Peace Corps Writers January 2006
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Peace Corps Writers: Front Page 1/2006
What you can do . . . for the Brookings Institution
Brookings Institution Visiting Fellow Lex Rieffel (India 196567) has worked over the past two years to explore the policy issues related to the Peace Corps and other overseas service options available to Americans. A working group, comprised of leaders from the Federal Government and the non-profit sectors, has met to discuss the recommendations in his working paper “Reaching Out: Americans Serving Overseas.” According to Lex, “the feedback has been very positive and this working group is now developing a more realistic package of overseas volunteer service opportunities which builds on and expands current programs, including the Peace Corps.”
They need your input to be a success, Lex says “The experiences that you have all shared through Peace Corps and your insights and suggestions will prove invaluable as we move forward.” Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And then Sarge said to me . . .
Thaine H. Allison, Jr. was a PCV in Borneo (196264) assigned as an agricultural extension agent in the village of Bandau, a place that is now called Kota Marudu, in Sabah Malaysia. Since leaving the Peace Corps and completing graduate school, Thaine has been a health economist working with the states of California and New York, among others, as well as in several Latin America countries. What he remembers fondly from his years in the Peace Corps during the early days is how Sarge Shriver personally saved him from the army and the Vietnam War.
SOMETIME in the first couple of months after arriving in North Borneo, my wife and I had a visitor at our distant outpost, a small village in the ulu [jungle] that was a five mile walk from the nearest road. Our Peace Corps location was without phones, running water, or electricity. We loved our assignment.
On that particular day when nothing particularly important was happening in town actually, it was like every other day in Bandau our Country Director walked into the village with a tall, good-looking stranger from Peace Corps/Washington. It was the first time I had ever met the man who had sent me into the ulu of Borneo.
My wife and I showed him around town. First we took him to see my fledging agricultural projects, and then to visit my wife’s school where he met kids who were thrilled to have class interrupted by this tall, handsome stranger.
After that, we had lunch and a few beers at our house and sat around and talked about the Peace Corps in North Borneo. We told him about all our plans to bring progress to the ula and how different the village of Bandau would look the next time he visited.
We could have kept talking all afternoon but he had to leave so we packed up some fresh fruit and drinks for the hike back to the the main road and their Land Rover. We started off through the jungle and the five-mile walk to the highway gave us a chance to show off our new language skills as we introduced him to people we met along the way, people we had only recently met ourselves.
White people in this part of the world were something of a phenomenon, especially white Americans, and everyone wanted a chance to meet the tall, good looking stranger. Seeing our small parade, one man jumped off his bicycle, snapped to attention, and saluted us as if we were generals in some army, and not just a Sargent and a couple of young Peace Corps kids.
It turns out, after we asked a few questions of this man we learned that the last time he had met a white man on the trail he was beaten severely with a riding crop. He was beaten by a Dutch planter who had been left behind after World War II and didn’t think the host country national was showing enough respect to a white person. We all realized that this White Man legacy was one obstacle we had to overcome to be fully accepted in the village.
When we reached the Land Rover our new best friend from Washington thanked the two of us in a fatherly way and told us what good work we were doing for the Peace Corps, and he asked what he might do for us when he returned to Washington. Could he call our folks, he asked. Should he tell them how he had come into the jungles of Borneo and found young PCVs who were doing a great job for America and the world? It was, after all, only a couple of weeks after the Cuban Missile crisis, and grinning that famous smile of his, he said mothers everywhere were worried about their kids.
I thanked him and said that wasn’t necessary, but I did have a little problem with my draft board and pulled a letter out of my back pocket, a letter that had somehow reached me in the ulu. The letter from my draft board informed me that I was about to lose my U.S. citizenship for escaping to the jungles of North Borneo just to avoid the draft.
Our new friend slowly read the letter standing there beside the Land Rover in the middle of the jungle, and then he said quietly, but firmly, “The White House will handle this on Monday morning.”
I guess the White House did handle it on Monday morning for I never heard again from my draft board, thought I did hear how, at the height of the Vietnam War, my draft board did send two U.S. Marshals to the Philippines where they handcuffed a Peace Corps Volunteer and returned him to Oakland to be drafted into the Marines.
Perhaps that story was just a Peace Corps legend, another folk tale passed from one generation of PCVs to the next. I don’t know. But I do know that thanks to the tall, good-looking stranger from Washington, D.C. I was able to serve my two years in the wilds of North Borneo and never had to jump off a bike to salute a sergeant I didn’t respect as much as I respected and loved R. Sargent Shriver.
