Peace Corps Writers: Front Page 1/2006

What you can do . . . for the Brookings Institution
Brookings Institution Visiting Fellow Lex Rieffel (India 1965–67) has worked over the past two years to explore the policy issues related to the Peace Corps and other overseas service options available to Americans. A working group, comprised of leaders from the Federal Government and the non-profit sectors, has met to discuss the recommendations in his working paper “Reaching Out: Americans Serving Overseas.” According to Lex, “the feedback has been very positive and this working group is now developing a more realistic package of overseas volunteer service opportunities which builds on and expands current programs, including the Peace Corps.” 
     They need your input to be a success, Lex says — “The experiences that you have all shared through Peace Corps and your insights and suggestions will prove invaluable as we move forward.” Contact him at:

And then Sarge said to me . . .

Thaine H. Allison, Jr. was a PCV in Borneo (1962–64) assigned as an agricultural extension agent in the village of Bandau, a place that is now called Kota Marudu, in Sabah Malaysia. Since leaving the Peace Corps and completing graduate school, Thaine has been a health economist working with the states of California and New York, among others, as well as in several Latin America countries. What he remembers fondly from his years in the Peace Corps during the early days is how Sarge Shriver personally saved him from the army and the Vietnam War.

SOMETIME in the first couple of months after arriving in North Borneo, my wife and I had a visitor at our distant outpost, a small village in the ulu [jungle] that was a five mile walk from the nearest road. Our Peace Corps location was without phones, running water, or electricity. We loved our assignment.
     On that particular day when nothing particularly important was happening in town — actually, it was like every other day in Bandau — our Country Director walked into the village with a tall, good-looking stranger from Peace Corps/Washington. It was the first time I had ever met the man who had sent me into the ulu of Borneo.
     My wife and I showed him around town. First we took him to see my fledging agricultural projects, and then to visit my wife’s school where he met kids who were thrilled to have class interrupted by this tall, handsome stranger.
     After that, we had lunch and a few beers at our house and sat around and talked about the Peace Corps in North Borneo. We told him about all our plans to bring progress to the ula and how different the village of Bandau would look the next time he visited.
     We could have kept talking all afternoon but he had to leave so we packed up some fresh fruit and drinks for the hike back to the the main road and their Land Rover. We started off through the jungle and the five-mile walk to the highway gave us a chance to show off our new language skills as we introduced him to people we met along the way, people we had only recently met ourselves.
     White people in this part of the world were something of a phenomenon, especially white Americans, and everyone wanted a chance to meet the tall, good looking stranger. Seeing our small parade, one man jumped off his bicycle, snapped to attention, and saluted us as if we were generals in some army, and not just a Sargent and a couple of young Peace Corps kids.
     It turns out, after we asked a few questions of this man we learned that the last time he had met a white man on the trail he was beaten severely with a riding crop. He was beaten by a Dutch planter who had been left behind after World War II and didn’t think the host country national was showing enough respect to a white person. We all realized that this White Man legacy was one obstacle we had to overcome to be fully accepted in the village.
     When we reached the Land Rover our new best friend from Washington thanked the two of us in a fatherly way and told us what good work we were doing for the Peace Corps, and he asked what he might do for us when he returned to Washington. Could he call our folks, he asked. Should he tell them how he had come into the jungles of Borneo and found young PCVs who were doing a great job for America and the world? It was, after all, only a couple of weeks after the Cuban Missile crisis, and grinning that famous smile of his, he said mothers everywhere were worried about their kids.
     I thanked him and said that wasn’t necessary, but I did have a little problem with my draft board and pulled a letter out of my back pocket, a letter that had somehow reached me in the ulu. The letter from my draft board informed me that I was about to lose my U.S. citizenship for escaping to the jungles of North Borneo just to avoid the draft.
     Our new friend slowly read the letter standing there beside the Land Rover in the middle of the jungle, and then he said quietly, but firmly, “The White House will handle this on Monday morning.”
     I guess the White House did handle it on Monday morning for I never heard again from my draft board, thought I did hear how, at the height of the Vietnam War, my draft board did send two U.S. Marshals to the Philippines where they handcuffed a Peace Corps Volunteer and returned him to Oakland to be drafted into the Marines.
     Perhaps that story was just a Peace Corps legend, another folk tale passed from one generation of PCVs to the next. I don’t know. But I do know that thanks to the tall, good-looking stranger from Washington, D.C. I was able to serve my two years in the wilds of North Borneo and never had to jump off a bike to salute a sergeant I didn’t respect as much as I respected and loved R. Sargent Shriver.

In this issue
Just as Hurricane Katrina was overwhelming New Orleans, Terri Elders (Belize 1987–90; Dominican Republic 1992–94; Seychelles 1995; and PC/HQ 2000–04) and her husband were sailing to Alaska. They missed many shipboard activities as they watched the tragedy unfold in New Orleans. At one point Terri turned to her husband and said, “I’m a child therapist. There’s got to be some way I can help all those children who are being uprooted.” When they returned home, she immediately responded to the call for health professionals to assist in the tragedy and ultimately served with the Crisis Corps for a month. In “A Writer Writes” we publish Terri’s account of “Thirty Days in Beaumont, Texas.

And finally . . . So You Want to be a Famous Writer?
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67) author of the wonderful new book Girls of Tender Age, reviewed in this issue, was recently on the Leonard Lopate Show on public radio station WNYC when a woman called the show and said she was from a town outside of New Haven where Mary-Ann had grown up and could she call her about participating in a fund raiser. “So she calls me,” Mary-Ann emailed me, “and I’m barely paying attention because I figure she wants a book talk, but instead she tells me she’s recruiting famous women to be models at a fashion show which will take place at a very posh country club. Having always wanted to be a model (hah!), and because I’m so famous, (hah!) I agreed and asked her what the organization was that needed funds raised. She told me it was a group of people who climb under the ramps of I-95 and I-91 and feed feral cats. Ah, the exciting life of a writer.”
     Read in this issue of our on-line newsletter what other wonderful things our RPCV writers are doing and what they have to tell us.

John Coyne