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Peace Corps Writers

May 2003

WE HAVE WEATHERED a snowy winter here on the East Coast, but finally we have Spring and as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote

Nothing is so beautiful as spring —
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush.”

We greet you with a “lush” May issue, full of news, humor, political wisdom, fresh insights and, as always from RPCVs writers, great writing. But first the news . . .

Peace Corps country director wins United Nations literary prize
Andrew Oerke (staff: Tanzania, Uganda, CD-Malawi, CD Jamaica 1966–71) has won the Literary Prize of Excellence from the United Nations Society of Writers & Artists. On March 21, 2003, UN Under Secretary General Gillian Sorensen presented the award, and Oerke read from his yet-to-be-published books African Stiltdancers and San Miguel D'Allende.
     Oerke, who has been published in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Poetry, Mademoiselle, and other leading magazines, is a Golden Gloves champ, football player, university professor, Korean War vet, U.N. Gulf War consultant, and Peace Corps Country Director. A feature article on him in The New York Times called him a poet “whose muse is a world traveler.” The panel of judges included Norman Mailer, Hans Janitscheck, Bhikshuni Weisbrod and several others. Andrew Oerke is the first poet to be awarded the U.N. Literary Prize. With Andrew’s permission, we are reprinting three of his poems from his collection, African Stiltdancers.

A Writer Writes (Humorously)
Tina Martin (Tonga 1969–71) has written some wonderful pieces about her Peace Corps experience in Tonga. In one paragraph she has the ability to be sad, funny, and break you heart, and do it all without splitting an infinitive. In this issue, we are pleased to publish her creative non-fiction piece, “God, Kennedy, and Me” that shows that some people will do almost anything to get into the Peace Corps — even pray.

Two Ethiopia RPCVs speak out
“First generation” RPCVs from Ethiopia I, Dick Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64) and Leo Cecchini (Ethiopia 1962-64), weight in on separate issues involving the Peace Corps, the recent war, and all of us. These thoughtful pieces are published here as our way of continuing the discussion about the impact and relevance of the agency.
     After his Peace Corps tour in Ethiopia, Lipez was an evaluator for the agency for several years before becoming a full time writer. His latest novel, Tongue Tied, written under the name Richard Stevenson, has just been published, and he is also an editorial writer for the Berkshire Eagle. The article we publish here appeared earlier this month in the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual RPCVs Newsletter (www.lgbrpcv.org) and it is reprinted with their kind permission.
     After his Peace Corps years in Asmara, Eritrea, Leo Cecchini was a Foreign Service Officer for 25 years in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, as well as in Washington, D.C. He is on the Board of the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) and the Vice President of Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs. He lives most of the year in Florida.

(Note: We welcome other short essays or commentaries on or about the Peace Corps or the role of RPCVs today.)

Paraguay RPCV speaks of RPCV writers at international colloquium
“Writing American” is the title of a paper Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978–80) delivered earlier this May. It was given at the 20th Annual American Studies Colloquium held on Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, and which included Americanists of various disciplines from 14 African countries. The two participating Americans were Professor Richard Horwitz, an American studies scholar from the University of Iowa, and novelist and Foreign Service Officer Jacobs.
     In his essay, which we are publishing in this issue, Mark makes the point that “Peace Corps writers” are influenced by their experience, using Norm Rush, Marnie Mueller, Paul Eggers, Maria Thomas and other RPCV writers as examples.
     At the colloquium, Mark also read from the U.S. State Department publication Writers on America which he initiated at State, and from his most recent book, The Liberation of Little Heaven. In January 2004, his next novel, A Handful of Kings will be published.

Also in this issue . . .
Our project to publish the readings from the “Journals of Peace” continues with another set of touching and insightful statements presented by RPCVs on the 25th anniversary of JFK’s death. We also have “A Letter from . . .” Nicaragua written by Roderick Jones (Nicaragua 1992–96). There are new books to buy, new reviews of books written by RPCVs, and“ Literary Type,” a column that always has something interesting about what Peace Corps writers are doing around the world. And, finally, Andy Trincia (Romania 2002–  ) is back with his Peace Corps adventures in Romania.

And remember: PeaceCorpsWriters.org will be holding several writing workshops at the National Peace Corps Association & Columbia River Peace Corps Association meeting in Portland, Oregon over the weekend of August 1–3, 2003. If you plan on attending, and have an interest in being on a writing panel, please contact me at: jpcoyne@cnr.edu.

Now, back to the reading.

— John Coyne
Editor

    — John Coyne
    Editor


Recent books by Peace Corps writers — May 2003

Peace Corps Pioneer
Or “The Perils of Pauline”

by Pauline Birky-Kreutzer (COR Pakistan 1961–63)
(Self-published)
2003
376 pages
$20
(Order from: Jade Creek Books, 123 N. College Avenue, Ft. Collins, CO 80521; 970.484.3019)

Kill Two Birds and Get Stoned
by Kinky Friedman (Borneo 1967–69)
William Morrow
April 2003
221 pages
$24.95

Change Your Job, Change Your Life
Careering and Recareering in New Boom/Bust Economy
(8th edition)
by Ronald L. Krannich (Thailand)
Impact Publications
2002
336 pages
$17.95

Constant Battles
The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage
by Steven A. LeBlanc (Western Samoa 1960s) with Katherine E. Register
St. Martin's Press
April 2003
$25.95

The Selected Letters of Dolley Payne Madison
edited by David B. Mattern (Mali 1976–78)
and Holly Shulman
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press
April, 2003
$29.95

The Littlest Star
A Musical Story
(children's)
by Robert Roberg (Peru 1966–68) and Chuck Whiting
Shine Time Records & Books
2002
40 pages
$18.95

Mortals
by Norman Rush (Botswana CD 1978–83)
Knopf
May 2003
736 pages
$26.95


Literary Type — May 2003

  • Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98) was awarded a $1,000 small project grant from the DC Commission on Arts and the Humanities for a research trip to Nogales, AZ for his second novel, Across the Border. Cambridge Literary Associates in Newburyport, Mass. has indicated interest in representing his first novel, Journeying Away, after the manuscript is edited.
  • Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65) has a novel coming out this summer in England and next year in the U.S. Entitled The Stranger at the Palazzo D’oro & Other Stories, it is a short erotic novel that revolves around the affair between a young man and an old woman. Theroux wrote it while traveling overland in Africa researching Dark Star Safari: Overland From Cairo to Cape Town. He said he needed to do “something” at night to keep his mind off what was happening on the streets. “To restrain myself — because the place if full of prostitutes and opportunities — I kept busy writing a short erotic novel.” It is, we’re told, “a very erotic” novel.
  • The May 26th issue of New York magazine carries an early review of Norm Rush’s (Botswana CD 1978–83) new novel Mortals. Reviewer John Homans writes in his glowing review of Mortals, “One wants to call him the best writer of his generation, but one imagines that Rush would reject the category, or at least have a fairly complex idea as to what it means. As with any great novel, one wonders how the seamless conjuring — the amazing precision and playfulness of the voice, the flashing river of thoughts and insights and formulations and feelings — was accomplished.” In the New York Observer (May 26 issue), Jennifer Egan reviewing Mortals writes, “In the course of this absorbing and variegated novel, Mr. Rush invites the reader to consider the origins of Christianity, the function of the C.I.A. in the wake of the Cold War (the novel is set in 1992–93), the tension between rebellion and conformity in Milton’s poetics, the nature of hell and the political future of postcolonial Africa. Fore readers hankering after a novel of ideas, it doesn’t get much better than this.”
  • This is an early “heads up” on a wonderful non-fiction book by Sarah Erdman (Cote d'Ivoire 1998-2000). The title is: Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Town. It will be published by Henry Holt in August, 2003. (You may remember reading her short essay “The Guissongui Show” about her village that we published on our website.) Nambonkaha is pronounced "NAM-bong-kaa.” Buy this book! Tell a friend!
  • The Wall Street Journal on April 15 carried an op-ed piece entitled, “The ‘Obnoxious’ Threat to Nigeria and Its Oil” written by Ron Singer (Nigeria 1964–66). Singer, who teaches at the Friends Seminary in New York City, has kept up his interest in his host country since his Peace Corps years.
  • In early 1960, Maurice (Maury) L. Albertson, director of the Colorado State University Research Foundation, received a Point-4 (precursor to USAID) contract to prepare a Congressional Feasibility Study of the Point-4 Youth Corps called for in the Reuss-Neuberger Bill, an amendment to the Mutual Security Act. The Youth Corps was “to be made up of young Americans willing to serve their country in public and private technical assistance missions in far-off countries, and at a soldier’s pay.”.
         Pauline Birky-Kreutzer (Pakistan staff 1961–63) worked for Albertson at CSU at that time. In 1961, she went to Pakistan as the Field Representative (later called COR) for Colorado State University for the first group of Volunteers to that country. Later still, she directed one of the first training programs for Peace Corps Volunteers for Afghanistan.
         Pauline has just self-published Peace Corps Pioneer Or “The Perils of Pauline,” an account of her years working with Volunteers and living overseas. The book can be ordered from the Jade Creek Books in Ft. Collins, Co. 970.484.3019. For anyone interested in the early history of the Peace Corps, this is a must read.
  • Robert Roberg (Peru 1966-68) has published his first children’s book, The Littlest Star. The book comes with music on a CD and is published by Shine Time Record and Books of Nashville. The musical version of the story is sung by Margo Smith of Nashville fame. Robert wrote the story and did the illustrations for the book. To check it out, click www.littleststar.com
         Robert was a community development PCV in Peru, and today teaches Instructional Design for the University of Phoenix online, Film as Art for Ames Christian University, and Introduction to College Computing for Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida.
         Also a painter, he has two pieces in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
         Robert’s own Peace songs can be heard at www.robertroberg.com. And Robert writes that, “Despite all my horror stories, my daughter, Mercy, is leaving for the Peace Corps in Gabon in June.” Runs in the family.
  • The “Kinkster,” Kinky Friedman (Borneo 1967–69) is back with another mystery, Kill Two Birds and Get Stoned. This is his first book in which the “Kinkster” isn’t a character. It is the story of a blocked Greenwich Village writer named Walter Snow who is jolted out of his doldrums when he meets a couple of colorful characters who include him in their escapades, such as stealing Donald Trump’s credit card and using it to throw a caviar and champagne party for the homeless.
         Kinky has made something of a career out of being friends of Presidents. He met Governor Bush a few years ago at a book festival organized by Laura Bush. At the party, Kinky wore a name badge that said “Larry McMurtry.” “Larry McMurtry didn’t show up so I took his tag and walked in so people could say, ‘I can’t believe I’m shaking hands with Larry McMurtry,’ and I would say, ‘Thank you kindly.’ George was watching this. He whispers to the security people. I thought I was gonna be 86’d. But it didn’t happen. I asked the security guy later, ‘What did the governor tell you?’ and he said the governor said, ‘I want that guy for my campaign manager.’ Later George wrote . . . from the White House inviting me to spend the night and do a reading. The Medina [TX] postmaster was very excited. He said, ‘Kinky, you got a letter from the White Horse Saloon in Nashville!’”