In this issue
Just as Hurricane Katrina was overwhelming New Orleans, Terri Elders (Belize 198790; Dominican Republic 199294; Seychelles 1995; and PC/HQ 200004) and her husband were sailing to Alaska. They missed many shipboard activities as they watched the tragedy unfold in New Orleans. At one point Terri turned to her husband and said, “I’m a child therapist. There’s got to be some way I can help all those children who are being uprooted.” When they returned home, she immediately responded to the call for health professionals to assist in the tragedy and ultimately served with the Crisis Corps for a month. In “A Writer Writes” we publish Terri’s account of “Thirty Days in Beaumont, Texas.”
And finally . . . So You Want to be a Famous Writer?
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567) author of the wonderful new book Girls of Tender Age, reviewed in this issue, was recently on the Leonard Lopate Show on public radio station WNYC when a woman called the show and said she was from a town outside of New Haven where Mary-Ann had grown up and could she call her about participating in a fund raiser. “So she calls me,” Mary-Ann emailed me, “and I’m barely paying attention because I figure she wants a book talk, but instead she tells me she’s recruiting famous women to be models at a fashion show which will take place at a very posh country club. Having always wanted to be a model (hah!), and because I’m so famous, (hah!) I agreed and asked her what the organization was that needed funds raised. She told me it was a group of people who climb under the ramps of I-95 and I-91 and feed feral cats. Ah, the exciting life of a writer.”
Read in this issue of our on-line newsletter what other wonderful things our RPCV writers are doing and what they have to tell us.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers 1/2006
(in English and Ukranian; children’s book)
by Alice Brew (Ukraine 200305)
photographs by Andrew Hamilton
To order the book, contact the author: email@example.com
Downclassing Journeys in American Literature from Melville to Richard Wright
by Patrick Chura (Lithuania 199294)
The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss
by Brad Matsen (Niue 19992000)
Go Wild in New York City
(children’s book: ages 912)
by Brad Matsen (Niue 19992000)
illustrated by Paul Corio and Kate Lake
National Geographic Children’s Books
by Diane Skelly Ponasik (Morocco 196567)
The Night of the Lunar Eclipse
by Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 197374; Ethiopia 197475)
We Wait for You
Unheard Voices from Post-Communist Romania
(Peace Corps experience)
by Annabelle Townson (Romania 200103)
Girls of A Tender Age
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567)
The Heart of the Lion
(Children’s Book, Ages 6-10)
by Pete Watson (Dahomey/Benin 197276)
illustrated by Mary Watson
Literary Type 1/2006
Tony D’Souza’s (Cote D’Ivoire 200002, Madagascar 200203) forthcoming Whiteman was named by The Wall Street Journal as “One of the most anticipated books of 2006.” Kirkus gave it a starred review. A great review of the book also appeared in the January 23 issue of Publishers Weekly. Among other comments, the reviewer writes, “the real surprise of the novel is its fearless treatment of Jack’s sexual relationships with local women.”
Tony also has a 3500-word non-fiction piece in WorldView Magazine [Vol 19 No 1, the Winter issue] about the war in Cote D’Ivoire.
The New York Times Op-Ed page on December 15, 2005 carried a long editorial by Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365) on aid to Africa entitled “The Rock Star’s Burden” where Theroux lambastes the likes of Bono and Bill Gates, and all the western nations for flooding Africa with money. On the 19th there were five letters to the editors including one from Richard Hass (Ethiopia 196769) who is the co-founder of the Fistula Foundation. Hass writes that “Mr. Theroux is right as far as he goes, but I believe the solution is much more complicated.”
The December 12th issue of Publishers Weekly carried a positive review of Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand’s (Guatemala 199193) memoir When I was Elena due out in February. Writes PW, “Hiltebrand’s travelogue is intercut with the quietly powerful life stories of the native women she befriends, and the tectonic shifts in perspective create a rich mosaic of culture and character.” The book was also named BookSense Notable Selection for March 2006 no small achievement.
Interestingly, the publisher, Permanent Press, does not say that Ellen was a PCV in Guatemala, and the only mention of the agency in buried in Hiltebrand’s text.
Check out Ellen’s website at: www.ellenurbanihiltebrand.com.
Our own “friendly agent,” Liza Dawson is quoted in an article on ex-publishers who become literary agents in the December 20, 2005 New York Times. Liza who left her job as the executive editor at Putnam nine years ago to start her own literary agency is quoted as saying, “You can only do the kind of books that that publisher is good at.” While at Putnam, she focused on hardcover commercial fiction, but the publishing house “was not necessarily eager for me to nurture my interest in non-fiction or business books.” Now, Liza added, “as an agent, I never have to give those books up.” [And, we hope, she doesn’t give up on Peace Corps books!]
