A Writer Writes

    Meditations on an Old Peace Corps Poem that Surfaces, in a Bar

    by Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962–64)

     LAST NIGHT I HAD the damnedest conversation while sitting on my usual stool at the far end of the 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?”
    Yankees in King Arthur’s Court
    I said, well it doesn’t sound like the poems or sentiments from those of us who joined up in the early years of the Peace Corps. Hell, we went to turn those deserts into gardens and realize those dreams. In my case, it took a while to realize that it wasn’t Nigeria’s fault it would never become a garden again or that its dreams would never come to pass, that the problem was our own government that got in the way, that ignored Nigeria’s plunge towards civil war and worse. I think that by the 1970s, Volunteers were of a more existential turn of mind, with less optimism and romance, less Asking Not. I had to learn the hard way that our American dream when exported overseas, often causing more trouble than it was worth.
         “Yes! That’s exactly what happened to me. It’s our own government — Glad we talked.” We shook hands, promised to meet again, and he left. Pencil in hand, I returned to Road-Book and its discussion of American backroad picaros not unlike Mike and I.

    Is this you?
    Reading along, I underlined the following sentence fragments as useful in defining both the nature of the classic and modern American picaro or picara:

    vagabondage, innocence, their service to strange masters, their trespassing social hierarchies and anti-heroic outsider status running the social gamut of the culture in question, a life lived by their wits, “on the road,” in discontinuous episodes, in narratives pitting themselves against the standing order, a career of “the epic of hunger,” encountering the “social motley,” with an urge for a new order, concentration on a solitary figure — an isolato or outcast — pushed to the social margins, a hopefulness and essentially romantic craving, a notable homelessness, a democrat of experience and characters who gets up and dusts themselves off, entering each new day prepared to begin anew, with trouble finding a way to be in it and of it (the enormously complex American reality), always eccentric and away from the center of American social “normalcy,” eluding masters, remaining unbonded, and with an urge to trespass, to keep moving.

         I’m still debating with myself if all that describes me or my era’s perfect Peace Corps Volunteer or not. It does remind me of Mike Goodwin.

    A little more about Paul
    In his obituary it is recorded that after graduating from high school Paul Cimmiyotti “caught a handful of boxcars” to Los Angeles and while there boxed professionally and worked in an aircraft factory. After service in WW II in the South Pacific, he traveled around some before landing in Pendleton. There was little picaro in Paul Cimmiyotti but he surely had a taste for them. I had the honor to ride with him the last time he rode out from his barn. He still rode tall in the saddle, this time up on a fresh young filly he was bringing along for use in the Round-Up’s Grand Entry. He was 81 years old. His last words to me: “Tom, we’ll ride again.”

    Some questions
    Is the above poem quoted correctly, who wrote it, and when? Anyone out there remember it at all?
         Next, what about any changes that took place in Peace Corps Volunteers as the deadly Vietnam war began to wash against the Volunteer world, rising drug use in the 1970s among Volunteers, Third World economies and governments proving resistant to change, the American government losing interest in both the ever-small Peace Corps and the Foreign Aid budget, while the Third World emerged as a very rough back-alley in the Cold War with both sides willing to sacrifice small countries for short-term gains?
         And, is my analysis of the poem — the end of a romantic era with Volunteers as the new picaresque roadies of our times — right or wrong?
         Finally, does the literature — the mindset — of the Returned Volunteer change between the sixties and the seventies?

    Tom 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: tlhmavrick@oregontrail.net.


    Being one who immediately turns to the Internet when a question is asked, I found the following at the website of — can you believe? — “Peace Corps @ NCSU” (North Carolina State University) with an attribution:

    It would be dishonest to pretend
    that I went because I wanted to turn the desert into a garden
    or to realize dreams that were thousands of years old.
    I went because it was different, 
    because I wanted to go,
    because it was a road that might have an end.
    I knew I would not stay forever;
    I never thought of tying my future to this newness;
    I knew I would take the road back one day,
    but perhaps carryng with me a particle of the night’s silence,
    or the day’s honesty.

    — adapted from “Dust” by Yaeldyan
    [Yael Dayan, daughter of Moshe Dayan, wrote the book Dust (NY: Award Books, 1964)]