Talking with . . .

Nick Wreden
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

I DON'T KNOW NICK WREDEN (Korea 1974–76). We’ve never met, never spoken on the phone, never “taken a meeting” as they say in New York, or had a power breakfast or business lunch, but one day up popped an email from him, and better yet, word about his new and first book, FusionBranding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future, a management book that came out in September. I don’t know anything about business, but books like this, with funny titles: FusionBranding (sounds like science fiction) appeal to me. After several email exchanges, I decided to interview Nick because (1) he knows about stuff I never think about, and (2) most RPCVs are hopeless when it comes to business. I thought all of us writers might learn a thing or two about the “real” world. I began the interview with some simple questions just so I could get the answers straight.

What were your Peace Corps years and your assignment?

I was an English teacher from 1974 to 76 in a middle school in southeast Korea.

What is your academic background?

I graduated from Washington & Lee University days before stepping on the plane to Korea. After getting out of the Peace Corps and spending some time in Asia, I came back to the US and earned a graduate degree in journalism from the University of Missouri/Columbia. In 2000, I received an MS in Technology Management from Mercer University in Atlanta.

Tell us a little about how you got into this field of “branding”?

I was asked to teach a class on marketing. For some perspective, I picked up a marketing textbook from the 1970s and another one that had been recently been published. I was shocked at how similar they were. While management, financial, manufacturing and supply chain practices had advanced dramatically in 30 years, marketing books were still talking about “awareness,” “positioning” or other fuzzy concepts. I started reading a lot of books on branding and marketing. Most were little more than recaps of personal experiences or careers. There was little hard research, and little integration or even recognition of the vast advances in other areas of business. So I figured there was a market for a fact-based, holistic look at branding from a business — not a “creative” — viewpoint.

For those of us who know nothing about branding, what is it?

Branding is a word that is frequently misused. It is not about ads, logos and slogans. It is not about new brochures or press releases. Branding is a long-term profitable bond between an offering and the purchaser. This relationship is based on trust and loyalty, backed by everyday operational excellence and measured by customer equity. A lot of companies try to brand on the cheap with, say, a lot of advertising. But the level of marketing has little to do with a brand. Take Starbucks, for example. A well-known and respected brand, yet it does almost no advertising.

What is the most interesting developing in business today that relates to branding?

The democratization of technology, the increasing marketing and other sophistication of consumers and the growing control over messages that reach them are creating new branding challenges that few companies are meeting well. Email is symbolic of that change. It can be a wonderful marketing vehicle, but many have opted out of receiving any messages. How do you brand in a world that is increasingly opting-out of any marketing?

Looking at the Peace Corps, what suggestions would you make for the agency to improve their branding?

First, it must protect its current brand. One key to protecting its brand is reinforcing the absolute ban on intelligence activities. It was extremely troubling to see the Peace Corps kicked out of Russia on suspicions of conducting intelligence operations.
     It must also seek to extend its brand in two areas. First, it should expand its reach across more countries with more resources. Second, it should expand its efforts to leverage the vast resources of RPCVs. The effort to encourage RPCVs to speak at schools, etc. is a great start, but more needs to be done to harness the incredibly valuable perspective of RPCVs on international issues.

How would you use the RPCV “brand” in America? Do you think “Returned Peace Corps Volunteers” might have an influence with regard to how America sees the world, and how should be go about “branding” our image?

RPCVs have an enormous amount to contribute. We’ve given two years of our lives to our country, speak two or more languages and have an understanding of culture and perception that few Americans do. RPCVs continue to serve, from the halls of Congress to the corridors of business. However, RPCVs do have a brand problem. Unfortunately, we’ve been better at cross-cultural communication than communication about our contributions here at home. Federal government support and visibility has been low for the last two decades. In some quarters, altruism is regarded suspiciously; look at the trouble Americorps had getting through Congress. And major media have regarded military activity as the most newsworthy aspect of U.S. foreign policy. To change it, we need greater support and contributions in Washington, including greater PR efforts with national and local media. We need to coalesce around issues that reflect our international understanding, such as the full-page ads in the NY Times by RPCVs. And, after 9/11, we need to do a better job of linking our past and future efforts to the long-term security of the U.S.

What about branding and American foreign policy as it is linked to the Peace Corps?

I’m hesitant to offer observations to a group of RPCVs who might be much more knowledgeable about foreign issues than I, but I would make the initial case that a national brand is dependent on a foundation of diplomatic, economic, military and personal initiatives. There’s some overlap among those, and the Peace Corps would cover economic, diplomatic and personal issues. I’m a great believer in the Peace Corps, but believe that it must be subservient to diplomatic and even economic goals.
     The general characteristic of PCVs and the work they do is the face of America that is acceptable and appreciated. Peoples hostile to the American government (or a particular administration) have had little trouble making a distinction between U.S. government policy and an American citizen, like the resident PCV.
     However, I fear that too many years of anti-American policy will morph into anti-Americanism that will, among other things, hurt our ability to sell — and brand — overseas.
     For the Bush administration, selling an improved “American Brand” must include delivering the goods on promises made, like the US/UK Middle East plan. Will the occupation of Palestine end, will all Jewish settlers in Gaza and the West bank decamp, will we convene an all party conference on the disposition of Jerusalem? Hopefully, responses to those questions would go a long way to repairing US/Arab relations and perhaps prolong our shelf life in the Middle East.

How would you see the political parties and their “branding” on the war?

Not all the philosophical framework related to corporate branding in the customer economy can be transferred to the political realm. Still, leaders in business and politics always go for the low-hanging fruit. For example, a prime target market in business is the 18–34 demographic. In politics, only 13% of 18–30 year-olds vote, so the interests of that market (long-term health of social security, education support, etc.) are ignored while the needs of seniors (prescription drug benefits, etc.) get all the bills and votes.
     The key to branding in the customer economy is maximizing profitability, not sales or market share, primarily by increasing customer equity. In political terms, this is termed, “playing to the base.” Parties get the most mileage (donations, volunteers, etc.) by addressing the specific concerns of a limited number of supporters. Parties get hurt — just as businesses do — when they displease core supporters.
     Consistency is also vital in branding. It dilutes the effort if prospects see one message in stores; another in direct mail. In politics, the party that controls the White House obviously has a huge advantage in promoting — and enforcing — consistency.
     The double-edged sword of both politics and business is “grass-roots” movements. These can create huge momentum both for and against issues and offerings. In an age of “digital tribes,” “swarms,” and “smart mobs,” such grass-roots movements have more power and reach than ever before. One example: one factor contributing to the recent election of President Roh in South Korea was that 800,000 IM messages went to supporters on election day.
     As we move into the customer economy, the press is becoming increasingly irrelevant, both in business and political branding. For example, every major news outlet heard Sen. Trent Lott wish that Sen. Strom Thurmond had been elected in 1948, yet the event received no coverage until a West Coast blog started promoting it. The press handling of political reporting has turned into “gotcha” journalism, which is irrelevant to both the issues of the day and a politician's ability to handle those issues.
     Even the strongest market brands can be overtaken by events. Remember, Ayds, which was the leading diet pill? It disappeared from the market when the AIDS crisis hit in the early ’80s. Similarly, it is highly likely that current political brands will be overtaken by events now unfolding in Iraq and the economy.

Okay, to sum it all up in a nice précis paragraph, what’s your book about?

FusionBranding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future examines emerging business imperatives and how they will drive branding in the years ahead. Because we have moved from the mass economy to the customer economy, old branding techniques based on advertising or PR are increasingly ineffective. What are required now are strategies based on everyday operational excellence, customer equity and operational excellence. The book also looks ahead to the branding challenges and opportunities of 2005 and beyond. I publish a brand futurist newsletter once or twice a month. Readers who would like to subscribe can email me: nick@fusionbrand.com.
     For autographed copies of the book, or discounts on volume purchases, you can order directly from me at: www.fusionbrand.com.