New York Magazine selected George Packer (Togo 1982-83) as one of their New Yorkers of the Year for his book The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. In citing him, they wrote, “George Packer, who was an initial supporter of the invasion, delivered such a narrative way ahead of schedule. This in medias res arrival makes the book all the more powerful it channels the reader’s inchoate anger at events into a sharp critique. Packer weaves sensitive political history and Technicolor on-the-ground reportage. Most poignantly, he manages to conjure the best intentions that culminated in this tragedy. They were, after all, his original intentions, too.”
Among the many fine reviews that Girls of Tender Age: A Memoir by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567) is receiving was the one in the Sunday section of the New York Times on January 22, 2006. At one point in her review Julia Scheeres imagines what Mary-Ann is like and writes, “The reader pictures her as the wisecracking patron on the next bar stool, nursing a tumbler of bourbon and talking out of the side of her mouth. Smith’s deadpan delivery and comedic timing you can almost feel her pausing dramatically to take another sip before delivering a punch line give the narrative spark.”
Cliff Garstang (Korea 197677) published a short story, “Heading for Home,” in the Winter/Spring 2006 issue of The Baltimore Review. Another story “Flood, 1978” has been nominated for a 2006 Pushcart Prize.
The Night of the Lunar Eclipse, a new collection of poems by Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 197374, Ethiopia 197475), has just been published by Tupelo Press an independent literary press (www.tupelopress.org). Szumowski has published three collections of poetry, including I Want This World in 2001, winner that year of the Peace Corps Writers’ Award for poetry. Margaret is the Professor of Writing at Springfield Technical Community College where in 2001 she was honored with the Andrew Scibelli Chair for excellence in teaching.
In the Sunday, December 4, 2005, Washington Post, Colman McCarthy reviewed Golfing With God: A Novel of Heaven and Earth by Roland Merullo (Micronesia 1979-80). McCarthy, a good friend of the Peace Corps, and fine golfer as well as a fine writer said of Merullo’s book, “Merullo ranks a place in current golf literature. He knows the game,” as he compares the novel with the best of Fitzgerald, Updike, J.D. Powers, and John O’Hara.
An excerpt from Jamy Bond’s (Bulgaria 199596) forthcoming memoir, Mouths Full of Love, about the death of her younger sister as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mozambique will be in the February issue of The Sun Magazine. Another excerpt will appear in the March issue of Practice Journal. You can also read an excerpt of Mouths Full of Love at Jamy's website jamybond.com.
A short story by Jamy, “The Country Between Us,” was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s recent Short Story Award for New Writers.
“The Trouble with Uzbekistan” by Joshua Abrams (Kazakhstan 1996-98) is his latest essay on as he says “my series of anti-Uzbekistan diatribes.” You can find it at this address:nthposition.com/thetroublewithuzbekistan.php. The nth position is a free online magazine/ezine with politics & opinion, travel writing, fiction & poetry, reviews & interviews, and some high weirdness, as they say. It is worth checking it out at: nthposition.com.
On May 1, 2006 HarpersCollins will publish Oracle Bones: A Journey between China’s Past and Present by Peter Hessler (China 199698) who has lived in China for the last decade and is the author of River Town, which is about his tour as a PCV. Oracle Bones is the story of modern-day China and its growing links to the Western world. The title “Oracle Bones” refers to the earliest known writing in East Asia, inscriptions from the Shang dynasty. In this book, Peter looks at China through a kaleidoscopic lens of history, archeology, language, and contemporary culture and follows the trajectories of four different individuals from a migrant factory worker to one of the most esteemed scholars of his age. When the book is published, Peter will be making a 6-city speaking tour: Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Once we have his dates in these cities, we’ll post them on the site.
Clearing Customs by Martha Egan (Venezuela 196769) has been named 2005 Fiction Book of the Year by Online Review of Books. Online said: “Clearing Customs is a sinister, yet amusing tale of an ex-hippie owner of a small, struggling Latin American imports store who joins with her friends to fight corrupt customs officials whose harassment threatens to put her out of business Well written, compelling.”
Online Review of Books & Current Affairs reviews books published by mainstream publishers as well as small and independent presses. It also publish essays, interviews, and news stories with a progressive viewpoint.
Talking with . . .
. . . Joshua Berman and Randy Wood
YEARS AND YEARS AGO I was traveling with two PCVs from Ethiopia somewhere in upcountry Uganda after having just spent several weeks on the beaches of Malindi in Kenya, and before heading back to Ethiopia for our second year as secondary school teachers. We had stopped off at a bar and stumbled upon an old Brit who was proclaiming to everyone who cared to listen that there were too many white people in Uganda and that he was heading out for the jungles of Brazil. Then he ordered another beer and sank back in his chair saying that Africa wasn’t like it once was when you went for years and never meet anyone from back home. I thought: Here was an ex-pat who wasn’t leading what we used to call a normal life.
