Peace Corps Writers
Peace Corps Was (page 2)
Peace Corps Was
page 1
page 2

hammems = communal steam baths, Turkish style

Peace Corps was hammems, vaguely fungoid and slick, creepy with old women blobbing on top of each other, slamming hands into backs, scraping camel mitts over each others’ arms and legs, like frogs, squatting in running water, hot drops clinging to blue tiled walls, chipped and broken, steam everywhere. Leering eyes, private parts everywhere. I was bait, marriageable bait, for these crones, and they trolled —
     Peace Corps was being looked at. Jane Kuntz said she turned it off, walking as if with clappers and earplugs, oblivious. But my antenna quivered expectantly, dreading it, hating it, ready for it. Always noticed, under scrutiny, appraised like store goods or bartered horses. Comments on the bus, from the café on the corner, from within holes of souk shops, around from the teacher’s room. On display, in the public eye for two whole years. I can’t shake it all these years later.
     Peace Corps was the welcome mat over the threshold into a career — a teaching career — and seemed an answer for me. It would do for another decade.
     Peace Corps was finding Americana relief together on small R&Rs of chocolate chip cookies and outdated Time magazines and NY Times crossword puzzles, shared — English, our food, our ways, references only we knew, banana bread. We would sit on each other’s mattresses and reveal pasts, brief though they still were.
     Peace Corps was a stand-alone time, a dyad of years wrapped up in plastic and stored on the shelf. A 3-day repeat visit in 1981 rendered no further meaning; was too fast and people looked too different. A few letters over the years, a Saturday spent reorganizing slides, faded prints in albums, mainly of goofy 23 year olds in goofy poses. (I am smiling in every one of those pictures, I think.) Recent random emails, now a reunion 26 years on. Are the years atrophied, petrified, or are they resuscitable?
     Peace Corps was a gallery of types I can detail even now, down to the freckle, the lip mole, the calf shape, the chuckle, the broodiness, the breastbones, the contact lens, the frowns, the chubby bodies, their clothes, red toenails. I know their names by heart – after all, he was the first Robbie I knew, she was the first Melinda, the other one the first of many Franks I’ve known. First Lily, first Ken, first Edith — and every Edith I’ve met since then has made me think of that Edith. They will remember me as Peggy, I think, even though I matured long into Peg.
     Peace Corps was three lofty goals; but the third one is best. Return home and share what you learned. We talk fast and remember, and hope Peace Corps never goes belly-up. We wear the stripes.
     And Peace Corps was cliques — we remember them: the pack of future dropouts who hung unhappily together during training, the in-crowd in Sousse, the well-diggers, the nurses, the last-year veterans like the Funks (they knew so much), the Tunis gang, the twos and threes stuck together. There is a black and white photo of all of us that first summer, a family of 50 (missing only Sweater Man), backed up against a crumbly schoolyard wall. I made them my friends, one by one, two by two. A webbed ball of close people I have somehow let bounce away from me. Have they all reunited in pairs at grad school, making dates in their late 40s, eating cous-cous together in Houston or DC? Have they gotten together, hauling out photo albums over beers in apartments? Where have I been?

Peg (seated at right) reads at the reunion

Margaret Clement works now at the State University of New York in Albany, NY on democracy and governance projects in developing countries, but following her Peace Corps tour lived in six African countries for fifteen years. Her creative non-fiction has been published on-line at the expatriate website, Tales from a Small Planet and recently in Worldview Magazine. She wrote “Peace Corps Was” in anticipation of her group’s first reunion last August in Washington DC. There were fifty Trainees in her group and they trained in in northwestern Tunisia, high in the Atlas Mountains in a village called Ain Draham. She read her recollections to the group on the banks of the Potomac.

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