Review

The First Big Ride
by Eloise Hanner (Afghanistan 1971–73, Paraguay 1999–2000)
Nashville: Cumberland House Press, 2000
256 pages
$12.95

Reviewed by Rich Wandschneider (Turkey 1965–67)

IN 1997 ELOISE HANNER WAS 48 years old and tired of her life as a Merrill Lynch financial planner. Husband Chuck had already cashed in his Merrill job and Eloise was mentally done but hanging on when Chuck phoned her at work with the idea of a cross country bike ride.
     In an earlier life the couple had been Peace Corps Volunteers in Afghanistan. Now they were comfortable and living the good life in San Diego, California. But troubled too, looking for a next and more meaningful turn in their lives. After some discussion, Eloise gave notice, they bought new bikes and began training, gained some measure of acceptance from friends and family, and set out on the Big Ride from Seattle to Washington D.C.
     The book is a straight forward, cleanly written, chronological account of the ride: flat tires and sore muscles; wind, rain, snow, tornado watches, heat, bugs, state lines, Continental Divide and Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and other geographic and geological markers and monuments. Unfortunately, there is little reflection on the things they see along the road. She counts 113 railroad cars of coal, and wonders who uses coal anymore, but drops it there. She wonders what the Amish farmers do for cash, but never asks. Although she loved Laura Wilder’s books as a child, and admires the fact that the Little House books are delighting children decades after the author’s death, there is no mention of later controversy surrounding Wilder’s writing and politics. Sometimes, she admits, it seems as if they are just “going from pit stop to pit stop.”
     The central purpose of the trip is stated concisely on page 199 of a 278 page book. “My biggest accomplishment at Merrill had been in making enough money for early parole. I wanted to do something now that was more meaningful. I kept hoping that the bike ride would show me what that was.” She connects with a friend from California, with relatives, and at one point they meet up with old Peace Corps friends, but we don’t get any reflection on previous experiences — don’t learn anything about their Peace Corps pasts and how it led them to Merrill Lynch and now to this ride. We don’t learn anything about the conversations with old friends or even with their biking mates that might help Eloise and Chuck find their next and more meaningful life.
     The ride ends. They are teary and sad that they will probably not see these fine people they’ve grown close to again. They go back to San Diego. In the Epilogue, we learn briefly that Eloise is writing the book, but nothing about the process or the reasons for doing so. They are talking about what to do next. They feel like they have “used up” the city. One day Chuck says “What about South America?”
     There are no children (but no discussion about this issue either). They are obviously OK financially. They had always talked about rejoining the Peace Corps, but had thought that it would be when they were in their 60s. I guess the Big Ride had somehow changed all that, because in the flick of a sentence they have their Peace Corps applications in — which explains why the Epilogue is written from Paraguay.
     So it is a pleasant little book, but unsatisfying too. Several times I wanted to jump up and say “Tell me more. And tell me why!” Good memoirs and good travel books explore the minds of the travelers and the people met on the road. They describe and relate inner and outer geographies. Writers discover things about places and about themselves, and share their discoveries. They whet your appetite for a Big Ride or for the Peace Corps. The First Big Ride: A Woman’s Journey didn’t do that for me.


Review

In Revere, In Those Days
by Roland Merullo (Micronesia 1979–80)
NY: Shaye Areheart Books/ Harmony Books
2002
320 pages
$22.00

Reviewed by Margaret Szumowski(Zaire 1973–74; Ethiopia, 1974–75)

I’M FOREVER TELLING MY STUDENTS that a great story is good at the sentence level. Roland Merullo proves it. “My name is Anthony Benedetto, and I live what might be called a secret life.” Now there’s an opening sentence to kill for. It’s a mysterious sentence, too, because Anthony reveals much to the reader, even though he likes to think of himself as secretive. “I often feel the visible part of me is a plain wrapper that hides a gem . . . . This is a rescue of one soul. It’s the story of an ordinary kid who had all the shell burned off him, all the armor.” Anthony already knows the cost of living, because he loses his parents at an early age. Uncle Peter becomes the relative that no kid, certainly not Anthony, can resist. Peter is a “boxer who had worked his way up through the Golden Gloves finals, far up into the heavyweight ranks, only to be beaten senseless in his twenty-eighth professional fight.” Peter is Anthony’s hero, one who guards “this nucleus of unwavering affection.”
     I could write a love song for Merullo’s sentences. Nearly every paragraph has a zinger or two. When young Anthony lets himself cry over his parents’ death, his grandmother quietly cooks up eggs as if she knew exactly what was needed: “It seemed to me on that night that she had taken my thoughts as if they were fingers, and was weaving them along the fabric of that lining, letting me feel the weave of it.” I love the moment that follows, the boy imitating his uncles, covering his face with his hands . . .[later] rising from sleep, his head so “close to the plate that the next morning there was dried egg yolk in my hair, and she saw it and took me to the sink to wash it out.” They are dazzling, this family, in their spoken and unspoken connectedness. Uncle Peter worries “that this breath and pulse of companionship might suddenly expire, that the family might expire before his eyes.”
     Besides the beauty of language in this book, there’s a great power of characterization: the grandmother, the grandfather, and especially Uncle Peter and Anthony are strongly drawn. But it’s Rosalie, Uncle Peter’s daughter, who has my heart. Rosalie who’s French-kissing at 11, and has the misfortune to fall for a fiendish boyfriend, Cesar. “Cesar Baskine was the last boy her father would have wanted to be allowed to place his tongue in Rosalie’s mouth.” The only clue to Rosalie’s vulnerability in such a strong extended family is her mother, erratic, unfaithful, and self-absorbed. “For years Rosalie circled her, a hungry dog circling a piece of meat roasting in the flames.” Zing.
     Merullo helps us love not only families and their sorrows, he makes us love religion again if we’ve lost a bit of our enthusiasm. Saint Anthony’s Church “is a museum that holds the solids, vapors and liquids that make up human existence: the joy of birth and the sudden mysterious disappearance that is death, the wailing of babies, the shrieks and laughter of young children, the love of God and the terrors of hell as described to us by pale nuns in spectacles, the confusion of a Catholic boy’s sexual awakening.”
     Merullo makes us love family, neighborhood, and ethnicity again in a way we might have forgotten. He reminds us of the distance we sometimes have to go to save one another. As Anthony tells us, Uncle Peter “had a wife who’d cheated on him, a daughter with rope burns on her neck.” If only Anthony and his uncle could get Cesar out of the picture, so Rosalie can “blossom into the woman she was meant to be.” One part of growing up for Anthony is recognizing that neither he nor the strong Benedetto family can save everyone.
     This is a delicious book, but I’ll still raise a few questions. Is it necessary for Anthony to be a painter — we don’t need that information, and it seems forced. It is Anthony’s noble voice that we love. A bigger question: why the affair with the older woman? Does it add to an already overflowing book of experiences, love, death, danger? The reader will decide. I suspect that what the reader really wants is to enjoy this beautiful book, the complicated and loving family, and especially the wonderful characters: Anthony, Peter, the grandparents, and Rosalie.
     Thank you, Roland Merullo, for these words spun out in glorious fashion.

Margaret Szumowski teaches at Springfield Technical Community College. She is working on a new poetry manuscript, Night of the Lunar Eclipse.


A letter from . . .

Nicaragua

July 23, 1993
Dear Jessica,

Things are good down here in So-Town. The violence is closing in on us, but I have more faith than I’ve had at any time in the past ten months that we’re going to outlast it.
     Last night was a little chiva. Some Recompas, led by an ex-army officer known as Pedrito the Hondruan, stormed Estelí. They robbed two banks, cut the electricity, water, and phone lines, and took out about 20 civilians who were unlucky enough to be out on the street at the time. Half the people in Somoto were battening down the hatches and getting ready for war in the streets last night (Sometimes it seems like every family’s got their own cache of AK’s. The other half was brushing it off like nothing was really happening. I guess sitting by the radio in the candlelight, listening to the commentaries made it a little dramatic for me. This afternoon, the fighting had calmed down and about a third of the rebels had surrendered. Pedrito, however, is at large.
     My spirits are up, despite this Civil War stuff. Lisa (my sitemate) and I feel like if we can make it through this week without getting evacuated from our site, we’re set. At least that’s what I tell myself. You say something enough times and you start to believe it. Lisa and I have this stupid joke we do every time some more bad news shows up in the paper (every day). What we do is high-five each other, and say, “Burkina Faso, here we come!”
     These days I feel free. I’ve gone parasite-free for five straight weeks. And as of last weekend, I’m not living like a monk anymore. Now before you analyze my behavior too much, just take into account that I’m starting to get tired of always being so serious in the interests of cultural sensitivity. And that I had a blast. There’s a family here — they were my first friends, and as time goes on, continue to be my best friends. One of the sisters got married on Saturday, and I was invited. It was the sweetest wedding: civil ceremony, in the house, five minutes long, and pass the Flor de Cana. This was the fourth wedding I’ve been to. The first three are on my Top Ten List of all-time great parties. And now I’m adding this one.
     Let me tell you, it was great beyond words. One, it was the first time I’ve tipped a few back here in the pueblo. I never did it before because I was afraid of earning a bad rep as a machista or a drunk. But here I was among my best buddies, and they know who I really am, so who cares. Two, I danced and danced and danced. You know I don’t even know how to dance. I don’t even have shoes for it. But luckily, one of the brothers is a cop, and the day before the event, he presented me with a pair of size-13 dress shoes that had been donated to members of the police force by the Soviet Union. It’s the shoes. Three, this family is a big Sanidinista supporter, so the party was like a general meeting of every card-carrying Sandy in So-Town. Even the national president of the Sanidinista Youth was there from Juigalpa. And there I was, the gringo, the enemigo de la humanidad. It was exciting. It was the greatest.
     Part of the reason I let it all hang out that night was that, despite my happiness, I was feeling like Lisa and I were not too long for Somoto, what with the bands of rebels all around us. So what the hell? Might as well go out with a bang with your best buds, right? I don’t know why, but I think that party changed my attitude. I think I’m meant to be here, at least a little longer. We were out there moving nothing but our pelvises to the beat, and Carlos yelled across the dance floor to me. “Ya sos Nica!” he yelled. Now you’re a Nicaraguan! That might have been it. At the moment I wasn’t trying at all, I fit in better than ever before.

'Til soon,
Rodrigo

Roderick Jones (Nicaragua 1992–96) did make it through the week — and three more years! He is now working for the City of Chicago's Department of Public Health as a communicable disease epidemiologist.


A Volunteer's life in Romania
by Andy Trincia (Romania 2002–  )

    Customer Service?

