a San Francisco independent bookseller. Ed shares comments about his ten favorite books in Staff Picks.
William McNally Evensen (Peru 1964-66), long time Venice Beach, California activist and writer, recently attempted to sell American Indian (a quarterly established by the Smithsonian that will begin publishing with the 2004 opening of their National Museum of the American Indian, being built on the Mall) an article about the President of Peru, Alejandro Toledo who spoke (by phone) to the NPCA 40+1 Conference last summer.
The American Indian editor declined Evensens idea for an article; however, the alert Regional Manager of the Peace Corps office in Southern California, Jill Andrew, liked the idea and asked Eversen to write an article on how PCVs Joel Meister and Nancy Deeds (Peru 196465) befriended Alejandro when they moved into the barriada of Chimbote where he lived with his family. After the Peace Corps this couple helped Alejandro attended school in America. The L.A. Peace Corps office published Williams piece, Perus Indigenous President Proves Power of Peace Corps, using it as a recruiting item for Southern California and Arizona. When this article was published, Evensen sent a copy to American Indian and guess what? The editor at American Indian just assigned a senior editor to interview President Toledo.
Shawn Davis (Mali 199698) has a photo-essay in African Arts Magazine (Volume XXXV-Number 2/Summer 2002). The photos were taken during his years in Mali. Shawns beautiful photos are also online at: www.shawndavisphoto.com
Talking with . . .
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)
PAUL EGGERS WON THE Maria Thomas Fiction Award in 2000 for his novel Saviors, set in a Vietnamese refugee camp on an island called Bidong off the east coast of Malaysia in the late 1970s, when boatloads of refugees were attempting to flee across the South China Sea. Last November, Southern Methodist University Press published Pauls second book, a collection of stories entitled How the Water Feels, and we wrote Paul and asked him about his writing and his Peace Corps connection.
Where was your Peace Corps assignment?
I taught ESL in Malaysia from 1976 to 1978. My first year I taught high school in a remote village; my second year, I moved to a city and taught the equivalent of junior high students.
Did you stay in Asia after the Peace Corps?
Well, I was pretty much ready to go home after two years, but before I made it back to the US, I spent most of my readjustment allowance touring Europe on a shoestring. Back home, I found almost immediately that I missed South East Asia, and I wanted to go back. I spent two mostly aimless years in Seattle, doing boring, mindless jobs.
Then I found out about a special United Nations program asking for ESL teachers to work with Indo-Chinese refugees in refugee camps in The Philippines and Malaysia. UNHCR wanted applications from former Peace Corps Volunteers, especially those who had served in South East Asia. I jumped at the chance, as did my wife, Ellen, whom Id met in Peace Corps. Within a few months we were on our way to a refugee camp in The Philippines. We worked there for a year. Then in 1979, ever the romantics, we gave in to our desire for an even more remote and rough-and-tumble posting and requested and received a transfer to a first-asylum refugee camp for Vietnamese refugees in Malaysia, where we worked for another year.
And all of these experiences led to your first novel, Saviors?
Yes, my years in Peace Corps and the UN were probably the defining experiences of my life, so of course I wanted to write about them, or to at least in some way make sense of them. As an undergraduate, I had carried vague notions of someday doing something with writing, but I had no idea how to proceed. When my wife and I came back from working for the UN in 1982, we enrolled as graduate students at Penn State, where, as someone burnt-out from refugee work, I went into a degree program in technical writing.
But I had the good fortune of taking a fiction/nonfiction class with the novelist and essayist Paul West, who was very encouraging toward my short essays on my Peace Corps experience. (I knew I was still close to my UN experiences, so I chose not to write about them.) He told me I had a novel in me, and that I needed to chase it down. This inspired me, of course, but undertaking a novel also seemed beyond my own sense of my capabilities, so I put his words on the back burner and proceeded to complete a degree in technical writing, which eventually led to employment in Seattle / Tacoma as a technical writer at Boeing and at Microsoft.
I quickly tired of technical writing, and when my wife was offered a job teaching at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I was an enthusiastic mid-30s tag-along, deciding that, if I was going to actually ever do creative writing, it was now or never. I felt I was now far enough away from my UN work in refugee camps to write about it through fiction. At the time and this seems funny to me now my sense was that I was too boring to write interesting nonfiction about the camps. Further, reading various nonfiction accounts had convinced me that nonfiction required knowledge I didnt have, even that everything that could be said had already been said. I had never published a short story, and I hadnt read any fiction about life in refugee camps, all of which allowed me to escape the notion that the task was overwhelming. In a sense, my own ignorance of creative writing gave me the confidence and room to actually attempt a novel.
At Nebraska, I took several graduate writing workshops. In my first one, I attempted a longish and somewhat rambling short story based on people in the refugee camp in Malaysia. I got much positive feedback. Short-story writer and novelist Marly Swick, a wonderful teacher, told me it looked like the beginning of a good novel, made a few suggestions, and encouraged me to continue it. So I did, even though it took me about 100 pages to actually summon up the courage to call it a novel-in-progress. I had assumed that writers first write short stories, then go on to novels. But the feedback was so positive from everyone an agent expressed interest when I was about half done that I stayed with the novel project for about six years and cranked out almost 600 pages. The resulting manuscript, Saviors, was my dissertation; a slimmed-down version was accepted for publication by Harcourt-Brace about a year later.
Whats your academic background?
Did you study creative writing in college?
Oh yes. I took poetry workshops as an undergrad. For my MA, I took three graduate poetry workshops, in addition to the class with Paul West. I was a mediocre poet, so when I had the opportunity to continue my education at Nebraska, I figured it was time to give fiction-writing a shot.
Penn State has been a favorite school for RPCV writers. And Paul West a favorite teacher of many RPCVs. The late Maria Thomas (Ethiopia 197173) was a student of Paul West, as was Peter Chilson (Niger 198587) and Bird Cupps (Kenya 198789.) They were all creative writing students at Penn State. Did you run into any of these writers, or other RPCV writers at State?
I didnt realize all these writers went to Penn State; to my recollection I was the only RPCV in the early 80s in the English department. At Nebraska, too, in the 90s, I was the only RPCV.
Do you think that there is value in a creative writing program for RPCVs?
Absolutely. Theres no way I could have finished my novel, or even had the motivation and confidence to start, if I hadnt been in a creative writing program. I found that when I wasnt surrounded by other people engaged in the same process, it was simply too easy to allow life to intrude and take me away from the necessary and constant reading and drafting.
In a writers early development, I think its essential that he or she sees how real writers their instructors, their actively publishing classmates work and talk and think. I say the following with all affection to my teachers, and I encourage my own students to understand this, but writers arent nearly as smart or funny or profound in real life as they seem on the page, which is both a simple and an enormously important realization to come to i.e., if these otherwise average people can do it, then so can I. And theres nothing like the possibility of public humiliation to spur one into finishing and polishing a story or poem.
What Peace Corps writers have you read?
Until recently, Ive focused on Peace Corps and non-Peace Corps writers dealing with South East Asia. By far the most important Peace Corps writer, for me, was and is Paul Theroux; in particular, Therouxs accounts of Singapore and Malaysia in Saint Jack and The Consuls File were instrumental in helping me develop a tone and approach in my own writing. Non-PCVs Tim OBrien and Robert Olen Butler, both of whom of course deal with South East Asia, have also been useful and inspiring to read.
Lately, because Im working on a novel taking place in Africa, Ive expanded my reading list. Theres a lot of great RPCV writing about Africa. Ive particularly enjoyed the Africa books of, again, Paul Theroux, but also Melannie Sumner, George Packer, Norman Rush, and Eileen Drew, and the non-Africa books of Bob Shacochis.
Nowadays, I read mostly with an eye toward helping me expand my repertoire, so I like to read a variety of stylists dealing with a variety of experiences. My own idiosyncratic list, in addition to ones Ive mentioned, would include anything by Marquez, anything by Alice Hoffman, anything by Conrad and V.S. Naipaul, anything by Lorrie Moore, anything by Chuck Palahniuk, and anything by Richard Russo. Reading these wildly divergent writers has, I think, helped me expand my sense of whats possible.
Where do you live in California?
I live about 15 miles outside Chico and teach at Cal State-Chico, where Im lucky to be teaching with fellow RPCV writer and the recent Maria Thomas Award winner, Rob Davidson.
In some ways my wife and I live in a clichéd writers house in a pine forest, with a woodpile out back, a big fireplace, a propane tank, a redwood deck, and lots of trees and quiet.
My wife also teaches at Chico State, so life tends to revolve around school and various projects requiring us to sit at our respective writing desks. We have a dog, Jackson, who likes nothing better than to get something going, but outside of him and socializing with friends there really arent that many distractions.
What does Ellen teach?
Give us some idea of how you go about your writing.
The pattern I developed in graduate school was to do most of my writing during the summer. It took me almost seven years to finish my novel while I was at Nebraska, but I was also taking and teaching a full load of classes, studying for comps, and writing academic essays. I found that writing during the summer gave me the best shot at having a long, unbroken stretch of time. Since then, Ive continued this pattern, doing most of my writing when school is not in session.
Where do you write?
I have a home office (there are too many distractions at school) where I do all my writing, usually on the computer. Until this year, I couldnt get in the zone unless I was listening to loud rock music. The louder and trashier, the better. My explanation is that the music forced me to tune things out more quickly; my best writing always occurred when I couldnt hear the music any more. I dont know if my explanation is truly accurate, but nowadays Im tending toward having quiet when I write.
