Peace Corps Writers — March 2004

Peace Corps Writers — March 2004

    Once Over Lightly

    NPCA Conference in Chicago
    Peace Corps Writers will hold a series of workshops at the National Peace Corps Association Conference hosted by the Chicago Area Peace Corps Association (CAPCA). The dates of the conference are August 5–8, 2004.
         Workshops titles are:

    • Publishing Your Peace Corps Story (fiction or non-fiction)
    • Careers in Publishing
    • Peace Corps Prose: Literature from the Peace Corps
    • Self-publishing with the new technology

    If you are attending the conference, and wish to be considered for participation in one of these workshop panels, please email me at: jpcoyne@peacecorpswriters.org.
    Peace Corps Writers will also have a table at the International Bazaar, and any writer who would like to sell and sign books at out table is welcome to do so. We will NOT do the selling for anyone. If you would like to avail yourself of this opportunity, please contact Marian Haley Beil at: mhbeil@peacecorpswriters.org.
    In all probability, there will be a bookstore at the conference that will handle books by Peace Corps writers from the larger publishing houses. We have not, however, heard any specifics from the NPCA or the Chicago RPCVs.

    Writing course underway by Peace Corps Writers
    Nine RPCVs are now “on line” in the first writing course offered by PeaceCorpsWriters.org. The class has RPCVs living across the continental U.S., and as far away as southern France and Hawaii. Once a week we gather for a live “chat room” to discuss the current lesson, ask and answer questions, and review what we have written. The ten week course will finish in May. For information on how the class is conducted check out our course Q & A.

    Writers — donate your Peace Corps book to the NPCA
    Up until now there there has not existed a library of books written by RPCVs about their Peace Corps experience. Now the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) has announced that it will host such a collection in a special library in their Washington, D.C. office. Help build this library of Peace Corps experience books by RPCVs by sending a signed copy of your Peace Corps book to:

    RPCV Books
    NPCA
    1900 L. Street NW, Suite 205
    Washington, D.C. 20036

    In This Issue
    This issue is filled with some wonderful writing.

    • New to our site in this issue is the first of a series of essays by RPCVs who came of age during the Vietnam War. Some of these RPCVs served both in the Peace Corps and in the army, others were in the diplomatic corps and assigned to Vietnam, while more than a few avoided the war by joining the Peace Corps. The first essay in the series is “The Commander Wore Civies” by Leo Cecchini (Ethiopia 1962–64).
    • Our “Letter from . . . ” was written just a few weeks ago by Melinda Porter (Gabon 1982–83.) Melinda lived in the town of Tchibnaga with Fisheries Volunteer Michael Pensak (Gabon 1982–83), a PCV friend who she has lost touch with after all these years.
    • We interviewed Laurence Leamer (Nepal 1964–66) about his new book on the Kennedy Kids and we reviewed Larry’s book.
    • In “A Writer Writes” this issue we have two essays. One is written by Jac Conaway (St. Lucia 1961–63) entitled, “I Returned” about going back to St. Lucia after of the death of his son’s mother. Jac writes, “My son’s mother died suddenly. I hadn’t seen her for 22 years. It was strange to think of her dead or even to think of her as 44 years old. We were kids in so many ways. Now we are ‘old’ and our son is ‘my’ age.”
           A similar piece, “Meditations on an Old Peace Corps Poem that Surfaces, in a Bar” is by Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962–64).
    • Our “Journals of Peace” continue.
    • We have four books reviews.
    • Maybe our longest list ever of new books by RPCVs.
    • A piece from our man in Romania, Andy Trincia (Romania 2002–04).
    • And, of course, in “Literary Type” we have all the news we could find on what Peace Corps writers are writing, winning, or just doing. 

    I hope you enjoy it all.

    — John Coyne
    Editor


Recent books by Peace Corps writers — March 2004

    The Sea Ranch
    by Donlyn Lyndon, photos by Jim Alinder (Somalia 1964–66)
    Princeton Architectural Press
    February, 2004
    348 pages
    $65.00

    To Prove My Blood
    A Tale of Emigrations & The Afterlife

    by Philip Brady (Zaire 1980–82)
    Ashland Poetry Press
    November 2003
    121 pages
    $14.95

    In What Disappears
    Poems
    John Brandi (Ecuador 1966–68)
    NY: White Pine Press
    April, 2003
    112 pages
    $15.00

    Mierla Domesticita
    Blackbird Once Wild, Not Tame

    Poems by Nicolae Dabija
    Translated from the Romanian by John Flynn (Moldova 1993–95)
    Pure Heart Press
    2004
    76 pages
    $11.00

    What Were They Thinking?
    Really Bad Ideas Throughout History
    by Bruce Felton (Borneo 1968–70)
    Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press
    August, 2003
    274 pages
    $14.95

    The Prisoner of Vandam Street
    by Kinky Friedman (Borneo 1967–69)
    Simon & Schuster, $25.00
    March 2004
    240 pages
    $24.00

    Curse of the Missing Puppet Head
    by Kinky Friedman (Borneo 1967–69)
    Vandam Press
    October, 2003
    $29.95

    Climbing Higher
    by Montel Williams
         with Lawrence Grobel (Ghana 1968–71)
    New American Library
    January, 2004
    240 pages
    $25.95

    Roaming Russia
    An Adventurer's Guide to Off the Beaten Track Russia and Siberia.
    by Jessica Jacobson (Senegal 1997)
    iUniverse, Inc.
    February, 2004
    224 pages
    $17.95

    No Pretender
    Johnny Duke An American Original
    by James Jedrziewski (Korea 1978)
    South Windsor, CT: EPS
    322 pages
    November 2003
    $19.95

    Jubela
    (children)
    by Cristina Kessler (Honduras 1973–75, Kenya 1975–76, Seychelles 1976–78)
    Alladin Library
    March, 2004 (reissue)
    32 pages
    $6.99

    Talking Walls
    The Story Continues

    (children)
    by Margy Burns Knight (Benin 1976–77) illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien
    Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House Publishers
    June, 2003
    40 pages
    $8.95

    Talking Walls
    (children)
    by Margy Burns Knight (Benin 1976–77) illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien
    Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House Publishers
    June, 2003 (reprint edition)
    40 pages
    $8.95

    Welcoming Babies
    (children)
    by Margy Burns Knight (Benin 1976–77) illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien
    Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House Publishers
    June, 2003 (reprint edition)
    40 pages
    $7.95

    Sons of Camelot
    The Fate of An American Dynasty
    by Laurence Leamer (Nepal 1964–66)
    William Morrow
    March, 2004
    656 pages
    $27.95

    The Way They Say Yes Here
    (Poetry)
    by Jacqueline Lyons (Lesotho 1992–95)
    Hanging Loose Press
    March, 2004
    pages
    $24.00

    An Alphabetical Index to the Hanyu Da Cidian
    edited by Victor H. Mair (Nepal 1965–67)
    University of Hawaii Press
    January, 2004
    1522 pages
    $45.00

    Taking Sides
    Clashing Views on Controversial African Issues
    edited by William G. Moseley (Mali 1987–89)
    McGraw-Hill/Dushkin
    December, 2003
    $25.60

    African Environment and Development: Rhetoric, Programs, Realities
    edited by William G. Moseley (Mali 1987–89) and B. Ikubolajeh
    Ashgate Publishing Co.
    December, 2003
    $89.95

    Rivers of Change
    Trailing the Waterways of Lewis & Clark

    by Tom Mullen (Malawi 1989–92)
    Roundwood Press
    318 Pages
    $25.95
    2004

    Where Is the Lone Ranger When We Need Him?
    America's Search for a Postconflict Stability Force
    by Robert M. Perito (Nigeria)
    United State Institute of Peace
    January 2004
    $19.95

    Calabash Cat
    (children)
    by James Rumford (Chad 1971–74; Afghanistan 1974–75)
    Houghton Mifflin Co.
    September, 2003
    30 pages
    $16.00

    Nine Animals and the Well
    (children)
    by James Rumford (Afghanistan 1971–75)
    Houghton Mifflin Co.
    May, 2003
    30 pages
    $16.00

    Planet X Nibiru
    Slow-Motion Doomsday

    by Robert T. Russell (Eritrea 1964–66)
    (written under pseudonym Rob Solarion)
    Bloomington, IN: 1st Books Library
    February, 2004
    220 Pages
    $17.75 (paperback)

    Song of the Trees
    by Mildred D. Taylor (Ethiopia 1965–67)
    illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
    Puffin
    May, 2003 (reissue)
    64 pages
    $5.99

    The Land
    by Mildred D. Taylor (Ethiopia 1965–67)
    Penguin Putnam
    December, 2003 (reissue)
    400 pages
    $6.99