    MARK MY WORDS: I will never again make fun of the Wal-Mart “greeter,” or any perky cashier back home who enthusiastically wishes me to “Have a nice day!” Or be annoyed by an eager clothing salesman asking, “May I help you find something?” Or Amtrak, or the U.S. Postal Service or . . . Let’s just say that “customer service” doesn’t exist in formerly communist Romania.
         There are many things that I like about Romania, my home of one year now, but the lack of customer service — actually, the rudeness and apathy — is definitely not one of them. It’s easy to blame the old regime, but c’mon folks, it’s been almost 14 years since the Revolution — and many of these indifferent employees are young enough to know better.
         I noticed it immediately upon arriving last summer, and it’s one of the things I’m now accustomed to but don’t want to accept, especially as my Romanian language skills improved. Don’t get me wrong, there are nice and helpful clerks and waiters here and there, and of course I’ve experienced bad service in the States and elsewhere, but nowhere compares to Romania. And it had better change to help a burgeoning tourism industry, one with great potential.
         OK, sometimes the clerks in America may be a little phony — do they really care if I have a nice day? But usually they are helpful, polite or at least efficient. Why? They know that the customers pay their salaries. The customer is always right, right? Simple concepts, no? Not here in the former Eastern Bloc.
         I could fill a book with examples. But to give you an idea, not once — not a single time — in eating out in Romania, from dirty fast-food places to smart cafes, from mediocre pizza joints to Peace Corps-budget-buster splurges at elegant restaurants that could be anywhere, has a waiter or waitress come up and asked if everything was OK or if I needed something. Never. The menu, usually shared among the table, may indicate certain entrees or choices, but that doesn’t mean they have it. You want the check and need to go? Good luck, it may be a while. Nine times out of 10, you practically need to tackle the server to get his attention. If the restaurant has a cash register, bonus! If not, wait while the server painfully calculates by hand.
         The other night, two Italian friends, who also live here, and I went to a restaurant with a nice terrace. None of our orders were that complicated, basically involving the ubiquitous chicken prepared different ways, and we waited more than two hours, even for our cucumber-and-tomato salads. We complained and the waiter shrugged without a word. We asked for toasted bread. “No way, the kitchen is too busy.” My Italian pal muttered, “Incredible. Romania is just incredible.”
         Another time, in the capital of Bucharest, a colleague and I walked into an empty café. Five employees (the Romanian employee-to-customer ratio, also a communist holdover, is another story) were at a table, smoking and chatting. Our arrival triggered only a furtive glance and we had to wait a few minutes for a waitress to finish her cigarette and saunter over to our table. This is nothing out of the ordinary. When I’ve experienced this attitude or flat-out rudeness in the company of Romanians and asked about it, they merely chalk it up to normalcy. “This is Romania,” they are fond of saying.

    Walking up to a counter at a store, or at the farmer’s market, or anywhere else, more often than not you are greeted with a single word, “Spuneti” (spoo-netz) — ironically in the formal, polite form of you — and meaning “You speak” or “Say it (you).” Or maybe an abrupt “Poftiti,” (pof-teetz) or “Ce doriti?” (chay doreetz), or “What do you want?”
         Many a time I’ve entered a store only to get a “You are interrupting me” glare from a clerk, often seated. At a supposedly Western-style grocery store, the cashier scolded me for not bagging my groceries fast enough and clogging the counter. And you have to buy the bags, too.
         Once at a bank, a teller was excruciatingly rude to me, despite my best Romanian and polite salutations, when I tried to transfer cash to an account in another city. She just didn’t want to deal with the paperwork on a Friday afternoon.
         My favorite bookstore recently closed for two weeks for “inventory.” Two weeks? I remember checking into a motel on the Black Sea coast last summer, only to find a filthy room with bed bugs. The front desk manager didn’t care, offering a “take it or leave it” and no refund. I left.
         The “ladies” at Post Offices and train ticket offices — both state-run places with comfy jobs — are almost always curt and rarely make eye contact. I learned the proper terms and most polite way to ask for things, in complete Romanian sentences, but now I waste no time or energy. I just place the post card or letter on the counter and say, “To USA,” or ask for a ticket “to Bucharest, tomorrow, second class.” I once bought a bus ticket for a grueling 7-hour trip, but the bus was oversold and standing-room-only. I refused to go, marched back into the station and asked for my money back. The clerk was incredulous and yelled at me. I had to yell back and demand to see the boss, who reluctantly gave me a refund, creating a scene probably never seen in Timisoara’s grimy bus depot.
         Under the communist system, clerks were powerful and customers were at their mercy, whether waiting in line for bread or a bus ticket. It was their privilege, not the other way around, to be waited upon, and often bribes were necessary, rudeness customary. Unfortunately, this system hasn’t changed much. Tipping in restaurants or taxis is optional but more and more popular and becoming expected, but even that doesn’t seem to make much difference. Nor does complaining to the boss, who probably thinks the same way. Low salaries and morale are partly to blame, I assume, but laziness and apathy are part of it, too. Service, satisfaction, competition and profitability don’t seem to be in many people’s vocabulary. This attitude, sadly, is representative of many things in my adopted country. Depending on the situation, sometimes I call this to people’s attention, politely, in hopes that it will show them a different way. But it doesn’t seem to register. It’s a shame.

    The next time you walk into Wal-Mart, think about Romania, and say hello to the greeter for me.

    Before joining the Peace Corps, Andy Trincia was a corporate communications executive in the financial services industry. Sworn in on August 16, 2002, he is working at the West University of Timisoara, as a business consultant for the Center for Career Development, and is also teaching courses. We have asked Andy to file reports for his two years of service of what his life is like working and living in Romania.


A Writer Writes

God, President Kennedy and Me

    by Tina Martin (Tonga 1969–71)

    I

    KNOW WHAT I WAS DOING THAT DAY before it happened. Praying. Not just because I was chairman of Religious Emphasis week at Greenville High School, but also because there was a beauty contest that night and, if it were God’s will, it was my will to win it. So I kept checking in with God, letting Him know that He was on my mind, and I sure hoped I was on His. I didn’t want Him to fix the contest. That wouldn’t be fair. I just wanted Him to help me do justice to whatever God-given beauty I might have so that I could honor the Future Teachers of America Club I was representing and serve as a good example for whoever needed one.
         “Dear God,” I whispered, “tonight’s the night. If it be Thy will for me to wear the crown of Miss Greenville High, Thy will be done, and” — I added with special emphasis—“I’ll give my first summer paycheck to CARE and the NAACP.”
         Living in The South twenty-five years ago, I was (1) in the habit of praying in and out of school and (2) in — and out of — beauty contests. We had them for everything, and at Ursula’s urging I’d started putting a red rinse on my hair at the age of twelve with the hopes of winning the beauty contest they had for Fire Prevention Week when I got to high school.
         That was when I first knew that Ursula could be nice — when I realized that this sister of mine, the one who’d previously just beaten me up and taken my lunch money, wanted to help me win. To this very day I don’t know why. It wasn’t like she was living through me. She’d won the same beauty contest in her freshman year, and it was rare that a girl won before she was a senior.

    Greenville’s Elizabeth Taylor
    Ursula looked like Elizabeth Taylor back in the days when that was a good thing. She had everything from almost-violet eyes to those eyebrows, that perfect nose, oval face, perfect teeth. The only thing that wasn’t quite the same was the black hair. Ursula’s hair was really dishwater blond, but almost no one knew that, like they didn’t know that I wasn’t really a redhead until after I’d lost the Miss Flame contest and went back to my real color.

         Ursula had been dying her hair jet black since she’d first seen Elizabeth Taylor in “Raintree County.” She’d also been dressing pretty much like Elizabeth Taylor in that film, which made people think she was a strange beauty because it was a period piece. Not that she wore bonnets or anything. But when other girls were wearing matching cashmere sweaters and straight skirts, she was wearing full skirts and lots of crinolines more reminiscent of the War Between the States, as southerners call the Civil War.
         In our family, we called the War Between the States the Civil War because — as my best friend Marcia told people when she introduced me — we weren’t from around here. Which is why I was bribing God with my summer wages, promising to give my first paycheck to CARE and NAACP, which southerners considered Communist organizations at the worst and soft on Communism at the best. My parents taught us something different from what my friends believed, and for some reason I thought God would be more on the wave length of my parents, maybe because they were older, as was God.
         Ursula, who — as I said — had won the Miss Greenville High contest herself, had come back from Winthrop College to help me win it. She’d picked out the pattern for the dress I was going to wear and helped Mother find the material at the remnant store because one of Daddy’s strongest convictions was that we shouldn’t spend money. He used to give Mother a budget, and she’d put five or ten dollars in each envelope, but sometimes she'd have to borrow from the clothing envelope for the food envelope and vice versa. Daddy was a history professor at the university, but the friend I felt I had the most in common with was Gwen, whose father was a shoe repairman, because Gwen and I both lived poor.
         Anyway, getting back to Ursula, she knew just how to get my hair to look like Jackie Kennedy’s. Beauty was Ursula’s greatest talent, and I knew I was lucky that she was doing this for me, but I wasn’t counting on luck or Ursula. I was counting on God, which was why I was praying more than usual that day.
         “Please, dear God, if it be Thy will.” The minimum wage had gone up to $1.15 an hour, and I would give all my first pay check to these good causes if God would support my cause and let me win the crown. It hurt me, I told God, and that not everyone believed in His existence the way I did. And it hurt me, too, that not everyone believed in the existence of my God-given beauty the way I prayed the judges would. Being beautiful — at least for one night — would be an answered prayer.
         “A thing of beauty,” I said, paraphrasing one of the poems I’d memorized to make up for being bad at math, “would be a joy forever.” I wanted to bring Joy to the World and prayed that I could do it this special way.

    Really, beauty was skin deep, but . . .
    Of course, other girls prayed. This was The South, after all. But their prayers were shallow. Mine, on the other hand, had depth because I had a social consciousness, which I figured God had too. That was one of my advantages in the beauty contest. I had a better idea, I thought, of what God wanted, though it never occurred to me that He would want Negroes in the contest. Of course, there weren’t any Negroes at our school.
         “It’s been a decade since the Brown vs. Kansas,” my mother would say, “and there’s not a face that isn’t white at that school.”
          “Or any other,” I’d say. I knew our school was no more prejudiced than any of the others. Most southerners thought the Supreme Court had been infiltrated by Communists, and the government was going to take over and destroy our way of life. People in South Carolina were saying that President Kennedy and his brother had already gone to Mississippi and Alabama totally disregarding State’s Rights, and they’d probably be coming here, but until they did, it was going to be Separate But Equal. Separate water fountains. Separate parts of the bus. Separate schools. And, of course, separate beauty contests for the whites and the coloreds, if they had beauty contests.
         I knew even back then that “whites and coloreds” sounded like socks, but black was a term reserved for Stephen Foster songs like “Old Black Joe.” Black was not yet beautiful. But that night I would try to be. Though I occasionally tried to rise above such petty aspirations, that night, with God’s help, I would indulge and achieve them. Once I’d gotten being beautiful out of my system, I assured God and myself, I could spend my time praying for the outcast. But tonight I would reserve my prayers for me — that I not be cast out — at least not until after I’d made the finalists. I knew beauty was but skin deep, but tonight skin deep got crowned. Skin deep got a dozen long-stemmed roses. And most importantly, skin deep got two full pages in our high school yearbook.

