Peace Corps Writers 9/2006: Introduction

    Where were you on
    September 22, 1961?

    That was the day JFK signed the legislation that created the Peace Corps. He had signed the Executive Order to establish a “Peace Corps” earlier that year, on March 1, 1961, so that date is considered the “birthday” of the agency. By September of 1961 about 500 PCV had already gone overseas to 9 countries. By 1965, the number of Peace Corps Volunteers grew to 8,000 worldwide, a year later it was at 15,000.
         The Peace Corps hasn’t been as successful as Kennedy had hoped. He envisioned sending out 100,000 Volunteers a year, whereas most years there have been fewer than 8,000. Over the past 45 years a total of more than 185,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in more than130 countries. So, Happy Birthday Peace Corps, Again!

    And then Sarge said to me . . .
    . . .
    Sarah (O’Connell) Seybold (Turkey 1963–65)

    AN ORANGE HARD-COVER BOOK with Sarge’s picture sits on my mother’s coffee table. It’s been there since 1965. Sargent Shriver: A Candid Portrait by Robert Liston has a bookmark on page 120. That’s the black and white photo section, which features Sarge on a raft in North Borneo, Sarge sharing bread in an Iranian bakery, Sarge visiting with the Shah of Iran, and Sarge at my Peace Corps site in a hospital in eastern Turkey.
         I am dressed in white, with starched cap, pale hose and polished nurse’s shoes. Sarge is tall and athletic looking, with cropped hair and a ruddy face. He wears slacks and a bulky ribbed cardigan frayed around a small hole on the left shoulder. Scuffed boots warm his feet. In the background, temperature charts hang over white metal cribs in a Turkish pediatric ward. Veiled mothers wearing hospital-issued gowns sit at bedsides. They are on-hand around the clock to comfort and feed their sick little ones. Like mannequins these village women sit and stare at us. I make a plea for Sarge’s help. In my right hand I hold a glass thermometer. My left hand extends to explain that our school of nursing is in urgent need of teaching supplies. He listens earnestly and promises a modest budget.
         And then Sarge is off to the orphanage and high school, the other sites where Peace Corps Volunteers work in this central Anatolian railroad town of 50,000. His departure reminds me to get on to the afternoon shopping. My roommates and I must prepare to serve tomorrow’s breakfast to Sarge, his entourage and eight Peace Corps Volunteers including myself. Bundled in winter wear and snow boots and carrying several string bags, I head for the open market, wondering how to explain to the poultry vendor my need for fifty eggs. But he asks no questions and gleefully wraps up the thirty in his inventory, takes my money and sends me in the direction of his brother’s stall.
         The breakfast is hearty, a full platter of scrambled eggs layered with herbed cheese and garnished with home-fried potatoes. We hug our steamy mugs filled with spiced Turkish tea. When dishes are cleared away, Sarge calls us Volunteers together.
         We pull up chairs in a circle. Only two months have passed since our early November 1963 arrival in Turkey, and so much has changed. When we ask Sarge to describe how the Kennedy family, the Peace Corps staff and Americans in general responded to the assassination he takes a deep breath as if to steady himself.
         Tales of November 22 and its aftermath pour out. We hang onto his every word. We feel compelled to tell him where we were when we heard the news. Two Turkish nurses had run into our dormitory holding a portable radio. They were sobbing and screaming, “Baskinin Kennedy Olmis!” We didn’t understand, our Turkish language was so new and our vocabulary so limited. Their sobs and screams continued until finally we knew the truth. Grief and loss flooded Ankara. Flags flew at half mast as sober and silent people walked the streets. The American Embassy opened its doors for ceremony and reflection.
         Suddenly his time had run out. Sarge’s plane was scheduled to leave within the hour. We said our goodbyes. His departing words gave comfort, inspiration and a sense of mission. “You are the ones who must carry the torch.”

    [Do you have a Sarge Shriver story you’d like to share? Send it along to and we’ll add it to our growing collection of Then Sarge Said to Me! Tales from the early days of the Peace Corps.]

    First Peace Corps Fund award
    Todd Lester (Cameroon 2000–02) is the first individual to receive a Peace Corps Fund Award — a grant of $3000. The Fund, which provides support to RPCVs for Third Goal projects, is a non-profit organization established several years ago by myself and Barbara Ferris (Morocco 1980–82). Over the past two years the Fund has worked with Peace Corps Writers on several projects enlisting Peace Corps writers and their books.
         Todd's grant is to support his work with a group of volunteer professionals in New York as they launch a non-profit organization known as freeDimensional which has initiated a global network to provide administrative and organizing support to centers worldwide that seek to create short-term safe havens for exiled human rights defenders who have been working at the intersection of arts and journalism before fleeing their countries of origin.
         Todd brings a wealth of experience to this volunteer organization. As a PCV he was a small business development Volunteer coordinating youth business apprenticeships, journalism training, and cultural and public information events. During his service Todd he completed his Masters in Public Administration through a joint initiative of Rutgers University and the Peace Corps known as the Masters Internationalist Program. He is currently a candidate for a Doctorate of Public & Urban Policy at the New School for Social Research, and an adjunct instructor at the New School, New York University, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

    How many novelists can stand on the head of a pin?
    [or] You are not alone!
    When speaking to one of our “Friendly Agents” last week he mentioned that he receives an average of 1000 emails and letters a month from new writers — not all RPCVs ! — requesting that he represent them. He personally answers all of of these requests.
         This agent already represents three RPCVs writers who have published books within the last two years. So, keep writing.

    And finally
    Peace Corps Writers would like to welcome back to the Peace Corps Ron Tschetter (India 1966–68) who has been appointed the new Peace Corps Director — he is the third RPCV to hold this post. For the second time both the director and deputy director (Jody Olsen, Tunisia 1966–68) were both Peace Corps Volunteers.
         Jody, a faithful Republican, has been with the agency since Gaddi Vasquez’s appointment in 2002. Unfortunately, Jody, the only senior staff with real Peace Corps experience, was ordered by Gaddi not to travel overseas to visit PCVs. I am not sure if he was concerned about her safety, or was afraid she would outshine him since his only international experience before he became Director was several trips south of the border to visit relatives in Mexico. But Jody kept her head down and she kept quiet. Meanwhile, Gaddi did rack up a great many frequent-flyer miles as he traveled the world visiting Peace Corps countries.
         Ron Tschetter, another life-long Republican [and who said the Peace Corps was full of do-good, liberals?], in his first letter to the community thanked our war-monger president “for his confidence in me” for giving him the job. Well, I guess in D.C. you can’t bite the hand that feeds you. Ron, however, is a good guy and we wish him well. But, Ron, please give back Jody’s passport and let her go visit some PCVs.

    In this issue . . .
    . . . is an interview with Kris Holloway (Mali 1989–91) and a review of her wonderful new book, Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali by Sharon Dirlam (Russian Far East 1996–98). We also have two “A Writer Writes” columns, one by Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971–73) entitled, “I Love you Is Not the Same in Every Language.” Also reviewed in this issue is The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities, the new book by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985–87). It is reviewed by Wayne Handlos (Ethiopia 1962–64). We list 11 books recently published by Peace Corps writers, and two additional reviews, plus plenty of Literary Type.
         We hope you enjoy it all.

    John Coyne