Literary Type — March 2004

  • Robert Rosenberg (Kyrgyzstan 1994–96) is a new Peace Corps novelist and his first novel, This Is Not Civilization, is coming out from Houghton Mifflin in June.
         Rosenberg was recently profiled in Publisher’s Weekly (January 26, 2004) on the writing of this book that is set in Kyrgyzstan shortly after the collapse of the Soviet empire, then shifts to an Apache reservation in Arizona before returning to Kyrgyzstan, then leaps forward a few years to Turkey on the eve of the August 1999 earthquake. One of the four protagonists is Jeff Hartig, “a well-meaning Peace Corps volunteer whose efforts bring ruination while he attempts to do good.”
         This is a novel of “ambitious literary fiction,” according to Rosenberg’s editor Heidi Pitlor. “It’s for fans of White Teeth and Prague, of Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer.” Pitlor worked with Rosenberg for over a year in the editing, going through five drafts. That final fine-tuning came after Robert had spent three years writing the novel.
         Rosenberg recently completed his M.F.A. at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in Cibecue, Arizona, a small Apache village. He is one of four teachers who established the village’s first high school. He also founded and edits a community magazine devoted to preserving the culture of the White Mountain Apache tribe. This is a terrific book by a talented RPCV writer. He’s the real thing. Look for This Is Not Civilization in May/June.
  • John Flynn (Moldova 1993–95) has a short story online at Outsider Ink entitled “Dreaming Rodin” about a middle-aged woman who has been teaching and practicing art in obscurity all of her life. She keeps a journal as she paints and through her journal we get her inner life as she struggles to come to terms with her high standards as an artist, and the sometimes cruel and indifferent students she must contend with as a teacher. Outsider Ink is only available on-line at www.outsiderink.com.
         John is writing screen plays full time with Revere Pictures.
  • In Granta 84: Over There How American Sees the World is a special issue of Granta magazine featuring 20 Americans writers (including two RPCVs) recounting their experiences abroad and how they were influenced by them.
         Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996–97) looks at the simplistic views of many outsiders toward the United States, “the idea that the lava of worldly power flows from a lone volcano in the heart of an American Mordor is a dangerous simplification.” And Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65) returns to his time in Malawi and writes a fascinating and scary narrative how he spent four days as a sexual prisoner in Africa. “This was my first true experience of captivity and difference, memorable for being horribly satirical. It had shocked me and made me feel American.”
         You can read Theroux ’s account at www.granta.com/extracts/2090.
  • Award winning writer Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93) recently published several stories. “The Race” was in issue number 46 of Whiskey Island; “Air Conditioning and Heat” in the Fall 2003 issue of Permafrost; “The Foreign Correspondent” in the fall 2003/winter 2004 issue of Confrontation. An essay of his, based on his experience in Guatemala in June 2003 entitled, “In the House of Magic and Sorrow” will appear in the June 2004 issue of The Sun — a wonderful publication that has published many RPCV writers.
  • Poet Eugenia Hepworth Petty (Ukraine 1995–97) won second place in a competition sponsored by the new online literary site Brick and Mortar Review. She received $250 and her winning poem, “Lviv, Fall 1995,” will be published on the site. It has also been published on the website of the Algol Travel Agency in Lviv, Ukraine.
         In November 2001, her poem “Lutsk, Ukraine, Summer 1995” was published in 4X4: The Newport Review, #1 (a literary broadside published in Rhode Island). Her poems “Medea In The Garden” and “A Bloodless Palm” were published in issues #9 (June, 2003) and #11(October, 2003) respectively. The Newport Review poems were published under her maiden name, Eugenia Hepworth Jenson.
  • In the February 16 issue of The New Yorker George Packer (Togo 1982–83), now a staff writer for that publication, has an essay, “A Democratic World,” on whether the liberals can take our foreign policy back from the Republicans.
       And Peter Hessler (China 1996–98) has another “Letter from Beijing,” this time on Chen Mengjia, a specialist on oracle bones — bones inscribed with the earliest known writing in East Asia.
  • Paul Spencer Sochaczewski (Borneo 1969–71) has an article on playing golf in Borneo in Travel + Leisure Golf, March/April 2004 issue. Paul was a PCV in Borneo. “I requested Botswana,” he says, “but got Borneo instead, and it changed my life. Sochaczewski (who in his Peace Corps days was known as Paul Wachtel) stayed in the area for thirteen years and has been back half a dozen time since. Paul’s most recent novel was Redheads (Sid Harta Publishers, 2000).
  • Terez Rose (Gabon 1985–87) has an essay in the anthology, Migrants and Stowaways, edited and published by the Knoxville Writers Guild (October 2004). Another of Terez’s essays will be published in Travelers Tales ’: A Woman’s Europe, edited by Marybeth Bond. (June 2004, published by Travelers Tales.)
  • Jacqueline Lyons (Lesotho 1992–95), who returned to the United States after her Peace Corps service and earned her MFA in Poetry from Colorado State University, is now completing her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Utah. In 2003, she won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and has had poems and essays appear recently in such literary magazines as Sonora Review, Bellingham Review, Barrow Street, Quarter After Eight, Florida Review, Calyx, Puerto del Sol, and Interim. Jacqueline now has published her first collection of poems, The Way They Say Yes Here. This book comes from Hanging Loose Press.
  • The new novel by Kinky Friedman (Borneo 1967–69), The Prisoner of Vandam Street, opens with the Kinkster suffering from a relapse of malaria picked up in the Peace Corps. This novel is the second to last installment of his successful series of mysteries staring himself. The final book, wherein the Kinkster dies, is called Ten Little New Yorkers.
         Kinky recently declared to run for governor of Texas, saying, “I’m not a politician. I’m not a bureaucrat. I’m a writer of fiction who speaks the truth — and I want to bring back the glory of Texas.”
  • Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen ’s (Tanzania 1989–90) picture book Babu’s Song has won the Children’s Africana Book Award for Young Children. This award was established in 1991 by the Outreach Council of the African Studies Association to encourage the publication and use of children’s books on Africa. The awards focus specifically on books published in the United States about Africa.
         RPCV writers have been previous winners of this award. In 2001 Margy Burns Knights (Benin 1976–77) won for Africa is Not a Country. That same year Cristina Kessler won an honorable mention for My Great-Grandmother’s Gourd.
         The African Studies Association is a non-profit corporation founded in 1957 whose goals are to bring together people with scholarly and professional interest in Africa; to publish and distribute scholarly materials on Africa; and to provide services to schools, businesses, media, and the community at large.
  • Among author readings, book-signing parties, panel discussions and a catfish dinner or two, the University of Mississippi’s Oxford Conference for the Book on April 1–4 included the celebration of “Mildred D. Taylor Day.” A formal proclamation honoring the native Mississippian and Newbery Medal winner is set for April 2 at 10:30 a.m. in the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. A panel discussion about Taylor’s life also is to be part of the program.
         Millie Taylor (Ethiopia 1965–67) is the author of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which won the Newbery in 1977, the most prestigious award in children’s literature. The author of eight other novels for young readers, Millie is also spoke at the event in a rare public appearance. The state’s tribute is “long overdue,” says Ethel Young-Minor, assistant professor of English and African-American studies and panel moderator. “Mildred Taylor has spent her life bringing a positive image to Mississippi. Her books have shown people of all ages the interaction between black and white people in this state and have worked to change how people from other places perceive Mississippi.”
         The great-granddaughter of a white plantation owner’s son and a slave, Taylor grew up in Toledo, Ohio, where her family moved shortly after she was born. Following the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, Milly enrolled at the University of Colorado, where she earned a master’s degree in journalism. Taylor herself has said that she has “attempted to present a true picture of life in America as older members of my family remember it, and as I remember it in the days before the civil rights movement.”
  • Peter Chilson (Niger 1985–87) continues to publish widely. Recently he had three pieces published. A short story called “American Food,” came out in Gulf Coast, a journal out of the University of Houston. This story won the 2003 Gulf Coast Fiction Prize. And essay in the North Dakota Quarterly called “Tourist of Fire, Prisoner of Dust” will be anthologized in a University of Idaho Press anthology on fire in the west. Another short story, “Free Lancing” came out four months ago in Ascent. Longman is also publishing a new travel writing anthology with an excerpt from his book, Riding the Demon.
  • Lex Rieffel (India 1965–67), a guest scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, as well as an author, has written a Policy Brief on the Peace Corps available free from The Brookings Institution. It is a serious look at the agency today, and as Rieffel writes, “The Peace Corps is one of the smallest instruments in the foreign policy toolkit of the United States. It is a ‘boutique’ agency with a superb reputation.”
  • Phil Lilienthal (Ethiopia 1965–67) started a camp in South Africa for HIV/AIDS affected children from Soweto. The camp run for about 3 weeks every two months or so and they need staff. Sorry, no air fare available, but room and board, about $100 honorarium, and a moving experience is assured. Approximate dates in 2004 are March 22–April 9; June 21–July 6; July 7–19; September 18–October 3; and December 1–20. Send CV and questions to Phil at worldcamps2003@aol.com. Web site at www.worldcamps.org
         Also — books are needed: the camp is creating a library of children’s books. If you are an author of children’s books and can donate one of each, or if you have children’s books and would like them put to good use, these are for children who have never been read to and thrive on it. Send to Phil at: 1606 Washington Plaza, Reston, VA 20190. Donations are tax-deductible.
  • A photo from Bill Owen’s (Jamaica 1964–66) famous book Suburbia was used by in the Arts section of The New York Times on Thursday, April 1 in connection with an article on the new generation of authors who have writing novels about the suburbs.
  • James Lerager (Ethiopia 1968–69, Ghana 1969–71) currently has a show of photos at the World Affairs Council of Northern California, 312 Sutter Street, San Francisco. “Mexico: Portraits of Complexity/Retratos de La Complejidad” can be seen in the Council Gallery on the second floor through April 23rd. Contact James at JLerager@yahoo.com with questions.
  • Phil Mullins (Jamaica 1970–72) sells books over the internet. You can find him at AbeBooks.com/home/PFMULLINSBOOKS. AbeBooks.com is largest used book market with over 4,000 bookdealers from around the world and 45,000,000 books listed.

Talking with . , .

    . . . Laurence Leamer

    an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    LARRY LEAMER IS FROM the first generation of Peace Corps Volunteers and the first generation of Peace Corps writers — and one of the more successful writers from our ranks.
         A professor’s son, he went to Antioch College in Ohio, and stood on Pennsylvania Avenue on the frigid January morning in 1961 when John Kennedy rode to the White House after being sworn in as President. That marked the beginning for him of a long connection with the Kennedy family.
         He has now, with the publication of Sons of Camelot, written three books about the family, and is one of the leading authorities on the Kennedys past, present, and future. We caught up with Larry recently to talk about his new book, his history with the Kennedys, and the Peace Corps.

    Where are you from, Larry?
    I was born in Chicago where my father was a professor at the University of Chicago. I attended a tough south side elementary school, until fifth grade when we moved to upstate New York where I entered a two-room school.

    What was your Peace Corps country?
    I was in Nepal from sixty-four to sixty-six.

    When did you start writing?
    In graduate school. I was a student studying international development at the University of Oregon. The first piece I ever wrote was for Old Oregon, the alumni magazine, about what it was like being a returned Volunteer and an anti-war activist. I then took a course in magazine writing and talked my way on to George Wallace’s campaign plane in the fall of 1969 when he made his first trip north. I wrote an article and submitted it cold to The New Republic and The Nation. They both accepted it, and The New Republic published it, and I was on my way.

    Have you written much about Nepal?
    I wrote about the country in Ascent: The Spiritual and Physical Quest of Legendary Mountaineer Willi Unsoeld.
         I also lived in Peru for two years and wrote a novel about drug trafficking.

    Tell us something about the writing of the Unsoeld book.
    It was tough in many ways. I was absolutely broke going through a divorce with $500 to my name. I started out idealistically working with Jolene, Willi’s widow. I spent months researching and learning about Willi, climbing the Grand Teton, the mountain on which he guided, living on credit cards. After many months when I wrote a book proposal, something like ten publishers were interested. At that moment Jolene said that she couldn’t deal with me writing the book and I would have to forsake the project. I went out to visit the family and she started hyperventilating at one point. I went ahead.
         Actually she ended up in Congress, where she made some notable contributions.

