|Peace Corps Writers July 2004
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Peace Corps Writers July 2004
And the winners are . . .
We are pleased to announce the 2004 Award Winners from Peace Corps Writers.
Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village
by Sarah Erdman (Cote DIvoire 199800)
Maria Thomas Fiction Award
Know It by Heart
by Karl Luntta (Botswana 197780)
Award for Best Poetry Book
Gilbert & Garbo In Love: A Romance in Poems
by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 198890)
Award for Best Travel Writing
Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia
by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996)
Award for Best Childrens Writing
Imagine a House: A Journey to Fascinating Houses around the World
by Angela Gustafson (Dominican Republic199496)
Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award
Peace Corps Was by Peg Clement (Tunisia 197577)
Winners receive a special citation and cash awards from Peace Corps Writers, an Associate Member of the National Peace Corps Association. These awards will be announced and presented at the NPCA Conference in Chicago this August. Our congratulations to all the winners and all the RPCVs who published books in 2004.
How to write a Peace Corps book, back from recess
The second on-line class on how to write a Peace Corps book fiction or non-fiction will start on August 30 and continue through to November 22. The course, which will have 10 lessons, costs $300 and is limited to 8 students.
Our desire is to provide a writing course with the opportunity to share and learn from fellow students to RPCV and PCV writers who are seriously interested in writing a book about their Peace Corps experience, but can not get together in a classroom because of geographic, physical, or scheduling restrictions .
The course is structured around writing assignments, regular feedback through a discussion board, emails, and a chat room. Weekly the instructor will post lecture material and an assignment on the discussion board. The class will read the lecture, and later will post their assignments. Students and the instructor will then comment on the writing as it is posted. A separate individual chat will take place each week with the instructor to discuss individual writings.
A weekly live chat room is also part of the class where there will be general conversation about writing, and turning the Peace Corps experience into publishable prose, as well as how to find an agent and submit a manuscript for publication.
If you are interested, please email Marian Beil at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peace Corp writers will be at the Miami Book Fair
This coming fall, for the first time, the Miami Book Fair organizers have invited a special Panel of Peace Corps Authors to read their work and discuss writing and the Peace Corps experience.
The Miami Book Fair International is the largest and finest book fair in America. Half a million people attend the fair, scheduled this year for November 7 14.
RPCV writers will have an opportunity to sign their books and be in the spotlight on CSPAN.
This event will give hundreds of fair-goers an opportunity to hear about Peace Corps, to gain insights into life in developing countries from the intimate perspective of Peace Corps Volunteers, and to buy Peace Corps books.
For further details, please see www.MiamiBookFair.com, or email Leita Kaldi (Senegal 1993-96): email@example.com.
Note: RPCV writers with books being published in the fall should alert their publishers of this opportunity to highlight their books.
In this issue
A Writer Writes
This issue has two wonderful essays. Adrienne Benson Scherger (Nepal 199294) writes about growing up as a child of PCVs who served during early years of the Peace Corps. In her essay she writes about living in the shadow of Sargent Shriver and about her own Peace Corps experience, sans Shriver. Her essay is entitled: Renewable Resources: Growing Up With Sarge Shrivers Biggest Fans.
A former PCV in Russia, Heather Carroll (Russia 200001) writes about the pressing problem of No Shortage of Toilet Paper Here and tells us another side of the Peace Corps experience.
As an aside, Heather was one of the first 9 RPCVs to take the on-line Peace Corps writing class we offered that finished in the spring. This essay came out of that writing class.
Andy, we hardly knew you!
RPCV Andy Trincia (Romania 200204) who has emailed us wonderful pieces for the last two years has completed his PCV tour in Romania and emailed us his last essay, What Planet Are You From. Thank you, Andy, for all your wonderful prose.
Note: Andy will make his first post-Peace Corps appearance at the NPCA Conference in Chicago where he will read from his published essays and be a panelist for the Careers in the Media Workshop. Talk about culture shock!
In the footsteps of Mark Twain
Last issue we published Bonnie Lee Blacks (Gabon 199698) engaging essay on how not to write a Peace Corps book, and this issue we have another point-of-view: In the Footsteps of Mark Twain by writer/publisher Craig Carrozzi (Colombia 197880) who has successfully self-published five books and takes a different stance on writing and publishing.
War before, war during, war after, war again!
Thus begins another installment of our essays about PCVs who also served in the U.S. Army. Ronald Wheatley (Nigeria 196364) experienced war in Nigeria and Vietnam. His piece is entitled, Elusive Dreams and he is still haunted by those years in Africa and Asia.
We have five reviews in this issue including our review of American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps by Philip Weiss, a book you probably have heard about, and perhaps read by now. By odd circumstances I happened to be the first official Peace Corps person to whom Philip spoke when he began this book and, like some of you, I knew the story out of Tonga. When I received an advance copy of it for review, I debated about reviewing it myself, but instead asked a writer I knew would bring his own vast experiences in the Pacific, as well as, his writing skills to the task. P.F. Kluge (Micronesia 196769). Writer in Residence at Kenyon College and contributing editor at National Geographic Travels, Kluge is the author of five novels, and two non-fiction books, one of which, The Edge of Paradise: America in Micronesia, touches on his Peace Corps experience.
James Kaufman, a researcher at California State University in San Bernardino, has studied 2,000 dead writers who lived in various countries during different centuries to support The Sylvia Plath Effect. He found that, on average, poets lived 62 years, 4 years fewer than novelists. He has yet to study Peace Corps writers poets or novelists.
See you, I hope, in Chicago.
Now to the reading . . .
Recent books by Peace Corps writers July 2004
The Weeping Time
Elegy in Three Voices
by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 198890)
Argonne House Press
Seeing Through Africa
by Arthur Dobrin (Kenya 196567)
Experiences in Rural Costa Rica
by Susan Gordon (196466)
A Year in the Life
Peace Corps: Kazakhstan
by Kevin Marousek (Kazakhstan 200203)
The Canadian Experience
edited by R. Bruce Morrison (Nepal 196365)
with C. Roderick Wilson
Oxford University Press
The Canadian Experience
edited by R. Bruce Morrison (Nepal 196365)
with C. Roderick Wilson
Oxford University Press
A Womans Europe
edited by Marybeth Bond
Terez Rose (Gabon 198587), contributor
Travelers Tales Guides
This Is Not Civilization
by Robert Rosenberg (Krgyzstan 199496)
Journeys in the Wake of Global Warming
by Tom Pollock and Jack Seybold (Brazil 196667)
She Smiled Sweetly
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567)
Henry Holt and Co.
The Wretch Unsung
by Eric T. Stafne (Senegal 199496)
Study Abroad 101
by Wendy Williamson (Cameroon 199496; Ecuador 199698)
Literary Type July 2004
Karen Lynn Williams (Malawi 198083) and Catherine Stock will be teaching a workshop in Rignac, France on Writing for Children next summer. The 2-week course will run from July 2 16, 2005 and will cover all aspects of writing and illustrating books for children. The course fee is $600 for the two weeks. Housing in nearby rustic farm houses and meals will cost approximately $600. An early registration fee of $150 (toward the cost of the course) is necessary so that rooms can be reserved in the area.
Karen and Catherine have collaborated on a number of picture books, including the award-winning Galimoto, as well as Painted Dreams and Tap-Tap. Karen wrote When Africa Was Home based on her experiences in the Peace Corps with her husband and two children. They have also published separately picture books, chapter books and young adult novels.
For more information check www.CatherineStock.com, www.KarenLynnWilliams.com or contact Karen at Williams.Writes@verizon.net or 412/422-1165.
Rod and Kim Rylander (Philippines 198890) had an article about aquaculture and their Peace Corps experience in the May 2003 issue of Permaculture Activist. Permaculture Activist is published by Peter Bane and the website is: www.PermacultureActivist.net.
The winner of the Peace Corps Writers Award for Childrens Books for 2004, Imagine a House: A Journey to Fascinating Houses Around the World written and published by Angela Gustafson (Dominican Republic 199496), earned three national awards at the publishing industry's annual conference, BookExpo America, that took place in Chicago in June:
- ForeWord Magazine: Winner for Juvenile Nonfiction
- Independent Publisher Award: Winner for Multicultural Nonfiction (Juvenile/Young Adult)
- Benjamin Franklin Award: Finalist (one of three) for Juvenile/Young Adult Nonfiction
John Dwyer (Guatemala 199192) has recently managed camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Herat, Afghanistan, and has written a fascinating article about the organizational structure of the camps, as well as his experiences. The pieces appear on www.Szirine.com. (Scroll down the front page to locate the article.)
The Plain Truth, a profile of Kent Haruf (Turkey 196567) appears in the July-August, 2004 Poets & Writers magazine. The piece is written by Michael McGregor, and in it Haruf discusses his early years as a writer and the difficulties he had getting into print.
Jason Sanford (Thailand 199496) has an amusing essay on his Peace Corps service, Bringing Peace to Thailand, at the U.K. online travel magazine, Travelmag. The link is:
Nita Noveno (Cameroon 198890) was a teacher in the NYC public schools for ten years and continues to mentor new teachers in the Peace Corps Fellows Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing Program at The New School and is currently working on a family memoir. She is also the organizer of Sundaysalon, a writing group, in New York City. Check it out at sundaysalon.com.
Eric Lax (Micronesia 196668) was profiled in the Los Angels Times on June 12, 2004. Lax, author of The Mold in Dr. Floreys Coat says in the article that he started his career as a writer in Micronesia when he was 24. His recent book took four years to write, a college education he sums up. Lax is one of many, many first class RPCVs who served in Micronesia. In fact, it is my guess that Micronesia has produced the most (and perhaps the best) Peace Corps writers. Was it the sand, water, or the isolated islands?
In a review in the Sunday book section of The New York Times, Christopher Buckley wrote of a first novel, As anti-Americanism reaches dizzying new heights, an undeniable achievement for a president who campaigned on being a uniter, not a divider, it seems like a ripe time for a novel about young Americans aboard in the world in this case, really abroad. The novel in question (and praised by Buckley) is by Robert Rosenberg (Kyrgyzstan 199496) and entitled This Is Not Civilization. Later in the month the Los Angeles Times book reviewer Mark Rozzo would write: [It] is a brave adventure into the heart of a new world connected by discount air fare, e-mail, charity organizations and the unquenchable thirst for novelty . . . . Rosenberg who based this novel on his own hitch with the Peace Corps as created a sparkling new take on Jorge Luis Borges map drawn to the exact scale of the actual world, in which every place and person is at once at our fingertips and yet hopelessly out of reach.
Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 196264) has sold Third Man Out, one of the private eye novels he writes under the name Richard Stevenson, to Here!TV, a gay-oriented cable network that will go on the air October 1. Here!TV has optioned the seven other books in the series and has tentative plans to film them all. The Third Man Out four-part miniseries will be shot in Vancouver this fall and will air next year. Here!TV is a joint venture between Canadian cable programmers and Regency Entertainment, producer of such films as Gods and Monsters. Lipez said no vast amount of cash came his way, but the deal may sell books. Here!TV plans to cast a name as Don Strachey, Lipez's detective. Lipez said someone close to the production told him this may mean a faded TV star.
Talking with . . .
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
AS WE ALL KNOW, we Volunteers had incomperable experiences during our service, yet though most Peace Corps books are interesting, and some well written, few are literature. Nevertheless, every ten years or so a Peace Corps novel comes along that transcends our experience, transcends the ordinary Peace Corps story. I can think of a handful of truly first rate books of fiction about our experience. Richard Wileys novel, Festival for Three Thousand Maidens, comes immediately to mind, as does Roland Merullos Leaving Losapas, and Melanie Sumners writings about Senegal. And now we have Robert Rosenberg and his novel, This Is Not Civilization, which links together an Apache reservation in the Arizona desert and a village in Kyrgyzstan. In time, these two seemingly disparate worlds converge in Istanbul, the crossroads of East and West, where four exiles find common ground, unaware that the city will soon experience one of the most devastating earthquakes in history. Now, does that sound like a Peace Corps novel or what? Of this book and its author, Robert Rosenberg (Kyrgyzstan 199496), Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 197576) writes: For the past twenty years, returned Peace Corps Volunteers Paul Theroux, Norman Rush, Maria Thomas, Richard Wiley, et al. have won just about every major literary award in the country, and Robert Rosenberg seems destined to be a member of this distinguished group of writers. This Is Not Civilization is a wonderful first novel, full of the marvelous compressions and juxtapositions and clashes that have indeed made the world a very small place.
With Bobs recommendation in mind, I set out to find out more about this amazing young writer, Robert Rosenberg.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I was born and grew up in Howell, New Jersey, near the Jersey shore.
I studied English at Columbia University. Later, through the Peace Corps Fellows Program, I completed my M.Ed. in Secondary English at Northern Arizona University. And later still, I did my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Iowas Writers Workshop.
In Kyrgyzstan, what was your assignment?
I was a TEFL Volunteer. The country had only declared independence three years before, so it was an amazing time to be sent there. Its hard for me to believe that its already been ten years. Like a lot of RPCVs, I still find I think of myself as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Even ten years after serving, its often the first thing I tell people about myself. It leaves that indelible a mark.
As I understand it, you came home after the Peace Corps and lived in a town called Cibecue where you started a high school. What about that experience?
Thats right. When I returned from the Peace Corps, I suffered through the readjustment period, like many RPCVs, feeling let down because it was over, and looking for another challenge and adventure. Through the Peace Corps Fellows program, I was offered the chance to complete a certification and Masters Degree at Northern Arizona University, at very little cost, in exchange for teaching a few years on one of the reservations in Arizona.
I wound up in Cibecue, this small village on the White Mountain Apache reservation. Its an amazingly unique place for many reasons. Because of its isolation, almost the entire town of two thousand people speak Apache as their first language. Thats very unusual for reservations in the continental U.S. Many of the students are limited English speakers. The principal was eager to hire me because the town was struggling to establish its own high school. Until then, students in the village usually stopped school after eighth grade, or were sent off to boarding school far from home (and usually returned, or were kicked out, in a matter of months). It was a fairly desperate situation for the town, not having a high school of its own, and it contributed to this continuous cycle of unemployment, especially among the young.
There were only four teachers, as well as a counselor, and a principal. That was the staff. I taught the English classes, and for the first two years we taught in trailers. We started out with about eighty students, but the numbers quickly diminished each year to about fifteen or twenty kids. Still, it was a start. In the second year, we actually graduated a few students, and that spring the girls at the school won the State Championship in Basketball. There was a parade in town to celebrate, and the high school even threw its first prom. Limos, dresses, and all.
The number of students has steadily increased each year since then. The town has pieced together funds to build an enormous dome, and last year classes were held in it for the first time. Just last month the gymnasium opened in the dome, and eight students graduated. And, what sometimes seems most important to the community, since 1999 the school has won five or six basketball and volleyball state championships. Last year their girls team played in the finals at America West Arena in Phoenix. So its exciting to see so much progress, the kind of optimism education can inspire.
Still, its a very isolated place, and I only taught for two years before I moved on to Istanbul. But last year, when I finished up at Iowa, the principal called my wife shes also an RPCV and me again, asking us to return. I couldnt come back to teach I was too busy finishing up the book, but my wife was offered the Gifted and Talented position at the school, so we came back. Ive been able to write full time in this quiet, wildly beautiful place, and my wife teaches about thirty yards from our house. But she gets me to help out with bake sales and science fairs whatever chance she has.
I guess, in terms of the isolation, the feeling of living in a foreign place and being an outsider, its about as close to a Peace Corps experience as you can have in America. We like it for that reason.
Lets talk about the writing of This Is Not Civilization. How did you go about reliving your experience? For example, did you keep notes while you were overseas?
The letters I wrote home from my Peace Corps service in Kyrgyzstan, I think, were my first real attempt at serious writing. It was essential, and therapeutic, to sit down at night over a cup of tea and attempt to make sense of that strange land on paper: the sights and sounds, the idiosyncrasies, the generosity, the pressures, the foods. I wrote by hand, a slow, deliberate, and meditative process which I still go back to when the computer keyboard fails me.
In writing those letters I discovered a number of things narrative techniques, humor, style but the most valuable was the need for discipline in the writing act. Henry Miller claimed that an aspiring author must write a million words before he finds his voice. I was living in solitude, I wrote home to friends or family every day for two years, and I think those daily letters were my own million words, my apprenticeship to the craft.
When I finally returned home after two years, my mother had collected all of my letters into two overstuffed binders. I was so grateful, and it was exciting for me just to see the sheer bulk of it. To weigh the binders in my hands. It almost seemed like a book.
I sometimes returned to those descriptive letters for details. But it wasnt that the letters contained anything like a plot. They were useful for details: what the food was like, how the people dressed, what the mood of the village was at that time. They were also useful for tone. Amazement. Bemusement. Confusion. Disillusionment. The standard trajectory of emotions of PCV letters home.
In general, Ive found I need to be away from a place to write about it. I wrote about Arizona living in Istanbul, and I wrote most of the final Istanbul sections when I was already in Iowa. I have a good memory when it comes to setting, which probably comes from a love of travel. My memory for place names is horrible, though, so guidebooks and maps were incredibly helpful.
This novel has a wide geographical sweep, from the mountains of Central Asia, to an Apache reservation in Arizona, to the urban sprawl of contemporary Istanbul. How did it occur to you to try to tie such distant places together into a single novel?
Though these places are, in fact, quite far away from each other, in our globalized world theyre not nearly as distant as they once were. A century ago the mountains of Kyrgyzstan might have been one of the most isolated places on the planet. But nowadays all it takes is money for a plane ticket, and its possible for a villager from Kyrgyzstan to visit the U.S. on a vacation. A number of my former students from Kyrgyzstan have studied abroad here in the States. Quite a few Apaches I know have made trips to Israel, or to the Vatican. Where I now live in Cibecue, an entire classroom of Apache children has spent the last two summers studying Tae Kwon Do in South Korea. I find this amazing: how quickly the world has become connected, how straight forward it is for even relatively impoverished people to search out a new home. It no longer requires an epic journey across the sea, or a years trek across a continent. I wanted to write a novel which reflected this reality, this flux and interconnectedness.
How much of the novel is autobiographical?
Very little. The settings, of course, are taken from places I know well, but the characters and their stories are completely imagined. Even the character Jeffs experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer is vastly different from my own. Life does not play itself out in novel form, with a beginning and end, suspense, contrasts, and parallels. The writer discovers these things by getting to know his characters and by endowing them with enough life that their true stories unfold.
Still, living in these exciting places, at important moments of change, was inspiring. Im a teacher, and through my students I learned a great deal about the Kyrgyz, the Apaches, and the Turks. In class discussions, and in reading my students journals and essays, I learned so much about the way they thought, the intricacies of their languages, idioms, prejudices, jokes, and tales. Teaching like this, then, was vital in order for me to write confidently from the perspective of foreign characters.
What is the significance of the title?
This Is Not Civilization comes from a moment of dialogue early in the novel. A Russian man, one of the few Russians left in the Kyrgyz village, tries to forge a connection with Jeff, the American volunteer. As the other white man, a fellow intellectual, he feels they share a superiority to the Kyrgyz people, and denigrates their culture. He scoffs at their traditions: the eating of sheep eyes, the drinking of horse milk, the lack of education in the local population. This is not civilization, he says at one point in their conversation.
I like the way the statement hangs over the novel, and colors the readers experience with the various settings. The reader does not have to agree with Yuri Samonovs statement (certainly Jeff Hartig doesnt agree). In many respects the traditions and sense of community in the isolated villages of Red Cliff and Kyzl Adyr are more civilized than the traffic and corruption and capitalism of modern day Istanbul, or even of America.
Milan Kundera once said, The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything. To me the title asks, If this isnt civilization, then what is? Its my hope the novel is provocative and raises questions of this kind.
Can you talk about the 1999 Istanbul earthquake, and its role in the novel?
In August, 1999, I took a job teaching in Istanbul. A few nights after I arrived I was shaken out of sleep, like the rest of the city, by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake. The floors of my apartment were bucking, and I looked out the window at the city. At that instant all electricity and lights were cut off. It was a terrible moment, and its painful still to remember. According to the government, at least 17,000 people died around me. Outside estimates put the number at something like 40,000. The neighborhood I lived in, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, withstood the shaking pretty well. But the city and country were devastated, and my experience in Turkey over the next two years was colored by the disaster.
I wondered how the characters I was beginning to envision would react, faced with a tragedy of these proportions. How would it affect their motivations to find a new life? How would seeing great numbers of people in a developing nation suddenly homeless, jobless, and without family affect their own understanding of the native lands they had left?
The earthquake came at a significant time, in my mind. The early and mid-nineties, the time of Jeffs service in the Peace Corps, were a time of great hope for the nations of the former Soviet Union. The people were convinced they had shaken off the tethers of a flawed system, and would now join the world in a fresh system of liberty and democracy that would lead to prosperity. And it was a moment of great optimism for Americans abroad as well. The Cold War was over; it was a lucky time to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in the former Soviet Union. You were befriending your once arch enemies. There was a definite sense that just being there made a difference.
