A Writer Writes

    From Peace Corps to Warlords

    by Ethan Gologor (Somalia 1962–64)

    SOME OF US were motivated by the thrill of adventure, some by a spirit of idealism, and some (me) by a need to get as far away from the Bronx as possible. Some were extroverts, off at every opportunity to scale mountains, search for baboons and exchange teashop political wisdom with strangers; and some were introverts, spending the next two years teaching grammar or algebra in the morning, reading Thoreau or Montaigne in the afternoon and counting stars in the evening. And later this year, on the heels of the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps’ founding, our Somali group, as we have done each decade, will have our own reunion. While our purposes and personalities will still be as varied as forty years ago (Randy will arrive with sleeping bag and Diane with Armani garment bag; Bob will have pictures of his son in nuclear physicist’s uniform and Nan will be mute about her son, who is just leaving rehab; Brad will have added a few more pounds to the hundred or so that we last saw and Phil and Merrill, with only a little help from their hair-dressers, will look hardly a whit different from the days of our robust youth), ninety per cent of us will come.
         But this time may be a little different. As Somalia — suspected lair of significant numbers of Al Qaeda members — is in and out of the headlines these days almost as much as Iraq, and as it has been brought further into public consciousness by “Blackhawk Down,” ostensibly the story of our 1993 incursion, we Volunteers will have cause to wonder whether we dreamed up the whole thing. And I say that as a member of a project that was described by Peace Corps brass as “the most difficult ever,” that reputedly made Sargent Shriver cringe whenever its name came up, and that during our two years of service lost more of its Volunteers (40%), administrators (100%) and even doctors (67%) than any group before or since.
         I say that because despite all this travail, the causes of which were much more complex and incidental than trying to live in the middle of a barren desert (“Entertainment facilities,” read our training hand-out, “are extremely limited and it is up to the Volunteers to entertain themselves”), our host Somalis were a people once so innocent that, at least in the “bush,” they looked as if they’d come right out of the pages of the Old Testament.

    The Somalis
    Leading camels in a vast expanse of parched earth, supported by a forked walking-stick, his dusty sheet wrapped loosely around him and bellowing in the wind above his bare feet, this nomad looked for all the world like Moses, tending his flock. These were a people whose camels carried not just their meager household belongings, but the straw mats and bamboo that constituted their entire houses, as they “followed the sparse rains” for hundreds of miles. These were a people who would stop upon seeing one of us strange “Mareykans” at a tea shop in a tiny village, and form rings around our table to do nothing but stare. And if one of us displayed a tape-recorder, they would implore us to “do me, do me” and then giggle incessantly as we played back their voices. And if one of us snapped a Polaroid and showed them the result, they would look incredulously, not so much at the marvel of technology, but at the figure they wouldn’t recognize, never having seen themselves before.
         Warlords? These were hardly the machine-gun toting gangsters, displaying the bodies of “Special Ops” on the streets of Mogadiscio or storming wounded Rangers as depicted in “Blackhawk.” These were people who, hoping we could do something, came to us with an infected eye or scorpion bite or carrying a goat that had been mauled by a cheetah. And often, though our expertise was limited to the supplies available in our first-aid kit, we were, with a little common sense, able to do some repairing, and word of our miraculous healing powers spread throughout the land.
         Revolutionaries? These were students who apologized for a classmate, if one had the effrontery to question our assignments or methods. Who stood when we entered the classroom. Who, when Mike got peeved at them for not being responsive enough and reminded them they should be doing more “outside” reading, in unison picked up their chairs and walked outside. Flag-burners? These were people who offered us their protection when the occasional protest march against some biased British policy caused a little anxiety among expatriates or the Peace Corps staff back in Washington. These were people who would insist we take the only seat in the cab of the trade truck, rather than stand in the open back and get assailed by the vicissitudes of the weather.
         Nor were these Moslem believers zealots devoted to anti-Semitic diatribes. On discovering that a few others and I were indeed “Jehudis,” most became intensely curious. How many times a day must you pray? (“Ahh, we must do five.”) Can you go to heaven if you don’t? Do you kneel and face always in the same direction? I know of only one couple who allegedly suffered any discrimination (some of their religious jewelry was stolen), but they, having given up any real sense of worship in adolescence, tended to wear their stars of David on their sleeve. In a few weeks after arrival, most students would forget we were Jews, identifying us only as Mort, the science teacher who was so good at “football,” or David, the maths teacher who was so bad at football.
         No, these were hardly the politicians, the strategists, the Machiavellians playing one nation or authority against another. These were people, in towns or villages with a movie house, who talked back to the screen, who oohed and aahed whenever a love scene came on (and we’re talking Doris Day, not Nicole Kidman). These were people who wanted to know where our cowboy hats were or whether anybody could safely walk the streets of Chicago without being mowed down by a mobster.
         Upon completing our tour, the authorities gave us a card to keep in our wallets, should we suddenly collapse on the streets of Paris or Indianapolis without warning. Doctors, be alert. The bearer has been exposed to amebiasis, brucellosis, Dengue Fever, loa loa, schistosomiasis. If I now break into a rash on seeing movies like “Blackhawk Down” or clips of the latest Marine invasion on CNN, doctors be mindful that I’ve been exposed, as have only a handful of others in this world, to Somalia’s innocence and I become feverish thinking of what happened to it.
         Or to our own.