    Willi Unsoeld was Country Director in Nepal and was a legendary Peace Corps figure. A number of people have written about him. Coates Redmon writes at length about Willi in her book, Come As You Are: The Peace Corps Story. What was your experience with Unsoeld?
    I make the point in my book that he was an immense figure, a compelling charismatic figure, but he was not that good as a Peace Corps director. He just wanted to get up in those mountains. The man who replaced him, George Zeidenstein, had a hell of a pair of shoes to fill but he did it and you know what — he made Peace Corps/Nepal more serious and valuable.

    About your novel, Assignment. You were living in Peru when you wrote it, right? Was that after the Peace Corps?
    Yes. My then wife was working for USAID in Lima helping to develop the educational system and later for Project Hope in northern Peru. I got to know one of the biggest coke dealers and the DEA officer trying to bust him. I used that experience as the basis of the novel.

    After the novel, did you just decide that non-fiction was what you would rather do?
    The reviews were mixed for Assignment and it didn’t sell that well, though it did in its British edition. In retrospect, I should have written a non-fiction book. It would have been a killer, though this was the late seventies and I was a little ahead of the curve on the subject.

    Do you think it is harder to “make things up” or to research a subject?
    For either one the essence is in the details. I’m compulsive about getting those tiny, telling details right. It’s like writing itself. I want my books to appear effortless, so you don’t even realize all the work that has gone into making it read as well as it does. You don’t jump up and down shouting what great reading. You’re engrossed in the drama on the page.

    You have published nine books of non-fiction, everything from the music of Nashville to several books on the Kennedys. How do you go about finding a subject and researching that subject. Take you book on Ingrid Bergman, for example — what was the research and writing like on that book.
    It’s absolutely crazy, but I like to jump around. When I did my book The Kennedy Women that was the number two New York Times bestseller, I could have gotten a fortune to do a biography of Jackie Onassis. I didn’t want to do it, and instead traveled to Nashville where I knew absolutely nobody to write a book about country music. I had become a fan when I was working in a coal mine in West Virginia.
         Ingrid Bergman was fascinating. I met Fellini, interviewed Ingmar Bergman, traveled to Sweden, Italy, many places, a complex, dramatic life.

    Did you join the Peace Corps because of Kennedy? Were you one of the “Kennedy Kids”?
    I was one of the “Kennedy kids,” but I had my youthful priorities right and I wanted to have lots of sex. I swear.
         I was a history major and my closest friend and I went to the college library and studiously researched the Peace Corps countries, learning where we might have the best sex life. I read an old book about Nepal that said it was the custom to offer the visitor the most attractive woman in the village. I know this all sounds terribly sexist and repulsive, but remember it’s 1964, and I know I’m probably going to feminist hell. Anyway, I figured I’d spend my two years traveling from village to village.
         I’d like to catch the bastard who wrote that book. It was two years of celibacy. At the end of two years at our final conference, I said that I thought that when we arrived some of us had been extremely idealistic, others like myself had come in part because we wanted to have great adventures. But now the idealists had been sobered and the adventurers understand the value of helping others, and we left Nepal as realistic idealists — all of us did.

    Are you still in touch with your Peace Corps group?
    We’re having — Good God — our fortieth reunion of Nepal Four this summer in Wyoming. I can’t believe it. 1964. It’s the best group of people I’ve even been involved with in my life. Nothing comes close. They were the most varied in background, educations, interests and they were and are simply amazing. Almost all of them have done socially useful things. I’m merely a writer. Lloyd is blind and he brought an illuminating concern for that disability to Nepal. Suzanne works for the Gates Foundation aiding health projects in Asia. George is gone now but he was one amazing third grade teacher. Kitty serves our country in the Foreign Service in China.

    You have written three Kennedy books? What has been the reception to them from the extended Kennedy family?
    Well let’s see. I had dinner with one of them two nights ago, and we’ve become friends. On the other hand there’s one family member who hates me and tries in every way she can to make my life difficult.

    Of all the Kennedys — men and women — who is the most fascinate one?
    Eunice Kennedy Shriver is one of the great women of the twentieth century, but you know her husband is one of the great men. One day Willi Unseold, the Peace Corps Nepal director, came to my village. The year before he had climbed Everest and lost his toes. He asked my students why they thought he had climbed Everest. The smartest boy in class jumped up and said “Sir, you climbed Everest because you want to be famous.” “Ah, but I’m not famous,” Willi said. “Sir Edmund Hillary is famous and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay is famous, but I’m not famous.” The little boy jumped up again. “Ah but sir, you are famous to us.” I’ll always remember that. Sarge never became president and he’s not exactly a household word, but he’ll always be famous to us.

    Tell us a little about the other books you have written.
    Let’s see. I think of each book as an adventure, a life in itself allowing me in a voyeuristic way to live a number of lives. The Paper Revolutionaries: The Rise of the Underground Press was my first book. It was about the underground press. I had just come from one desperately unhappy year as an associate editor at Newsweek writing about foreign affairs. When I got a grant from the Twentieth Century Fund to write not a book but nothing more than a quasi academic pamphlet, I went to work for Liberation News Service, the politically radical voice of the movement. After that I traveled around the country staying at times with the underground press editors, getting to know them. I handed in a substantive enough report that it became a book.
         Playing for Keeps: In Washington was my second book about how power affects people in Washington. I didn’t have much of a name but I was able to interview everybody in the book from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to White House Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld. That was fascinating stuff and taught me a valuable lesson — people want to talk.
         Make-Believe: The Story of Nancy and Ronald Reagan was the first book about the Reagans to explore the cultural Hollywood roots of Reagan. I don’t know how I did that book in six months, but it still holds up and some people say it’s their favorite book about the Reagans.
         I got interested in country music when I was working in a coal mine in West Virginia, and I headed down to Nashville knowing nobody. In Three Chords and the Truth: Hope and Heartbreak and Changing Fortunes in Nashville I got almost everybody big and small to talk to me. I spent a month traveling around Europe with Emmy Lou Harris and her awesome band on her bus. I did something on that one I’ve never done before or since. I let the principals read their parts of the book. No one had any major changes at all, in fact I don’t think there was a single change. But when the book came out, Nashville exploded. You couldn’t even read the book in public. It was that controversial. I learned a valuable lesson: the truth has few friends.

    Do you have an idea for your next book?
    I’m writing a biography of Arnold Schwarzenegger right now. After that I have no idea.

    Where do you live now?
    I live in Florida and Washington, DC though for the past months I’ve been out in California writing the Schwarzenegger biography.

    One final question. What do you think is the legacy of the Peace Corps? Is it only in the experiences of Americans living overseas? Does it have any lasting value?
    Just look at my group alone and see how the world is a better place because of them. I was at our last reunion at Lake Tahoe in July of 1999. Some of these people don’t have that much money, and actually we rarely even saw each other in Nepal, but almost everybody was there. I brought my daughter and her fiancé because I wanted them to know and understand these people.
         My daughter after graduating from Swarthmore spent a year in Costa Rica teaching with World Teach, a Peace Corps-like organization. And she’d met Antonio there, a Spanish engineer.
         While at the reunion, I got a call one morning from NBC saying that John Kennedy Jr’s plane was down. I didn’t realize it but I was live on national television talking about John. MSNBC hired me as a commentator and I left in the middle of the reunion. I wanted to talk about the good things that John and his family had done. I didn’t pretend I knew him. And I was the only talking head not to be criticized.
         Anyway, afterwards I wrote a letter to Sarge. I knew how badly the family was taking it. And I talked about our reunion and I said how Suzanne had worked in Asia in the health field and gone to work at Gates when it was only a couple of people, and how she was changing lives, and people would live longer, and healthier lives because of her. And I said that she knew how to do her job so well because of the Peace Corps. And I said that in any hierarchy of goodness, the highest level is when we don’t even know the good that we are doing. And I said “Sarge, you don’t even know about Suzanne, or about what she’s doing, but if not for you she wouldn’t be there.” That’s true of the Peace Corps too. Okay, we don’t have a president yet, but we will, and our imprint and concerns are everywhere in America and the world.
         But I have to tell you that Sarge replied immediately to my letter. He brushed past my attempt at eloquence and wanted to know how he could get hold of some of those Gates billions to further Special Olympics. Now that’s the Peace Corps spirit.


Review

    Rivers of Change
    Trailing the Waterways of Lewis & Clark

    by Tom Mullen (Malawi 1989–92)
    Roundwood Press
    February, 2004
    318 Pages
    $25.95

    Reviewed by Craig Carrozzi (Colombia 1978–80)

    “TURN THE RIVER out upon the lands. Unlock its imprisoned power. When the rains do not flow, let it supply the need . . . . Utility will take the place of romance. The buffalo, the Indian, the steamboat, the gold-seeker, the soldier will be seen in its valley no more, but in their stead the culture and comfort, and the thousand blessings that come with civilization.”

    These are the words of Hiram Chittenden, captain of the Army Corps of Engineers charged with the task of taming the mighty Missouri River, the fabled “Big Muddy,” at the turn of the last century. His quote encapsulates the conflicting visions for this river and, by extension, the conflicting visions for America and the uses of its water resources.
         In Rivers of Change, author Tom Mullen explores past, present, and possible future visions for the use of the Missouri, Yellowstone, and Columbia Rivers. He does this by following, insofar as possible, the route taken by Lewis and Clark on their epic sojourn to map and explore the Louisiana Purchase in 1804 to 1806. And, as in most journey’s of discovery, Tom is also involved in an inner quest. After working for over a decade as a water resources consultant in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and parts of the United States, Tom articulates a desire at various points in his trip for a home:

    Photographs of the coast and falls gave me a feeling as though a lost soul inside me found eyesight for viewing reality. Inspired, I later considered what I saw while pacing along a sidewalk outside the museum. I realized then that exploring these western rivers meant slipping through their communities in the same way a migrating salmon darts through currents. This transience of the journey had worn on me. Just as the Columbia turned to a wide ocean near Astoria, my wanderlust was transforming to a larger desire for home and community.