But so much of the change has stalled or gone wrong. A decade later former communist leaders still rule like dictators over all of Central Asia, and the economies are in dire straits. In this way the earthquake reflects the political reality of the characters lives in the novel, the seismic shifts in their cultures. It was somehow an appropriate ending to the close of the century, and of the novel. Now, looking back after 9/11, the nineties seems like a brief age of innocence probably like the 1920s must have seemed to someone looking back during the Great Depression.
Who do you read? What writers have had an influence on your writing?
I was influenced by some of my own favorite writers, who include E.M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, V.S. Naipaul, Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Paul Theroux. I am drawn to these writers because of their broad world view, their exotic locations, the ways in which their characters are often displaced, geographically, in situations that illuminate the clash of cultures and values. These novelists also write about periods of tremendous historical, political, or economic change (the end of colonialism, the Cold War, African independence) and their characters are cast adrift in history, struggling to stay afloat.
This Is Not Civilization follows a similar formula, in that my characters are facing the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, the desperation of saving a native culture in the midst of globalization, and the tragic consequences of the earthquake in Turkey.
Besides Theroux, have you read and liked any other books by Peace Corps writers?
I read Shacochis Easy In The Islands and Packers Village of Waiting when I was in the Peace Corps, and admired them both. Also, Mike Tidwells Ponds of Kalambayi. Mikes wife was our APCD, so he was in Kyrgyzstan at the same time I was. I met with him one afternoon in his apartment, and he gave me lots of wonderful advice on writing, finding an agent, and getting published. He was really very generous and encouraging. It was the first time I had ever spoken to a writer in the flesh. I was kind of star-struck.
Reading these books during my service was really inspiring. I mean, it gave me the sense that other people had been where I was, and had done what I wanted to do. It made it seem possible.
I was just up in Spokane and saw Kent Haruf kick off his reading tour for Eventide. I havent had the chance to read that one yet, but I thought Plainsong was magnificent: understated, character driven, with clean, transparent prose. A real human story.
Ive also been enjoying Peter Hesslers reporting from China in the New Yorker. His nonfiction articles read like fiction to me, in the best of ways: a character (often him) trying to weasel his way out of a predicament and having to work against stubborn social and political forces. Theyre funny, but theyre also serious in their insights and what they reveal about the times. They bring me back to my own experiences with Communism in Central Asia.
Do you think that the publishing world can stand another Peace Corps book and if so, what do you think the ideal next Peace Corps book would be?
I spent a lot of time thinking about this issue early in the writing of my novel. How much of a Peace Corps novel would it be? But I came to the conclusion that there really is no such thing as a Peace Corps novel (just as there really is no such thing as, say, an Iowa Writers Workshop Story.) The question is like asking, Is the world ready for another Russian novel? On what grounds, for instance, can you compare Therouxs My Secret History to Rushs Mating? That they both take place in Africa? Do The Village of Waiting and The Ponds of Kalambayi tell even remotely the same story? Of course not.
What Peace Corps Volunteers know, and what fans of the writing of Peace Corps Volunteers discover, is that every Volunteer and host-nation and era bring their own issues of politics, economics, and human struggle. Peace Corps authors come at their writing armed with their own unique personalities and expertise and neuroses. The mixture, the alchemy, is always unique.
What makes the Peace Corps endlessly fascinating to me (and why, if circumstances were right, Id re-up in a second) is that the organization connects people who would not otherwise be connected. There are enormous geopolitical implications in this simple fact, but at the same time, its just the age-old story of one person meeting another. There is no standard script here. Anyone who is bored with that story, or who thinks that it has all been done before, is blind to the endless possibilities, and grave consequences, that can result from the simplest human interaction. In a far-off land, one strange person meets another . . . Its like the start of every fairy tale, of every romance and tragedy.
The ideal next Peace Corps book, then, recognizes this. Its author asks, What was unique in my situation, and how can I think and write about it in a way that adds one more layer of depth, no matter how thin, to the story of the human race?
A Murder in the Peace Corps
by Philip Weiss
UNTIL LATELY, until, that is, I read Philip Weiss American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps, I was sure I had the recipe, or at least the ingredients, of Peace Corps narratives down cold. There were two currents of thought and feeling that inevitably converged. First, there was a stream of nostalgia, the recollection of heart-felt engagements, struggles and small victories in obscure places; embarrassments and epiphanies that lingered in the mind forever. But there was a darker second current, intimations of being on a childrens crusade that combined naivete and arrogance, of being shrugged off and exploited by host country nationals, of being manipulated and patronized by Peace Corps staff. The proportions might vary from book to book, 80-20 or 20-80, but it was hard to picture an account of the Peace Corps in which these two streams did not meet. The idealistic and the skeptical, call them. And the result, often enough, has been work that was mixed and wise, forbearing and forgiving. Now, along comes American Taboo, a dense, daunting, and imperative book which, at first glance, stands outside the usual patterns. On the Peace Corps shelf, Weiss work assumes a dark and painful eminence. You may wince, you may applaud. But you have to read it.
It is not a novel, I hasten to note. If only it were. The fact is that in 1976, in the Pacific Kingdom of Tonga, a likeable, free-spirited, beautiful Peace Corps Volunteer was murdered. Stabbed twenty-two times, she died in a local hospital, but not before naming her assailant, whod been seen departing her premises. The killer despite some early wishfulness that he was a Tongan turned out to be a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, an intense, shrewd fellow named Dennis Priven, whod been obsessing about his victim for months.
This murder and its aftermath is Philip Weiss subject. And the aftermath is as important as the crime itself. Whats remarkable also compelling, eventually appalling is how the murder resonates through Volunteers, through staff, through killers and victims families, all the way from Tonga to Washington, all the way from then nearly 30 years ago to now.
In early pages, we follow the Tonga Volunteers through stateside briefings and training, through their early days in-country. Though theres no false suspense about what is coming, theres tension nonetheless, a sense of something awful headed our way. Meanwhile, Weiss demonstrates he is more than a tenacious investigator, though he surely is that. He displays a writers eye for the details and rhythms of PCV life, characters contending with work, with boredom, with staff, with each other, alliances, feuds, hookups, friendships. All are well registered, along with the heat, the improvised meals, the impromptu parties and most of all the ongoing debate about how to live and how much to attach oneself to island life. In a throwaway passage that has little to do with the main story, Weiss nicely catches island moods. There is, he writes, nothing so soothing as Tongan twilight. The streets are still, the roosters have quieted. The pink and orange shout of the bougainvillea have died down, the breeze brings the scent of cooking fire.
The murder changes everything. It feels like a fall from innocence, like Cain murdering Abel in a place that, on its good days, could pass for paradise. The murder, by itself, could make a novel, a hellish novel. But, in American Taboo, the worst is yet to come. A death in Tonga ripples outward, in concentric circles of shock and doubt, action and denial. Local Peace Corps Volunteers divide. Some of them are at the beginning of life-long hurt and rage, while others worry about the fate of Dennis Priven. Peace Corps Volunteers dont enjoy diplomatic immunity; its inconsistent with the celebrated idea of living-at-the-level-of-the-locals. Found guilty, Dennis Priven could be hanged. And Tonga, a peaceable Christian monarchy, is appalled by the murder. It takes the crime seriously, has English-model laws, and insists on the integrity of its courts: it insists that the accused murderer be tried. At the same time in intercutting chapters Weiss recounts reactions in Washington state and Alaska, where Deborah Gardners parents live, in Brooklyn, which is Dennis Privens home, and heres the part of the story that is most painful to read it goes up the ladder of Peace Corps hierarchy from Tonga, where the country director clings to a vision of a local culprit, to Washington, DC, where spin-doctors and damage control meisters set to work. Here, when the chips are down, the live-like-the-locals goes out the window, the respect for local police, the deference to island courts. Volunteers are advised to keep their mouths shut, grieving parents are starved for information, journalists are blown off. Its all about (self) protection that segues into obstruction. Its about the Peace Corps management revealing what a lot of us in other countries and at different times suspected: that they our shirt-sleeves-up, straight-forward swashbucklers werent as different from other, any other, bureaucrats as they would have liked us to believe. In these pages, the image of a new kind of American, the idea of Peace Corps exceptionalism is sorely tested. For whatever reason for their own sake or that of the accused Volunteer, for the sake of the Tonga program or the Peace Corps as a whole, the Peace Corps and some State Department allies brought Priven home, unpunished. The evidence of his guilt was strong but when protesting his innocence failed, plan B, an insanity plea eventually prevailed. The understanding, the unkept promise, was that Priven would be institutionalized and treated in the United States. In fact, he was promptly released.
What a few self-important officials did in the Priven case, writes Weiss, was indefensible. They manipulated the Tongan justice system to get the verdict they wanted. They lied to the King and Privy Council to free a vicious murderer, and they deceived the head of their parent agency about the case, they deceived the vice president . . . they did so to preserve their own careers, to preserve the American presence in the South Pacific, to preserve the churchly image of the Peace Corps . . ..
American Taboo, it should now be clear, is a grueling albeit nicely written read, all the way from its brutal beginnings to an odd and inevitably anticlimactic conversation between Weiss and Priven on an off-the-record walk through lower Manhattan a few years ago. Its a complicated book which requires and rewards alert reading. The cast of characters is large; the narrative moves from place to place. It also moves back and forward through time, mixing accounts of Weiss latter-day investigation into the nearly thirty year old tale he tells. But the story and the accompanying story-behind-the-story are equally compelling. Like most readers, I resent footnotes, which often interrupt and distract more than they inform. And when, as in this case, I come to back-of-the-book sections entitled Notes on Sources and Acknowledgments, Im inclined to skim or skip. Not here! Weiss closing credits are irresistible. I consulted them while I was reading, jumping ahead, and after I had finished. No one who is interested in reporting make that the discovery (and concealment) of truth could do otherwise. Here it is: the tips, the trips, the calls, faxes, archives, cables, the Freedom of Information Act. And most of all the people he asked for help. There were the people who forget, or said they forget, and the ones who could never forget. And all the usual defenses: that was then, this is now; let it be; rest in peace; it doesnt matter any more or conversely it matters too much. Its good Weiss persevered. Theres something morally imperative about the writing of this book. And the reading of it.
I began by differentiating American Taboo from other Peace Corps books. Certainly it is angrier and sadder than most. And yet, at the end, Weiss account is richly mixed, idealistic and skeptical. He respects the underlying idea and ideals, Americans going out into the world with little money and no weapons, hoping ( as we used to say in the Boy Scouts) to leave the camp site cleaner than they found it. Its the violation of that concept, its betrayal from within, that provokes and saddens. The Peace Corps that matters has nothing to fear from this book and much to learn. Other people may have their own versions of events; they may take exception, they may demur. One hopes to hear from them. Meanwhile this is a bit of justice for a long-gone Volunteer named Deborah Gardner. For the Peace Corps, its an invitation to explain and I might be asking for the moon here apologize.