When I began writing my novel, I also smoked cigars while I was drafting. Im not sure if it was the buzz or the affirming picture I had in my head the cigar-chomping writer at his desk that made me do this, but Ive since given that up, too. Now I like to have a cup of coffee at the desk and stare at the trees outside the window.
I usually dont write every day; I tend to write in patches, whenever Im free and motivated to do it. Typically, I like to begin a writing session by reviewing my previous writing on the subject and looking over things I put in my writers notebook ideas, quotes, questions and observations I have about the material Im working on, doubts, rough sketches of scenes, ramblings, images, and so on.
I find I forget useful things if I dont put them down in my notebook.
How might a short story develop?
Well, one of the stories in my collection, in fact, grew out of an image I scribbled in my notebook. It was an image of a guy hauling a bucket up from a well, and inside the bucket was a pet monkey. In the Peace Corps, a friend of mine actually did have a monkey that liked to curl up in the well bucket and take naps. The image stayed with me. In real life, the friend and his monkey were benevolent presences. But when I separated that image from its actual context, there was something lurid and vaguely threatening about it, all of which I tried to capture in the story. I knew that if I could convincingly get to that point in the story a character hauling up a hellish, screeching monkey from a well the story would work itself out because the scene was so metaphorically rich and full of possibilities.
Finally, what are you thinking about now in terms of a new book?
Ive spent the past few years trying to nail down a voice and approach for a novel involving chess and Africa. Ellen and I lived in Burundi, Africa, from 8586, and while we were there, I made some Reagan-era friends with Burundians and Soviets who hosted elaborate chess tournaments. As a writer, I love the incongruity and oddness of having a mismatched group of chess fanatics I, myself, am a former nationally ranked chess master indulge their game board fantasies in a developing and largely ignored country with very real problems, a country on the brink of violent change (the early 90s ethnic violence in Rwanda was played out on a smaller scale, with the sides reversed, in neighboring Burundi). The blindness and moral ambiguities of that pre-explosion time, from my vantage point as outsider, are what interest me now; the experience is, to my mind, heavily overlayed with issues of fiction and fictionalizing, so fiction seems the appropriate vehicle.
by John Flynn (Moldova 199395)
Be Move Press
Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 199798)
THESE STORIES ARE FROM THE GUTTER, housed with losers, wannabes and out-of-luck dreamers, whose mouths bulge with alcohol and vulgarities, whose lives are done before theyre begun, whose imaginations carry them no further than their backyards. Something Grand, the ironical title of this collection of eleven short stories, presents us with a number of poor, uneducated or traumatized individuals struggling for respect from themselves and others in a larger world. As readers with the benefit of an external perspective, it is easy for us to see they are mentally and emotionally unequipped to fill any station beyond their present one. The problem with Something Grand, is that the stories are ungrounded in larger environments or contexts that might provide alternatives to their current situations. While the characters, their relationships and their problems are revealed in sufficient detail, they float in a landscape of their own barbs and expletives, with no role models or choices toward which they and through them the readers might strive.
This lack of environment begins with a failure to provide external descriptions. In Wistah Irish, an uneducated and frustrated hospital janitor drives to a nearby bar after arguing with his wife who wants to name their first-born after an uppity friend whom her husband despises. At the bar, when he spots a new SUV, the prose withdraws into furious, expletive-ridden internal monologue. Avis throws a cinder block through the SUV window but does so without providing a larger description of the bar scene from which a chance detail of hope might be gleaned. Why shouldnt Avis get mad if he sees no choice for anything else? The same is true in Pulpo Avoids A Hard Time, whose protagonist, an Hispanic who works several jobs in east Los Angeles, is not as convinced as his wife that they can make ends meet and make a life for themselves. The bulk of the story takes place in the restaurant where Pulpo is a dishwasher. He is hassled by fellow employees, accused of smoking marijuana, which could lead to his getting fired, and dreams of killing his boss. Other characters, whose lives or situations might be more hopeful, are completely absent. Pulpo, like Avis, is reduced to vulgarity and violent thoughts, which does little to endear him to the readers sympathy.
In rare moments the author presents a fine, sympathetic detail that readers may identify with: Daddys Home tells us about a father who works too hard but presents his children with a new football, only to accidentally kick it on the roof, ending their fun a few minutes later. In another story, Ethan, a musically talented but naïve country boy falls into the web of despair of an older sexual predator in New York City and sacrifices his violin to her jealousy. At the end, we are told: For many days after, Ethan cried meekly to himself, alone. Not he, nor his beloved instrument, would ever sound the same.
Most of the troubled characters brood deeply and enforce an emotional paralysis on themselves that makes it impossible to improve their lives. The stories are often overwritten as well, but most importantly, they are limited by the authors failure to drive beyond a general malaise to a broader environment where improvement or happiness might be found. The characters guard their personalities, even from the readers, through recourse to violence, alcohol and vulgarity. In doing so, these stories degenerate rapidly into tales of conditions rather than of conflicts. And as a result, boxed in with little hope for escape or victory, the weak characters lose the readers interest as well as our desire to travel with them through the pages.
Joe Kovacs is a regular contributor to WorldView Magazine. His most recent articles, The Harlem Renaissance, Washington, DC and the Rise of Langston Hughes will appear early next year on Literary Traveler.com. He recently accepted a marketing position with Gelman, Rosenberg and Freedman accounting firm in Bethesda, MD.
A Memoir of Nigeria and Biafra
(Peace Corps experience)
by John Sherman (Nigeria 196667; Malawi 196768)
Indianapolis: Mesa Verde Press,
Reviewed by Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962-64)
A perfect civil war,
but a memoir it is not
When I won the opportunity to review this book, it was known that I would write both late and long. Despite this, it was felt, I think, that some old hellhounds of mine shades of Biafra Lost might be exorcised in the writing. We will see. But as social work on my behalf is always welcome, I said hello to this book War Stories by John Sherman and read the hell out of it. So shall you, because I subscribe to the old Whole Earth Catalog notion that a book review should also let the book speak for itself, in its own best words. But first some needed background.
In May 1967, after years of religious and cultural turmoil, the Eastern Region of Nigeria seceded from the federal republic and war soon broke out. With a romantic but short-lived existence (about 20 months), Biafra was filled with hope, competent leadership, appropriate technologies like two-seater airplanes outfitted with rockets, and a practical vision for the future. Unfortunately for the future of Africa where a model for dismantling colonial empires along cultural lines was and is a desperate requirement, Biafras dominant image to the world was not a political one, but one set by the competing relief agencies: starving, pot-bellied children, dying it was said, by the millions. Which wasnt true: hundreds of thousands only.
Shermans book comes from a nine months-long journal kept by this former Nigeria PCV author while he was a member of a food/medical team operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in several contested areas. Here on page 18 he talks about his introduction to 1960s-era international NGOs involved with war famine and refugees. (Are NGOS better now, I ask?)
I met with a Dr. Bulle, an American [conservative Lutheran] with a thick accent of some kind, and he hired me in less than five minutes. He was most impressed that I had been here before. There are too many greenhorns here, he said in disgust. Youll find out for yourself. I looked puzzled. He laid his pipe on the desk. The Swiss! Ha! He narrowed his eyes. They are escaping dull work, dull marriages and the staleness of Switzerland. He seemed to spit out the words, as if they themselves were guilty of staleness. And, he said, many of them do not even speak English! How can they expect to deal with Nigerians, I ask you? What he said about the Swiss is true, only he didnt even mention their racism. I am convinced the lack of planning of the ICRC is an extension of their racism.
Later on page 60:
If most of ones children and grandchildren have died or disappeared and one is continually hungry, is there any reason one wouldnt cheat to get a little more for those are left? Then, in moments of anger, I lash out at the injustice of anyone taking more than ones share when so many around us can barely survive from week to week on what we can spare for them. I want to be somewhere where my values arent tested quite so sharply, where morals arent strung out like a tight rubber band while we all wait for it to snap. Sometimes I look out from the table where we are dispensing feverishly and see Olive trying to make her way through the noisy crowds and then spy a child in someones arms bobbing around with that too-familiar look of kwashiorkor [famine syndrome] and I suddenly want, if only for a day, a ranch-style house in a complacent suburb where ones social problems consist of who to invite over for steak this Saturday. Just one day, God. I threaten to send one woman out if she will not keep quiet and stop trying to get ahead of the others in the line . . . . Col. Henshaw, who is in charge of the troops in the Elele area, has a brother fighting for Biafra. Its a perfect civil war.
Now I have to say that John Sherman got into the war zone with no small bit of courage and now he has written it up. But describing Shermans book in a recent email to an old friend a former partner in the Committee for Nigeria/Biafra Relief, I wrote: Good writing, but with little perspective on anything outside a 50' radius of the author, about which he writes well.
The problem central to Shermans book is that all of it, I mean all, comes from his journal and prodigious memory of those distant times. I bet he had this file material kicking around on his New Years Resolutions for decades: Write Biafra Journal this year. Cant let that good stuff go to waste. While it didnt go to waste, exactly, I wonder if he didnt have his own small publishing house in Indianapolis Mesa Verde Press, would we be reading this, as is? Because an editor would have seen the manuscript and surely said, John, this is full of memories, but despite your subtitle, it is not yet a memoir.
Here I will let an expert explain the true nature of memoir. I use as my text, Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington (The Eighth Mountain Press, Portland, 1997) In her early reading,
. . . famous-person memoirs rarely stuck to one theme or selected out one aspect of a life to explore in depth, as the memoir does . . . . Now that I am writing my own stories, I have come to realize that the modern memoir belongs to the same family as essays. Phillip Lopate, in his illuminating writings about the essay, includes the memoir under the general heading of the informal or familiar essay. It is not any particular form, he says, that distinguishes this kind of essay, but the author's voice.
