Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Meditations on an Old Peace Corps Poem that Surfaces, in a Bar
   by Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962–64)
Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience

LAST NIGHT I HAD the damnedest conversation while sitting on my usual stool at the far end of thePrinter friendly version black vinyl-upholstered bar at Cimmiyotti’s, an old-time red-flocked steakhouse here in Pendleton, Oregon.

The setting
Paul Cimmiyotti — recently deceased — was a damn fine man, rodeo hand, and horseman (Lord, how he could set a horse even towards the end!). But back in the late 1950s Paul came to understand that what this town really needed was some heavy booths laid out against even heavier crimson red walls. Having achieved this in spades, nothing much ever changed except the addition of large framed photographs of his three lovely daughters riding his beautiful quarter horses blasting hell-bent-for-leather into the Pendleton Round-Up Arena as each, several years apart, was named to the Pendleton Round-Up’s Court, all to the applause of thousands!
     While Paul’s picture over the back bar is now framed in black, his place is still frequented by local businessmen, stockbrokers, traveling salesman looking for relief from Eastern Oregon’s full-blown Western bars and seedy dives, offbeat characters like myself, cowboys and local cattlemen, including an occasional cow or sheep baron. Obviously, a good place to talk.

     Anyway, there I was, minding my own new book, Rowland Sherrill’s Road-Book America: Contemporary Culture and the New Picaresque, when I saw a sidling-up movement out of my right eye and heard someone saying, “You’re Tom Hebert, right?” Yea. You? “Mike Goodwin, we talked this fall about the Tribal cattle cooperative and then you took me out to ride your Spanish pony.” Oh, yes, without your hat I didn’t recognize you.
     So, Mike and I talked about Paul who came from the same small Oregon town as Mike, and then more Umatilla Tribal politics and the new tribal soil and water conservation district that I have been working on which could sponsor that cattle cooperative. Mike, in his fifties — and judging from the displacement of his big Ford 150 4x4, pretty well set up — recently returned from several years in Belize where he managed a demonstration cattle operation for an environmentally-sensitive Belizean entrepreneur.
     Now, in a kind of retirement, he goes nuts around Pendleton and the Reservation, seeing the many opportunities for innovative ways of putting cattle on the ground to make some money for everyone while doing some good. Since his ideas could become a startup project for the District, I continued my mentoring.

A lost poem
Later, with a couple-three drinks knocked back between us, Mike said, “You know, you were in the Peace Corps, Africa was it? I read a poem years ago which I have never forgotten. It changed my life.” Then with rhetorical effect, he declaimed:

I didn’t go to turn the desert into a garden,
Or to realize dreams that were a thousand years old.

    I went because it was different,
    Because I had nothing else to do.

    I also knew I would take the road back,
    Some day.

     “This is my road back.”
     Stunned, I asked him how, since he had never joined the Peace Corps, the poem had changed his life? He listed the countries, countless jobs and travels, ending up, sure enough, running cattle in Belize.
Mike, you heard that poem about 1970, right? He thought a minute then said,
     “Yea, about then, early seventies. How do you know?”

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