P.F. Kluge (Micronesia 1967-69), Writer in Residence at Kenyon College and contributing editor at National Geographic Travels, is the author of five novels -- including Eddie and the Cruisers and Biggest Elvis. His non-fiction books are The Edge of Paradise: America in Micronesia, which touches on his Peace Corps experience, and Alma Mater, the story of one year teaching at Kenyon College.
As a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Kluge wrote the article that was turned into the movie "Dog Day Afternoon."
Two Years In A Forgotten Place
by Sharon Dirlam (Russia Far East 199698)
MY LAST FLIGHT from Vladivostok departed in June 1996 my assignment as Country Director for the Peace Corps program in the Russian Far East completed. The nine-hour Alaska Airlines flight to Anchorage also carried several Russian teachers on their way to an interim Peace Corps training site in West Virginia. Although training is now normally held in-country, there were conflicts between the Russian Ministry of Education and the Federal Security Bureau (the successor to the KGB which was convinced that PCVs were spies), and the FSN was holding hostage the visas for this new group of trainees. These Peace Corps teachers feature prominently in Sharon Dirlams new book, Beyond Siberia: Two Years in a Forgotten Place. Sharon and her husband John were part of this training group.
I admit that I am not a dispassionate reviewer; my wife and I lived and worked in the Russian Far East for thirty months preceding the arrival of Sharon Dirlams group. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer or staff member in the Russian Far East, I am convinced, is incomparable to any other Peace Corps experience my own service as a 60s Volunteer in a remote and seemingly primitive Turkish village included. I cannot begin to express the respect I have for the Volunteers who served there!
The Russian Far East is truly unique; mysterious, cold and often threatening. It is as Sharon Dirlam expresses it a forgotten place. Nearly twice the size of the United States but only about a third of Russia it spans five time zones, four of them east of China. Much of it lies within the Artic Circle yet its southern anchor, Vladivostok, is just over an hour flight from Japan and lies in a monsoon climate zone. Barely twelve million Russians populate this vast region and they are quite distinct from other Russians. Beyond Siberia captures the ironies of life in this strangely beautiful place.
Told in chronological style, Sharon Dirlams book avoids the pitfalls of many chronicles. The pieces fit together in a mesmerizing way. Shades and textures interplay as vignettes unfold from paragraph to paragraph. Characters move in and out as in real life and their stories unfold throughout the book. Emotions tumble and twist as in most Volunteer experiences, but Ms. Dirlams insights and descriptions make her narrative special. The book captures the extraordinary challenges of being the first volunteers in a unique territory of Russia, an isolated place, deep and forgotten.
A glimpse . . . (The conversation occurs, of course, in Russian)
Boris talked about his father. We had heard that his father spent time in prison, but we hadnt heard why. He was an actor, Boris said. . . . he was much in demand. But in 1951, my father made a terrible mistake. Maybe its not fair to say so, because he didnt know at the time that it was a mistake. My father starred in a film about a man who escaped from prison. The script had been approved; everything was without problem until the film began playing in the Moscow theaters. Then charges were brought against him. Two policemen came to the house, pushed my mother into the kitchen, and waited for my father to come home. When he arrived, they arrested him and took him away. According to the KGB, starring in this film was a political act against the state. He was sentenced to ten years in prison.
No one spoke.
I wanted to hear more. Why was your father blamed? I asked.
Boris swallowed the rest of the vodka in his glass and poured another, gesturing around the room with the bottle. People put their glasses out for refills. That done, Boris lit a cigarette and continued.
As it turned out, after the film was released, the part my father played seemed to inspire people in a way no one had predicted, he said. The blame was placed directly on the head of my father because it was his part that inspired people. My father played the role of an anti-Leninist.
Boris leaned forward, waving his cigarette in our faces. Even though the film portrayed him as the villain, the censors said he played his part how can I say? too sympathetically. You see, it made trouble for them the censors because they had approved the script.
Ah, kaneshna! (of course!), said one of the other Russians.
Even after he was released from prison, my father was not allowed to return to Moscow. That is how I happened to be born in this far corner of the world. . . . The fact is, its very clear my father was sent to prison for ten years because he was a great actor!
The first account I read of the Peace Corps experience was Moritz Thompsons, Living Poor. I have since read many fine Peace Corps chronicles but I have yet to read a better one. Beyond Siberia comes close. A professional writer, Ms. Dirlams narrative is skilled, intriguing and memorable. To me, it read like a good novel her adventure makes a great story!
After his Peace Corps service Ken Hill was a staff member who left the Peace Corps in 1975 to pursue his own business interests. In the mid-90s he and his wife Winnie (Nepal 1966-68) returned to Peace Corps where Ken was Country Director first for the Russian Far East, then Bulgaria and Macedonia. In 1999 he was made Chief of Operations for Peace Corps programs in Europe, Asia and the Middle East and was appointed Chief of Staff of Peace Corps during 2001.
Ken is now an independent consultant, and semi-retired. Ken is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Peace Corps Association.
Seeing Through Africa
by Arthur Dobrin (Kenya 196567)
Reviewed by Wayne Handlos (Ethiopia 196264)
I VOLUNTEERED TO REVIEW this book because I was curious about the stories told by someone whose life appeared to parallel mine. The parallels expanded from Peace Corps Volunteer in East Africa (he, Kenya; I, Ethiopia), to life back in the U.S. (he, New York; I, upstate New York and New Jersey), to life back in Africa (he, Kenya; I, Zambia, Botswana, Malawi), to life back in the U.S. (he, New York; I, Minnesota). His bamboo reminded him of the tropics; my bougainvillea did the same and provided respite from winters in Minnesota. His first child was a biological son; ours was a daughter; his second child was adopted interracial with an African name and so was ours (his, a daughter; ours, a son). His granddaughter is like his adopted daughter; our grandson so reminds us of our son. Weve both had career changes later in life. Weve both dealt with racist missionaries. Weve even both had squirrels in our walls. These are some of the parallels.
How many books have you read where the beginning is catchy, the middle is so much filler and the end is clearly the authors need to finish off a project? This book is not like that at all. The beginning is good, the middle is better and the end is the best. In fact, the last text page is excellent. There are no numbered chapters, there is no table of contents, and there is no index. Proofreading would have benefited this book a lot. There are missing prepositions and articles, periods that should be commas, and many lines are not justified to the right margin. That said, the book is still a good read.
Arthur Dobrin has written a memoir This is my life as I think I lived it. I am not a fan of biographies or autobiographies but this has enough resonance to my own life that I really connected with and liked what I read. It is not chronological; recollections are grouped under headings like Children, Volunteers, Food, Race, Guns, Memory, Misunderstandings, Names, etc. Sometimes there seems little logic for the inclusion of a memory under a given heading. I might have placed them elsewhere. As the author writes . . . there are pieces that dont fit just right, my fingerprints are all over, and there are parts left over. Dobrin has published seven books of poetry and has interspersed his text with original poems. That works. Id like to read more of them.
I especially like the stories about his mothers bad cooking. Lets eat and get it over with, his father repeatedly said. Luckily we have no similarities there, my mother being of the Food Is Love School of Human Relations. Much of the writing is tinged by the New Yorkers view of the world (There is nothing more beautiful than the Manhattan skyline on a clear, cold night.). Write what you know Dobrin was advised, but his New York background is quaintly naïve in places. Like my classmate at Cornell who came from the Bronx with a suitcase full of shaving crème and deodorant lest such things not be available in rural Ithaca, New York.
The authors years as a Leader of the Ethical Humanist Society touch on the confidences and confessions on both sides parishioner and minister. He makes us aware of lifes many trials, injustices and ironies. His activism is admirable and covers varied causes. As a plant lover, his elaboration of the concept of volunteers brought a new insight about weeds to me. We all need to be aware of the subtleties and complexities of race.
Wayne Handlos earned a Ph.D. in Botany at Cornell, taught at the university level in New Jersey, Zambia, Botswana and Malawi, and owned a florist shop and nursery in Minnesota. He is now retired and gardening in California.
This Is Not Civilization
by Robert Rosenberg (Kyrgyzstan 199496)
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 199193)
RETURNED PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS reading This Is Not Civilization, the entertaining novel by Robert Rosenberg, are likely to kick themselves for not having written something similar. Much of the first part of the novel examines the life of Jeff Hartig, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kyrgyzstan whose experiences or most of them, anyway are typical of what PCVs all over the world undergo.
After all, what Peace Corps Volunteer hasnt met host country nationals who, because of their intimate acquaintance with Hollywood movies, think they know what all Americans are like? Anarbek, a prominent member of the Kyrgyz village where Jeff is stationed, shows Jeff his new house. Of special interest is the refrigerator. It is full of beer. Americans always have a refrigerator full of beer, Anarbek announced. I saw it in the films.
And what Peace Corps Volunteer hasnt encountered less-than-ideal working conditions? . . . [O]n most doors hung freshly painted signs with the word OPASNIE! DANGER! Anarbek hurried Jeff past these, straight to the door of his classroom; but when he triumphantly turned the loose knob to usher Jeff in, he found that the door was locked. This apparently was a surprise. Anarbek cursed, fumbled in his pocket for the keys, and finding none, promptly bashed the door with a thunderous front-thrust kick. It swung open; the knob fell and rattled on the ground. Jeff stepped in and saw that his classroom was a converted closet . . ..
Lastly, what Peace Corps Volunteer hasnt experienced the kind of disillusionment Jeff feels toward the end of his service? Last summer he had charged into Central Asia, thinking he could preach the virtues of democracy and the necessity of basic human rights. Instead he was teaching the simple past tense to unemployed milkmaids for the fourth time. He was culturally exhausted.
But if some of the terrain Rosenberg covers in his novel will be familiar to RPCVs, and will perhaps prompt mumbles of I could have written that, his deft juggling of four main characters across a wide geography from an Apache reservation in Arizona to Istanbul is an accomplishment only a first-rate writer could pull off.
The tell-tale sign of a good writer is this: A reader wants to keep reading his work. And while you wouldnt call This is Not Civilization a page-turner, youll definitely find yourself absorbed by it.
This Is Not Civilization is certainly fast-paced. In another writers hands, Jeffs Peace Corps service might have occupied the entire book. Instead, Jeff finishes his tour by page 104. In the meantime, we follow the three other major characters Adam, a talented and troubled Apache, Anarbek, the owner of a cheese factory that produces no cheese, and Nazira, Anarbeks alluring, impulsive daughter in their up-and-down lives.