The great essayist Montaigne understood that, in an essay, the track of a person's thoughts struggling to achieve some understanding of a problem is the plot, is the adventure. Rather than simply telling a story from her life, the memoirist both tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in the light of her current knowledge. Still, even without the direct address, modern memoirs aim to speak intimately to their readers, and those readers like to experience them as if they were sitting in a comfortable chair listening to a series of confidences.
Although the roots of the memoir lie in the realm of personal essay, the modern literary memoir also has many of the characteristics of fiction. Moving both backward and forward in time, re-creating believable dialogue, switching back and forth between scene and summary, and controlling the pace and tension of the story, the memoirist keeps her reader engaged by being an adept storyteller. So, memoir is really a kind of hybrid form with elements of both fiction and essay, in which the author's voice, musing conversationally on a true story, is all important.
While Shermans book has zip and zero essay or even musing to it, the book itself is a handsome production, with a signature of his own good photographs from that period, some really well-done maps as well as a useful chronology of the Biafran War. The book is all there, kind of waiting for Sherman to tell us what it is all about, now that like the rest of us, he is in his sixties and ready to get down and honest, per the above description of a true memoir. A memoirist goes there, does it, and then returns and tells us the story of what it all means.
I mean, how can John transcribe and/or write 119 pages about a time with direct links to todays Nigeria (and Afghanistan) without referring to anything beyond the sixties? Beyond any meaning, Sherman even refused to ponder upon the structure of his notes to the point that he had a story to tell, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end beyond the wheels-up of the plane flying back home. I mean, the young Sherman boy went out there and had himself one fine adventure but apparently didnt live to tell the tale. The table of contents is only a list of dates and places where the events unravel, and then he ends the book gratuitously I think with a 1968 poem of his own but one which nicely enough ends with the words, . . . the day Biafra died. There goes a better book, right there, I think.
Gearing up to write this review, in the middle of December, I went to my cold and musty storage unit and pulled out yellowing files of my Biafra experience. Reading them for the first time in generations, I see I damn sure learned my chops to the point that I could read Shermans book knowledgeably and more or less objectively (I admit to some envy, yes). For example, in my files I found the following, dated October 24th, 1968:
Biafran Special Representative
Biafra House, Sao Tomé.
Today we are informed that Mr. Heberts clearance for Biafra has been obtained. Mr. Hebert would like to go in tonight to report to Dr. Middlecoop.
Axel V. Duch, Captain,
Chief of Operations, NORDCHURCHAID
Then this TELEX, sent about a week later from an RPCV relief co-worker in Sao Tomé (the tiny colonial Portuguese island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, whose airfield was the only port into Biafra) to UNICEF at the United Nations in New York:
HEBERT DEPORTED LISBON YESTERDAY STOP REMAINING VOLUNTEERS REQUEST RETURN TICKERTS IMMEDIATELY PLUS INFORMATION REGARDING POSSIBILITY TRANSFER LAGOS OPERATION STOP REPEAT STOP NEED OFFICIAL UNICEF INVOVLEMENT BIAFRA URGENTLY SIGNED DISGUSTED DAVIS.
Finally, this November 4 TELEX to George Orrick, UNICEF New York, from Mona Mollerup, NORDCHURCHAID [Danish NGO]:
DUCH INFORMS US THAT HEBERT WAS DEPORTED BY THE PORTUGUESE AUTHORITIES DUE TO DEMONSTATIVE, INSULTING BEHAVIOR AND AN UNCOOPERATIVE ATTITUDE. THE OTHER FIVE ARE DOING AN EXCELLENT JOB ON THE WAREHOUSES AND THE GOVERNOR HAS EXPRESSED HIS APPRECIATION FOR THEIR EFFORTS. GREETINGS.
The last is not all that Ms. Mollerup said. From my previously unpublished notes: Tom Hebert is a mass murderer of children!
Well, thats a load off.
Looking back, my particular Biafra became the place my adult life really began. But for Nigeria, except as yet another failure, it has never meant much. On a 1978 visit to Nigerias eastern region with a State Department team, I met with a state governor who had been a high Biafran official during the war. Letting the others leave the room, I said, Hail Biafra! Stunned, looking to see if we were alone, he returned the salute, Hail Biafra! As we talked that afternoon, for us Biafra had become a melancholy thing, with little remaining impact few bad effects and no heritage. Just a slight perturbation a wobble in Nigerias orbit, the one degrading to a Brechtian (nihilistic expressive) 2002 Miss World finale, shortly before the federation of Nigeria crashes into the sun.
However poorly, in this Afterword I was writing memoir.
Tom Hebert, a writer and policy consultant, is the co-author with John Coyne of three books on innovative American training and education.
For several years, he was a training consultant and advisor to the U.S. Department of State and the government of Nigeria, he later wrote policy papers for a candidate for governor of California, and developed strategic plans for the Palouse region on the Washington-Idaho border. For most of the 80s, he was director of TVAs center for innovation. He was with the USO in Vietnam, and 1992-3 was director of USO Bahrain and mentioned in Navy Dispatches. In 1997-8, he was managing consultant to Chattanoogas Bessie Smith Hall.
Hebert is currently living on the Umatilla Indian Reservation just outside Pendleton, Oregon where he is consultant to the Confederated Tribes (the Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla) on tribal horse programs. He can be reached at; email@example.com
A letter from Mauritius
On Valentines Day, 1973, Suzanne Clark and her husband Vern were in one of their favorite bayside restaurants on Newport Harbor, a short drive down the Pacific Coast Highway from their home in Huntington Beach, California. They were sitting at a second floor window table watching the sunlight sparkle on the water and the ceaseless tossing of small boats on the bay when Vern turned to Suzanne and said, Why dont we join the Peace Corps? Thus began the Clarks journey to Mauritius as PCVs (1973-75). Recently Suzanne collected her letters home and her memories of her Peace Corps tour while taking a Life Story writing class and self-published them in a small book entitled, My Mid-Life Adventure. With Suzannes permission, we reprint one of her Letters Home from Mauritius to her daughter Janet, then a Physical Therapy student at Long Beach State College. Today the Clarks live in Sebastopol, California.
It is Sunday morning Dec. 9, 1973.
We received your letter Friday, the 7th. Congratulations on making the program. We knew you would! We are so proud of you and know you will continue to do well and put the L.B. State School of Therapy on the map! The rest of our group here send their congrats also. We all had a beer Friday night to toast your success. Also, how great that you sold your car so quickly. Hang on to that money for the future. We have been here a week and it seems so much longer. The language instruction is very intense. Amine and Danielle come every morning at 8 and we work until noon on a half day and until 2 or 3 on a full day. The teaching is all oral. We sit with no books and listen then repeat. Evenings and mornings we work on vocabulary. We have copybooks to list words then we are supposed to work together in our spare time. It is no wonder I wake up in the night repeating Creole words. But apparently the system is working. They tell us we are doing well. Along with the language we will go on field trips to learn the culture. Monday we are going to the market to learn about shopping. The nurses who are working here now came on Thurs. to tell us a little about the work we will be doing. We saw Dr. Malleck Fri. and got gamma globulin shots. Also T.B. skin tests. We still have to have DPT and typhoid. Today is a welcome party for new volunteers at Blue Bay. Vishnu will pick us up about noon. We will meet the other volunteers, swim and eat. Both of us plan to get masks and snorkels because the reefs are beautiful! Yesterday afternoon Dad and I rode the bus into Curepipe, another town up the hill. Just walked the streets and looked in the shops. There are not too many ready-made clothes but lots of fabric much of it just like home and many places to have clothes made. The majority of women wear short dresses. You seldom see shorts or pants. Only the Indian women wear the sari. The men, mostly trousers and shirts some wear suits all clothes are very colorful. The big food market (or bazaar) is all open stalls with everything fresh and on display. Meat shops the same. Some small stores with packaged and canned goods. The bread is bought fresh every day because there are no preservatives in it. It tastes good! This coming Thurs. they have planned a Sega party here at our beach house. Sega is the native dance with drums. This will be part of our cultural experience. We will wish you Merry Christmas now. We both feel fine and are doing ok. Of course, we are the old folks of our group but don't feel it is a handicap. Mary Tom, the Hawaiian girl, is 25. The other couple, Newton is 23 and Pauline Chase is 31. We have had a couple of bridge games with them. Still have not seen a hospital but that will come in Jan. when our training period is finished. Also then we will have our own houses. Please share this letter with whoever is interested. I will try and write to as many as possible but we are really busy now and only have a day and a half off a week.
A Volunteer's life in Romania
Looking for Ben Franklin in Timisoara
by Andy Trincia (Romania 2002 )
ONE BLUSTERY DAY in November 1989, Dorel Jurcovan stood in line several hours for a half a kilogram of meat just over one pound his familys ration for a whole month. Ration lines were a way of life in Communist Romania. Waiting, more waiting, for 5 eggs, less than an ounce of butter and a half-gallon of milk.
Night fell in Timisoara, and still he had no meat, so he began to ask about the slaughterhouse and delivery truck how could they be sure meat would arrive? Other people around him suddenly were nervous and moved away. One man uttered, It doesnt matter. Look, I want to go home from here, meaning the alternative was to be hauled off to jail for challenging authority. Dorel eventually received a piece of meat the size of his forearm, but most of it was bone and fat.