         Beyond this personal search for place, there is also more than a little of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Rivers of Change. Steinbeck traveled across the United States in 1959 to reacquaint himself with the country and its people and wrote his impressions. Mullen does the same, traveling from the Gateway Arch in St. Louis on a meandering course that crosses a hat-full of states and a variety of topographies and ecosystems before ending at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. Like Steinbeck, who named his camper Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse, Mullen named his motorized steed Six Pac. Like Mullen’s prose, Six Pac is sturdy, reliable, and well-ordered. My one complaint is that Tom didn’t stretch out more and give us some descriptive literary riffs to match the spectacular scenery, colorful characters, and whimsical detours he cataloged. Also, not being a water resource’s person, I found the frequent stops at dams along the rivers and the detailed descriptions of their inner workings tedious.
          But that said, I enjoyed the quirky histories from Lewis and Clark days; the accounts of devastating floods, especially the “Great Flood of 1993”; tales of exploding and snag-trashed steamboats; and a wandering river that transformed thriving communities to ghost towns and forced migrations of Native American villages. We also have interviews and conversations with a range of characters from pilots, engineers, and biologists to tribal elders, back-to-the-earth homesteaders, and carny-style river rats plying the tourist trade. Names such as Glasgow, Weston, Wolf River Bob, Restaurante Mamasitas, Blackbird Bend, Buffalo Bill Sanders, and Joe Medicine Crow revive some of the intrigue and romance that guys like Captain Chittenden sought to erase by turning the lower Missouri River into a long irrigation canal.
          Along with the human story, we are reminded that prior to the coming of “Western Civilization,” the land drained by these rivers was home to countless bison, antelope, wolves, bighorn sheep, prehistoric fish, and so on and so forth. Today, remnants of some of these populations fight for their very existence. Tom highlights the struggle of dedicated naturalists to save the piping plover, the least tern, and the pallid sturgeon. An effort that is only part of the story in the continuing struggle to resuscitate biodiversity along these rivers in times of changing use.
         As Tom says near the end, “Fixing a river to one course is like asking Pegasus to file a flight plan. A channeled river is like a mythical horse stripped of its magic, a society that never deviates from status quo, or a person who believes they have reached a state of perennial security . . . such intransigence is illusory.”

    Craig Carrozzi, author and publisher, has just published his fifth book, The Curse of Chief Tenaya, and is doing a number of performance readings throughout California to dramatize this historic western thriller and call attention to the possibility of someday restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley which was dammed in 1915.


Review

    Sons of Camelot
    The Fate of An American Dynasty
    by Laurence Leamer (Nepal 1964–66)
    William Morrow
    March, 2004
    656 pages
    $27.95

    Reviewed by Paul Shovlin (Moldova 1996–98)

    THE KENNEDY FAMILY has had its share of tragedy. Some have even felt that the family is cursed, as its most promising members seem to die early. Many of those who died were revered for what they could have done, had they lived longer lives, rather than for what they accomplished in their short, but vibrant time. But after reading Sons of Camelot: The Fate of an American Dynasty, by Laurence Leamer, one is left with the overarching theme of life. The 600-page book is bursting from the bindings with it. The lives of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the Kennedy clan that Leamer introduces to us offer a living legacy, at times one of sadness and turmoil, and become an eternal flame in their own right.
         Sons of Camelot covers the time period from JFK Jr.’s salute at his father’s funeral to the events surrounding his death off of Martha’s Vineyard in 1999. Leamer delves into the details of the lives of all the Kennedy cousins, which can only be understood by the full context of the family, including that of their parents and grandparents. When one takes into account the prolific nature of the Kennedy clan, Leamer’s undertaking becomes understandably ambitious. Joe Sr. and Rose, at the top of the family tree, had nine children. Many of their children had children, and so on. Notably, Bobby Kennedy, had 11 children of his own.
         Obviously, then, the book is an immense undertaking. Leamer is able to cover a lot of ground and introduce many figures, without losing a sense of cohesion. We get to know this varied cast of characters in the same way we’d get to know them in real life, through the elaborate web of their relationships to each other. We meet the main players as children, spend summers with them at Hickory Hill, play hard with them, and grow up with them as they make decisions that will alter their lives. Even for readers unfamiliar with the Kennedy family, it is relatively easy to keep names straight.
         Leamer remains largely objective in his telling of the stories. That is, he puts a human face on these historical figures that may seem larger than life. For example, he contextualizes Ted Kennedy in a way that may offer fuller perspectives than those available in the mass media. Ted is often understood by his failures in comparison to the potential of his late brothers. Leamer doesn’t gloss over Ted’s troubling past, he stares squarely at that night in Chappaquiddick. But, he also gives readers an insight into Ted’s motivations, his demons, and his strengths as a politician. In essence, Leamer makes Ted understandable without attempting to justify any of his failures. Finally, Ted is neither a saint, nor a villain, but a human.
         In a like manner, Leamer’s detailing of the life of JFK Jr. is quite compelling. Leamer does a notable job of chipping away the icon to find the man underneath. Through a combination of outside sources and interviews with friends, Leamer reconstructs JFK Jr.’s struggles with his nearly deified, yet absent, father, and the paparazzi and expectations that came with his name. At times, JFK Jr. is triumphant, for example in his successful work with Reaching Up, a program that granted educational awards for workers in service to those with mental retardation. And at other times, his story does not shine as brightly, like the night in 1999 when he attempted a flight that he was not capable of making, a flight that resulted in his death and the death of his wife and sister-in-law. In moments like these, Leamer crystallizes a historical moment and makes it accessible to the reader. The examples above are only two of many.
         Largely here I’ve neglected to mention the writing itself, and I think that is a mark of Leamer’s skill. The writing is unobtrusive. Authorial intent seems muted. Leamer has a way of writing and organizing that allows the stories to speak for themselves. At times, I forgot I was reading biographical history. In part, that’s a result of the drama inherent to the Kennedy tale, but it’s also due to Leamer’s clean prose.
         The generation that grew up in the age of Camelot will be especially interested in this book. But, for those of us who were born after Jack and Bobby were assassinated, Sons of Camelot offers a lens with which to view the historical, political, and cultural force that the Kennedy family has been in America. Many of the young people in my generation know of the iconic status that the Kennedy name entails, but only in a roundabout way, from stories we’ve heard about Jack and Bobby. When JFK Jr. died, we knew it meant something, but not quite what.
         For this reviewer, this was the strongest point of the book, the functionality of it. The histories that Leamer collects are an important key to a part of our national heritage. Leamer contributes to a fuller picture of the Kennedy family than the one available from the media. As stated above, the Kennedy’s have had their share of tragedy. But they’ve also had their share of triumphs, as is evidenced in the complex character studies of Laurence Leamer’s Sons of Camelot: The Fate of an American Dynasty.

    In Moldova Paul Shovlin was a TEFL Volunteer. Since then he has relocated in Athens, Ohio and is enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Ohio University in Rhetoric and Composition.


Review

    The Stranger at the Palazzo D ’Oro and other Stories
    by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65)
    Houghton Mifflin Company
    January 2004
    296 pages
    $25.00

    Reviewed by Bill Preston (Thailand 1977–80)

    SIXTY IS THE CRUELEST AGE. Or so one might be led to conclude from Paul Theroux’s recent collection of stories The Stranger at the Palazzo D’Oro. In two of the four tales, the title story and “An African Story,” the main characters are sixty-year-old men; in the final story, the shrewdly named “Disheveled Nymphs,” the protagonist is sixty-one. Only the second story, “A Judas Memoir” — itself divided into four parts — seems something of an anomaly with its adolescent narrator and perspective. Despite its placement, this story is a kind of prologue: Its youthful protagonist describes the nascent stirrings of desire from which the tales told by the older men, obsessed with their own desires, seem various extrapolations.
         “The Stranger at the Palazzo D’Oro” deservedly serves double duty as the collection’s title and opener. Masterfully crafted, the tale is something of a Chinese box, opening to reveal stories within stories. The story’s shifting time frame and perspective produce startling twists and turns, keeping protagonist and reader off balance. As the story opens, Gilford Mariner, a sixty-year old artist, has returned to the eponymous hotel in Sicily to begin his tale: “This is my only story. Now that I am sixty I can tell it.” And tell it he does.
         Walking by the pool with his sketchpad, Mariner spies a young woman sunbathing. Seeing her there stirs memory: In this very place, forty years before, he had become intensely involved with an enigmatic couple, a German countess (referred to throughout as the Gräfin) and Haroun, her Iraqi companion. The time frame dissolves, flashing back to the young Mariner, age twenty-one, traveling on a shoestring, with only a small bag, a change of clothes, and an artist’s sketchpad.
         Having arrived at the hotel nearly broke, young Mariner observes the well-dressed, well-off couple having lunch by the pool and thinks: I want your life. If ever there was a tale to illustrate the old adage “Be careful what you wish for,” this is it. Using his drawings as a pretext to attract the couple’s attention, Mariner subsequently proceeds to seduce the countess, with Haroun’s encouragement. And this is just the beginning: only later does Haroun reveal a shocking secret about the countess, devastating to Mariner and reader alike. Theroux foreshadows it, but even if you see it coming — as young Mariner does not — it packs a real punch.
         Theroux introduces other twists, looping the storyline like a Möbius strip. He saves the most wicked and ironic twist for last: Flash forward to the present: The older Mariner is interrupted from writing the story we have been reading by the young sunbather from the tale’s beginning. Now it’s her turn: I want your life, she tells Mariner, bringing the story full circle. As Mariner concludes, “At sixty, I now knew, you have no secrets, nor does anyone else.”
         Theroux’s epigraph for this collection, the ironic opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, is telling:

      April is the cruellest month, breeding
      Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
      Memory and desire, stirring
      Dull roots with spring rain.

         As spring’s manifest natural renewal comes as a cruel slap in the face to the collective, living-dead inhabitants of Eliot’s wasteland, so the onset of old age brings a chilling and cruel awareness, if not wisdom, to Theroux’s cast of early 60-ish characters. If old age brings any wisdom, Theroux suggests, it comes too late to be of much use to oneself or anyone else.
         Be that as it may, Paul Theroux, in the beginning of his own sixth decade, has created in The Stranger at the Palazzo D’Oro a compelling collection of disquieting meditations on memory and desire, mixing naive confusion of youth with acquired disillusion of late middle age. Perhaps another line, from the end of Eliot’s poem, might sum up the import and impact of these stories: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

    Bill Preston taught in an alternative school for students at risk in Yonkers, New York, and trained English teachers in Thailand and Indonesia. He currently works as a writer and editor at Pearson Education in White Plains, New York. He recently published A Sense of Wonder: Reading and Writing Through Literature, a multicultural anthology and ESL reading/writing text for high school and college students.