Rosenbergs major accomplishment in This Is Not Civilization is making the Kyrgyz characters seem entirely believable. Indeed, Anarbek and Nazira are the most attractive characters in the novel all the more so because of their flaws. Anarbek is a lovable adulterer who, facing the closing of his cheese factory, leaves his country in pursuit of a solution to his impending financial ruin. And Nazira, who refuses to be the bride of the man who stole her in an ancient courting ritual, later becomes pregnant and must confront ostracism because shes a single mother. At the same time, she must hunt down her wayward father and bring him back to the village and family he has abandoned.
The American characters, particularly Jeff, are less appealing. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Jeff isnt idealistic and altruistic but feckless and self-centered. His way of dealing with the most pressing problems he faces is to run or give up. One wonders if Rosenberg, worried readers would assume Jeff was autobiographical, purposely made his character un-saint-like. (Better to be thought a knave than an angel?) By the end of the book, you may find yourself indifferent to Jeffs fate.
The thumbnail biographical sketch of Rosenberg on the back of his novel reads like a synopsis of the novel itself. Yes, Rosenberg worked on an Apache reservation. Yes, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in newly independent Kyrgyzstan. And, yes, he worked in Istanbul during the massive earthquake in 1999. (The earthquake is the centerpiece of the last part of the novel, when all four major characters find themselves pursuing different dreams while sharing an apartment.) But while less talented writers would pour too much description of setting into their work simply to show readers theyd been to the far-flung places theyre writing about, Rosenberg, in most cases, offers just the right kind of details to capture a place.
Heres his description of a bar in Turkey: The pub was growing crowded. It usually filled up on weeknights by eleven. Stylish Turkish women in tight silk blouses, hints of red in their naturally dark hair, arrived in groups of four. Some had boyfriends large, chain-smoking men who circled around them like secret-service agents. Others came to the pub on the prowl, hunting for a husband and a golden visa.
And heres a detail that seems entirely implausible yet utterly authentic. Its the novels opening sentence: The idea of using porn films to encourage the dairy cows to breed was a poor one.
Dont you want to keep reading?
Mark Brazaitis is the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and Steal My Heart, a novel published in 2000 by Van Neste Books. His fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have been published in The Sun, Notre Dame Review, Atlanta Review, Volt, Many Mountains Moving and other literary journals. He is an assistant professor of English at West Virginia University.
To Prove My Blood
A Tale of Emigrations & The Afterlife
by Philip Brady (Zaire 198082)
Ashland Poetry Press
Reviewed by Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 197374; Ethiopia 197475)
QUITE AN ARRAY OF FAMILY at the Brady house, and a favorite was Aunt Mary. I had the toast, yknow, Maryd sing. The rye toast at Meyers Deli. The breads gorgeous. The McCanns had come from Ulster in 1922. Mary is a strong presence in the family even when she moves down the road to the nursing home. In the afternoons she taps her foot softly on her wheelchairs pad, as if warming to an ante-deluvial reel, still casting her memories over the family.
So many memories here, and a strong insight by Brady, Im the only one en-webbed in myth, craving to spin and also to break free, to make and to make up. And what is it that I would spin or break? Whats flesh anyway . . . . Maybe its death I have To spin out of myself out of my fear, My craving.
Phillip Brady is a well-known poet, and he stars in this family memoir of growing up Irish and becoming a PCV. Hes a man wearing many coats here, as he tells the family story, and looks back on Peace Corps when he was stationed in Lubumbashi in 1981. He reminds us of a sorrowful history in his reference to the dreadful puppet of the Western powers, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Benza Waza Banga. To escape being drafted into his ragtag army, they came by boat, plane, truck, and bicycle to a bombed-out airport, rigged into a hedge school called UNAZA Univeriste Nationale du Zaire. Nevertheless, Brady felt lucky to be in the Peace Corps, and he goes on to say that Joining the Peace Corps . . . he vanished from invisibility.
Everything was deteriorating in Shaba. Decades of Europeans and Americans appropriated the richness of Congo: diamonds, copper, and, particularly scary, the uranium for the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Despite everything, playfulness and even love was available in Lubumbashi. Brady made friends, taught, and got to know the city in its rawness and wild times.Come Saturday night, a gaggle of bearded and beaded volunteers would pile into the Peace Corps jeep and bounce over roads that narrowed to paths, splashing through mud and foliage, swerving around chickens, pigs and goats.
Brady was able to enjoy Lubumbashi, especially when life took a change for the romantic.
Brady found Genevieve, and the rest was lost in the blare of reggae and the explosive shock of her hand brushing against my arm. Poetry would be his specialty, his delight. With the least shift of her espadrilles, she kept the beat while her hips mimed ennui, and her fingers dipped into the silver of night between us, Msungu and Zairoise . . .
And in one unforgettable moment, She crossed her arms over her belly, peeled the ruffled halter over her breasts, unknotted her pagne, and stood before [Brady] in a flame red pool of cloth.
Lubumbashi in 1981 had the Wild West feel of it. Brady describes not only women, but dunes and giant anthills, clay boulevards lined with flamboyants and jacarandas along with overgrown grass and electricity so spotty . . . that the pilot was not able to find the airport.
Brady had known a different world before the Peace Corps, schooled by a different skein of facts altogether: their fathers fists, a Catholic separation and the bifurcation of their own identities into Irish and Italian. His memoir, however, leaves me longing for more of his poetry: Here are a few lines from Wiretap:
I see a door open and my father
take two steps into nothing
but for all my traveling, Ill never know
and though I want him not to go on
being him, me being me,
I havent stopped, nor found a way
to tell all this to anyone I love.
Like all of us, still looking for our fathers, still traveling in search of them, Brady brings in his family members as he tells their story in poetry.
They lived like that, fainting and belting each other
while forty years skimmed by like a flat stone
and now shes babbling this fractured tale to me,
the sea meanwhile having shrunk to a damp shell,
but shes sure my aunt and still furious
that it was me thrashed out of her womb like a knife . . .
Bradys poetry that dances all over the page is his great gift.
Poet Margaret Szumowski's newest collection is Night of the Lunar Eclipse. A sample of her poems can be found at www.thescreamonline.com click on the "Poet Index." Her first full length book, I Want This World, was published by Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press. Recent works have appeared in Barrows Street, Crab Orchard Review, Hollins Critic, Blue Moon Review, Three Candles, Christian Century, Diner, Spoon River Review, and Americas Review.
A Volunteer's Life in Romania
What Planet Are You From?
by Andy Trincia (Romania 200204)
IN MY FINAL DAYS of Peace Corps, I lectured a group of graduate students on managing in cross-cultural organizations. Romanian students take copious notes and are trained to listen to professors and not ask questions, which can be viewed as a challenge. As usual, I explained that Im from a completely different, interactive educational system, so please, interrupt or ask away!
After my remarks, one student drifted off the topic and asked about Americas political and educational systems. This evolved into a fascinating discussion, her questions prying into our basic liberties, such as being hired for a job on merit and simply having equal opportunities, to the American Dream and how you can rise up no matter who you are, who you know, where you were born or in which political party you are, which can be very important in Romania. Of course, some of this matters in America, too, but to very different degree. After declaring that America is far from perfect, as Ive often repeated to Romanians, I expressed my pride, awe really, for the American Democracy that was so artfully crafted by the Founding Fathers more than 200 years ago, yet still works today.
What planet are you from? she uttered, in admiring disbelief, shaking her head.
After class, several students asked me to join them on their short coffee break, one of the few times this happened to me in two years. They peppered me with questions, saying what Ive heard again and again, that the mentality and system have myriad problems and will take many years, perhaps two generations, to improve significantly. Just to get a good job, its often mandatory to have a connection on the inside (pile in Romanian) and/or a bribe. Job applications or interviewers ask political affiliation and other personal questions that are illegal in the United States.
Serving in Peace Corps is many things, but perhaps most of all it is humbling. Over and over, I have felt this. Ive seen people picking through trash every day, but it still hits me every time. The simple stuff we take for granted at home, such as paying for this or that without the constant worry of a rip-off, or just the way we think western-style individualism vs. leftover communist ways, which seem to still emphasize collectivism and that its somebody elses problem, fault or responsibility, whether its the overwhelming amount of litter and filth, small mistakes in the workplace or the countrys poverty.
Even the way we are taught, a combination of theory and hard facts, with practical approaches and hands-on training. Its rare here, and it shows. During my lectures and business-trainings, Ive been shocked so see how little economics majors and would-be entrepreneurs really know about business. As one student told me: Almost everybody in our generation goes to university in Romania. We are educated, but we really arent educated, not prepared the way we should be. We arent taught to be creative, to think for ourselves. We are taught to memorize and regurgitate.
Ive also been humbled in other ways. Romania is a poor but developing country, yet there are many rich people, and many who at least look like it. I held good jobs in the States, drove nice cars, had nice clothes. Occasionally I feel as though my clothes are a bit frayed, my mobile phone a clunker next to some, my Peace Corps living allowance less than some Romanian friends salaries. I am not allowed to own a car, or even drive one, yet I see luxury automobiles whizzing around next to the indigenous Dacia cars. Its as if Ive had two completely different lives. But sadly, millions of Romanians live a whole lot worse, and I can relate only to an extent but Peace Corps does enable you to understand another side of a country, far different than one seen by expat executives and diplomats.
But through the humbleness and pity also comes frustration. Not just the usual annoyances that are tolerable every day is an adventure in Romania, a place full of quirky charm but its also a country with much angst and shaky morality. Sometimes its hard to maintain enthusiasm when even the people you are helping are cheating and cutting corners. I have dozens of examples, but a few stand out. A couple weeks after one of my how-to business plan seminars, the university career center pointed out a resume to me. On there, the young woman stated: Diploma from Mr. Andy Trincia Peace Corps USA Business Plan Seminar . . . Romanians absolutely love certificates and diplomas after trainings sometimes, I think, more than the new knowledge itself but what made this unbelievable is that she was one of only two who didnt show up on the final day. Ironically, she skipped the hands-on session in which they crafted a mock business plan.
In other situations, organizations submited my resume under false pretenses to grantor organizations in order to get more money for another employee or trainer when, of course, Im working on a volunteer basis. I consulted with students and even friends on their personal resumes, only to watch them lie about foreign language ability or job descriptions I remember one who merely cut-and-pasted something right from the internet, then brushed it off as we do this here when I questioned it. I know Volunteers who were fired or at least admonished by Romanian schools for giving accurate grades after complaints from parents, of course, who sometimes offer money for better grades. Numerous unsavory situations have necessitated transfers by Peace Corps. Other Volunteers went home early or nearly quit, completely disgusted by the rampant cheating and corruption. Despite it all, there are great successes, too.