I was so furious when I got home, he recalls. I just shouted not at my wife or daughter but shouted, If we cant ask a simple question, we are just doomed. Our lives have no meaning.
So a month later, when anti-Communist protests erupted in Timisoaras streets and main plaza, Dorel was right in the middle, even circulating his secret writings to Western journalists covering the drama. Fueled by TV reports from nearby Yugoslavia that the Berlin Wall had come down and change was engulfing the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, the December 1989 Revolution rumbled across Romania and into Bucharest, leading to the toppling of the government and the Christmas Day executions of evil dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his equally hated wife, Elena. Dozens of students died in the melee, martyrs for freedom, though many believe a simultaneous coup detat engineered by Romanias Securitate, KGB-like secret police, actually toppled Ceausescu. Nonetheless, Communism was dead in Romania.
Today, Dorel is a successful, 57-year-old businessman and an inspiring, yet unassuming figure. Another Peace Corps Volunteer and I met him recently hed asked us to come to his restaurant and talk business. His story was so amazing that I went back another night to have him tell me more. After six months here as an economic development Volunteer, I can tell you that this country needs more people like him.
A nuclear physicist by training, he spent many years working for the Romanian states Research Institute, specializing in semiconductors and machine circuitry.
Before the Revolution, I had no idea about starting a business, he says. I had zero knowledge of accounting, economics or marketing. I didnt even know my salary. My wife took care of the finances. I was just so focused on my job, the technical aspects of it. But I eventually realized that I could be my own master. Economics is like a game of chess. There are rules but you just have to have common sense.
Fortunately for him, his writings surfaced after the Revolution and he received letters from around the world, including one from Norway in 1990 inviting him to an economics symposium. He and his wife, Luita, daringly packed up their old car with food and clothes and headed northwest with just enough money to buy gasoline. They encountered the kindness of strangers along the way, as well as the excitement of crossing the border for the first time and seeing new countries.
When we got there, it was paradise for me. It was incredibly beautiful. These people seemed so rich, their houses so big, but they were nice to us. For the first time, we were treated like human beings, like normal people. I made great connections, new ideas. It was so exciting for me. Everyday was something new, like I had a new life.
Not long after, Dorel and his partners began importing floppy disks and started a computer training business. They tried many ideas in the next three years, most unsuccessful, but came to the conclusion that people eat. They opened up 3+1 Pizzeria, so named after original partners plus a new one, on a busy street in central Timisoara. Pizza did not exist in Romania before the Revolution, so people gobbled it up and still do. His little restaurant, smaller than some living rooms Ive seen in America, cranks out a few hundred pizzas daily. Ironically, because of seemingly endless red tape and widespread corruption, he believes it is harder to start a business now in Romania than it was during the years immediately after Communism.
Along this journey, he sought out American and other Western books, devouring The One Minute Manager and other self-help business guides. He befriended previous Peace Corps Volunteers, and another American development worker, whos now in Mongolia, has been a steady and trusted mentor for him. His daughter, Ioana, now attends law school in San Francisco. He has great affinity for America.
But it is Benjamin Franklins autobiography, which Dorel has read 13 times in the past 30 years, that guides him daily in his marriage, friendships, the restaurant and his work in international development.
If you understand Benjamin Franklin, then you know how people in the United States think even today. More honesty than other places. A strong work ethic this notion does not exist in Romania. Have you ever even heard the words work ethic in Romania?
In 1994, Dorel was the grateful recipient of a grant to visit the United States as a businessman from a developing region. I didnt believe that I was going until the planes engines started, he remembers. It was a big moment for me.
He traveled to several cities, met with a number of business people and consultants, but also toured scores of pizza restaurants, where he specifically observed processes and equipment. He likes to show off his kitchens ventilation system, which is modeled after one he first saw in America he took copious notes and made measurements with his arms and footsteps. Naturally, he remembers his first impressions at the airport in Philadelphia, a city he was excited to see because of Mr. Franklin.
The guy who greeted me was so nice, but I was suspicious of him. We were taught to be suspicious, because if you werent, you could lose your life. I thought about it later, what a wonderful feeling it is to always trust people, to always have trust. But you only have that when you are free.
Before joining the Peace Corps, Andy Trincia was a corporate communications executive in the financial services industry. Sworn in on August 16, 2002, he is working as a business consultant for the Chamber of Commerce in Timisoara, Romania. We have asked Andy to file reports for the next two years of what his life is like working and living in Romania.
Talking with . . .
A Writer Writes and Sings
I heard this story in my village. I also heard similar tales in Oaxaca, Mexico and in Mozambique.
When I was young,
The lions would come
At dawn to the edge of the fields
My father would say
Son, dont you stray
Lest the changelings take you away
Lest the changelings take you away
Its an ancient legend
Told around the world
Talk to boys and girls
Offer you candy
Take your hand
Then you vanish
With the dust of the Harmattan
We pay the River People,
For the right of passage
To the other shore
We are so frightened
We pay what we owe
Wholl eat us whole
From desert, jungle
To the Great Outback
The Shadow People
From the Other Side
Are here and hungry
Wont quit till satisfied
When I was young
The lions did come
At twilight to the edge of the fields
I didnt obey
I wanted to stay
With the boy who bid me to play
But my father grabbed me away
My father saved me that day
From his arms I saw a lion saunter away
I wrote this during training. I apologize in advance for potentially offensive comments
contained herein. But they offer a snap shot of the way I felt at the time.
Well its been 8 long weeks since the USA
Hell of time trying to learn francais
Though its hip to speak Arabic
Boule with French just makes me sick
If youre wondering why I feel this way
Its because all day long the Stagierres say
Pas d a nglais
The only thing I hear them say
Only word I know anyway is
Pas d a nglais
Weve played with mud and spliced up trees
Planted a garden to feed the monkeys
Fought blister bugs, drank sugar tea
Nous sommes perdus, where the Tchadian Sea?
Got a hot tip from the buvette committee
Start drinking heavy before the town meeting
Theyll filibuster and not listen too
In English, French and Kanembou
When I stand up and open my face
The Formatierres all say its disgrace
Pas d a nglais
Seulement chose j ecoute
Seullement ils ont parle
Pretty soon Ill be at post
Ill know just how to great my host
Inta afe, dude, how do you do?
Salaam Alek, Usmak yatou
Tell you about the summer in Dougiay
hackysack and Gala everyday
You wanna hear about the Corps de la Paix
Let me say it in French, just the right way
Pas d anglais . . .
Sometimes I wonder what world Im in
Watching and waiting for some sins to begin
Crying for the one I left behind
But theres new friends waiting wholl make me feel fine
At COS heres what Ill do
Give a G-Man the five-finger salute
See the girls wear shorts on Saturday night
Eat boule with my left; hide a hanky with my right
Swim the Chari; wear my shoes on a mat
Wash my shorts outside, when Im done with that
Dump the ORS drink Tequila instead
Give arrachid to Musselman to crack with his head
If they ask me why I act this way
You bet youll hear me say
Pas d francais
Only words youll get from me
Read my lips, youre gonna see
Pas d francais
The Griots I met in Africa were not the romantic figures presented in this song or popular lore. The guys I met were talented drunks. Just like American performers.
The Griot tells his story
Tales of long ago
Heroes and bravery
Love and woe
Hes the living legacy
The guardian of the past
Sifting through history
For truth along the path
Now who will paint the picture?
Of all thats come to be
I guess, the only answer
Is the Griot who lives in me
Theres hope in his persuading
His gentle entertaining
That when you sit and listen
Youll get up and act
His life is not a factor
His voice only the vector
But he knows that his feelings
Are caught up in the facts
But when the men with guns appear
His is the voice they fear
Living like a gypsy
Theyve got to hunt him down
Oh Lorca, Lennon, Saro-wiwa
Your blood blessed hallowed ground
So let us paint a mural
Of life and love and peace
Yes we have the answer
In the Griot, you and me
David Kendall Grant earned a Ph.D. in International Education and believes his Peace Corps experience is an integral part of his approach to writing and living. He has attempted to bring the world back home in words, pictures and music and has produced a number of albums of primarily acoustic and folk styled music. All his works are available for free downloads at the following websites:
Readings from the 40 + 1
A Presidents Dream
by Carol Welsh (Honduras 196264)
WHILE I WAS IN COLLEGE, I wrote a small research paper on The Youth Corps, which eventually was named the Peace Corps. I was excited about the idea of being able to represent America in a foreign country not as an Ugly American, but as one who lived at their level. President Kennedy stirred my heart and resolve as he made the Peace Corps into a reality.
The day camp
I left for Honduras on October 1, 1962. Our group consisted of nurses and social workers. As a social group worker, I was assigned to a community center to help develop programs and activities. The first winter I discovered that the schools closed for 8 weeks over the winter months rather than during the hot, steamy summer months. Thats when the idea began to emerge to have an 8-week day camp program for the next winter. My Honduran supervisor, Blanca Estela, liked the idea but was pessimistic because of a lack of funds.
We could have a fund raising carnival, I suggested. I explained that we could go to all of the businesses in San Pedro Sula and ask for a donation of one of their products that could be used for the prizes. The idea caught on and off we went. I was amazed at the generosity of the business community and merchants. Blanca teased that the people were so fascinated by this tall blonde gringa who spoke Spanish with a Wisconsin accent that they just couldnt refuse our request.
We ended up with a room full of wonderful prizes and some gifts that were so outstanding that they were saved for a raffle. But now for the rest of the story.
