KIRK A. HACKENBERG HAS WRITTEN a chronicle-like account of his four years of Peace Corps service in Nicaragua and Chile during the late 1970s and early 80s. It is a quick and easy read. You see, Kirks prose is spare, uh . . . perhaps bare-bones would be a better way to describe his writing style. For example, amid harrowing episodes of blood-thirsty Somoza National Guardsmen chasing poor peasants and, at times, our Volunteer Kirk, through his villages dirt streets we get descriptions such as:
What started out like a normal night with the burning and chanting in the streets became one of the longest nights of my life . . . . I took off like an Olympic sprinter and found myself running into another mob. This time, not only were the bullets flying, but there were explosions . . . . So I kept running and ran right into a smoking, homemade bomb lobbed in front of me. I literally flew up against the wall of the house where I was and was not sprayed by any of its flying shrapnel. As I turned to run the other way a military jeep drove up behind me.
Now, if I were Kirks agent, I would characterize his style as minimalist, and say that he employed a well-thought out literary technique allowing the individual reader to fill in the details according to the degree of lurid imagination each one brings to the table. Of course, not everyone would agree with this assessment.
Nonetheless, Kirks story is straightforward, honest, and full of laconic Texas humor and classical Peace Corps toilet dilemmas. Between trips to the crapper and infirmary, he was almost eaten by pigs, survived a massive earthquake, dodged bullets and bombs, as already illustrated, came to the rescue of a damsel in distress, won the heart of another, initiated a slew of Peace Corps projects, and spread the largess of his meager salary to as many impoverished campesinos as was possible. In fact, in solidarity with poor, rural Nicaraguans, Kirk seemed to pick out the very worst possible living situations and came down with assorted, scary tropical ailments in a place where you dont need to go out of your way for trouble. I found myself doubting the mans sanity but admiring his heart. El gringo loco, indeed, as some of the locals referred to him. Despite the disappointment of being unable to finish a health clinic project he had started, the intensification of the Sandinista Revolution and the subsequent removal of Peace Corps from Nicaragua may very well have saved Kirks life. In overview, I came to look on Kirk in Nicaragua as Don Qixote impersonating Rambo. Could be a movie with the right ghost writer.
From Nicaragua our hero is transferred to Chile. Here Kirk had a whole other experience and he skimmed over this time in less than fifty pages. Ill do the same. He was stationed in Valparaiso, a beautiful resort city on the Pacific Coast, Chiles California-like climate settled Kirks health, he worked at a youth home in a stable job, and General Augusto Pinochets iron-fisted control of the country minimized political strife, making it safe for multi-national corporations and Peace Corps Volunteers alike. The great highlight of Kirks experience was meeting and marrying his wife, Gloria, a Chilean co-worker at the youth home. At the end, Kirk sums up his Peace Corps experience in these words:
I could have died the next day as I felt I had completed a lifetime in just four years.