    Making out with Jean Paul
    When I look back, I realize that I didn’t really have to win that contest to take up more than my share of space in the high school yearbook. I’d been a dismal failure in junior high school. Partially because I got a bad reputation when I made out with Jean Paul Mathieu, the French exchange student, at the Thanksgiving homecoming game, and the Vice Principal had reprimanded me right in front of everyone: “You shouldn’t even be wearing lipstick, much less doing what you were doing.” But Jean Paul Mathieu was a foreign student, and from a very early age, foreigners were my idols. I regarded them as celebrities.
         In fact, I had a fantasy of marrying three foreigners — a Chinaman, a Frenchman, and a Mexican — and having a baby with each one. Then the children and I would travel around and spend four months in China learning Chinese and the Chinese culture, four months in France learning French and the French culture, and four months in Mexico, et cetera.
         That had been my fantasy until President Kennedy introduced the idea of the Peace Corps. Having three husbands was a beautiful fantasy. But the Peace Corps was a cross-culture dream that could come true. Anyway, girls weren’t even supposed to begin wearing lipstick until the second semester of seventh grade, so because of the lipstick and what I was doing with Jean Paul Mathieu people thought I was fast and cheap, and this was a school for nice girls, so I was ostracized. Now that I think of it, though, Ursula stood by me. But of course she was the one who’d told me to wear lipstick my first semester even though everyone in the car pool and at Miss Sloane’s Dance Class had agreed on the second semester. The point, though, is that I had a bad reputation in junior high.

    Winning friends with Dale
    But in high school I’d over-compensated. I’d learned that success consisted of being like everybody else, only better, and — God willing— prettier. I’d learned how not to be weird, not to look too eager. I’d learned how not to dress. (Not in my wilted, smelly gym blouse just because I could never get my locker open. Not with my bobby socks crawling down into my loafers.) I’d even learned how to open my locker. I’d learned when to help others and when to help myself. I’d read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and I’d begun my negotiations with God.
         Gradually I’d become socially acceptable — even decent. I was DAR Girl and Chairman of Religious Emphasis Week. I’d accumulated awards and been elected to school offices. Now I was a member of Executive Council and the Editor of the literary yearbook, The Rebel. This was a big turn-about for a girl who’d been nominated for an office only once in junior high school and had broken out in a cold sweat because she feared the only vote she’d get was that of the kid nominating her. I was right. The teacher forgot to erase the board, and I saw it with my own eyes.

    Homeroom Coupon Chairman
       Janet Donahue: 16 votes
       Matthew Kent: 8 votes
       Barbara Lee Shealy: 1

    Did I mention that my name is Barbara Lee Shealy?

    Splendor in the grass
    But now in my senior year of high school, I was president of two clubs, including Future Teachers of America, which was sponsoring me in the beauty contest that night. If I won, in a way it would be a boon to American education. But I have to admit, it wasn’t just for that that I wanted to win. I wanted to win so that I’d have a permanent record of how I was before I started to grow old. Ursula always said that from the age of sixteen, we start to die a little bit every year. “Nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower,” Ursula said, “So gather we rosebuds while we may.” I wanted a two-page spread of how I was before I started to wither and wilt.
         Ursula had told me to cut classes that day so she’d have longer to work on me — after all, she was cutting three days of her classes at Winthrop to come home to help me — but the principal had a new policy. He saw how girls were being absent from their classes to have their hair done on the day of the beauty contest, so this year he’d announced that roll would be taken, and any girl absent from any of her classes would be ineligible to compete in the Miss Greenville High School Beauty Contest. So Ursula agreed to start in on my Jackie Kennedy “do” right after school got out.
         Before I left for school that morning, I caught my mom reading when she was supposed to be working on my dress.
    “What’s The Feminine Mystic about?” I’d asked her.
         “It’s Feminine Mystique,” she’d corrected me. “It’s all about the sacred feminine ideal.”
         I’d nodded. I had a sacred feminine ideal: God willing, I’d be the prettiest girl of all — please, dear God, just for one night. If mother ever finished the dress! When Ursula got up, she could nag her while I was in school. She’d driven up the night before in the little Fiat Daddy bought her because he wouldn’t support the re-industrialization of Germany by buying a VW, and she and I had had a little bit of time to confer on how I should walk, how I should smile, and things like that. She’d been nice until she just had to ask that question she’d been taunting me with all semester.
         “How’s your campaign going?”
         “What campaign?”
         “You know. The one for the highest possible moral standards award?”
         “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

    Glenn McAteer Scholarship
    “Yes, you do!”
         “No, I don’t!” I said. I looked at her as if she were crazy and I had a low tolerance for the mentally ill.
         But I knew. She was talking about the Glenn McAteer Scholarship, which was awarded to a high school senior every year. Glenn had once been the president of the student body at Greenville High, and then he’d been killed in action in Korea. In his memory they gave an award to the senior who most exemplified the characteristics he embodied: Service, leadership, and the highest possible moral standards.
         They didn’t have the term “short list” back then, but if they had, I’d have been on it. Unless they found out about me in junior high.
         Mother put down her book and told me to try on what she’d done so far.
         My gown was long and straight — something like the one Jackie had worn when she’d gone to France with President Kennedy and he’d introduced himself as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” And she’d spoken French with DeGaulle. Someday I’d know French too. I’d join the Peace Corps right after I finished college and I’d go to some French-speaking country and learn French while I did good deeds.
         “Are you sure this is going to be ready by tonight?” I asked her.
    “Don’t worry. It’ll be ready,” Mother said through the pins between her front teeth. I remembered how I’d had to wear pins in my clothes on the occasions when my formal wasn’t ready — like for the junior-senior dance the year before.
         “Please God, please,” I prayed silently. “Let it be ready by tonight. Help Mother focus.”

    Being Jackie Kennedy
    There were few occasions when I didn’t turn to God, and I prayed silently all the way to school. After our classroom prayer during homeroom period, I added my own silent P.S. “If it be Thy will . . .”
         People came by me at my hall monitor post, and a lot of them said, “Good luck tonight.” I looked back at them quizzically, as if the beauty contest were the furthest thing from my mind.
         “Why don’t you get your hair fixed like Laura Petrie on ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’?” someone asked. “You already look a little bit like her.”
         “But it wouldn’t be right to copy her,” I said, and I shrugged. “I just have to be myself.”
         And I was going to be Jackie Kennedy. Mary Tyler Moore was cute, but I wasn’t settling for her. I was going to be the President’s Wife.

    The auditorium
    I walked by the auditorium where we’d be having the contest in just a few more hours. The faculty sponsor of the yearbook, Miss Carver, had vetoed the students’ vote for “The Days of Wine and Roses” as the theme because she said it wouldn’t be seemly to have wine bottles decorating a high school stage. So tonight we’d hold crescent-shaped cards bearing our numbers, and “Moon River” would play as we walked across the stage — the same stage where Strom Thurmond had stood while getting a standing ovation earlier in my high school career. I had stood and applauded, too, because even though I disagreed with everything Strom Thurmond stood for, I didn't want to stand out by not standing. I knew I would probably not have made President Kennedy’ Profiles in Courage, but how many of the men in that book had been rejected for Homeroom Coupon Chairman? I didn’t want to alienate my southern friends, and I knew their fears.

    Civil Rights and Communists
    In spite of Strom Thurmond’s stand against civil rights, the Civil Rights Bill had become law. And those Kennedy Brothers were starting to enforce it. Other things were happening too. Back in April Sidney Poitier had won the Oscar for “Lilies of the Field,” and no colored person had ever won an Oscar before. There he was, up on stage with Patricia Neal, a white lady, and they were hugging each other, which was worse than what I’d done with Jean Paul Mathieu. Jean Paul Mathieu might not have been “from around here,” but at least he was white. Sidney Poitier and Patricia Neal were on their way to misogenation!
         Then, in June, there’d been that big civil rights march in Washington with more the 200,000 people showing up and hearing Martin Luther King talking about making all people equal no matter what color their skin. If God had wanted all people to be equal, my friends reasoned, wouldn’t He have made them equally white? And then President Kennedy had sent troops to Alabama to force an all-white school to accept two colored girls, and they’d enrolled in spite of Governor Wallace’s efforts to protect states’ rights. The federal government was becoming Communist and taking over the country, stirring discontent into the heads of colored people who had been perfectly happy before.
         I certainly didn’t let my classmates in on my promise to God that I’d give my first paycheck to the NAACP if I were chosen our school beauty queen. But I thought God might like that, not necessarily being Southern — a possibility I never suggested to my friends. The leader of the NAACP had been assassinated in June, and four Negro children had been killed in a church bombing in Birmingham. I had a hunch that God didn’t buy that thing about their being Communists.

    So few of her kind
    I don’t remember any of my morning classes; I assume I prayed my way through them. But I do remember Miss Goldman’s Problems of American Democracy class after lunch that day because that was when the news came.
         Miss Goldman was my favorite teacher. She was a Democrat, too, at a school where the principal himself — Mr. Kirkley, an otherwise nice guy who’d coached football before coming to our school — had started The Young Republicans Club, which he himself was sponsoring. The South had finally caught on that the Republican Party was no longer the party of Lincoln, who had done such terrible things to the South. The parties had switched, and the South was turning away from the Democratic Party. In fact, there was no Young Democrats Club at Greenville High, and Miss Goldman had protested.
         “If you think the school should have a Young Democrats club,” Mr. Kirkley had told her, “you’re free to start one.”
         But she wasn’t free. She was already the sponsor of the International Relations Club, of which I was president. She was one of the few people outside my family who was enthusiastic about my plans to join the Peace Corps as soon as I finished college, culminating a five-year plan that only began with tonight’s beauty contest.
         Miss Goldman was the only Jew at our school. As chairman of Religious Emphasis Week, I thought of her and suggested that we drop the “in Jesus Christ we pray” part of our prayers so she wouldn’t feel left out. But Miss Webster, the sponsor of Religious Emphasis Week, said, “I’m sure she doesn’t mind if we pray our way when there are so many of us and so few of her.”