The carnival was planned for November 26, 1963. But four days before, our world turned upside down. Another Peace Corps Volunteer and I were living with a widow and her three children. The widow also had a 13-year-old girl living with her who worked for room and board. On the Friday before the carnival, while we were eating lunch, the girl came bursting in the door babbling asesinato presidente. She was laughing hysterically. Historically, military coups in Latin American countries where the president is assassinated were not uncommon. I felt terrible because the Honduran President and First Lady had invited us to Honduras to help staff the new health and community centers they had established around the country. The Hondurans loved them so I was puzzled by his assassination.
The widow went up to the girl and slapped her hard to stop the hysteria. I was shocked until I heard her scream, How can you laugh over President Kennedys assassination? How dare you insult these people by behaving in such a manner! The girl began to sob.
No! This cant be true! This doesnt happen in America, my mind screamed! Two other Volunteers burst into the house, crying. I turned numb. As I rode in the Jeep back to the Community Center, I wept quietly for a few minutes. The Centers staff was wailing loudly when I got there. They have strong customs for grieving, including showing a great deal of emotion and rules of what you can and cannot wear. (Everyone knew the woman of our house was a widow because she could only wear black and white for the rest of her life.)
Many of the Hondurans idolized the Kennedys and had pictures of them in their homes or shops. To show respect for President Kennedy, they felt they must cancel the carnival. How can we do something that is joyous and fun at a time like this? When I explained that the Peace Corps was a dream come true for President Kennedy and that the biggest honor we could bestow upon him was to go ahead with the carnival, they decided not to cancel it.
$300 in nickels was made from that carnival along with another $150 from the raffle. This paid for the first 8-week day camp in the history of the country. Both children and adults participated. However, the monies earned from the carnival proved to be even more crucial.
Two weeks after President Kennedys assassination, there was a military coup in Honduras and the President and his wife were exiled. The person who was going to be elected as the next president because the current Presidents term was ending, was crazy or so the people proclaimed. He would get on the radio and talk non-stop for 6 hours! The people were afraid that he would be another Castro. The opposition party could not win because then everyone who had a government job the only good and secure jobs would lose their jobs.
By having a rapid coup with little blood shed, the military believed they were rescuing the situation. However, this immediately cut off the funds to the health and community centers since they were government owned. The money from the carnival helped to keep the center open for two months until the funds were restored.
During a visit to Honduras, Sargent Shriver assured us that this news would have gladdened President Kennedys heart, had he been alive. Shriver stopped at the Center and shared this with the people. Some wept, others beamed proudly.
(Twenty-five years later, our Honduras I group had a reunion up in the mountains of Mexico where our Peace Corps Director for Honduras now had a home. As we were shopping in the tiny little tiendas, we all stopped and looked. There was a big faded photo of Jack and Jackie Kennedy proudly displayed in the back of the shop with a black ribbon framing their photos. The memory was still carried in the hearts of some. And I have the memory of the happy faces during the day camp activities.)
The military stayed in power in Honduras for decades.
Right after the coup they began to approach Peace Corps Volunteers to see if they could work with them. They knew the Volunteers were liked and respected even though the people were often curious as to why we were there. I was asked frequently as to why in the world I would want to come to Honduras? Their theory was we had everything in the United States and they were poor. Many thought everyone in the United States was rich. At least thats the way they saw us in the movies.
Out in one of the rural barrios, one Volunteer was helping the people build a wooden bridge so that they could still get their sugar cane to the market during the rainy season. The military thought this was a wonderful way to win favor with the people. We will build the bridge for them, they proclaimed. The Volunteer was able to show them that by helping the people to build the bridge themselves rather than doing it for them, they would be able to build future bridges by themselves. We have photos of the village people, the military and the volunteer standing proudly on the completed bridge.
A new water supply
Next the people wanted a water spigot in their village so the women wouldnt have to haul the water all of the way from the river. The military eagerly said they would get the equipment and dig the trench so the village people could have the water. Once again, the Peace Corps Volunteer showed them the pride the villagers were feeling as they saw the spigot getting closer and closer.
The villagers held little fund raising parties, mostly selling warm beer. When they had the money to buy a length of pipe, they would celebrate with another fund raising party and make a big fuss over how much closer they were to their goal. They didnt dig a trench. They just laid the pipe with great pride on the ground. Then they would step back and see how far they had already come. By the time our two year tour of duty was complete, the spigot was in the middle of their village and more photos had been taken.
The next project was to build outhouses so the villagers no longer would have to use the bushes. This time the military supplied shovels and lumber at a reduced price. They didnt try to do the digging for them. They finally understood the concept of community development, Feed them fish and they will be hungry the next day. Show them how to fish, and they will never be hungry again.
The Peace Corps has been in Honduras since 1962 when we arrived and the locals wondered who we were? Missionaries? Peace Corps Cuerpo de Paz? Peace group? What does that mean? And who were these Norte Americanos who were always broke? They walked or drove Jeeps, not those big American cars that could barely negotiate the narrow streets.
Now they know.
Now they know we are people who care, people who laugh with them and speak their language. People who are fulfilling a dream that started with a Presidents Dream send our best to these developing countries. Were we the best? I dont know. Each of us had our own reasons for joining the Peace Corps. My experience changed my life forever. I thank my lucky stars for being an American. How good we have it. We are the envy of the world. Freedom. I will never ever take it for granted again.
Carol Welsh is the author of When Youre Seeing Red
STOP! and the forthcoming Push Here to Start: A Practical Approach for Diffusing Hot Buttons.
To Preserve and to Learn
A Memoir of Ghana I
by Robert Klein (Ghana 196263)
THE PEACE CORPS BEGAN to be organized soon after John F. Kennedys inauguration in January 1961. the President assigned his brother-in-law, R. Sargent Shriver, to head a task force to develop proposals for the new agency. Shriver met with academics, heads of voluntary agencies and old mentors such as Father Theodore Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame, but it wasnt until he encountered Warren Wiggins that the roller coaster began its ride. Wiggins came from the International Cooperation Agency (ICA) [which later became the new Agency for International Development (AID)], and brought with him like-minded colleagues who wanted to get new development programs into the field quickly under what they perceived were the innovative approaches implied in the name, Peace Corps.
It was a conceptual paper that Wiggins had written, The Towering Task, that, in late February, jump-started the Peace Corps study group. [This phrase The Towering Task was borrowed from Kennedys 1961 State of the Union message in which he had said that the response to the towering challenges of the noncommunist world must be towering and unprecedented as well.] The paper recommended massive (1000+) programs such as teachers aides for the Philippines, and proposed that the new agency directly operate overseas programs. Co-author William Josephson suggested that the new agency start work immediately under presidential executive order and not wait for specific enabling legislation. Shriver reacted enthusiastically to their ideas and Wiggins and Josephsons Towering Task became the engine that drove the creation of the new agency, and they were among the first handful of men to shape the Peace Corps.
Bill Josephson, who became Deputy General Counsel and later the General Counsel for the Peace Corps, would recall those long days and nights spent in a suite of rooms in the Mayflower Hotel drafting the Report for the President, and detailed the process for Coates Redmon in her book, Come As You Are: The Peace Corps Story. The final draft of the Report was done with Charles Nelson sitting in one room writing basic copy, me sitting in another room rewriting it, [Harris] Wofford sitting in yet another room doing the final rewrite, and Wiggins running back and forth between the three rooms delivering pieces of paper along the chain.
The Report was given to Kennedy on Friday morning, February 24, 1961. Five days later, on March 1, President Kennedy signed the Executive Order creating the Peace Corps and appointed Shriver as its first Director. [Executive Order 10924 gave the Peace Corps $1.5 million from the presidents discretionary funds, along with the sixth-floor space in the Maiatico Office Building at 806 Connecticut Avenue across Lafayette Park from the White House.]
On March 2, 1961, the Peace Corps staff, like determined squatters, took over the offices formerly occupied by the International Cooperative Agency. Shriver took more than desks and offices from ICA. Led by Warren Wiggins, a group of ICA officers had joined Peace Corps staff. Some of the early participants gave descriptions of the chaotic character of the beginning and Shrivers role as ringmaster.
Harris Wofford, Kennedys special assistant on civil rights, as well as advisor to Shriver on the establishment of the Peace Corps, recalled early discussions on the establishment of the agency, that the Peace Corps not do any projects directly but that they be contracted out to universities and other agencies. There was not much chance of that with Shriver running an agency. Sargent Shriver clearly tended toward a fast moving, hard hitting, core, central organization. He put enormous weight on speed and the more he saw of the complaints about the State Department and AID particularly . . . how long it takes in their pipeline to get anything done; how, in many projects, the time for them has passed by the time the experts and the money arrive he was determined that in four months wed be able to produce volunteers to fill jobs that took fourteen months in the old agencies. He just felt that with Kennedys backing he could build a corps that would do it.
Four months was just about right. It was April 24 when Ghana requested Peace Corps teachers. On August 30 Ghana I arrived in Accra.
Ed Bayley, the first Director of Public Information, remembers those days right after Kennedys Executive Order: All hell broke loose, of course. And we really didnt know what the Peace Corps was at that point . . . . There was a sort of division there between the bureaucrats and the people coming in from outside. And Wiggins and Josephson and Charlie Nelson, a couple more of that bunch, they came over from ICA. And they really thought they knew all about this, and we were a bunch of amateurs.