Review

    Two Years in Kingston Town:
         A Peace Corps Memoir
    by Jeff Koob (Jamaica 1991–93)
    Writer’s Showcase, $19.95
    An imprint of iUniverse, Inc.
    359 pages
    February, 2002

    Reviewed by Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996–98)

    FOR BETTER OR WORSE, Peace Corps memoirs tend to have a predictable time-order coherence, with which every RPCV can readily relate: I applied — I trained — I was posted — I was (culturally) shocked — I taught — I explored — I listened — I (slowly) adapted — I was humbled — I learned. This one, Two Years In Kingston Town: A Peace Corps Memoir, by Jeff Koob, is no exception to this basic, time-honored formula. But this book goes further. It relates the author’s Peace Corps experience in minute detail, almost day by day.
         Jeff, a psychologist from South Carolina, and his wife, Maria, a psychiatric nurse, joined the Peace Corps as newlyweds in their forties and served together as Health volunteers in Jamaica from 1991 to 1993. They were both assigned to work at the University Hospital of the West Indies, on the outskirts of Kingston. Maria was an instructor of psychiatric nursing and Jeff, a counselor and group leader in the hospital’s newly established detox/rehab ward, the only such program in Jamaica.
         This memoir focuses on Jeff’s obviously carefully documented observations and experiences. Maria is often in the picture, but generally very much in the background. We see her, sometimes, but dimly. She seldom speaks. Frequently, she goes to bed early, leaving Jeff free, presumably, to get caught up on his journal writing. He’d packed, along with “a fat Swiss Army knife,” he says, “several blank books to write in” when they’d left for training. He must have filled all of them, and then some.
         When Jeff writes of his work at the detox ward, he shines. Working in substance abuse is difficult under the best of circumstances, and the circumstances Jeff had to deal with there were far from the best. His contribution, as he describes it in vivid scenes and long passages of true-to-life (was he wearing a hidden recording device?) dialogue, is commendable. Anyone working in this field would appreciate his rich account of the challenges he faced as ward psychologist.
         When he and Maria were not working at their respective, demanding (and often frustrating) jobs, the couple took every opportunity to explore Jamaica’s beauty and enjoy the island’s colorful carnivals and reggae concerts. They went snorkeling, birding, turtle-watching, touring, dancing, partying. Again, Jeff paints vivid word pictures of every outing for the reader, such as:

    One of the first sights we saw, approaching Port Antonio on the north coast, was a white, European-looking palace, bright in the tropic sun, incongruous amid the tall coconut palms. It had been built, we learned, by a German contessa. The town itself curves around the shore of a crescent bay, one of the prettiest on the island.

         And he records the sound, too, by capturing the Jamaican patois to a tee (and even includes a glossary). On the way to one outing, for example, Jeff and Maria charged toward the door of a bus along with the crowd, and Jeff managed to get on. He tells us —

    I nearly panicked as the bus pulled out, not knowing if Maria had made it.
         “Did the white lady get on board?” I called out, “Maria!?”
         “Nah wohrry, mon,” someone near the door called back.
         “She ahn de bos.”

    Jeff Koob writes well, but too much. How many readers, one wonders — other than those members of the Koobs’ inner circle of friends and relatives — would likely be interested in every minute detail of their daily existence in Jamaica?
         Two Years In Kingston Town is a self-published book, and, like others of this genre, has an unfinished quality. The reader wishes there had been a copyeditor at the end, to catch the last-minute typos and misspellings throughout. More importantly, one wishes there had been an objective, dispassionate manuscript editor at work earlier on in the process, to bridge the gap between the author’s need to tell all and the reader’s need to remain engaged.
         We really don’t want to know everything the couple did, every move they made, every meal they ate, every opinion about the “most obnoxious” PCV of the lot. We don’t want to read three pages about their ordeal reclaiming their lost luggage at the Air Jamaica baggage office. An able editor would have spared us.
         At the end, Jeff summarizes what he gained from this two-year experience. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, he says, he learned confidence, patience, humility, flexibility, and persistence.
         As a writer, though, Jeff Koob may still need to learn that Less is More.

    Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996–98), an honors graduate of Columbia University's writing program and author of the nonfiction book, Somewhere Child (Viking Press, 1981), was a writer and editor in New York City for 20 years. She now lives in northern New Mexico and teaches Essay Writing at UNM-Taos.


A letter from the U.S. — March 2004

    March 2004

    Dear Michael,
    Pensak, are you out there? I’ve been thinking about damp nights on my step, watching the lightning. Remember? We’d call it television, and watch while we catalogued open sores and thumbed through Where There Is No Doctor. The rash could be Erysipelas (p.212), and the headache, Meningitis (p.185). Maybe we were schizophrenic. The French doctors — the ones who rolled the joints that looked like ice cream cones — we knew that they could save us.
         What were we? 23, 25? Next week, I’ll be 45 and it’s not like 23. I don’t watch lightning anymore because I draw the blinds when it gets dark and television — please don’t get me started. A couple hundred channels and I just watch C-Span. Reality TV, not for idol wannabes, it’s for cynics. Or it’s making me cynical. Pensak, remember that outhouse of yours where you kept the Newsweeks? It was at the edge of the street alongside that sand brick building where they kept the prisoners. I never understood their freedom to be about, in their striped outfits, unattended, with machetes. The thing about the striped outfits was the bright, bright red.
         And I remember the color of the inside of ripe mangos, the pink of His palace on the edge of town, the bleu-vert-jaune of the flag, and the infinite palette of faces in the classroom, against the white and khaki uniforms.
         I was in a classroom the first time I heard a woman wail. She was walking past the windows carrying the body of a toddler like a tray. I thought about this in ‘96 when my father died because, a couple hundred people in a church, and they didn’t make a sound. He came to Gabon. Meeting Bob Nikola soothed him, gave him hope we weren’t hard-core, left-wing freaks. The one thing he didn’t like was the big market in Libreville because of the smells. I don’t really remember smells beyond dried fish and palm wine. And blood. There was a heavy, metal smell to the blood that oozed from bug bites, once scratched.
         But anyway, Pensack, what I’m trying to say is that we failed to plan for being 45, on those nights on my step or at the boite when we tried to talk over the music. Look at us now: post-regab, peri-menopausal, pre-death. I’m not being maudlin, just wanting to know if you know that middle age, technically, has probably come and gone. Actually, given the life expectancy in Gabon, we were middle aged when we were in Tchibanga. So this, then, is my second relative go-round with it. This time, the color is fading away, the world is turning gray. It’s the color of the C-Span suits, the color of some of my hair until last week when, for the first time, I did it. I chose a honey-something brown. You know, neutral, but nice enough.
         But it’s not just the color. At the Shop ‘N’ Save, the mangoes are stone hard. And nothing smells, not even the rug in the living room in spite of one big dog, two cats, and a guinea pig because I buy Febreeze and we don’t eat dried fish. Nobody wails, but the buzz-cut kids being schlepped through Wal-Mart do whine, and their mothers shush them. Some of the women whine too. This town is home to the Brunswick Naval Air Station. When their boys (they call them “their boys”) get deployed, wives whine and write plaintive letters to the editor like, for God’s sake, what? They didn’t read the freakin’ job description when the boys they married enlisted? I still don’t suffer fools very well. Maybe it’s why we understood each other. The biggest fool is this woman who drives a killer SUV with the words, “Support Our Troops and Shut Up” scrawled across a back window that is bigger than a football field.
         Anyway, Pensak, what I’m writing to tell you is that Africa is pulling me back. My kids want to go, even though I thumb, once again, through Where There Is No Doctor, with the oozing chancres, the herniated everythings, and the no-guess depictions of disease transmission. Still, they say they want to go. So, I ramp it up, and describe how flies cluster in the corners of some peoples’ eyes and dogs get kicked in ribs you could count from a kilometer away and not many old people have very many teeth, but the women can smoke their cigarettes backwards. I tell them these things, because I’m afraid that their only frame-of-reference for thinking that they want to live in Africa is the Fetes, where grown-ups drink beer for breakfast and it’s not quite clear which kid belongs to what parent and there’s just all this time, you know, to sit down and talk to people.
         But I want to go, too, and it’s been causing me to think of you. If I go, we won’t write to one another. We never have. We haven’t even talked in five years, maybe six. But I think of you, Michael, and, every time I do, I’m glad that I did Tchibanga with you.

    Peace,
    Melinda

    Melinda Porter (Gabon 1982–83) is a consultant specializing in workforce education and development. She lives in Maine with her two children. Tchibnaga is the name of the Gabonese town in which she lived, as did Michael Pensak, a Fisheries Volunteer. Melinda has lost touch with Michael Pensak and has no idea where he might be in the world.


A Volunteer's Life in Romania

    by Andy Trincia (Romania 2002– 04)