    The news
    Close to the beginning of our 1:15 class, Mrs. Lindly, a math teacher who had an Algebra by TV class, came to the door.
         “You know what?” she said. “They interrupted our Algebra lesson for a news bulletin. There’s been some shooting around President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas.”
         “Oh, how awful!” Miss Goldman said. “I hope nobody’s been hurt.”
         I dropped God a quick line.
         “Dear God, let everyone be all right.”
         But I knew that no one had been hurt — not seriously, if at all. I was so certain that President Kennedy was all right that I felt foolish wasting my prayers — prayers that should be directed towards the less certain outcome of the night’s beauty pageant.
         We went back to our lesson about voting precincts. And then the principal came over the PA system.
         “President Kennedy has been shot,” he said. “We have not yet received word on whether or not the shot was fatal.”
         Fatal? Of course the shot hadn’t been fatal. Why was Mr. Kirkley being so melodramatic? Presidents didn’t get assassinated nowadays. Not in our country. Maybe he’d been shot at. I could picture him in a Dallas clinic now, charming the staff as the nurses bandaged a slightly knicked shoulder.
         “I had hoped for a 20-gun salute,” he might say, “but not directed at me.”
         That night I was going to look like his wife. The time he took her to Paris.
         A few minutes later Mr. Kirkely came over the PA system again.
         “May I have your attention please?”
    He had our attention.
         “President Kennedy is dead.”
         There were cries and gasps of disbelief. Nora Thigpen began to cry. I turned to her.
         “It’s not true,” I told her. “I know it’s not true.”
         A couple of students cheered.
         “He asked for it,” Sam Davidson said. “He was practically becoming a dictator.”
         “I think he was a good president,” Miss Goldman and I said in unison. Was?
         “This proves that God didn’t want a Catholic president,” Sam continued.
         “Oh, shut up!” I said. And then I remembered my responsibility as a possible future Miss Greenville High, and I added, “Please.”
         I still couldn’t believe that President Kennedy was dead. Reporters made mistakes. They were almost always wrong about the weather.
         “Dear God,” I prayed silently. “Let President Kennedy really be alive. Make this news a false report, and I will give up being Miss Greenville High School.”
         I paused for a moment. I knew I had to go further still.
         “I’ll even give up being among the finalists.” I added silently.
         In sync with my prayers, Mr. Kirkley continued.
         “There have been some questions about tonight’s beauty contest. If this was a frivolous affair, we would cancel it. But it’s been planned for a long time, and the publication of the yearbook depends on the money we raise tonight. So the contest will go on as planned.”

    Last minute preparations
    I convinced myself — sort of — that since I was representing the Future Teachers of America Club, it was my duty to participate in the contest. I decided I would go on, but I wouldn’t smile — not unless the news was false and Kennedy was really still alive. Then I would go on and I would smile but, in keeping with my vow to God, I wouldn’t win. I wouldn’t even be among the finalists.
         It was while Ursula was teasing my hair to make it look like Jackie’s that we received a phone call from the school secretary.
         “Some of the judges don’t feel like coming,” the secretary said. “So the beauty contest will have to be postponed.”
         Mother stopped working on my dress, and Ursula stopped working on my hair, and we all sat down in front of the TV and watched a disheveled Jacqueline Kennedy stand beside Lyndon Johnson as he was sworn in as our next president. She had a dark smear on her dress, and even though we didn’t have a colored television, we knew it was blood. She’d taken his head in her lap and then she’d crawled over the open limousine to get help.      “Now you look more like her than she does,” Ursula told me.

    Everything had changed
    We all spent the weekend right there in the living room, watching all the Kennedys. Caroline, who’d once come to her father’s press conference in her mother’s high heel shoes, was now crying as she held her mother’s hand. John John, sometimes photographed romping around in his father’s office, was now saluting our dead president’s flag-draped coffin. But the biggest change was in what they were saying about Jacqueline Kennedy. No one was talking about her sable underwear or who had designed the dress she was wearing or how much it had cost. All anyone noticed about her dress was that it wasn’t the pink suit with the blood stains on it. It was all black. A black mantilla replaced the pill-box hat. They were using words like courage and dignity. Everything had changed, and I knew I had too.
         As Ursula was getting ready to drive back to Winthrop, she said, “I came home for nothing.”
         “Well, you were here to watch President Kennedy’s funeral with us,” I said.
         “But that’s not something only I could do,” she replied. “Well, when they reschedule the beauty contest, let me know the new date, and I’ll see if I can come up.”
         “Thank you, Ursula,” I said, “But I ‘m not sure I have my heart in things like beauty contests anymore.”
         “Oh, that’s right. Now all you care about is the Highest Possible Moral Standards Award.”
         On Monday morning, Mr. Kirkely came over the PA system once again. He gave us the new date for the beauty contest.
         “And now, let’s have a moment of silent prayer,” he said, “for our country and in memory of President Kennedy.”
         That’s when I realized that in spite of what had happened, I still cared about the contest, and even though my silent prayer was all about Kennedy and his family and the nation (I was, after all, DAR Girl), I had to add a little PS about the contest. I was too ashamed to ask God to help me win it, with President Kennedy up there within earshot. Still, I had to ask God for something. It was my tradition.

    Praying for the Peace Corps
    “Dear God,” I told Him silently, “I guess, the way we left it, I could ask You to help me win this contest because I only offered not to win if Kennedy didn't die. But, even though we’re back where we began, I’d like to move forward and do something to honor Kennedy.” I didn’t mention anything about meeting foreign men and seeing foreign lands and learning foreign languages. I didn’t want God to think I had ulterior motives.
         “When the time comes and I’ve finished Winthrop College and got my BA in English, could you and President Kennedy help me get into the Peace Corps?”

    When the time came, God and President Kennedy got me in.

    Tina Martin applied to the Peace Corps, and requested any French or Spanish speaking country. She was sent to Tonga where they speak a Polynesian language in no way related to French or Spanish. After Tonga, she use her readjustment allowance to traveled to Spain where she taught English in Madrid for a year and then moved on to Algeria where she taught at a girls’ lycee for two more years. Finally she returned home to California, married, had a baby, and began to teach ESL students at City College of San Francisco, where between classes she has made trips to Japan, Cuba, Chile and Mexico. “My ESL students,” Tina writes, “have made it possible for me to travel around the world just by coming to class.”
         Her other writings include 28 Peace Corps journals, three plays, three novels, and numerous short stories which she keeps in a trunk for her son to inherit. In the meantime, this year “How Getting Robbed Can Enhance Language Learning” and “An Algerian Wedding” have been selected for an upcoming travel book,
    I Should Have Just Stayed Home.

    P.S. Tina, who loosely based this story on her own experience, won the Beauty Contest after it no longer meant as much to her, and during her two years in Tonga she lived in a tiny hut made of bamboo and coconut leaves. After dating men of almost every nationality, she married a U.S. citizen and learned about American culture.


A Writer Writes

Poems from African Stiltdancers

by Andrew Oerke (Staff: Tanzania, Uganda, CD Malawi, CD Jamaica 1966–71)

The Old Missionary Graveyard at Nkhata Bay

Doing their hospitals, schools, and model farms
Without the protection of chloroquin,
In a malarial delirium, they saw
The fervent paws of the Great Mother dispensing
Laws of compassion they had not complied
With enough, or had it come to impeaching
The Blue for not coming to their aid, and blazing
Above it all, a tired old man was welcoming
Them home without a handshake. The rotting
Wooden crosses are their CIS’s
Awarded anonymously posthumously.
They did what they could and that was something.

Serengetti Sunset

Miles and miles of giraffes galloping
in slow-motion above the pickled bones
of Zinjanthropus, foot after foot of lions’
claws culling savannah. And lolliping
lolliping steps the ostrich without stooping,
and leopard spots dance on the heat’s muscles rippling.

Wrapped in blowsy capes the register of dung,
With tourists peeping at their genitals,
The Masai post like high cranes by their cattle.
They do not change. The sky never changes, hung
As it is with that splendid medallion,
Except at sunset when it mingles milk with blood and urine.

Village Waterhole

Animals on stilts waffle through heat-waves.
The heat-waves wrinkle the eye across the sky.

Watch us crowd around the waterhole,
Our eyes drowning in our own reflection.

Nothing escapes our scrutiny
Except our own likeness as we kiss
The spit and image of our slippery selves in the water.

Addis at Easter

Goats flung over their shoulders
Like Italian sweaters,
Ethiopians throng Addis at Easter.

The women wear white cotton dresses
And have gorgeous faces.

In the souk we adjust each other’s price.
Walk away, walk back again
Until the deal is struck
To start the day
With a stroke of good luck.