To staff the new agency, Sargent Shriver had attracted and recruited two dissimilar groups. One was the hard-headed, practical ICA types; the other soft-headed visionary politicos, attracted to the Kennedy presidency. They all shared Shrivers enthusiasm for the Peace Corps but had divergent views of the yet-to-be defined role of the volunteers. One side felt that the Peace Corps should serve as a catalyst for change in the developing world according to the model described in the book, The Ugly American. The volunteer was to be an exemplar of American entrepreneurial values, live and work in the villages, not the capital, sleeves rolled up, boots muddy, cheek-by-jowl with host country counterparts, agents of change. The other view was less dramatic. It looked to modest, concrete successes in programs which would draw on foreign aid experience but with the enthusiasm and idealism generated by the Peace Corps dynamic.
In these early days of the Peace Corps, both groups were ultimately hostage to the reality that it was the early volunteer recruits, like Ghana I, who would decide what a Peace Corps Volunteer was by actually being one.
As reported in Shrivers memo to the President, there were four potential Peace Corps programs as of late March 1961: Chile, Colombia (in cooperation with CARE) ; Tanganyika (a modest request from visiting President Nyerere for some road-builders); the Philippines (Warren Wiggins favorite as originally proposed in The Towering Task).
However, by mid-April no country agreements had been signed and the enabling legislation was just beginning to work its way through Congress. Ed Bayley remember: The Peace Corps was a precarious idea and we felt that it would be much less precarious if it were a living body instead of just an idea. The risky thing was that Congress might resent this, however. The second risk would be that something bad would happen in the first months that would let Congress say, It doesnt work. But against that was the gain of momentum and the feeling that in the first hundred days we did have the power to do things. Shriver was itching to go.
And go he did.
Accompanied by Bayley, Wofford, and Franklin Williams, Shriver began a quick tour through Africa and Asia in late April. He was a worldwide salesman for a product whose design had not yet been established nor whose production facility had been built. Peace Corps application questionnaires were not available until the end of April and the first Peace Corps Qualification Examination was not given until May 27. However, there were thousands upon thousands of letters of eager interest from potential volunteers that were being sorted through by a thoroughly confused and overworked Washington staff.
But Shriver pressed on. His first stop was to be Accra, Ghana, where he hoped to be able to meet with Kwame Nkrumah, the President of Ghana. On April 18 the U. S. Embassy in Accra had cabled about his visit:
[The Embassy] welcomes the opportunity discuss PC with Shriver and introduce him to key GOGhana officials. Have requested appointment Nkrumah morning April 24. Reaction GOGhana unpredictable.
Several days later, on April 22, the Ghanaian Times had an editorial headlined, Peace Corps: Agency of Neo-Colonialism. A cable to Washington and Shriver quoted the editorial:
As world told on paper, and as Mr. Sargent Shriver will want us believe, PC meant offer voluntary aid to so-called needy countries. Under it, USG will send scores young yankee graduates to Africa and Latin America as teachers, social, and industrial technological workers and the like. We reject all twaddles about its humanitarianism and declare this nothing short of agency of neo-colonialism, instrument for subversion less developed countries into puppet American economic imperialism.
That same day Nkrumah urgently requested a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador, Francis H. Russell. The Ambassador would cable Washington after his meeting:
Nkrumah said he deeply regretted editorial attacking PC. Agreed would be desirable receive Sargent Shriver and hear his explanations PC. Nkrumah commented press often got out ahead of the government and made unauthorized statements. He would be happy to receive Sargent Shriver. Added obviously nobody had to accept Peace Corps if he did not like it and whole question should be judged on its merits.
This ambivalence about utilizing Peace Corps assistance continued throughout the two years of Ghana Is service.
Shriver Meets Nkrumah
On April 24 Shriver and Kwame Nkrumah finally did meet face to face.
Ed Bayley jotted down notes of the meeting which would become an interesting snapshot of what was to happen to the Ghana I project: Nkrumah splendid idea / teaching schools /electric & water engrs & sanitary / Shd be subject to Ghana Govt direction /Need 270 secondary teachers.
A follow-up cable reported:
[The Ghanaians] stressing desperate need secondary schoolteachers in science and mathematics. Need 270 secondary teachers by next September. Stressed importance August arrivals for orientation prior September school opening.
On May 1, 1961, Ghana formally requested Peace Corps Volunteers and set two conditions:
- Peace Corps was in Ghana at the invitation of the government and will be responsible to government of Ghana and take their instructions from its ministers.
- Ghana expects Peace Corps members to accept and carry out operational and executive duties in the field, and not regard themselves in the role of advisers.
Neither Shriver nor Wiggins could have given a better description of how Peace Corps was going to be different from previous U.S. foreign aid programs.
Neither Shriver nor Wiggins could have given a better description of how Peace Corps was going to be different from previous U.S. foreign aid programs.
Ghana I prepares to depart
After the discomfort of the selection process at UCal/Berkeley [early Trainees were subject to deselection while going through training on U.S. college campuses, usually by psychiatrists and psychologists hired by the Peace Corps or the college], we were glad that training had been shortened by one week, ending on August 21. Next, we were told to report to Washington on Monday, August 28 for a White House event and then to board our Pan Am charter to Accra.
As early as July 23, I was writing home, Good newsOur training program is being shortened by one week and we are being given leave from August 21 to August 28
. We are being flown to Ghana by chartered plane from Washington and will be allowed up to 216 pounds of luggage [Why 216?]. We have to report to Washington by 11 AM on August 28. There are rumors of a White House reception.
I think Peace Corps/Washington was happy to give us a few days at home before flying to Ghana because at the time the Peace Corps legislation was working its way through Congress. Having us in our hometowns could and did generate local news stories such as: Young Wilmette Man Leaves For Ghana; Graduate To Teach with Peace Corps in Ghana; Miss Vellenga In Ghana, West Africa; Plainfield Teacher Chosen for Peace Corps in Ghana.
We scattered from Berkeley for the brief leave to say goodbye to family and friends (and to buy our weight allowance of 216 pounds of clothing and supplies, trying, for example, to figure out how many handkerchiefs would be needed for two years).
One of the more memorable farewells for Ghana I PCVs happened to Alice OGrady. Alice had continued through training to perform in San Francisco on weekends with a musical troupe, the Lamplighters, which was presenting Gilbert and Sullivans The Mikado:
We did a show the night before I left for Chicago, and then onto Washington, D.C. and Ghana. The director, who was also in the cast, at the end of each performance would step forward and say, Thank you for being such a good audience; we would like you to join the cast in the lobby for coffee.
But that night she said, Were not able to join you in the lobby because one of our members is going overseas with the Peace Corps and I stepped forward and had my first and only solo bow with that company. Got a nice round of applause.
Then, because the plane was leaving soon, I changed but none of the cast did. They all went to the airport as Japanese school girls, etc. in their costumes.
When they called the plane and I was about to leave, they all went down on one knee and sang Hail Poetry. It was just beautiful. Its a lovely kind of hymn, but not from the Mikado. They also presented me with a hobby horse, a horses head on a stick, for me to travel to Ghana on. It was a very touching sendoff.
In the Rose Garden
At the same time, the road surveyors of Tanganyika I were completing Phase One of their training in El Paso, and were heading for more training in Puerto Rico. So, in transit between the two sites, they joined Ghana I in Washington to meet Kennedy.
I remember envisioning a White House reception, based on earlier experiences at various Bar Mitzvah and wedding receptions. I expected a high class lawn party setting with gloved waiters in crisp white vests, circulating among us with canapes and drinks; wed have an opportunity for casual cocktail party chatter with the President, Shriver, maybe even Jackie. I was not alone in such thinking.
Ruth Whitney remembered that White House reception: Georgianna McGuire and I wore our basic black dresses now we kid about it all the time and white gloves. She and I must have grown up with the same kind of mother who taught us what to wear for such occasions.
The White House setting, remarks by Kennedy, and approximately 75 bright young, newly-minted Peace Corps Volunteers attracted useful press coverage. The reception was a very crowded, stand-up affair on the hottest day of the year in the Rose Garden, with reporters and photographers outnumbering guests.
It must have been a heartwarming sight to those lobbying for passage of the Peace Corps bill. Kennedy appeared with Shriver hovering near him and spoke to all of us. The line that most of us remember is when he said, So I hope you realize I know you do that the future of the Peace Corps really rests with you.
We were okay with that, thanks to Professors Apter, Drake, and the others at Berkeley.
That the future of the Peace Corps really depended on us had been stressed by Shriver earlier in the day when he spoke to us at a State Department briefing which seemed designed to reassure the briefers and not especially to inform us.
Shriver told us, The President is counting on you. Its up to you to prove that the concepts and ideals of the American Revolution are still alive. Foreigners think were fat, dumb and happy over here. They dont think weve got the stuff to make personal sacrifices for our way of life. You must show them. And if you dont, youll be yanked out of the ball game.
We had faced eerie psychiatrists, seven varieties of psychological testing, chilling stories of boa constrictor attacks, and the perils of partying in Strawberry Canyon above the Berkeley campus (I never knew they made such large bottles of wine.). Shriver could not daunt us. We were ready to teach, if not to sacrifice.
I must have been mulling over Shrivers exhortation in the Rose Garden when Tom Wicker of the New York Times interviewed me. In the Times the next day he wrote: Robert Klein made it clear that he and his fellow corpsmen had not been trained as political missionaries or assigned to preach particular doctrines. He said that David Apter, a political science professor who headed the four-man faculty for the Ghana groups two months of training at the University of California, had stressed that each volunteer was going abroad as an individual with his own ideas.
Shaking Kennedys Hand
After the Rose Garden speech, President Kennedy, in a stage whisper, asked an aide how busy his schedule was because he wanted to greet each of us individually. He retired to the Oval Office and we paraded through, single file.