    One-Way to Bucharest
    A Homecoming with Gypsies

    THE BUS DRIVER BARKED ANSWERS to my questions: “The bus will leave on time. You have a seat.”
         As is often the case in Romania, the bus was oversold and standing-room-only. I held a hand-scribbled ticket noting a “reserved” seat number but that doesn’t always stop a stander from taking your seat and refusing to move. I did the visual math as the crowd gathered in no sort of line — the door was not open yet — and was dreading the journey and the boarding itself, always an adventure of pushing and flying elbows. Not to mention this would be another longer-than-it-should-be trip — six hours for 175 miles — because of typically potholed, two-lane Romanian roads.
         “Are you English?” came the question from behind me. I turned around to see a young Romanian man who had obviously overheard my accented Romanian as I spoke with the stern-faced driver.
         “No, I’m American.”
         “American? Whoa. I speak some English. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you get your seat.”
         Pleasantly surprised, I thanked him and boarded the packed bus, which was enough to give anybody claustrophobia. Romanian pop music blared, I mean blared, from the speakers. Indeed, the young man ordered somebody out of my seat and switched seats to be next to me. The bus was barely out of town, heading eastward so I could visit other Volunteers, when he asked if we could practice English conversation. “I don’t speak so well, but I like to. I don’t get chances to practice. Would you mind?”
         His name is Sorin (pronounced Sor-een) and he’s from clear across Romania, some 15 hours away and he’ll be on three buses this day. I asked him what he was doing in this neck of the woods. That’s a story, he says, and we have some time.
         Sorin, an amicable guy in his 20s, has worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet. Technology is his passion and, in his view, a ticket to success. With pirated software and a friend’s computer, and hours spent in Internet cafes, he honed his skills and now considers himself pretty talented. Sadly but understandably, and like many, many Romanians of his age, Sorin wishes to leave Romania because of low salaries and limited opportunities. While some want to go away forever, others, like him, want to make money elsewhere and return home to be near family. It’s easier said than done, as Romanians have visa restrictions in many countries and must prove they have several months’ salary in cash before leaving. Also, an unsavory reputation abroad, especially in Western Europe, isn’t helping. It doesn’t matter that there are respected Romanian writers, scientists, musicians and others here and abroad, but unfortunately, the rap always goes back to the Romanian thieves, beggars, prostitutes and smugglers — not all of whom are “Gypsies” as is often believed — who are frequently busted in Western Europe.
         The bus rambles, bumps and swerves along and finally stops for a 10-minute break. I go and buy two beers for us for the rest of the ride. Sorin told me that part of the story involved him and the law, so I was curious to hear the rest. On this day’s trip, he is returning from Romania’s border with Hungary, where he was denied entrance to the more developed neighbor that is next to Austria and the rest of the European Union. “I was lucky they just turned me away and nothing else happened,” he says.
         He goes on to tell me the real story, talking over the loud music. “Well, you see, I tried once before, with a fake Italian passport,” he begins. “My dream has always been to go to England.”
         Romanians are a Latin people, despite their Slavic geographical location, and many could pass for Italians, at least at first glance. And with both languages in the same family, Romanians understand Italian pretty well without studying it, though speaking is more difficult.
         So on this previous attempt, sly Sorin traveled from his town to Bucharest, boarded a bus headed west, cleared border checkpoints in several countries and made it all the way to Belgium and then into France. He was at a French port about to board a ferry to England, so close he could taste it. Bangers and mash with a pint of bitter? Or at least a good job.
         Suddenly, a snag. The French customs officer does a double take at him and calls over an Italian-speaking colleague. She starts firing off questions and it is obvious that he is not Italian.
         He spends the night in a jail cell and is awakened the next morning and driven to the Belgian border. He doesn’t know what’s going on. The French authorities, passing the buck and blaming their neighbors, hand him over to the Belgians. After questioning and another night in jail, he’s told he is going back to Bucharest. The police car arrives at an airport and he is escorted to a plane. He can’t believe his eyes.
         “I’d never been on a plane before,” he says. “It was beautiful, a private jet, you know, like famous people have. I asked the policeman if I had to pay for the trip. He said, ‘No, you can just thank the Belgium government. Now go back to Romania!’”
         But there was something else — his fellow passengers were also trespassers held in police custody.
         “You know what? When I got on the plane, I couldn’t believe it. It was bunch of Gypsies from Romania and me. Gypsies!” Sorin, seemingly unfazed by his own law breaking, displayed a common prejudice in Romania against the Roma people (generally called Gypsies and other, more pejorative names), who represent the largest minority in Romania, supposedly 10 percent but nobody seems to know for sure. Though they are Romanians, their ancestry is traced to India and other points east and many Romanians don’t want to claim them and flat-out despise them.
          “That was the worse part,” he continued. “When the plane landed in Bucharest, there were TV cameras and reporters. I covered my face. I didn’t want my mother to see me like that, with all those Gypsies.”
         As I was about to get off at my destination, I wished Sorin a good journey — Drum Bun! — and asked him if he would try to leave again, perhaps even legally. “Don’t worry, I’ll get to England!” He asked for my card and, in fact, called me once to say hello. He was still in Romania, but very restless.
         Perhaps by now, he’s sitting in a cubicle somewhere in London or Manchester, pecking on a keyboard. For sure, he’s at least thinking about it.


A Writer Writes

    I Returned

    by Jac Conaway (St. Lucia 1961–63)

    I returned and it was like this.
         My son’s mother died suddenly. I hadn’t seen her for 22 years. It was strange to think of her dead or even to think of her as 44 years old. We were kids in so many ways. Now we are “old” and our son is “my” age.

    HOURS AFTER I HEARD of the Peace Corps I joined, in the spring of 1961. I had just returned from East Pakistan (Bangladesh) where I had my world turned upside down and my eyes opened so wide I couldn’t grasp what I was seeing. In six profound months as a foreign exchange student, I was so astonishingly different that I thought I could never return to my small rural southern farm community. I was wrong about that but I wouldn’t realize it for some years. I just had to keep going.
         My thoughts were tinged with idealism, and some concern (even determination) about avoiding Vietnam but mostly I felt that I had no choice. I had to go.
         I went.
         I went to St. Lucia, West Indies as an agricultural extension specialist. St. Lucia wasn’t ready. It had all happened too fast for everyone really, but I was in such a hurry I didn’t see that until much later either. Our housing was not ready, no one knew how to pay us or find us transportation. I was told a lot about tropical and St. Lucian agriculture but almost nothing about what was expected of me. I loved it!
         It took me about a month to grasp all of this and I made my move. I rented a shack (for $2 EC/mo) with an all purpose room and a “kitchen” outside the back door and I moved to my community of Desruisseaux.
         I worked and played and sang and walked dozens of miles a day and drank SO much beer and rum, — and the women — the St. Lucian women were wonderful. Two years later as I was leaving in June of 1963 I was told by a man in my community (what do I call such earthy people that live in the countryside? They tilled a bit of soil but they weren’t really farmers, they caught a few fish every now and then but even they wouldn’t call themselves fishermen. Peasant is surely not the right flavor even though they were all pretty {materially} poor. Who knows?) that I had arrived as a boy and was leaving a man. I cried at the feeling that passed between us in that moment. His name was Palton Joseph. He almost never wore shoes. He is a rich man.
         But, I’m ahead of myself. It is so hard to write an organized set of thoughts. EVERYTHING I say about my daily life in St. Lucia sets off so many musings. The Caribbean climate. “Another Goddamn beautiful day!” Sweat by the buckets till it wasn’t even noteworthy. The occasional reporter or PC checker upper was a novelty to be endured. Learning to swear or “date” in the local Patois. Trying to figure out what would work and what wouldn’t. Taking care of the baby pigs and chickens that were sent down by the Heifer Project until they could be placed in somewhat trained hands. The days went on and on and I was content with my life and seemed to be an integral part of my community.
         And then my son was born.
         How did this happen? I couldn’t fathom it! All of that rum and warm, summer like breezes in the evening and Calypso beats and rustling banana leaves and the women — the St. Lucian women were wonderful. But a child? I grew up fast.
         It was seven months since I had seen her and now I was hearing from my friends that she was saying she was carrying my child. I could not compute it. I kept asking my buddy (the head master of the local school who showed me all of the ropes in that small community) the same questions. And the answers all came down to two things. Women know about these things and I had better go and “speak” with her father (whatever that meant). I grew faster.
         I went and talked and time passed and I talked some more and my son was born and he was beautiful. I was in a dream world. I was a hero (“The first Peace Corps baby.” A distinction I was not all that attracted to.) and everyone wanted to buy me a beer and fix me food and congratulate me.
         I regressed!
    Time passed. The festival was over, the Christening was over and we all went back to work and pretty soon my time was over. I had to go “home.” I was very confused.
         In the time-tested West Indian way, I went: First to my parents home and then to train new PCV’s for a summer in Maine and to graduate school in Calif. and to my “Career.” But first I had to go back and get this straightened out.
         So I returned. Four years later, 1967 and not much seemed to have changed. The terraces that I had engineered and helped to construct were still there but were not much appreciated by anyone but the Peace Corps photographer (They did stand out!). The kids that wanted to raise chickens had moved on to better things and no one had helped them pass their skills on to another generation. Oh, well.
         Palton told me my son was doing well (I had kept in touch with his mother and sent money and holiday presents). I went to see them, glad I had come. His mother and I talked. She and he would come to Washington, D.C. with me and we would figure it out from there. Jesus Christ! I realized I had a lot more growing to do and it was going to happen NOW!
         They came and he went to school and time passed and he adjusted easily. I had a little harder time of it but I was in my own element so I eventually settled into the new life. She never did make it. It was too big a jump without a decent support system. I didn’t provide that. I was mostly interested in being a father, not a husband or even a lover. I didn’t give her enough help so one day she split and left him with me — in a quick 5 months my life had REALLY changed. I wasn’t all that ready even after that much effort and warning.
         We lived and had some good times and I was happy and also burdened but we pulled together and, in time I met a woman and was married and had a daughter and my son flourished in some ways and showed a lot of stress in other areas of his life. At age 16 things came to a head and it became clear that he needed to go and find his mother.
         She had not contacted me for about two years after leaving. I had written to her father in Belle Vue several times but he said he didn’t know where she was. She was young and apparently had just wanted to be free so she had gone to Barbados. Eventually she returned home to St. Lucia and we had reestablished communication and so she knew a bit about our life and we knew a bit about hers — but not much. My son had to go and see for himself as I knew he probably would. After a 12 year long eternity he got on a plane and went by himself.
         After a week he called (which was quite a feat in those days before modernity hit St. Lucia) and asked how he was supposed to get home. I smiled and suggested he use the return half of his ticket. He laughed and decided that was a good idea. He still needed me for some things. He came back and was changed and life went on. He told me a bit about it but mostly we just went on with our life.
         At age 26 (Feb. 1989) he went to see his mother again and this time was much more open about his experiences. He had other brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and cousins and friends and was full of the new sights and thoughts and feelings. The talk was nice and warm. His sister on this end was full of questions and they talked so much!
         Then it happened — on a Wed. morning in August 1989 I got a call from his 19 year old brother in St. Lucia. She had died suddenly in the early morning. Would I please tell my son? He was somewhere on a camping trip between Denver and Santa Fe with my daughter and some friends but I left a message and breathed very deeply and decided to go back —
         Again, it happened so fast and I wasn’t ready but was on my way anyway. My son flew immediately from Denver. His sister had flown back home the next morning and we were flying the next day to St. Lucia. It was so different to make those arrangements. The travel agent knew where St. Lucia was this time but wanted to give us a vacation package with hotel and rental car thrown in. Was this really St. Lucia? I almost felt as if I were going to a strange new land. We landed and I was back at almost the identical spot where I had first set foot on St. Lucia at Vigie airport 28 years earlier. This time there was no band.
         We were met by my son and his brother and driven to his mother’s apartment in Castries and then I knew it really was St. Lucia. It was hot and not very clean and very crowded and noisy. I was told on the way from the airport that Robert Francis, a butcher in Desruisseaux who was arrested several times while I lived there for stealing and butchering other people’s animals, had just been in jail once more for the same activity. We laughed at “the joke” and I felt at home. The smells and noise and Patois (though English is far more prevalent in the streets than “before”) and vendors and heat and humidity and dirt. I felt at home.
         It was night so we ate (boiled banana’s, cocoa, bread and of course a Heineken beer now made in St. Lucia) and slept and went down to the country the next morning. There is no way to convey the feelings that went through me as we passed Kentucky Fried Chicken on Bridge St. in the middle of Castries. I knew things had changed but I wasn’t ready for that one! I didn’t know whether I felt at home or not.
         A heart stopping 53 minutes later we drove through Desruisseaux past a Shell station. Other than that addition, there were just a few new houses by the road. We stopped on the way to speak with Robert Francis who had gotten out of jail the day before. He was “by the sea” so we went on. I felt at home.
         It was two days until the funeral and preparations were well under way. I hugged my son’s and spoke to her in a very insecure Patois. She understood and replied in equally insecure English. We laughed. My daughter almost fainted from the sight and smell of a skinned goat lying on the table next to a dishpan full of blood (soon to be made into a delicious pudding) but she pulled through and seemed to make acquaintances easily. As we drove back to Castries late that night (too many relatives had arrived for the facilities in Belle Vue to sleep everyone and anyway it is now so easy to get to Castries) she laid her head on my shoulder and asked, with anguish in her voice, what culture shock was. We had a nice talk.
         I quickly got used to saying that it had been too long to remember peoples names but I never got over feeling guilty about it. I was approached by one big strapping man after another asking if I remembered them. Most of them turned out to remember me as their teacher in one of the times I tried to teach in the third form at the local school or as their mentor with a chicken raising project (none of which were in evidence anywhere I went. I didn’t ask.) or as a neighbors kid. It felt very good. I was back home.
         His mother’s siblings had all made good in one way or another. They came from England and Scotland and Brooklyn and St. Croix and also just from Belle Vue. They were professionals and we reconnected and it felt very good. I felt at home.
         The funeral happened and “everybody” came and I had to feel guilty all day. I was astonished that I could still conjure up a coherent sentence in Patois (well, one or two anyway) and was happily congratulated on my effort.
         The next few days were a whirl and suddenly, I realized that I had seen only a very few areas of the island so I rented a car and took my kids on a day long tour of my former haunts. Memories and acquaintances washed by and over me. Langostina and plantain in the market. Heineken beer everywhere, some of it cold even. Many more radios sending out the beat from those thatched houses than “before.” The stunning beauty of the sea and mountains and lush and wild tropical flora. I realized that I was weaving back and forth between being a tourist and feeling myself at home. It spooked me more than once that day.
         Driving on the left side of the road was interesting. I had to keep consciously reminding myself not to get too confident because the “familiarity” was not of the present reality. My reflexes were still well trained to right side driving. That disorienting need to keep a distinction between the world of St. Lucia inside me from 26 years before and the one outside of me at the moment left me wondering about that elusive definition of “reality.” I went on. The car broke down and we would have to get a replacement. I was unsure of whether that could happen in St. Lucia. Then I snapped back to the present and realized that I had rented it from Avis and, of course they would replace it. But, that meant hitchhiking through some back country to get to Vigie and again, I felt at home. I was picked up by someone who knew me and we had a great talk and he went out of his way to get me where I needed to go.
         We eventually had to leave. My kids were ready, I wasn’t. Or at least it seemed like I wasn’t, but I was very mixed up. I had visions of moving back and making my living via modem. It was going to be hard to come back to the present. I got on the plane and have not returned since. The ties are there in the heart and in the reflexes and in the blood line. I am a St. Lucian in some way I can’t now put into words. Maybe I never will.