A Writer Writes

Writing American

by Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978–80)

IN THE ESSENTIALS, being an American writer — even in 2003, a year in which the global reach of the United States has been demonstrated in ways that are at once both clear and ambiguous — is not much different from being a Senegalese writer, or a Paraguayan writer, or a Tunisian writer. What do I mean by the essentials?
     First, a writer writes. He may talk about writing — either too much or too little. He may succeed: with readers, with critics, or on the terms of success that he has set himself. More likely he will fail in each of those endeavors, or he will fail partially, or his most complete success will seem incomplete to him. He may make money from his writing: a little money, or a lot, or some amount between those extremes. He may drink too much, or procrastinate. He may allow the multiple pressures of work and family, along with the world’s constant deadly chatter, to distract him and affect his writing. Or he may not do any of those things. Perhaps he gambles. If he has a different sort of temperament, he may build houses for the poor, or spend his weekends cleaning up litter from mountain trails so that the hikers who come after him have a clean view. Maybe he is in prison, or maybe he constructs a prison in his own mind. He may rail against God, or against the absence of God, or what he perceives as God’s monstrous indifference to human suffering. In the end, none of these facts or factors matter. In the end, a writer writes.
     Next, a writer demands the freedom to choose what he will write about. I believe this is true regardless of his or her nationality. This is not to say, of course, that political pressures, political realities, do not powerfully shape the work and thought of many writers just as they shape their circumstances.
     In the Soviet Union, writers found ways to write about prohibited subjects because those were the subjects that, in a sense, chose them. In impoverished places, hunger has a way of making its way onto the printed page — I’m thinking of Son of Man, an early novel by the great Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos, who spent much of his career in exile writing about the country in which he was not permitted to live. Even in countries where the only constraints on subject matter are self-imposed, such sheer freedom itself can become a kind of anti-political force and a drag on writers.
     Still, despite the press and impress of politics, despite what Wallace Stevens called “the poetry of war,” which invariably speaks in a louder voice than “the poetry of a work of the imagination,” it is writers themselves who determine, finally, what they wish to write about.
     Writers write, and they choose what they will write about. Those are the essentials that American writers share with their sisters and brothers from every other country on the planet regardless of circumstance. Those essentials, the basic facts of the craft, are the foundation on which every writer builds the house of his life. But there are ways in which the experience of being an American writer may differ substantially from the experience of writers in other countries, and it is worth the effort to identify a few of them here.
     Start with the size of the market. According to the Census Bureau’s “Pop Clock,” which is found on the Internet and continuously updated, the United States has a population of about 290 million. Every American writer wishes every American citizen were a voracious reader, particularly of his books. That’s not the case. But out of those 290 million, there does exist a substantial body of hungry readers, and some fortunate good writers find a readership that sustains them critically, financially, and even emotionally. The size of the market alone, its very bulk, tends to affect American writers. I don’t mean to suggest that there are no other large markets in the world, only that the phenomenon invariably has an impact on writers in the U.S. Add to that the fact that some American writers — both commercial and literary, both Stephen King and Paul Auster — are published in significant numbers in countries around the world, and the impact of market size begins to matter still more.
     It cuts both ways. In the U.S., selling ten thousand copies of a literary novel may appear a kind of failure, or at least a disappointment, although major novelists in other times and places have launched their careers with a novel that sold five thousand copies. Probably every American writer thinks at one time or another about Moby Dick. There is a difference of opinion about just how poor the initial reception of that great American novel was when Melville first published it in 1851. Regardless of the sales figures, and what they meant in the mid-nineteenth century in the United States, I think the early fate of Moby Dick — its virtual disappearance for a full generation — stands in the minds of many American writers as an image of oblivion that really is, as they say, a fate worse than death. Everybody dies. Not everybody endures oblivion.
     So much for the size of the market, which can cripple as easily as it can liberate an American writer but is in any case a major shaping force. As Americanists, you know more than I do about another permanent — or at least semi-permanent — influence on writers in the U.S I mean what has been called American exceptionalism, the conviction that the United States was called into being as a nation to play a leading role in the world. Beginning in the colonial era, Americans frequently imagined their New World to be a unique creation, exempt from the sins and the sadnessess of the Old World, which they had left behind. In ways that often frustrated others, Americans believed themselves to be exempt, almost, from history. Even today, many Americans would instinctively understand what we mean when we talk about our country as a “city upon a hill” even if they don’t remember that is was the Puritan John Winthrop who first expressed it in that way.
     The notion of American exceptionalism has long been under siege, both at home and abroad. In the U.S., the notion of being separate from the world, or exempt from history, does not stand up to analysis, particularly in an age of global connections, global disconnects. In the countries in which I have lived and worked, thoughtful people have found the idea of American exceptionalism preposterous, or hubristic, or just plain inaccurate. Such reactions are bound up in the stereotype of Americans as a naïve and a historical people.
     In a way, none of that matters. Many, maybe most, American writers are still affected by the notion of their nation’s exceptional status. In some cases, they work hard to debunk the notion. That’s the thing about a tradition. There are as many ways to respond to it as there are writers who think about it: You can celebrate a tradition, or you can condemn it. You can amend it, ridicule it, endorse it, camouflage it. You can blow it up and rebuild it. Maybe the only thing you can’t do with a tradition is to ignore it. It changes, but it probably won’t go away. For better or worse, I think something like that is the case with American exceptionalism. Does it touch every last imaginative work written by Americans? Does it figure in the reflective poems of a poet like E.L. Mayo? I wouldn’t go that far. I wouldn’t say it does, but I wouldn’t be sure that it doesn’t, either.
Ironically, the power and reach of the United States today appear to endorse the notion of American exceptionalism. There are many names for the position the U.S. occupies in the world today: the sole superpower, the hyperpower. There are those who want to believe America is the new empire, while others believe with equal conviction that the U.S. is incapable of empire. Whatever you choose to call it, however you choose to interpret the facts and circumstances of U.S. global power, it seems to me that those facts must affect every American writer regardless of his or her subject matter.
     Let me take the most extreme example first. The intelligence that takes as its ostensible subject a pine tree on the lee side of a hill at a particular hour, in a particular cast of light, cannot help understanding that the tree, the hill, the light, are located in time, which is to say in a political context. The consciousness that conceives the poem does not exist in isolation. The writer may resent that fact and struggle against its tyranny. In some poems, the results of that struggle are evident as sparks, or as flaming branches; in others, they don’t show at all. But the woman who sees the tree and writes the lines is in some respect a political creature no matter what she wills, and if she is an American poet she lives in a country whose influence is felt almost everywhere, and she knows it.
     There are other, more obvious cases of the effect on writers of America’s global presence, and that is the presence in America of the world. The extraordinary enrichment of the corpus of American writing by new citizens — writers like Edwidge Danticat and Bharati Mukherjee — is easy to understand, and Americans have learned to celebrate their arrival, to savor the meal they bring to the American table. They have expanded our understanding of what it means to be an American.
     Not quite as obvious, but in some ways just as interesting, is the influence of American writers who consciously seek to understand cultures that are not their own. John Coyne, a writer and editor, identifies a group — if not exactly a movement — of American writers who emerge from their experience as Peace Corps Volunteers with a passion to convey to American readers what they have seen and lived beyond American borders. Writers like Norman Rush, Marnie Mueller, and Paul Eggers continue to do that in writing that has little to do with expatriate fiction of the colonial era. Before her death in an accident, Maria Thomas wrote about Americans and Africans in stories that did imaginative justice to the fine mesh of relationships between them. In my own writing, almost all of my published work comes out of my own experience abroad, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay and then later in the foreign service.
     I think writers like Thomas are onto something. What binds together their diverse perspectives and politics and styles is an attempt to make narrative sense of the interactions among people of different cultures. Those interactions take the form of clashes as often as they are of understandings, of miscues as often as rapprochement. There are more disasters than triumphs, and more middle-ground consequences than either of those. But the writers I mentioned seem to me to be paying attention to something fundamental. They seem to understand that the U.S., questions of power notwithstanding, exists in the world, and that our human connections matter. They matter to Americans and non-Americans with equal weight.
     How do we get at these human connections? How do we begin to understand one another? One way is to tell each other stories. We talk and we read. It seems to me that this is what the colloquium is all about. We’re talking, and we’re reading. So let’s listen — with pleasure and passion and strict attention — let’s listen to each other’s stories.

This paper was read at the 20th Annual American Studies Colloquium. The Colloquium, held in May on Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, included Americanists of various disciplines from 14 African countries. Mark Jacobs’ next novel, A Handful of Kings, will be published in January 2004.


To preserve and to learn

While the Peace Corps Slept

by Leo Cecchini (Ethiopia 1962–64)