All of us have some memory of that moment. Don Groff recalled: I remember just being kind of dumbstruck, going through the line. I do remember that I shook Kennedys hand and, as I moved on, he said, Ghan-err or Tanganyika? And I told him, Ghan-uh.
For Nate Gross, it was a storybook experience with this special history: In 1959 Kennedy came to a convocation at Beloit College. Jackie was with him with her classic A-line dress and pill box hat. He gave a great talk there. I later got to shake his hand. So I had great feelings toward Kennedy before Peace Corps. It was really wonderful to be at the White House even though in the receiving line the exchange was perfunctory. We didnt have any conversation. He just said Good Luck and shook my hand. I think some people had a few sentences.
Newell Flather was the last in the reception line and said to President Kennedy, Im from Massachusetts too. And my brother was actually a roommate with your brother [Teddy] in college. Then I said, I just want to say something myself. Youve been under a lot of criticism, skepticism about Peace Corps. Were going to serve you well. (As an aside in our interview in 1997 Newell said to me that he felt the comment was a bit saccharine.)
DeeDee Vellenga would write in her diary of that day in the Rose Garden: The Rose Garden reception was unbelievably hot and confused with reporters, cameramen, wires, tape recorders all over the place. When Kennedy did try to meet us informally after his brief message, he was swamped so it was decided to let us file through his Oval Office and shake hands with him. I couldnt think of a thing to say to him. All I noticed was his piercing blue eyes. He paused for a moment and looked hard at me and then said, Good luck didnt know quite how to take it. Meeting Shriver was very encouraging he is down-to-earth and very dynamic in a gutsy sort of way. I think the Peace Corps has a real future if he continues to head it. Now its up to us to see how things go in the field!
The Washington whirl continued for us that evening with a party at the residence of the Ghanaian Ambassador, Mr. W. Q. Halm. Looking back, it is remembered by all of us as a wonderful, hot and steamy introduction to Ghanaian hospitality. The Ambassador assured us that it never got as hot and humid in Ghana as it did in Washington D C. We danced, ate, and drank for tomorrow we were, not to die, but to fly into the unknown of Ghana.
After the Embassy party, George Coyne remembers: Jim Kelly, Maureen Pyne, Ruth Whitney, and myself went to a night club and then caught a taxi up to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. We wanted to say a prayer because we really didnt know what we were getting into and we wanted to light a candle. The cathedral was in complete darkness and we had to light matches to find the door but were able to get in.
Its reassuring that at least four of the group knew enough not to just curse the darkness but to light a candle. They were ready for whatever Ghana might bring.
Here Today, Ghana Tomorrow
On August 29th the fifty of us went to National Airport to board our Pan Am charter, a four-engine propjet, dubbed The Peace Corps Clipper. Before boarding there were some technical matters to deal with. Peace Corps wanted to ship all of our luggage with us on the flight, no doubt calculating that, like a security blanket, arriving with our newly purchased towels, sheets, and underwear, would bring us reassuring comfort in our early days in Ghana.
I do not know the payload of the good old Clipper but full fuel tanks and an additional 10,800 pounds of baggage (thats, 216# x 50) might be a problem. Some seats were removed from the plane and each of us was weighed on the luggage scale. Getting this project off the ground may have been more difficult than we were aware.
Sue Bartholomew remembers vividly the long day: We waited and waited and waited. Finally some one came to tell us they were taking seats out of the plane because we had all our luggage and that plane wasnt going to get off the ground. I thought it was funny. They even had to weigh us; then half the seats were gone. Howard Ballwanz talked to the pilot who told him that that there was something called Forest Airline, did a lot of charters. They got that name because with so many people on board they never got higher than the tops of the trees. The pilot said thats what were doing. Itll take a couple of hours to make our altitude.
Aboard the Peace Corps Clipper
Pat Kennedy of the Washington staff was our escort officer, not out of fear that any of us would try to escape, but to smooth the way in Ghana by assisting the newly appointed Peace Corps Representative, George Carter, in getting us settled into our assignments. Pat had been involved with the development of the project from the very beginning.
The flight took twenty-three hours, stopping in the Azores and at Dakar, Senegal, before arriving in Accra the next day, August 30, 1961. All of us recall the flight in different ways but we all agree that there were two distinct groups the singers and the card players.
The singers were people who, at Berkeley, would come together to sing madrigals for relaxation and their own enjoyment. Alice OGrady, Tom Peterson, Valerie Deuel, Don Groff all had some musical training and sang beautifully. This was definitely not the beer-drinking Rathskeller Michael-Row-The-Boat-Ashore crowd.
Thanks to the singers, Ghana I was able to rise to the challenge that the Ambassador had mentioned in a cable to Washington just before our departure:
Planning high level reception PCVs at airport since this first group arrive abroad. Request most capable spokesman be selected make carefully prepared arrival statement. One other PCV might be interviewed Radio Ghana. Suggest group be prepared sing traditional Twi song learned Berkeley.
The challenge was that at Berkeley we had learned very little Twi and even fewer Twi songs, but we did have great improvisational skills. Werent there twenty-five plus non-teachers in our group about to take up two year teaching assignments?
The madrigal group augmented came to our rescue and not only learned Yen Ara Asase Ni, but sounded good doing it. Someone, had had the fortuitous foresight to have copies of both words and music for the song, which is a popular, unofficial anthem. When the time came to sing at the airport after arrival, easily half of us stood in the back, moving our lips while the brave, strong voices of the true singers were being recorded by Radio Ghana. It was an instant hit with the Ghanaian radio audience as much for its novelty as for its excellence of performance. In our first few days of bus touring around Southern Ghana, several people made comments like this (or a close variation thereof): Oh, you are the group that sang that Twi song. That was fine.
The Besst Hearts and Minds
Back to the flight the non-singers, that is the Hearts card players, had stormed through the transit lounge at the airport in the Azores during a refueling stop and stocked up on wine and cheese which assured the continuance of the game and the avoidance of sleep. Although, Im sure most of us catnapped during the flight.
The flight also made a stop in Dakar, Senegal. This first step on the African continent was intoxicating. In the freshness of dawn, the air was warm and caressing, with the sweet fragrance of bougainvillea tantalizing the nose. We were touching the soil of Africa!
We were giddy with anticipation and lack of sleep. I remember clumsily dancing around with frangipani flowers stuck behind each ear.
Nate Gross remembered, Somewhere between Senegal and Ghana we were flying low enough to see the ground and some villages and huts and stuff. Thats when I thought, Holy shoot, were really going to Africa. Can I handle this? Whats it really going to be like when we hit the ground?
When we landed in Accra, Ken Baer, an imposing figure and probably one of the few in the group comfortable wearing a seersucker suit, served as our solemn spokesman. Paraphrasing Shrivers remarks on his visit to Nkrumah in late April, Ken said, We have come to Ghana to learn, to teach, to try to further the cause of world peace but above all, to serve Ghana now.
We sang (some of us did, anyway) and then boarded buses to be taken out to the University of Ghana at Legon where we would have further training and orientation organized by the Ministry of Education.
A lot had happened in the six busy months following President Kennedys Executive Order. The Peace Corps was now a reality.
Rite of passage
If there was any rite of passage hinted at by the experienced African hands at Berkeley, it was to dance the High Life at the Lido night club in Accra. To do so would mean that you were becoming a participant in the real Ghana.
The very first night after our arrival many of us did just that dancers, non-dancers, drinkers, non-drinkers, the shy and the bold, those in culture shock and those too dazed from the journey to be shocked by anything. Valerie Deuel described that first night in Ghana at the Lido: Sitting in a circle around the dance floor, everyone ordered beer; it was very hot, not air-conditioned, with an open roof, sweaty. People getting up and doing the High Life. Being shy and having a block against dancing all my life, I got up and did the High Life anyway. I think I felt it was required of me, so I danced. Back home I never even did the Twist but I was swept up by the feeling of that whole evening.
Our exuberance and joy at being there was capped by Laura Damon and John McGinn winning second place in a High Life contest, dancing an awkward but wildly enthusiastic combination of Jitterbug and the Twist with just a hint o Ghanaian High Life. The whole evening made me begin to feel myself a part of Ghana. Sub-rites of passage followed finding and then negotiating the fare for the taxi to drive us back out to the University and, in looking for our dormitory on the dimly lit campus, stumbling into an open storm drain.
Soon after our arrival, a columnist, identified only as Rambler, wrote in the political party newspaper, the Evening News: You are welcome to Ghana, which, I understand, you have come to serve as teachers. I like the way you sang that Ghanaian hit on your arrival at the airport two days ago. Let that song make you non-aligned during your stay here, for though you came at our own invitation, you will terribly harm Ghana-American relations if you do not get yourselves acclamatized [sic] to the national climate of Africa. I wish you patient, understanding hearts and a happy stay.
We might not have thought of ourselves as political missionaries as I had said at the Rose Garden, but others might be seeing us in a different light.
And all in all, and for most of us, our days in Ghana were a happy stay.