There is a weird sense of entitlement here, what Id call a gimme culture. Back home we say, Give them an inch, they take a mile. The Romanian version translates to Give them a finger, they take the whole hand. I had generous friends back home send school supplies and books to schools in Romania. But thank-you notes or simple acknowledgement to me that the goods were received were not done unless I inquired or encouraged. I helped individual students with preparing for English exams, for job interviews, helped one organization on marketing, another on translations, you name it and in many, many cases, I never heard from them again, even about the results. I often wonder, if I grew up in a poor country with limited opportunities, would I think this way?
Yet through it all, I leave with some amazing images and memories. The sight of a traditionally dressed, kerchief-wearing grandmother (bunica in Romanian). The animated, often profane story telling and witty, self-deprecating humor. Retirees, often looking dazed in this newfangled, fast-changing economy, telling me they wish communism would return to Romania. Young women and their mothers, walking hand-in-hand or interlocking arms, a sweet sight that reminds me of their huge emphasis on family. The pungent smells, the garlicky-booze-sheep cheese breath that Ive smelled again and again, or the unpleasant aromas circulating on buses and trains that often have their windows shut even in hot weather. The joy around weddings and birthdays and the leathered faces of hard-working peasants. Doctors smoking outside decrepit-looking clinics and hospitals, wearing scrubs that dont look too scrubbed. The way my Romanian host family always welcomed me and wanted me to return for a visit, Te asteptam! Were waiting for you!
As a former reporter, quotes and snapshots in time seem to stick in my head. There are so many memorable comments, but one of the best comes from my girlfriend, Oana, whos been at my side much of my time in Romania. Shes been my best friend and partner and from her Ive learned a lot. One day, in describing conditions in pre-1989 Romania, before the end of communism, she mentioned a family trip to a botanical garden.
They and others touring the carefully manicured complex were amazed at the abundance of exotic plants and fruits in a time when they were waiting in line for staples such as meat, butter and milk.
Everybody looked up and saw these banana trees, Oana said. Everybody started saying, Please God, make the bananas fall down into our hands.
Ill never forget that comment. And many other things about Romania. I know some foreigners, even fellow Volunteers, who have no intention of returning, but Ill come back. There are people and things Ill miss, and not just 65-cent beers and $2 haircuts! For now, though, its time to go home.
When I said goodbye to the group of students with whom I worked most closely, at the university career center, they gave me a card reading: thank YOU and underneath, For helping us develop. For your time and experience. For your friendship.
Before joining the Peace Corps, Andy Trincia was a corporate communications executive in the financial services industry. Sworn in on August 16, 2002, he worked at the West University of Timisoara, as a business consultant for the Center for Career Development, and also taught courses. We asked Andy to file reports for his two years of service of what his life was like working and living in Romania. He finished his Peace Corps tour in early July.
A Writer Writes
Growing Up with Sarge Shrivers Biggest Fans
by Adrienne Benson Scherger (Nepal 199294)
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 rebellious 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 Shrivers name has been a household word. Often, one or the other of my parents 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. Hed 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.
My mother and fathers history
My mother, formerly Pamela Cohelan (Philippines 196365) and my father, David Benson (India 196365) 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 didnt 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 didnt 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.
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 fathers proposal to her not included).
Other things about having Peace Corps parents were less positive. We never had packages sent to us, my parents 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 wasnt 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. Im sure thats true in many ways. However, when my parents 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 Id arrived.
My parents stayed in Nepal for a month. Unfortunately it was the monsoon season and many of the classic mountain vistas were obscured by haze. We managed to get our fill however, by flying north from Kathmandu to Jomsom. Flying internally in Nepal is always quite an experience, but the Jomsom run is famous. The town lies on the Tibetan plateau at 12,000 feet. Flying there, in a ten-passenger Cessna, the Annapurna Himalayas suddenly appear. You find yourself looking out the window at a massive wall of black rock and blue-green glaciers. Twisting your neck to look way, way up you see the peaks above you, shining in the thin air. This was at once the most terrifying and exhilarating experience I had in Nepal. My mother, with her unconditional love of mountains, forgot her fear of flying and wept with awe.
I was so proud of my parents during their trip. We landed in Jomsom and trekked north for two days, then turned around and headed south where Pula Bhirmuni lay a weeks walk down the Kali Gandaki valley. We trekked through monsoon rain and heat that drove us to stand, fully clothed, under path-side waterfalls. Miraculously, we avoided leeches. There were other pests though. One memorable night we were awoken by my loudly cursing father a rat had fallen from the wooden beam above his bed, landed on his head, and scrabbled in his hair before leaping off into the darkness.
We ate bad food, fought off flies, and pined for the out-of-season dessert that made this route the apple pie trail. Things are different during the trekking season in the Fall, I moaned. My mother was a teacher though, and could only take extended vacation in the summer. So we made do. My father practiced his rusty Hindi on a barefoot Sadhu from India who asked us, Yeh rastha Muktinath heh? referring to the ancient Hindu temple way up north in the mountains. My father pointed to path, then pointed north, Yeh rastha!
The three days we spent in my village were not the highlight of the trip. The water from the tap nearest my house was diverted to the fields, so we had to carry water for drinking and bathing up stairs and across the narrow paths through the rice paddies from a good distance away. My village brother, Bhim Bahadur, made it his mission to convince my father to use his good connections to get Bhim a visa to the United States. My assurance that my father had no such connections made little difference. During dinner each night that we were there, Bhim plied my father with homemade rice wine and launched into his pleadings. My father would nod along, saying how much he and my mother were enjoying their time in Nepal, and how beautiful the village was. Playing ignorant to avoid confrontation and save face was another skill my dad learned in Peace Corps.
The women in the village were so impressed that I had a family. Many hadnt been convinced that I was not simply some unconnected entity here because I had nowhere else a young, unmarried woman voluntarily so far away from her family was too bizarre to imagine. My mother wore a salwar chemise (a long tunic with baggy pants), which was a huge success. We spent a day down in the rice paddies with the women. The tiny, terraced fields were emerald with the new rice growth and were bordered with golden, blooming soybeans. Amongst the laughter and singing of the women we tried our best to work the rice. The women shrieked with mirth, Aasa! they screamed my village name, your mother can do this better than you can!
When my parents left Nepal they left, as they said, more worried about me than they had been before they saw my situation. This had less to do with my village, than with the dilapidated, brake-less trucks I caught to take me from road-head down the mountain road the breathtakingly steep cliffs inches away from the wheels, with no wall to hold errant vehicles back. However, I should add that their alleged increased worry had no effect on the number of packages they sent.
From Nepal they continued on to India, where they visited my fathers old Peace Corps site. Thirty years after his service had ended they were given a wonderful reception. Everyone still remembered him and his chicken projects.
I hope that there are some people in Pula Bhirmuni who remember me when I go back in thirty years. I have two children of my own now who I hope someday will clamor to hear my Peace Corps stories. Maybe they will be third generation Peace Corps Volunteers, children raised on images of their mother making a home for herself in a little stone house in the shadow of the mountains in Nepal.
Adrienne Benson Scherger was raised in Zambia, Liberia, and Kenya and joined the Peace Corps after graduating college, working as an English teacher and teacher trainer in Nepal. Later, she worked at Peace Corps/Washington as a Desk Assistant in the Africa region. Currently she lives in Tirana, Albania where her husband (Romania, 199697) is the Administrative Officer for Peace Corps/Albania. They have two sons, Miles and Finn.
A Writer Writes
No Shortage of Toilet Paper Here
by Heather Carroll (Russia 200001)
SOME OF US VOLUNTEERS lived in what the Russians liked to refer to as dorms. They were really set up like the Soviet communal apartments I had seen in the foreign film I watched fervently before I left for Russia. They were dank and small and located in odd places. The dorm where I lived was on the first floor of the Yaroslavl State University medical building.
There were two apartments in my dorm. To the left of the entrance a door led to an abandoned apartment. I caught a glance inside once or twice and it looked gutted. I never saw anyone go in or out of it. The door that led to my apartment was to the right of the entrance. Inside there were three bedrooms lining a long, narrow corridor that was absent of light most of the time. At the end of the corridor there was, as was standard in Russian apartments, a room with a toilet and a sink, a separate room with a bath, and a small kitchen. I lived in the bedroom closest to the toilet. Amy, a British student learning Russian at Yaroslavl State, lived in the next bedroom while the third bedroom was vacant most of the time. Occasionally people came from Moscow or elsewhere in Russia for university business. Unlike Amy and I, who lived there more or less permanently, they usually stayed for only a day or two.
The woman and her daughter who had spent the last three nights left without saying goodbye but I guess I never expected them to. They were friendly and I had enjoyed their company while they were in town but we shared little more than sips of vodka, a refrigerator and a toilet.
Amy was the first one to use the toilet after they left. Afterward, she walked into my room sheepishly. The blue bin in the bathroom is full of soiled tissue. She announced standing in the center of the room with one hand on her slender hip and the other at her side.
I was sitting at my table reading my Russian textbook. I had one hand on my dictionary and the other on the text, my index finger marking the unknown word. I turned my whole body to look at her, Youre kidding? I said unable to fully process what she was saying.
Yeah. The bin is full of it. What are we meant to do with all of it? I could tell she was exasperated.
The women who had left the toilet paper there were well educated, well groomed women. There had to have been something we didnt know. There were always small waste baskets in bathrooms but I had never seen anything in them so I never used them, except at public squat toilets where there were always full bins. At most places, and always in the dorm, however, I flushed my toilet paper down the toilet and never had a problem.
Maybe these women from Moscow thought that our humble Yaroslavl dorm was no different than a public toilet or maybe our humble dorm wasnt as humble as we thought maybe our toilet was more powerful than theirs. Either way they had filled the empty waste basket and Amy and I had to do something about it.
I dont know what we are supposed to do with it. Lets just throw it in the dumpster in back. I suggested.
There is a box of matches on the lid. Maybe we are meant to burn it. She said.
Do you think?
I got up to go look at the waste basket, the toilet paper and the matches. Amy followed me. When we arrived in front of the toilet, we both stood there in silence not sure what to say or do. We looked at it for a good long while. The blue, metal bin was laced with amoeba-shaped rust spots as if it had sat out in the rain. If the basket would have been plastic I doubt we would have even considered burning the toilet paper. But since it was metal, at least in theory, you could easily burn toilet paper in it.
Finally I leaned over and picked up the matches. Do you really think we should burn it? Maybe we should just throw it away. I said.
Im not touching it. There is no bag in the bin. Amy was adamant.
OK. I dont want to touch it either. Maybe they left the matches there on purpose.
Why else would someone put matches on top of the bin in the toilet?
Yeah. Where should we do it? In the bathtub? I asked.
Right. Ill go put on the rubber gloves and take it over there. You bring the matches.