    Jac Conaway was an agriculture extension agent as a Volunteer. After several degrees in Agricultural Sciences and five years with NASA’s Earth Resources Program, he changed careers and is now a psychotherapist, financial consultant and spiritual counselor in upstate New York. Jac maintains a private practice in New York City, where he lives. He is the director of a small non-profit educational organization and on the faculty of the NY CoreEnergetics Institute and the NY Region Pathwork. He is also the treasurer of both Friends of the Eastern Caribbean and The Rondout-Esopus Land Conservancy Inc.


A Writer Writes

    Meditations on an Old Peace Corps Poem that Surfaces, in a Bar

    by Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962–64)

     LAST NIGHT I HAD the damnedest conversation while sitting on my usual stool at the far end of the black vinyl-upholstered bar at Cimmiyotti’s, an old-time red-flocked steakhouse here in Pendleton, Oregon.

    The setting
    Paul Cimmiyotti — recently deceased — was a damn fine man, rodeo hand, and horseman (Lord, how he could set a horse even towards the end!). But back in the late 1950s Paul came to understand that what this town really needed was some heavy booths laid out against even heavier crimson red walls. Having achieved this in spades, nothing much ever changed except the addition of large framed photographs of his three lovely daughters riding his beautiful quarter horses blasting hell-bent-for-leather into the Pendleton Round-Up Arena as each, several years apart, was named to the Pendleton Round-Up’s Court, all to the applause of thousands!
         While Paul’s picture over the back bar is now framed in black, his place is still frequented by local businessmen, stockbrokers, traveling salesman looking for relief from Eastern Oregon’s full-blown Western bars and seedy dives, offbeat characters like myself, cowboys and local cattlemen, including an occasional cow or sheep baron. Obviously, a good place to talk.
         Anyway, there I was, minding my own new book, Rowland Sherrill’s Road-Book America: Contemporary Culture and the New Picaresque, when I saw a sidling-up movement out of my right eye and heard someone saying, “You’re Tom Hebert, right?” Yea. You? “Mike Goodwin, we talked this fall about the Tribal cattle cooperative and then you took me out to ride your Spanish pony.” Oh, yes, without your hat I didn’t recognize you.
         So, Mike and I talked about Paul who came from the same small Oregon town as Mike, and then more Umatilla Tribal politics and the new tribal soil and water conservation district that I have been working on which could sponsor that cattle cooperative. Mike, in his fifties — and judging from the displacement of his big Ford 150 4x4, pretty well set up — recently returned from several years in Belize where he managed a demonstration cattle operation for an environmentally-sensitive Belizean entrepreneur.
         Now, in a kind of retirement, he goes nuts around Pendleton and the Reservation, seeing the many opportunities for innovative ways of putting cattle on the ground to make some money for everyone while doing some good. Since his ideas could become a startup project for the District, I continued my mentoring.

    A lost poem
    Later, with a couple-three drinks knocked back between us, Mike said, “You know, you were in the Peace Corps, Africa was it? I read a poem years ago which I have never forgotten. It changed my life.” Then with rhetorical effect, he declaimed:

    I didn’t go to turn the desert into a garden,
    Or to realize dreams that were a thousand years old.

      I went because it was different,
      Because I had nothing else to do.

      I also knew I would take the road back,
      Some day.

         “This is my road back.”
         Stunned, I asked him how, since he had never joined the Peace Corps, the poem had changed his life? He listed the countries, countless jobs and travels, ending up, sure enough, running cattle in Belize.
         Mike, you heard that poem about 1970, right? He thought a minute then said,
         “Yea, about then, early seventies. How do you know?”
    Yankees in King Arthur’s Court
    I said, well it doesn’t sound like the poems or sentiments from those of us who joined up in the early years of the Peace Corps. Hell, we went to turn those deserts into gardens and realize those dreams. In my case, it took a while to realize that it wasn’t Nigeria’s fault it would never become a garden again or that its dreams would never come to pass, that the problem was our own government that got in the way, that ignored Nigeria’s plunge towards civil war and worse. I think that by the 1970s, Volunteers were of a more existential turn of mind, with less optimism and romance, less Asking Not. I had to learn the hard way that our American dream when exported overseas, often causing more trouble than it was worth.
         “Yes! That’s exactly what happened to me. It’s our own government — Glad we talked.” We shook hands, promised to meet again, and he left. Pencil in hand, I returned to Road-Book and its discussion of American backroad picaros not unlike Mike and I.

    Is this you?
    Reading along, I underlined the following sentence fragments as useful in defining both the nature of the classic and modern American picaro or picara:

    vagabondage, innocence, their service to strange masters, their trespassing social hierarchies and anti-heroic outsider status running the social gamut of the culture in question, a life lived by their wits, “on the road,” in discontinuous episodes, in narratives pitting themselves against the standing order, a career of “the epic of hunger,” encountering the “social motley,” with an urge for a new order, concentration on a solitary figure — an isolato or outcast — pushed to the social margins, a hopefulness and essentially romantic craving, a notable homelessness, a democrat of experience and characters who gets up and dusts themselves off, entering each new day prepared to begin anew, with trouble finding a way to be in it and of it (the enormously complex American reality), always eccentric and away from the center of American social “normalcy,” eluding masters, remaining unbonded, and with an urge to trespass, to keep moving.

         I’m still debating with myself if all that describes me or my era’s perfect Peace Corps Volunteer or not. It does remind me of Mike Goodwin.

    A little more about Paul
    In his obituary it is recorded that after graduating from high school Paul Cimmiyotti “caught a handful of boxcars” to Los Angeles and while there boxed professionally and worked in an aircraft factory. After service in WW II in the South Pacific, he traveled around some before landing in Pendleton. There was little picaro in Paul Cimmiyotti but he surely had a taste for them. I had the honor to ride with him the last time he rode out from his barn. He still rode tall in the saddle, this time up on a fresh young filly he was bringing along for use in the Round-Up’s Grand Entry. He was 81 years old. His last words to me: “Tom, we’ll ride again.”

    Some questions
    Is the above poem quoted correctly, who wrote it, and when? Anyone out there remember it at all?
         Next, what about any changes that took place in Peace Corps Volunteers as the deadly Vietnam war began to wash against the Volunteer world, rising drug use in the 1970s among Volunteers, Third World economies and governments proving resistant to change, the American government losing interest in both the ever-small Peace Corps and the Foreign Aid budget, while the Third World emerged as a very rough back-alley in the Cold War with both sides willing to sacrifice small countries for short-term gains?
         And, is my analysis of the poem — the end of a romantic era with Volunteers as the new picaresque roadies of our times — right or wrong?
         Finally, does the literature — the mindset — of the Returned Volunteer change between the sixties and the seventies?

    Tom Hebert is currently living on the Umatilla Indian Reservation just outside Pendleton, Oregon where he is consultant to the Confederated Tribes (the Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla) on tribal horse programs. He can be reached at: tlhmavrick@oregontrail.net.