Robert Klein retired in 1994 after careers as a teacher and a supervisor in special education and moved to Tucson. For the past 3 years has been involved in developing the RPCV Archival Project in cooperation with the Kennedy Library. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Knight Tracking through Prussia
by Mishelle Shepard (Czech Republic 199496)
GAZING AT THE SILHOUETTED LANDSCAPE speeding by and slowly drifting off to sleep, I hardly felt ready to wake up in Warsaw with the dawn. As much as I enjoy the jostled rest of the sleeping car, the destination cast a shadow on the sense of romance that always accompanies me on train travel. Warsaw has long felt unpleasant to me, hostile somehow, like the high-pitched shriek of the old wheels laboriously coming to a stop at the station. But, it was with a sense of relief that I finally dozed off, remembering that this time I was staying just long enough to rent the car that would take me directly out of the unfriendly city to follow the tracks forged seven centuries earlier by the Teutonic Knights.
Like so many Americans I have long been mysteriously drawn to European castles. Polands turbulent history gave birth to unique architectural treasures that have impressed me as some of the best Europe has to offer. My journey promised to be one of educational value, as well as one of adventure and romance. Not only would I be shooting the majestic castle exteriors bathed in soft light and exploring their antique-filled interiors, I would then get to spend the night there. Perhaps little more than idyllic American fancy, it was none-the-less a childhood dream come true.
A large number of castles around Poland have been converted wholly or partially into beautiful hotels with fairly reasonable rates by Western standards. Whether a 14th century Teutonic stronghold or a 19th century hunting palace, the facilities are very modern and even the most remote have information or tours in English. To add to their appeal, they provide the simplicity of online booking and also offer other services like decent restaurants, bike rental, guided excursions by horse-drawn carriage, game rooms and sometimes live entertainment during the high season.
The Teutonic Knights
Although the country is abound with impressive castles, palaces and ruins in every direction and from every conceivable era, I was felt inexplicably lured to the region of Masuria-Warmia, the long-time headquarters of the Teutonic Knights. Despite their reputation for mass destruction, the order constructed over 70 fortified castles around the region and their efforts to convert the pagan Slavs to Christianity has obviously had a tremendous historical and cultural impact not only in what is now Poland, but all around eastern and central Europe. For over 50 years they waged war in the region, converting, destroying or driving their victims out with as many as eight military campaigns per year. So set was Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II on converting the Slavs that he promised the Teutonic order the right to claim any territory taken over from the natives as their own.
Beginning as a purely charitable organization, they were given the full name House Of The Hospitalers Of Saint Mary Of The Teutons In Jerusalem; the white tunic with black cross being the symbol granted with their official recognition as a monastic order in 1199. They were eventually relieved of the vow of poverty required of them as a monastic order, and were then able to gain even more power with their increasing wealth thanks to diligent trading activities.
Although originally established in Palestine as the last of the three great military religious orders during the crusades, they moved to the area formerly known as Prussia in 1226 by invitation from the prince, Conrad of Mazovia. In most respects they were similar to their predecessors, the Templars and Hospitalers, except that their members were required to be German noblemen. During the widespread pillaging, German settlers were called upon to repopulate the region, an indirect result being the enduring ethnic tensions between Germans and Slavs. It was with the combined effort of their numerous enemies, including Czechs, Hungarians, Tartars, and Lithuanians that they were finally defeated, but their impact would continue even to modern times.
Undoubtedly the strong Roman Catholic predominance in modern day Poland could be asserted as another of their influences. Their existence also said to set a precedent for the conquest of Eastern Europe by the Nazis, who saw the Teutonic Order as an example of the superiority of German-speaking peoples. The Third Reich spent considerable sums and efforts restoring the Teutonic castles as a tribute to German greatness, while other architectural beauties were shamelessly destroyed.
The castles verifiable history is littered with intriguing legends turning their otherwise inert stone walls into tales alive with mystery and passion. The old fortified castle of Dzialdowo is one of many with a story of love, torture and betrayal. Constructed in 1309, the castle fell into the hands of one vicious and widely disliked knight and his family. As the legend goes, a Prussian military leader and talented musician was imprisoned there with his violin as his only distraction. The beautiful melodies drifting up from the dungeon inspired the love of the knights sister, and the two secretly planned their escape together. But the couple was betrayed and their plans ruined by the furious knight who then forced the sisters marriage to a more suitable partner. The prisoner/musician was instructed to play at the matrimonial ceremony and when he refused was killed before her eyes. She is said to have died of grief only a short time later and still wanders the castle waiting in vain for the carriage that would have carried the lovers to safety.
To give appropriate attention to all the castles in the small region would require volumes and could be spread out over a timeframe impossible for the average visitor, even though it covers an area about the size of Vermont. On my journey I explored both the major tourist must-sees as well as some far off-the-beaten-path treasures and it was in combining these two extremes that the aura of the region revealed the striking similarity of the Teutonic architectural style and their deep influence in both urban and rural life.
Not far from Gdansk, and also part of the main tourist trail, is the master of all the Teutonic strongholds, Malbork. The town was partly destroyed by the Soviets and has a drab, colorless feel to it, but the stronghold itself covers over 80 acres, and is an amazing site to behold. One of the largest of its kind in the world, the castle became the new headquarters of the Teutonic Order in 1309 and the oldest section is the High Castle, which was begun in about 1270. The castle museum is a great place not only for history buffs with its extensive collection of old weapons, medieval sculpture, stained-glass windows, china and pottery, but also for esthetic seekers of priceless art. Its collection of the most famous stone in the region, amber, is worth a look.
However, it was not the museum or even the sound and light show held in the castle courtyards that etched this castle in my memory forever, it was the hotel. After a depressingly unimaginative selection of accommodations for several nights in a row, for me, to step inside the exquisitely decorated room seemed a luxury that could be paralleled at that moment only by a night at the Ritz. This is the most popular of all the castle-hotels, so reservations need to be made in advance any time of the year. But, if you have only one place to splurge, I cant imagine a better place to do it. The high ceilings, dark heavy furnishings, large windows covered with plush, velvety drapes, and, of course, the superbly modern bathroom with all the extra little touches are the perfect combination of old and new to make this wanna-be-princess-for-a-night sing with pleasure. The main restaurant has a large menu and a fabulous gothic ambience, but unfortunately it is not very consistent in service and quality and closes without warning for large tour groups. Also, as is still the case all around Poland, what is on the menu or wine list is not necessarily what is actually available.
Three castles of Olsztyn
Continuing east towards the Mazurian Lake district, three smaller castles are situated not too far from the town of Olsztyn, where a fortified castle rises up on the right bank of the Lyna river. Its construction began about 1350 and the castle administration was headed by Copernicus for many years, who, in 1520, successfully forced back a raid of the Teutonic Knights' forces.
The castle at Lidzbark Warminski is one more of the many situated on the Lyna river, in a town left mostly in ruins after 1945. The castle itself was left untouched and it was here that Copernicus wrote his greatest work De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium [On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres] and the museum exhibits illustrate his life and scientific work. Having begun construction in 1350, its interior was completely redesigned in the early 16th century. This castle is considered to be one of the most valuable monuments of defensive architecture in Poland.
A stones throw from the town of Ketrzyn, known for its castle and its proximity to the famous pilgrimage site of the Baroque Swieta Lipka cathedral, is the 14th century Reszel. This is another gothic castle where its possible to spend the night. In the late 18th century the Prussian authorities converted the castle into a court and prison. In addition to the Art Gallery, where artists are invited to work during summer, there is also a regional museum with a wildlife exhibit.
If the hotel at Reszel is booked, or if you have grown tired of the oppressive gothic atmosphere of the Teutonic castles, try driving southwest to spend a night or two at the remote palace-hotel Karnity (near Ostroda). On the way, a short but worthwhile stop to consider would be another pilgrimage site, the exquisite14th century cathedral of Geitrzwald. Once at the hotel, enjoy a sunset over the small lake in a relaxed and peaceful country setting. The hospitable German owner speaks fluent English and the restaurant serves numerous regional specialties. The wild mushrooms served in a variety of ways are a favorite in season, but should probably be avoided by those without a strong stomach. Like most specialties in eastern and central Europe the dishes tend to be heavysausages, dumplings, wild gamebut vegetable soups and salads, assorted cheese plates and fresh dark breads make for a great meal on their own.
The fortified town of Kwidzyn was the first stronghold established by the Teutonic Knights. This castle also functioned as a prison for a short period. The nearby Gniew is definitely the least known of the area castles and arguably the most attractive. Set in a small village on a hill overlooking the river, it also has an excellent hotel and restaurant with stunning views. Consider a quick visit to the town of Chelmno where the Knights first arrived in 1225.
Once in the area, dont miss the splendor of architectural styles in the city of Torun. Not being the big city type, I found this pleasantly small city to be ideal full of historical treasures yet devoid of heavy traffic and mass crowding. The birthplace of Copernicus and the most important Hanseatic trading center along the Vistula, both the old and new towns were established during the Teutonic rule. The only way to explore it properly is to leave the car in the large car park along the river before entering the labyrinth of the Old Towns streets. Climbing the tower makes for a superb panoramic view of the environs and its great fun to do like the locals and take a picnic to the park and a stroll along the river-walk, remembering to bring along the towns specialty sweet spicy gingerbread.
Waking up in a castle, taking a horse-drawn carriage through the forest and wandering the ancient roads of a fortified town may sound as trite as any tourist cliché, but in discovering the history and legends along the way and letting my imagination take me back to another age has etched this region into my heart forever. In my eyes, Poland became Prussia once again and it no longer felt as if I was simply driving without purpose to meaningless sites listed in a guidebook, but was following the tracks of the Teutonic Knights while feeling first-hand their immeasurable influence on the past, present and future of an entire culture.
Mishelle Shepard has been writing and teaching in a new location every year since her service ended. She has published numerous travel-related articles, and ghostwritten a financial planning book. She is currently living in Girona, Spain and working on her first novel.