And with that Amy disappeared into the kitchen and returned wearing yellow dishwashing gloves that reached nearly to her elbows. She walked over to the wastebasket, let out a deep breath, lifted the basket and held it an arms length away from her body all the way to the tub where she set it down quickly and gently. It didnt take but half a minute to move the thing but she swore in her demure British cuss words the whole way. She let out one last, bollox when she reached down to open the lid.
Amy looked at me with a pained look on her face. Im sure she saw the same look staring back at her. I looked down at the box of matches in my hand. It was maroon with white letters. It simply said matches, no advertisements like matchbooks from restaurants and bars back home. We had a whole pile of match boxes in the kitchen next to the stove. We didnt know for certain that the women left the matches on top of the basket as some sort of subtle code, Please burn our shitty toilet paper. We simply didnt have the time to do it before we left. We, however, didnt know that they hadnt meant to leave that message either. We risked looking ridiculous either way and for whatever reason we choose to look ridiculous this way.
I opened the box, took out a match and closed it with my thumb. I tapped the match on the top of the box to get a better grip and then lit it. Before the crack of the fire starting even hit my ears the match was sailing through the air toward the toilet paper.
Amy and I stood and watched without saying a word. Toilet paper burns fast and makes a lot of smoke. There were no smoke detectors or fire alarms in our dorm. When you stand in the midst of it you dont even notice the accumulation of smoke until you cant see past it or breathe through it.
I suggested that we open a window and we both turned to look at the tiny window high above the tub. Then we turned to look at the basket. The flames were licking the inside of it like a hungry child rushing to eat an ice cream cone before it melts. I climbed up onto the ledge between the tub and the wall and reached to open the window. My nose couldnt breathe in the cool air fast enough. I could smell cigarettes being made by the afternoon shift at the tobacco plant down the street. Even that was easier to breathe in than the smoke of burning toilet paper.
In less than a minute, the flame sunk deep into the basket and had shrunk to a low whisper.
I think we should put it out now. Amy said.
I think it is done. I agreed and turned on the water.
Amy, still rubber gloved, put her arms out slightly to keep her balance and pushed the basket under the running water with the tip of her tennis shoe. The fire was out in seconds. When Amy turned off the water, we had a mess. The toilet paper was gone but there were tampons and other objects we couldnt and didnt want to identify. I didnt know what to do with it now and I could see in Amys face and posture that she didnt either.
We have to just throw it away. I said.
Im not touching it and Im not walking outside with it. If that cow of a woman upstairs sees us with the bin she will raise holy hell. Amy said referring to the Commandant in charge of the dorm. She had never been friendly with her foreign guests.
Let her. Im throwing it away. Im going to put the whole thing in the dumpster. That way the next person that comes will just have to put the toilet paper in the toilet. It can handle it for Gods sake.
Amy nodded in agreement. There was no need to tell her.
I bent over to touch the bin and it was hot like a seatbelt in August. I flinched when I touched it. Without saying another word I went to get a pair of hot pads from the kitchen. If my friends had known that the hot pads they sent from home at Christmas were going to be used to pick up used toilet paper bins they might not have picked out such pretty ones. I returned to the bath with the lilac hot pads, picked up the basket, walked out of the dorm, threw it in the dumpster, came back in and washed my hands.
Lets go get a milkshake. Amy suggested. And we did.
Heather Carroll was a TEFL instructor as a Volunteer. She is currently pursuing her graduate degree in education with a focus in TESOL. She lives in Rochester, NY with her husband and baby daughter. This story comes from Heathers book-in-progress on her experience as a PCV in Russia.
War and Peace Corps
by Ronald Wheatley (Nigeria 196365)
WAR BEFORE, war during, war after, war again!
It was August 1971, and I was alone a guardian of the forests watching over the vast carpet of multispecies conifers, primarily White Pine, that covered the Yaak River Valley, a huge drainage area in Northwest Montana.
I followed you to Texas. I followed you to Utah.
We didnt find it there, so we moved on . . .
Dawn, and pewter colored clouds hung low over the treetops. Tammy Wynette and George Jones sang their duet over the portable radio.
I was standing on the eastern side of a cantilevered platform on Garver Lookout perfect for viewing the panorama. The lookout was set on stilt-like railroad timbers cambered together like a giant erector set that rose 60 feet above the spine of the highest ridge in a sea of ridges that stretched like waves to the horizon in every direction.
To the far distant north I could see the snow capped mountains of the Canadian Northwest Territories. I could look down on the top of the highest tree of the forest and see an egrets nest. At the base of the tower a big block of salt served the bear, moose and deer that came at dawn. Here and there dark patches scarred the earth, mute reminders of the devastation of fires past. But even in those burnt-out areas seedlings were poking out of the charcoal enriched soil.
I was alone. I was at peace. My war was over.
To a small farm in Nebraska, to a gold mine in Alaska.
We didnt find it there, so we moved on.
The portable radio echoed the lament.
I had worked for the Forest Service all through college in the early 60s, and now was the back for the summer between my first and second year of law school. At times as part of that service I had been on the ground fighting those fires. Big fires had names like Sleeping Child; big battles in Vietnam, Ia Drang Valley.
The sound of an airplane engine in the distance caught my attention. Looking south toward the source of the sound a black speck on the horizon rapidly grew larger into a single engine high-wing Cessna 180. The pilot was dangerously low, skimming just above the tree tops that seemed to reach up to grab him, and just below the low ceiling of clouds that, if entered at his altitude, would wrap his windscreen in a deadly white sheet blinding him to the hazards of peaks that penetrated the clouds. The plane was heading directly toward my tower. Suddenly the wing strobe lights flashed bright, like the fire from the sky from the Spooky Ships.
There was competition then between the Forest Service pilots and the Tower Watchers as to who would spot a fire first. The flashing lights were to me a signal of competition, but also of something else of a missing man formation if you will, of Captain Nguyen Van Hung.
I followed you to Alabam;
Things looked good in Birmingham.
We didnt find it there so we moved on.
Earlier I had been thinking of Jimmie Sergeant James Walton. Jimmie, with his movie star good looks, with whom I had bonded earlier in the summer, and who was trying to set me up with his girl friends kid sister. He had promised to drive from Spokane to visit me in my tower.
Jimmie, whose unit of the First Infantry Division in Vietnam had been ambushed. Jimmie, who had been left for dead, and when he made it back to the other survivors of his unit, they all thought he was a ghost.
But I wasnt a ghost. I was just an RPCV.
The Summer of 63
In 1963 the instructors and professors at Columbia informed us during Peace Corps training for Nigeria that we were going to the one country that was the great hope for Western-style parliamentary democracy in Africa. It also happened to be the most important country in Africa since every fifth person on the continent lived there. It was heady stuff.
When our group arrived in-country, the Emir of the North the Sardauna of Sokoto, Alahji Sir Ahmadu Bello personally greeted those of us from Nigeria VII who had been assigned to teach in the North, and invited us to his gracefully domed desert palace in Kaduna. His greeting was special, though I did not fully realize it at the time, because he was undisputedly the most powerful political and religious leader in the entire country. He was more powerful than Prime Minister Alhadji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Beleway, more powerful than even President Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe.
Armed troops stood guard outside his palace near the Nigeria-green and white Rolls Royce. He was a big man wearing a long white robe and a turban, in what I would learn, was the simple tradition of Usman who led an early 19th Century Jihad that conquered part of the Western Sudan that became Northern Nigeria. Ahmado Bello was most gracious in his greeting and presented each of us with a Nigerian-green ostrich-feathered fan.
He ended his welcome with a comment, or was it a warning: We want progress, but we want it slowly.
Classrooms of students with respect and motivation
I taught at the Government Technical Training School in Bukuru, Northern Nigeria, a school near the center of the Fulani/Hausa/Islamic rule not only of the North, but also of the country. The students at my school had been drilled in the Islamic tradition to respect authority especially their teachers. There was never a question of a discipline problem in the classroom.
I was the first American at the school that was administered by the British. The first day when I introduced myself to my 10 classes of 36 students each, I mentioned that I was a university graduate; each class spontaneously burst into applause. It came as a surprise and was a bit awkward for me. When I asked why they clapped, one student raised his hand stood and said: Sir, we clap because we think that you are the most educated of all of our teachers.
My challenge was to prepare these 360 students for the O Level English exam. An exam that we PCV university graduates took during training at Columbia, and many failed.
All of my students were motivated to learn English American English that I taught.
Sir, what is a guy?
It was 1964, and the dogs of war were nipping at my heels, like the bush dogs that chased me as I rode my Honda through the village near the school.
When I joined the Peace Corps in 1963 Vietnam was not even an issue except perhaps to a few planners in the Pentagon. By 1965, my Draft Board in Spokane, Washington had become willing agents of those Pentagon planners.
Toward the end of my Peace Corps service in June of 1965, I received a post card at my school that I had 14 days to return to the United States because I had been reclassified as 1-A.
Now I had to return to the U.S. to an uncertain bugle call. So I played the one political card in the family deck. I prevailed upon my cousin, who was a Prosecuting Attorney in Tacoma, Washington, and he arranged for me to have an interview for a teaching job that would give me a draft deferment. It was July late in the season for hiring teachers.
Mr. Wheatley is a fucker.
I met with the principal, who was young and ambitious and taking command of a new facility in the inner city. It was at the height of the civil rights movement in the city and he knew this was a great opportunity for him and his career. As far as he was concerned, because I had taught in Africa for two years, I was exactly what he needed, and I could do anything.
What I did not know, and he did not share with me, was that the Special Education position he was assigning me meant, at that time, a class of students who did not fit mainly for discipline problems in the other classes.
What he did not know, and I did not know, was that that teaching in Northern Nigeria had spoiled me for what was in store for me as a teacher in America.
Mr. Wheatley is a fucker.
It was scrawled in an awkward print on the black board of my classroom. At least the spelling and grammar were correct so I must have been doing something right, I thought at the time.
They also serve . . . who serve
Having completed my contract for the 196566 academic year in Tacoma and having received an offer to renew it and extend my deferment, I decided that teaching, at least based on my experience in Tacoma, was not for me.
For some time it had bothered me that it seemed like only the under-privileged could not get deferments, and were being sent to Vietnam. So that summer I volunteered for the draft. I took someone elses place.
I completed basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington in December of 1966, and, because of myopia, was assigned to the Signal Corps. The Signal Corps, not the infantry! What luck!
In the Signal Corps
This is as far as the trucks go, someone called out.
The other Signal Corps recruits and I jumped out of the back of the two-and-a-half-ton trucks deuce and halfs as we called them onto the rocky dry creek bed that led up into the piney woods of the Superstition Mountains that framed the distant horizon from our base at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
We got into yet another formation and met our new section chief, a Special Forces Sergeant. We were now guerillas in the Country of Arizan, which was friendly to the United States, and which was being invaded by troops from a hostile nation to the north. We were sworn in and given headbands with the letters ALA printed on them. Considering my background it was ironic, but far from being devout followers of Allah, we were now soldiers in the Arizan Liberation Army.
