Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Renewable Resources
Growing Up with “Sarge” Shriver’s Biggest Fans
   by Adrienne Benson Scherger (Nepal 1992–94)
Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience

MY BROTHER IS THE BLACK SHEEP of the family. He married a year out of college and went to law school, which he loved. Soon afterwards he became a lawyer and a father. I admire his rebelliousPrinter friendly version spirit. I, on the other hand, split up with my college boyfriend just before graduation. He went back home to Alaska, and I packed a backpack and headed for the Himalayas to work as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal. I always was the dutiful daughter.
     Ever since I can remember, Sargent Shriver’s name has been a household word. Often, one or the other of my parent’s would pause in the middle of a story about their Peace Corps experience and sigh, “Good old Sarge Shriver.” In Zambia when I was a small child, my parents were working for the American Friends Service Committee. Those were the days of little extra money and we used to vacation by taking extended camping trips in our VW van. Driving through the game parks, my brother and I would bounce up and down shrieking, “Whoever sees an elephant first gets a brownie!” My mother would turn from her position in the passenger seat to say, “Settle-down, you guys. Let me tell you about the time I lived right by the ocean.” Nothing would calm me like imagining my mother with her long, black braids setting up a home in a bamboo house, a house on stilts at the edge of a Philippine island.
     My father, too, would hold us enraptured. He’d pause mid-sentence to twist up the edges of his handlebar mustache and launch into a story of the Rajesthan desert — narrow escapes from deadly asps or trying to teach Hindu camel herders to raise chickens. He even claimed to have learned to hypnotize chickens in Peace Corps training.

Pam in the Philippines

David in India

My mother and father’s story
My mother, formerly Pamela Cohelan (Philippines 1963–65) and my father, David Benson (India 1963–65) were both Peace Corps Volunteers. They served under Kennedy, under “Good old Sarge Shriver.” They were Volunteers in the days of Peter Pan collars and sing-a-longs to “Michael Row The Boat Ashore.” They were in during the days of Stateside training and de-selection by way of psychological observation and rigorous “survival training.” Growing up with their stories and their commitment to development work, there was never a time when I didn’t dream of joining the Peace Corps myself.
     My parents even met one another through the Peace Corps. She closed service and embarked on a round-the-world trip. She was headed home to a job at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington. My father closed service, but stayed on in India and took a Peace Corps staff position at the Northern regional office. During her visit to India my mother met some Volunteers, one of whom was my father. The rest is history. They laid eyes on one another and suddenly a job at Peace Corps Washington didn’t seem quite so appealing. My mother found herself a position with the Peace Corps regional office in Calcutta and six weeks (yes, six weeks) after they met they were married in a church in Bombay. He sweating in a dark suit, she wrapped in a crimson sari.

Adrienne in Nepal
My turn
When I was accepted to Peace Corps almost thirty years later, my parents were thrilled. When they heard I was going to Nepal, they began planning their trip. I had grown up in Africa, so Asia was a welcome new horizon for me and, of course, a cause for nostalgia for them.
     Some things about being a second-generation Peace Corps Volunteer were great. My parents understood my angst-filled, sometimes lonely letters home. They could talk about sustainable development and the frustrations of village life. They laughed with me in recognition of generic Peace Corps stories, dangerous pit-latrines and over-crowded busses. My mother and I found solidarity in the classic female Volunteer weight-gain and in the multitude of marriage proposals from strange men (my father’s proposal to her not included).
     Other things about having Peace Corps parents were less positive. “We never had packages sent to us,” my parent’s scoffed at my pleadings for magazines and junk food. And there was the time I fell leaving my village and broke my leg in three places and when I called home from Kathmandu, depressed at my limited ability to move, my mother cheerfully chided, “When I broke my leg skiing in college, I went Israeli folk-dancing all night in my walking-cast!” Ten days later she wasn’t quite so upbeat when I called back to mention that not only was I still immobile, but I had also contracted typhoid. Their nickname for me, “Typhoid Mary” has finally faded into family legend.
     As a Volunteer in the nineties, I was often told that things are much easier for contemporary Volunteers then they were back “in the day.” I’m sure that’s true in many ways. However, when my parent’s first made the hike into Pula Bhirmuni, my village under the edge of a cliff in the Kali Gandaki river valley, both said that my site, my Peace Corps life, was harder than theirs. Although I understood that much of that assertion had to do with the fact that I am their baby daughter, I felt, upon hearing it, that I’d arrived.
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