Peace Corps Writers
The Non-Matrixed Wife (page 2)
The Non-Matrixed Wife
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     Paul served a semester’s internship in an alternative “school without walls” in Chicago during the winter of 1972. One frozen day, he stepped into a Chicago Peace Corps office; that night, he came back to our apartment clutching a sheaf of application forms for the Family Program.

New directions for the Peace Corps
Records indicate that the Family Program was introduced by the Peace Corps in September of 1969, as a new measure to increase the pool of skilled Volunteers. The Peace Corps would recruit one parent — usually but not always the man, the literature said — to fill an important professional position. The family would come along. The parent without the hot-button job — the “non-matrix spouse,” in PEACE CORPS jargon — would also be trained as a Volunteer, and was expected to find some non-specified type of employment in-country.
     We filled out our paperwork, delivered it back to the office and waited.
     And waited.
     Paul graduated, and we struck out for Boston to find real work. We heard nothing more from the Peace Corps. I worked as an operating room nurse and Paul found a position as a caseworker for the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. The job proved to be a dead-end affair. We grew restless. Paul ranted regularly about Nixon’s Viet Nam politics and grumbled that he wanted to “leave the country until the bastard’s out of office.” One day, on his lunch hour, he stopped in a Boston Peace Corps office to ask about the status of the application we’d made nearly a year before.
     Bingo. Within two months, in mid-March of 1973, we found ourselves in language and cultural training in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Paul had been selected, because of his Army healthcare background, for the Venezuela Hospital Program. And Kym and I were along for the “non-matrix” ride.
     How can I describe our Peace Corps experience? I wrote a long, bad novel based on it years ago; it’s in a trunk in the attic. It’s a comedy. It’s dark. I titled it Weavers In the Fields because I didn’t think I could sell something called Teats on a Bull.

Teats on a bull
Allow me this disclaimer: I know many RPCVs who give value to their programs and the countries they served. I really wish I could count myself among them. Both Paul and I really, really wanted to be of use. But, singer/humorist Kinky Friedman (Borneo 1967–69) claims that during his Peace Corps hitch, he introduced the natives of Borneo to the Frisbee. I can truthfully say he accomplished more than we did in Venezuela.
     Maybe our expectations were unrealistic. Consider our background: it’s hard to find a place more organized, productive and useful than a wartime combat hospital. Paul and I were purposeful cogs in a well-oiled machine. Perhaps, in spite of the Peace Corps manual’s admonitions to adjust our expectations to the political realities of our new culture and adapt to its leisurely pace, we still expected organization, productivity and usefulness in our PEACE CORPS experience.
     The timing of our placement militated against this idea from Day One. Venezuela was, by virtue of its petroleum, the richest country in South America, and it had begun to chafe at U.S. control of its oil production and distribution. We arrived during presidential elections, an every-five-year exercise in democracy that had begun in earnest in 1959. Election years were exciting, crazy, with every building of any size painted with slogans and party-sponsored beer blasts packing the plazas. This year, in addition to the usual politics, all major candidates harangued the public with grand plans to wrest the oil industry from the clutches of evil U.S. companies. Neither the sitting government nor its challengers dared look kindly upon Yanquis, even in Merida, our lovely Andean mesa town. And so Venezuela demonstrated no great love of the U.S. Peace Corps.
     People were not openly hostile to us; Venezuelans tended to avoid overt hostility — except for our first landlord, but he was pretty much insane (more on that later). Face-to-face confrontation was a cultural no-no; if you wanted to find out how someone really felt about you, you might discreetly pose an indirect question to that person’s cousin’s buddy’s cleaning lady’s daughter. Even so, we could feel an undercurrent of suspicion. It had much to do with our pay, which, as I said up front, was fair game for discussion.
     “So you’re a spy,” our neighbor declared.

arepa = a round loaf of bread made of maize      “You are with the CIA, yes?” the arepa seller at the café asked. “Only a spy would be crazy enough to work for so little.”
     We were amused. We explained. And explained.
     People made quiet inquiries about us to North American professors at the university. And the professors, our friends, would vouch for our humanity — but they were careful to establish that they were not professionally involved with us. They didn’t want to appear guilty, by association, of working for the U.S. government.
     Working. That was another matter.
     Paul’s hospital administration specialty was in high demand, we were told. So high that he was called into the country early, before we finished language training. We rushed off to Valencia, to discover that the job he was needed to fill didn’t really exist.
     So Peace Corps/Caracas offered us a posting at the Hospital Universidad de los Andes in Merida.
     The Peace Corps manual suggested that each Volunteer attach himself to a local “counterpart,” someone in the Volunteer’s professional field who could introduce him around and help him find how he might be of use. Paul chose a hospital engineer named Manuel, an outgoing, popular guy who spoke very good English. This was particularly important, because our aborted training had sabotaged Paul’s shaky grasp of Spanish.
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