Our job for the next month was to work with a Special Forces A team. A twelve-man elite Army unit that parachuted in the darkness to the Landing Zone where we held flashlights pointed toward the C-130 Hercules. We were going back to school and the forest would be our classroom. Sticks, pinecones and pieces of string were our visual aids. Our vocabularies were supplemented with new terms like D-Z, (Drop Zone) time on target, recon patrol and counter insurgents. We learned how to set up ambushes, how to practice field medicine, how to move tactically and how to live off the land. This was the Signal Corps!
With Charlie Company at Chu Lai
When I volunteered for the draft I knew that I would be sent to Vietnam, and nine months later I arrived at Chu Lai in July of 1967. It was then I learned that my unit, Charlie Company, 37th Signal Battalion, 1st Signal Brigade had been assigned to the Marine Corps Division that was operating in the area. I was a Communications Specialist.
Imagine a beautiful beach, a stretch of one lane highway, then a few acres of sand that edged up to a triple canopy forest. Thats all you could see unless you looked closer for the spider hole in the sandy area that served as our entry and exit; other than that there was no evidence of our presence. Once inside the spider hole you entered a state of the art (for that time) communications and command center. As such we were a vital communications link and target. We were in constant peril of being overrun. At night mortars and Russian-made 122 mm rockets would shell us, and trip flares would go off indicating that someone was in the perimeter or was it a cow? Nearby almost an entire Company of the 173rd Airborne Division had been wiped out in an ambush.
But our ace in the hole was the Spooky Ships that we could call in if we were being overrun. Their gattling guns would make a high-pitched whine and fire would come from the sky. No one inside a football-sized field could survive their fire.
The Peace Corps & War Corps
There was one shining moment at Chu Lai when the goals of the Peace Corps and War Corps came together, at least for me. Three of us soldiers were taking a walk in the sun patrolling Chu Lai beach. We entered a small shack that had a sign Cold Cokes. Just then we saw a man throw a Vietnamese woman across the room, and jump over the makeshift bar to pummel her more.
Stop it, we ordered.
She Viet Cong, she Viet Cong! She must die, said the uniformed Asian man who was throttling her.
Leave her alone, we demanded. He gave us a defiant look, but there were three of us with weapons. He left the shack cursing us. Maybe she was Viet Cong. I will never know, but I am still forever grateful that we intervened.
A friend remembered
I met Captain Nguyen Van Hung in the 12th USAF Evacuation Hospital near Bien Hoa where we were both recuperating from battle injuries. He was a Squadron leader of a South Vietnamese Air Force Squadron of A1-Es and AI-Hs Douglas Skyraiders, Spads as they were affectionately called because their design was of early post-World War II vintage. Imagine a single-engine plane that required 40 gallons of oil for the engine. You could always tell a Spad jockey by the oil stains on his flight suit. But the Spad could loiter for up to eight hours over an area and could carry about the same bomb load as a World War II B-17 Bomber. They were perfect for ground support, and for escorting both Huey helicopters to Landing Zones, and the big Sikorskys or Jolly Green Giants on so-called Sandy missions to rescue downed pilots.
It was on such a mission and Nguyen was flying so low that his plane shook from antiaircraft fire from the ridges above that he was wounded. Shells penetrated the cockpit filling it with smoke and almost severing his right thumb. Blood from a cut artery spurted up inside the cockpit and against the windshield so that it blurred his vision, but he made it back to Danang to be pulled semiconscious from the cockpit, and be brought to the hospital.
I learned that he had graduated from the South Vietnamese Military Academy and was from a distinguished and politically connected family in South Vietnam. He, like me, was a Catholic. He spoke French, and his English was as good as mine. He was completely dedicated to the cause of his homeland and to the Americans who were there to help. Even though he outranked me, he used to say, I should salute you for being here. Like my students in Nigeria, he had great respect for teachers.
Not long after we became friends, I was sent back to my unit only to be re-injured and medivaced to the Armys 106th General Hospital in Yokohama, Japan, the burn center of the Far East command. Three months later, just in time for Tet, in February 1968, I was in another deuce-and-a-half, only this time it was trying to make a mad dash across Saigon. There were six of us in the back of the truck and we got caught in a firefight.
I eventually made it to my new assignment in Danang as Headquarters Clerk 37th Signal Battalion. One of my jobs was to drive the Commanding Officers jeep on certain errands up the long and lonely triple-canopy-jungle-sided road to our remote Signal Site on Monkey Mountain outside Danang. I feared being captured more than anything, and those trips were certainly my most serious exposure to that possible fate.
In Danang, I made some inquiries, and was able to reconnect with Nguyen, and we met often after that.
The Americans will leave us
Nearing the end of my tour, he came over to my unit to see me. Nguyen knew I liked to fly, and I asked him if he would take me on a mission.
You are too short, he said referring to my time left in country.
I didnt care, but he was concerned for my welfare.
There was a look in his eyes that I had not seen before. I asked, was something worrying him.
It is that I worry the Americans will leave us.
Why do you say that?
Senator Robert Kennedy is running for President and he is against the war.
I replied knowingly that politicians dont necessarily mean what they say in America, especially when they are running for office. I assured him that we would never leave until the war was over, or at least the South Vietnamese Government could defend itself.
I felt he left me feeling only half reassured. Little did I know that he could sense what I could not. I was blind to what his keen political insight told him. Five years later, America would leave Captain Nguyen Van Hung and his comrades in the South Vietnamese armed forces to the tender mercies of the North Vietnamese Army.
I never saw or heard from him again.
I know youre tired of following, my elusive dreams and schemes . . .
There would be no fire this day, I thought, as the temperature dropped and the clouds, fecund with rain, turned darker and hung lower over the forests. Maybe Jimmie would come today; it had better be soon, because the fire season was ending and I would be returning to law school.
Ronald Wheatley served as a Legal Assistant in the International Division, Office of Telecommunications Policy (OTP) Executive Office of the President during the waning days of the Nixon Administration and through the Ford Administration. From there he served as a Foreign Service Reserve Officer in the Office of Communications in the Economics Bureau of the Department of State. In 1990 he retired as Regional Attorney, AT&T State Government Relations for the Northeast Region, where he was responsible for New York plus the New England States. He now serves as Counsel to the Transportation Division of the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Energy, and at the same time, has a private law practice in Scituate, Massachusetts.
He is the author of the full-length play Trial of Phillis Wheatley which was produced last year at Bridgewater State College as part of its Black History month celebration.
NOTE: The song My Elusive Dreams was written by C. Putman and B. Sherrill.
Resources for writers
In defense of self-publishing
In the Footsteps of Mark Twain
by Craig J. Carrozzi (Colombia 197880)
Im to introduce Mark Twain. To tell the truth, I only know two things about him: he aint in jail, and I dont know why not.
This introduction, capturing the spirit of the Gilded Age, was made by a grizzled miner during Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, lecture tour of the mining towns of Sacramento, Marysville, Grass Valley, Nevada City, Red Dog, You Bet, Virginia City, Carson City, and Gold Hill in the fall of 1866.
The lectures featured Twains comic observations of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), the natives, and assorted missionaries and opportunists who had taken up residence there. This stand up comedy tour helped launch Twains career as one of the most celebrated figures in American folklore and literature.
Reading about this in George Rathmells excellent book, Realms of Gold: The Colorful Writers of San Francisco, 18501950, a history of the San Francisco literary scene, I could only shake my head in bemusement. You see, prior to these lectures, which were based on his four months experience in Hawaii writing articles for the Sacramento Union, Twain had lived a sometimes hand-to-mouth existence as a journalist. Twains then most famous story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, was first printed in 1865 in the New York Saturday Press. Unfortunately, it was in the final issue of a dying weekly and Twain had slim hopes that his story would be noticed. But, to Marks gratification and amazement, the story was picked up and reprinted in almost every newspaper of any consequence in the country. But, ah yes, another but, per the standard of the time, Twain received not one cent in royalties as anything printed in one paper was considered fair game in any other and the author be damned.
As you can imagine, as I read Realms I felt a tremendous surge of empathy for Twain because of his shabby treatment from the publishing trade; but, an even greater sense of admiration for him as he overcame his disappointment and figured out a way to beat the system.
To launch his tour, Twain rented a hall in San Francisco, had his own tickets printed, sold them, wowed his audience, and . . . the rest his history. The success of his Gold and Silver Country tour led to a European Tour that led to the book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court and so on. The boy knew how to think outside the box, had the guts to go for it, and it paid off for him.
So that finally brings us to me. I am an unabashed publisher of my own books. I write them, design the covers, hire printers, find distributors, act as sales rep, act as publicist, hell, I even sell popcorn at events if the need arises. I have published five books with varying degrees of success through my Southern Trails Publishing. On the plus side, I love the sense of empowerment controlling my own product gives me. On the minus side, the book trade looks on most self-published books the way Fox News regards the word liberal it is an epithet that almost automatically consigns the author to the slush pile and inhibits meaningful consideration.
From my viewpoint, when you consider that Bertlesmann, a German Media giant, owns Random House which owns Knopf, Ballantines, Bantam, Dell, and Doubleday, monster names in US publishing history, you can see the creeping lack of diversity in the publishing industry specifically and the media in general. These incestuous conglomerates are stifling original voices and reducing much of our publishing trade to celebrity tell-all books and vanilla thrillers and romances. So, yes, while a great majority of self-published books are crap, so are a fair proportion of high-profile publishers turning out the same sort of crap with a bit glossier facade and a take no-risk attitude.
Understanding this, I came out with my new book, The Curse of Chief Tenaya, and determined to use the strategy employed by Mark Twain 138 years before. Heres why: even large independent bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area now want what they euphemistically refer to as publishers publicity fee of $200 to $300 dollars to put on a book event. As in so many things, the smaller you are the more you are squeezed. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to put on my first event at Eldos Brew Pub and Grill in San Franciscos Sunset District at no cost. The event drew about 120 people and I sold a ton of books. Thus armed with both confidence and cash, I took my title which deals with the Gold Rush, Chief Tenaya of the Sierra Miwoks, and the Hetch Hetchy Valley in an action/adventure context to the good people of Yosemite and the Gold Rush country along route 49. The response has been gratifying. Like Mark Twain, I have events scheduled up and down the Gold Country Roseville, Coloma, Yosemite Valley, Fish Camp, Columbia, Groveland, Camp Mather near the Hetch Hetchy where I can take my work directly to my audience and let them judge its quality for themselves. A writer cant ask for anything more.
Writer/Publisher Craig J. Carrozzi has successfully published five books. He specializes in performance readings and loves running his own show.