    The Volunteers
    “What do you hope to accomplish by serving two years in the Peace Corps?” read the last question on the initial application. “Attach additional pages if necessary.” One Volunteer, according to newspaper accounts, “ingenuously responded with but a single word, ‘Peace’” (one whom I immodestly confess I happened to know intimately).
         Two other members of our group, Paul and John could have doubtless made the short list of Papal nominees (Innocent VIII and IX?). Paul, ruddy-cheeked and pot-bellied, played Santa Claus to the country, accommodating every stray dog and “dick-dick” (miniature versions of Bambi) that wandered into his yard, and donating his free time to teach extra English classes to the families of students. On his arrival back home in Seattle, he enrolled in veterinarian school, got into a dispute his last term with an advisor, wasn’t savvy enough to find an alternative, and spent the next thirty years being a house painter and bead salesman. John, former forest ranger, naturalist, environmentalist, who could fix anything (from a blocked latrine to a short-wave radio to a kerosene lantern) spent his free Somalia time collecting and cataloguing what looked to everyone else like identical African beetles, and returned to Washington with two dozen boxes of these carefully preserved specimens as well as with pregnant Emilie. But supporting a family while struggling with a geology Ph.D. dissertation and worrying about piling up loans proved a bit much, and he ended up becoming a home-building inspector for the last quarter-century. (“People about to buy a house call me in to tell them whether it’s going to fall down anytime soon.”) And both Paul and John, not unlike a number of other parents in the group, have seen one of their sons not only follow in their aborted career footsteps, but engage in a major drug or sociopathic episode, so powerful apparently is the tragic model of life that each has bequeathed.
         So, poignant as the history of Somalis has been, they are not the only ones who have lost something. And we reunite, it now dawns on me, to find each other because we know what we can never again find. Carole says we were all innocents back then. And surely, if anyone can still imagine a world before Oswald, before Kent State, before Watergate, before semen-stained dresses, before bin Laden, it would be hard to disagree. Yet, John and Paul’s biographies cut more specifically and deeply than that. Theirs are the stories of two exemplary teachers, each who would eventually find himself so unsuited to the academic world of America that they make any of us who have ever had any inclinations in that direction shudder, knowing that one errant step, one errant sperm, one errant remark in the classroom or boardroom or men’s room and there but for the grace of God go forty years of I.
         So there we have some of it. What these reunions bring to mind is that our Peace Corps stint, if not the most important or unusual chapter of our lives (which it clearly was to some), was certainly the one that psychologically or politically has proved the most defining. And one that has continually to be reread. For if it’s about the loss of innocence, it’s also about birth and death and the people with whom, as much by chance as by design, we end up spending the interim (Of the nine single women in our original group, seven married fellow Volunteers). It’s about success and failure and those, as much by the shifting desert winds as by talent or effort, who get to wear the badges of each (In addition to the cases already cited, our two award-winning trainees, voted by staff most likely to succeed, were the first to go home). It’s about militant authority and righteous rebellion (Five of our most devoted Volunteers were terminated by a psychotic administrator for defying his arbitrary and trivial rules, and while each subsequently was exonerated, the effects were irremediable). It’s about a group that had been described by the Washington authorities as complaining, depressed, even hateful of their host country, and by their hosts as devoted, honest and eminently competent in their work. It’s about those seven couples who found each other within our group, all of whose marriages were intact thirty years later, but a significant number of whose kids had wandered not just to Africa but off the map of normalcy. It was about whether our individual lives during the last generation of the second millennium were as idiosyncratic as our Peace Corps group’s or terribly typical.

    Our next reunion
    And when we next meet, what will also be clear is we will not be there to dwell on these matters. Rather will we share beers and slides and reminiscences of the pleasantly ridiculous. And have fun playing the Who-Remembers-His-Name? Game. The Indian teacher’s houseboy who bolted from the “long-drop,” pants around his ankles, screaming and gesticulating, when a wart hog ambled into his sanctuary. The British teacher who would roll off his chair during faculty meetings, having chewed “qat” all night in an effort to get to know his students better. The poor Volunteer in Brazil, pictured in one PR release reading by a kerosene lamp because the electricity in his village would go off at 7 PM. We — who had to wait until noon for any kind of spritzbath since only then might our one water pipe have sufficiently been warmed by the sun to make the temperature bearable — had certainly gotten a kick out of our compatriot’s suffering. Electricity? Would your air-conditioning or delivery of cold Heinekens occasionally fail too? But Marty, our historian, or Anne, our librarian, or George, our journalist, would remember his name, this newsletter PCV whom no one would ever meet, but who would become the prototypical characterization of our estrangement and togetherness. It was George Croon. Are you still out there, George? Are you rocking on your porch in suburbia telling war stories to your progeny? Croon another for us, will you, George? Show us how to shed some kerosene light on all this.

    Ethan Gologor served as a math teacher in the first Somalia group. Encouraged by the psychologist assigned to his training group, John Sullivan, he went on to become one himself, teaching (and serving as chairman of his department) at CUNY, practicing in Manhattan (till he gets it right) and occasionally surfacing as a sports psychologist (Psychodynamic Tennis [Wm. Morrow]; this year's “Psyching Team” captain for the medical division of volunteers at this year’s New York Marathon).

    Editor’s Note:
    Somalia I trained at New York University, starting on April 23, 1962 and lived at the old Van Renssalaer Hotel. Training was for eight weeks, but, when the eight weeks was completed, Somalia “wasn't quite ready” for them so they spent another two weeks at a “camp” in Connecticut that Columbia operated. They spent the days learning how to climb flagpoles and rappel down mountains — vital skills in the deserts of Somalia. Fifty Trainees started in April, forty-five went overseas, and twenty-seven completed service two years later.
         A longer version of this article was originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of
    Bibliophilos, Vol. VIII, No. 2. A special subscription is available for RPCVs who would like to subscribe to this unique publication. The address is: The Bibliophile, 200 Security Building, Fairmont, West Virginia 26554.
         Thanks go to Bob Blackburn (Peace Corps Deputy Director, Somalia 1964–66) who brought this essay to my attention.