    -------

    NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER:
    Being one who immediately turns to the Internet when a question is asked, I found the following at the website of — can you believe? — “Peace Corps @ NCSU” (North Carolina State University) with an attribution:

    It would be dishonest to pretend
    that I went because I wanted to turn the desert into a garden
    or to realize dreams that were thousands of years old.
    I went because it was different, 
    because I wanted to go,
    because it was a road that might have an end.
    I knew I would not stay forever;
    I never thought of tying my future to this newness;
    I knew I would take the road back one day,
    but perhaps carryng with me a particle of the night’s silence,
    or the day’s honesty.

    — adapted from “Dust” by Yaeldyan
    [Yael Dayan, daughter of Moshe Dayan, wrote the book Dust (NY: Award Books, 1964)]


War and Peace Corps

    The Commander Wore Civies

    by Leo Cecchini (Ethiopia 1962-–64)

    “Where is your weapon?” the District Police Chief asked as we stood at the base of a moonlight rocky hill watching the provincial force search the nooks and crannies for Viet Cong.
         “In my briefcase,” I replied.
         I was in Vietnam as part of the pacification program or as it was officially titled, “Civil Operations Revolutionary Development Service,” the famous (or infamous) CORDS program that sought to “win the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese. How did I get there? I was a Foreign Service Officer at my first post, Panama, when I volunteered in 1967 to go to Vietnam. It was a redundant exercise. The US Agency for International Development (AID) had been unable to recruit sufficient people for the CORDS program. The State Department offered to fill the gap by detailing its “best and brightest” to AID. Any junior officer who was unmarried and had a good ear for languages was fair game. I would have gone, as a volunteer or not.
         We were sent to Vietnam in groups, most after a few weeks of area studies, and the rest after almost one year of language study. I was in the language group. The incentive to learn Vietnamese was direct — as long as you progressed in the classes you would stay at the school in Washington. However, if you failed to keep pace, it was early to Vietnam. We all bet on staying in the course with the hope that it would all be settled before actually having to go. We lost the bet.
         I knew that something was wrong with my approach to the matter when I discovered on arrival by plane in Saigon that my heavily laden briefcase, that I had carefully stowed under my seat to protect me from errant bullets, had slid back several rows of seats leaving me totally unprotected. The next thing I remember we were in a briefing room where the instructors told us not to bother to request staying in Saigon; we were all to be sent to the field.
         After that session I told the instructors quietly that I had found a job in Saigon and that my brother, who was an Air Force Officer, was to be stationed at Tan Sha Nook air base next to the city. They told me that if I could get a letter from the CORDS unit in Saigon, which bore the catchy acronym SCAG (Saigon Civil Advisory Group), stating that they had a job for me, I could stay. The letter was on their desk within the hour.
         Sometime later an Army Colonel, whom I had met in the area studies course, came to Saigon for leave. I took him out to dinner. He asked me why I had not come up to the DMZ to work for him, as had been planned without my knowledge. I replied that I had an important job in Saigon. He said, “Too bad, I had to replace you with an Army officer, he was shot and killed.” I then replied, “Great, if I had gone to work for you I would be pushing up daisies.”
         I spent my first year in Vietnam in Saigon as the SCAG District Representative to the First and Second Districts of the City, essentially downtown Saigon. I was busy organizing self defense units in the shadow of the National Assembly Building, the President’s Palace, and all the rest of the government’s edifices. I also had the American Embassy in my turf. My basic attitude toward building self defense units in this area was that, if the Viet Cong got to the heart of the country, the show was definitely over, and no amount of self defense would turn the tide. Instead we turned our attention to organizing a system for detecting clandestine Viet Cong and removing them from the scene.
         The downtown self defense effort did have an amusing face. The Chief of the First District had all the bar girls on the notorious “Tu Do“ street — a collection of bars and dives known to almost all GIs who had passed through Saigon — organized into first aid units. I was not sure how effective they would have been in helping the wounded, but did know that, if they died, they would do so with a smile on their face.
         While in Saigon I escaped serious injury. Sure there were assassinations of people with whom I worked and the occasional bomb like the one left by some kids that blew out the main floor of the central post office killing and maiming dozens of people. There was also the night the Viet Cong lobbed mortar shells into Tan Sha Nook air base where my brother was stationed killing a few of his colleagues. But it was not front line battle work. Perhaps the worse I suffered was when the bad guys dropped a mortar shell on center court at the Circe Sportif tennis club where I played, thus screwing up the playing schedule for several weeks.
         All was going well when, in an effort to show that we were winning, CORDS decided to “Vietnamese“ my job or turn it over to the Vietnamese to do.The theory was that this would show that our side was winning.
         As further proof that we were winning, I was assigned to a district in a seaside province which had had no civilian advisor previously. My going there was to demonstrate that it was pacified to the point that a civilian could work there.
         I wound up in Thanh Hai District in Phan Rang Province. Now Phan Rang and Thanh Hai were different from the rest of Vietnam. Like all the coastal provinces, Phan Rang was directly on the South China Sea, so enjoyed something of a maritime atmosphere. However, it had the distinction of being the home of then President Thieu and thus boasted the only log cabin in Vietnam. It never rained in Phan Rang so when a car was brought to the province the windows were rolled down once, never to be closed again. Water came from a river that ran the entire length of the province providing irrigation for the whole area. It was also the home of the small remnants of the once mighty Cham people living in Vietnam. They ate no pork so we had the only goat herds in the country. I will never forget my first day on the job standing ankle deep in goat crap and discussing shipping breeding goats to other parts of the country.
         I was the only civilian in a 15 man military advisory team and the Deputy Commander at that. All the other members were veterans of front line combat who had, after spending their time in hell, been sent to this less dangerous assignment. You can imagine their disquiet at having an unarmed civilian as their second in command. However, as it turned out I earned their respect by guiding them instead of commanding them. I also was smart enough to stick to doing the non-combat tasks. While the GIs taught the Vietnamese provincial and district forces good defense practices, I worked with the civilian administration to “win the hearts and minds” of the people.
         We lived in a truly spectacular setting, an old country estate 150 meters from the South China Sea. But to get to the house from the water one would have had to get through claymore mines, barbed wire, a 12 foot chain link fence with razor wire on top, searchlights and machine gun emplacements.
         I had three guises.As head of the civic action program I was assigned a white, closed-body pick-up truck. As deputy military commander I was assigned an olive drab “jeep.” Most ominously, as the Phoenix program advisor I was assigned a jet black “jeep.” The vehicle I was in would announce my role for the day — white for the good guy, black for the bad, and green for the soldier. I always let my Vietnamese assistant for each task start the relevant vehicle in the morning, a trick I learned from my uncle Vito.
         The Phoenix program was developed to locate and identify the clandestine Viet Cong, build a case against them, and then bring them to justice where they would be sent to reeducation camps, thus the name Phoenix for the mythical bird reborn from his own ashes. In actual fact most of those identified were simply removed from circulation.
         I did my job, brought water supplies to several villages, rebuilt destroyed homes, supervised local elections, provided material support for local government projects, participated in self defense organization and had the best record in the province for rooting out the clandestine Viet Cong.
         I also took part in the occasional military exercise. I spent one night with a four-man team from my unit in a village which was not accessible by land at night. I was flown in by helicopter. After dinner I was shown to my tent and bed that stood apart from the rest of the team. It took me a moment to understand why, but I saw that by wearing a powder blue shirt and white chino pants in contrast to my military colleagues dressed in combat uniforms and with faces painted black with grease, I was the most visible thing in the whole area and thus the likely target for any intruders.
         I was also in command the night we had our only attack during my stint in Thanh Hai. My superior, an Army major, was back in the USA leaving me in charge. For the first time in my life I was holding a slam hand in a bridge game when all hell broke loose. The radio was crackling with a report that the District Chief and the District Police Chief had been ambushed while returning after dark to Thanh Hai from a night of fun in Phan Rang City. I organized a unit to accompany the Vietnamese forces who went to rescue the victims while I stayed back at “headquarters.” We succeeded, but the District Chief was severely wounded, and spent several months recovering. After the action I realized that I had made a potentially lethal mistake. A favorite trick of the Viet Cong was to lure defense forces out to a location and then attack the base while they were away.Fortunately this was not the case that night but I never saw another slam hand while in Vietnam.
         Then came the night I went with a team from my unit to accompany the Vietnamese provincial and district militia on their search of a rocky hill for Viet Cong. We found some along with some army deserters and other desperadoes. But I didn’t have to get my weapon out for the task. In fact I never carried it with me and never fired it the whole time I was in the country.

    What do I think of Vietnam and the war there? I saw it then, as I do now, being part of the long campaign following the Second World War to “contain Communism.” Vietnam stood at the end of a train of conflicts between those for and those against a Communist regime — Greece, China, Korea, Cuba and then Vietnam.Communism had not gained power in any country without blood being spilled and in copious quantity, as seen in China and Russia. Vietnam was no different. Should we have been there? Well, should we have entered into the Greek conflict or the one in Korea? To me it was the same, and if one saw the merit in stopping Communism in those other places there was merit in doing it in Vietnam.
         Did I understand the reasons for defeat in Vietnam in contrast to stopping Communism in say Korea? Our Achilles heel became obvious to me one afternoon in Thanh Hai while I was in a planning session with the district civilian, military and police officials focused on rooting out the Viet Cong underground.On the table in the middle of the room was a map of a village in which each home was represented by a square. Some of the squares were outlined and tinged in red. I asked what did that mean. I was told that the red tinged homes were homes with members of, or connections to, the Viet Cong. I asked, “Why are they still there in the village and not removed to another part of the country where they would be cut off from their support?”
         The reply I got said all I needed to know, “But this is their home.” It was an epiphany for me. Suddenly all became clear; we were out in front of the Vietnamese, instead of standing behind or shoulder to shoulder with them, as in Greece or Korea. They were not prepared to do the things required to remove the menace, for whatever reason — family ties, lack of conviction, fear, and greed. I concluded the session by saying they could continue this course of action but, when the Viet Cong took over, they would be there and I would be in the USA.

    Leo Cecchini was in the first group of PCVs to Ethiopia and taught geography and coached the soccer team at Haile Selassie I High School in Asmara, Eritrea. He is remembered by that generation of students in Asmara for having led the soccer team to two straight league championships. While in Asmara, he also taught English at the Greek Community School, and during the summer worked at the hospital for mentally deficient children.
         Following his Peace Corps experience he went into the Foreign Service and has worked for the government and in international business ever since. His full resume is at his web site: www.cecchini.org.
         Leo is also on the Board of Directors of the NPCA and active with the very active Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs, an affiliate of the National Peace Corps Association.


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