A RECENT ISSUE OF Afghan Connections, the bulletin of Friends of Afghanistan, carried an article by a Peace Corps couple who recently returned to Kabul for a visit. I was struck by their comment, “[There is] little memory of Peace Corps here.” Soon after seeing the article I watched a TV program about US military programs to rebuild Afghanistan. The soldiers are building schools, clinics, roads, water systems, and other infrastructure facilities while also providing community services such as health care and instruction. A headline formulated in my mind — PEACE CORPS FORGOTTEN AS US MILITARY BECOMES THE FACE OF A CARING AND COMMITTED AMERICA.
     What happened to that noble effort to replace the “Ugly American” with a caring American seeking to learn about other peoples by helping them overcome basic hardships? I was one of those who in the late 1950’s read the seminal book with that name and saw the Peace Corps as the answer. We would correct this false or incomplete image of Americans by placing thousands of well-meaning, energetic Americans in countries where they would help the people while learning about them and letting them see that we really cared. What a brilliant idea!
     No small undertaking this. We were charting new territory for America. Gone was the aloof diplomat, the fearsome warrior, the indifferent dispenser of American largess. In their place were fresh-faced young Americans ready to solve all the problems of the world and in the process build better understanding between our hosts and ourselves.
     We succeeded beyond anyone’s best hopes. The Peace Corps hit the world stage with a bang and became the thing to do. Volunteering for the Corps was akin to volunteering to fight fascism in 1942. It was the news of the day, featured in hundreds of articles, on the cover of major periodicals, the subject of books and even a few movies. It even achieved instant status as a folklore icon through the paintings of the great Norman Rockwell.
     And who were we? Indeed, we were “Norman Rockwell Americans,” the solid core of the nation’s population. Not the elite, but representatives of mainstream America. In the main, Joe College and Betty Coed. We genuinely presented to foreign hosts the honest face of America.
     Take my own case. Fresh out of college in 1962, I joined the first contingent of Peace Corps Volunteers to Ethiopia. We were at best marginally prepared for the job. I was picked to teach geography by virtue of having had a minor in that subject while in college. Offering a so-so academic record from a so-so large state university, the Peace Corps probably rated me among its “iffy" candidates. But I was determined to play a part in this great adventure.
     By the end of my first year teaching at the top high school in Asmara, Ethiopia (now the capital of Eritrea) I was known by all of the over 200,000 residents of the town. I did not become a household name through teaching geography, but as the coach of the school’s soccer team. What audacity, an American teaching Ethiopians how to play their national sport! Right away I was controversial and the topic of news reports. All controversy evaporated when I led the team to two successive league championships and along the way whipped the army and air force’s teams (lost to the navy’s team). I became the face of America to thousands of Eritreans.
     The point here is that I was not trained nor prepared to coach a team, much less a soccer team. Sure I had played soccer as a kid and American football in high school and college. But I was not a trained coach. I came to be the image of America simply by being ready to help my hosts achieve their goals (no pun intended). This is instructive for the balance of this article.
     Nor did my image fade. More than 30 years later I was urged to contact the Eritrean Ambassador to the UN since I was then living in New York City. I was mildly surprised when on calling his mission I was immediately connected to the ambassador himself. I started to state my name and purpose when the ambassador cut me short by saying, “Leo Cecchini needs no introduction to the Eritrean Liberation Army.” The ambassador had been a leader in the country’s 30 year struggle to gain independence from Ethiopia. He remembered me from when he was a schoolboy aspiring to be on the team I coached, the goal of every able bodied Eritrean youth. I joked that my contribution to the struggle was to teach the Liberation Army how to read maps and basic strategy and tactics on the soccer field.
     So what happened? How did the US military come to replace the Peace Corps as the good guy image of Americans? I have a fair idea of what happened. After the Peace Corps, I became an American diplomat, so had the chance to see the world through that aloof, cool perspective. I was detailed to our main development agency, USAID, in Vietnam where I saw the world through the eyes of a development specialist. During that assignment I also led a military advisory team where I gained the military’s view of the people of other lands. For the last dozen years I have been in international business thus gaining still another slant on other countries and their people. My work has been in the poorest and the richest countries. I have met foreigners in all walks of life. In all cases I have always been seen by others as a quintessential American only differentiated by my extensive knowledge of the world. In sum I never stopped doing what the Peace Corps was created to do, be the face of America to the world.
     But such was not the case for the Peace Corps itself. It became preoccupied by, and subsequently dispensed with, the “numbers game,” the plan to put thousands of Volunteers into the field with no specific task other than to improve America’s image. The Corps decided that a better image was not the goal; rather it was to change the world itself. Definitely a poor choice given that it was poorly equipped to do the job. Given my extensive experience with the reality of the world’s economic situation, I am constantly astounded by the naiveté of the Peace Corps in its conviction that it is making major changes in the lives of people in other countries. I ask you, how can a few thousand well-trained people do more than make a symbolic contribution to bettering the lives of literally billions of people? No more eloquent testimony to this reality can be found than that comment I read in Afghan Connections, “. . . little memory of the Peace Corps here.”
     By the early 1970s, the Corps had decided to become a technically competent, task oriented, mini-development agency. Gone was the drive to change America’s image, replaced by the more limited goal of playing a minor role in the effort to overcome the massive poverty, ignorance, and disease afflicting billions of people.
     Gone too was the image of the “Norman Rockwell American,” mainstream Americans out to help other people and through this assistance improve the image of Americans. Goodbye Joe College and Betty Coed, hello recent graduate in marine biology from Birkenstock U. Now I have nothing against having such obvious talent in the Peace Corps, but I do see problems when they become the sole image of the Corps. And I am not alone — this is now the image of Peace Corps Volunteers held by most Americans who say, “You would expect Harry to do strange things. After all, he was in the Peace Corps.”
     So what you say? Who cares what image Americans have of the Peace Corps? We are out to better the lives of the poor in other lands. Given this attitude it is no surprise that by the year 2000 most Americans did not even know that the Peace Corps was still in business. Sure it still had its cult of followers, most of whom had grown old and out of touch with the world. But it was of little relevance to what America did around the world and the image of Americans abroad. We members of the Peace Corps family adopted the aloof attitude of those who know better than their fellow Americans, compounding the problem by seeming to be always blaming America for the world’s woes.
     The Peace Corps had fallen, from the exciting invention to change America’s image abroad, to a minor effort among the hundreds of organizations working on various parts of the enormous project to improve the lot of the world’s poor. Not a bad idea, but not the original concept.
     But wait, we had a chance to change, to loom large once more in America’s presence around the world and once more work to improve its tarnished image in an important way. In 2001, President Bush stated his intention to double the size of the Corps. I said, “Great, why not increase it ten-fold?” But rather than seize the opportunity the Corps family — Volunteers in the field, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, former and present Peace Corps staff — in the main rejected the idea, saying such things as, “This will dilute the quality of our service” and “We do not want to sacrifice our professionalism in a useless numbers game.” In other words, most were happy to remain a “quaint” adjunct to America’s efforts to help poor countries.
     We have a problem. Sept 11 demonstrated that our image remains in many quarters of the world one of, dare I say it, the “Ugly American.” So much for the Peace Corps as the answer to this hated image. Forty years down the drain.
     If the Peace Corps is no longer prepared to improve America’s image, then who? Being the innovative and inventive people that we are, Americans have found a new way to build a better image. We now use our warriors themselves to erase the picture of Americans who are at best indifferent, and at worse hostile to the rest of the world. Enter the warrior-come-nation-builder. Now we see American troopers doing their best to help the less fortunate by building infrastructure, training leaders, teachers, healers, and others, and offering vital services to needy people. Good you say, they caused the problem so they should clean it up. Bad I say, since it means there is no need for the Peace Corps.
     But more important, the American military has the resources and status to do the job on a scale that the Peace Corps refuses to even consider. First of all it has 1.3 million volunteers. By sheer numbers it will reach more people in the world than the Peace Corps could ever hope to meet. It has a better status with the American public itself, everyone knows and respects our men and women in uniform. Through this widespread intimate contact, the military will be able to do more to familiarize Americans with other peoples than a miniscule organization like the Peace Corps. Our military has taken over the role of converting thousands of mainstream Americans into citizens, knowledgeable of other cultures and with intimate relationships with other people. The military has become the  “Norman Rockwell” image of Americans willing to help the less fortunate and in the process better the image others have of us, as well as America’s understanding of other people.
Who 40 years ago would have thought that this is how we would wind-up? Our once fearsome warriors are now the face of a caring American people. Maybe they are better suited to the job since they represent the resolve of the American people to defend what we hold dear AND our sincere desire to help others who do us no harm. Maybe through this latter role the military will achieve national security, not through strength of arms, but by showing America as a friend, ready to be generous with those who wish us no harm.
     Meanwhile a toast to the Peace Corps as it passes into history.

After his Peace Corps years in Ethiopia Leo Cecchini was a Foreign Service Officer for 25 years in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, as well as in Washington, D.C. Entered private business in 1990 he has worked working in Europe, Africa and the USA. Still involved in Peace Corps activities, he is on the Board of the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) and the Vice President of Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCV group. He lives most of the year in Florida.


To preserve and to learn

Peace Corps and the War on Iraq

by Dick Lipez (Ethiopia 1962–64)

DOES THE PEACE CORPS HAVE a future in the age of the American imperium? Can an organization whose job has always been in an almost literal sense “preemptive peace” function at all in a time of “preemptive war?” There’s no evidence that the Bush administration is asking these questions. Optimistically, it just hiked the Peace Corps budget another 20 percent. But it’s only a matter of time before circumstances force Peace Corps leaders to think hard about sending Americans out to work and intermingle in a world where increasingly the United States is not so much respected as feared.
     The current Peace Corps administration has determined, not unreasonably, that Volunteer security should be a major concern. Director Vasquez, a former police officer, talked about volunteer safety from the day he was sworn in. And after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, security became a preoccupation. Volunteers in the Islamic
world were shuffled around and some programs near Afghanistan were suspended. Recently the Morocco project was shut down, with Volunteers yanked from their sites with little chance to say goodbye to friends and colleagues. The age of world-wide terrorism is a long way from the days when the biggest threats to PCV wellbeing were food poisoning and Jeep accidents.
     But beyond questions of staying alive and uninjured, can Volunteers even begin to carry out Peace Corps goals (particularly the second, “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of people served”) effectively if they are seen more and more as agents of an imperial regime? You can agree or disagree with Bush policy on Iraq, but the ugly reality is, most of the world thinks our aggressive, unilateralist foreign policy stinks. And worldwide opinion of the United States may be at its lowest ebb in U.S.
history.
     Or at least since the Vietnam era. When I arrived in Ethiopia with that country’s first PCV group in pre-Vietnam 1962, many Ethiopians were suspicious of us at first. But that was mainly because Ethiopians had been badly treated by outsiders over the centuries, from Ahmed Gran to Mussolini. The United States of John F. Kennedy was generally well thought of, and most Ethiopians got used to us or even liked us and we could do the jobs we came to do.
     When I visited Ethiopia in 1971, however, at the height of the Vietnam War, opinions of America and Americans had crashed. In an atmosphere of anti-war and anti-U.S. strikes and demonstrations, the effectiveness of PCVs ranged from the compromised to nil. It was the beginning of the end for the Peace Corps in Ethiopia.
     Imagine a world with Bush administration hawks careening from one preemptive conquest to another — unlikely maybe, but not out of the question. What the Peace Corps could find itself in is a world where the caustic and frequently destructive anti-Americanism of the late 1960s and 70s looks puny in comparison, almost a topic for nostalgia.
     And yet there’s a paradox in all this. Recent polls show that most Americans not only support the invasion of Iraq; they do so for reasons that aren’t all bad except for their naiveté. Apart from questions of Middle Eastern geo-strategic maneuvering and the elimination of real or imagined weapons of mass destruction, most Americans like it that our country overthrew a despotic regime and is trying to institute representative government. The Iraqi people are now “free.” The terrible costs and the perilous future consequences are secondary or don’t count at all in the minds of many Americans. Still, there is, as always, something admirable in the impulse to free a people from a tyrant’s yoke. It’s the same part of the American grain that helps animate the Peace Corps.
     If there’s one thing that PCVs know, it’s that good social change is complicated and hard. And it rarely works when it is imposed. That’s likely to be the post-war lesson of Iraq. It’s a shame Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al have never been PCVs (it’s a hair-raising image, I know). The experience might have left them with the knowledge of the world and the humility in the face of complexity they clearly lack.
     The Peace Corps will and should push on as best it can. But it is likely to suffer and shrink in the new world created partly by a demented Osama bin Laden and partly by an unknowing and arrogant George W. Bush. The best hope for the Peace Corps and its mission, more splendid than ever, is to outlast the both of them.

This article appeared in the May 2003 Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual RPCVs Newsletter (www.lgbrpcv.org).
     After his Peace Corps tour, Dick Lipez worked in the Evaluation Division of the PC/W and went on to become a successful novelist and free lance writer. He is now an editorial writer for the
Berkshire Eagle and author of a series of gay detective novels.