I hadn’t thought about that incident in years, and then I heard about Randy Wood (Nicaragua 19982000) and Joshua Berman (Nicaragua 19982000) who write for the Moon Handbooks travel series with Avalon Travel Publishing and have been traveling the world since they were Volunteers. They have written two editions of Nicaragua together and Joshua also worked on Honduras and co-authored, with Chicki Mallan, Moon Handbooks Belize (for which he won a Lowell Thomas Travel Writing Award).
Randy is an agronomist and engineer, as well as a writer, based in Washington, DC, and he travels frequently throughout Latin America. Randy is married to a Nicaraguan and recently completed his masters degree in development economics and international relations at Johns Hopkins’ SAIS.
Joshua is a freelance writer, photographer, and trip leader who has spent much of the last 10 years in Central America and the American West. He is currently traveling around the world on an extended honeymoon.
There have been a few RPCVs who have turned their Peace Corps experiences into travel books and a few have done other books for Moon, and all of these RPCVs are characters with whom I wish I could sit down, share a beer, and ask them to tell me stories of their travels. Since that is not possible since I’m leading a very normal life I e-mailed them both and this is what they had to say, responding from various places around the world.
Where are you from and where did you go to college, Josh?
I was born in Clarksburg, West Virginia where I enjoyed an Appalachian childhood until my folks moved us to Long Island, New York. At 18, I went to Brown University, where I received a B.A. in Environmental Studies in 1995.
And you, Randy?
I’m from Westhampton, New York (Long Island) originally, a great beach town out at the end of Long Island with lots of fantastic water and very fun summers. It made an explorer out of me, and infused me with a real passion for islands and travel. I graduated from Cornell University in 1993 with a degree in Environmental Engineering. This year I graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies (SAIS) with a masters in international development. In between, I worked as an engineer and English teacher.
The two of you served together, right, Josh? What was your assignment?
Yeah, Randy and I met during orientation in Granada; we were assigned a room together and he was very proud of the shortwave radio he’d brought down. I wound up serving in La Trinidad, Estelí, a town in the foothills of the Segovia Mountains. My primary assignment as an Environmental Education Volunteer was working with teachers, assisting them to use an eco-themed activity book. Of course it took me the first year to realize that only three out of 120 teachers in the district actually wanted to work with me; once this clicked, then we got some good work done.
What about you, Randy?
I was placed in a little town of 300 people (that's 5 last names, no more!) called San Diego, but I worked as well in an even smaller town called El Hato. They were both in the mountains northeast of Condega, Estelí (Nicaragua). I was teaching soil conservation, crop rotation, and integrated pest management, and trying to convince families to grow vegetables in home gardens for their own consumption.
Why did you join the Peace Corps? Josh?
Peace Corps seemed like the perfect ticket for me to live abroad, learn a language, continue my environmental/service work, and have a life-changing adventure standard reasons, I’m sure, but I could not have anticipated how the experience would affect my writing aspirations. I pushed Peace Corps back a few times in order to continue working for a magazine publisher in Boulder, Colorado, and finally just had to quit the job and head south, trusting the writing gods that Nicaragua would inspire me. It did.
For me, probably because I thought the engineering track wasn’t going to get me overseas. I like languages, unlike most engineers (I speak fluent Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Indonesian, decent Thai and Italian), and most engineering firms I worked for had no interest in what languages I spoke. I looked into a lot of organizations but none could really match the experience the Peace Corps promised. So for me, the Peace Corps was a way to break out of the engineering rut and have some adventures overseas. It worked out too I stayed in Nicaragua for just about 5 years, that’s an additional 3 years post-Peace Corps.
When did you two decide to write your book? Josh?
Well, as co-editors of Peace Corps Nicaragua’s quarterly magazine, ¡Va Pue!, Randy and I discovered that we worked very well together, especially on our co-written editors’ notes, which we would bat back and forth between our different styles and approaches until we knew we’d arrived. We experimented with a few travel pieces as well and always half-joked about writing the perfect guidebook to Nicaragua that did not exist, the book we wished we’d had when we first arrived in Managua (in 1998).
It wasn’t until 7 months or so after COS-ing however, that we resurrected the idea, something which we each did independently of each other on the same day! In fact, our emails, in which I was reporting preliminary research on possible publishers and Randy had roughed out an outline, actually crossed in cyberspace. We hadn’t spoken about the project for months, yet we’d simultaneously begun working together without knowing it a good sign. We pitched Avalon a month later and soon after that I was on a plane to Managua with a signed contract and a deadline.
What do you recall, Randy, about getting together?
The first thing I did when I learned I’d be going to Nicaragua was look for a good travel guide, and I realized there was none. After two years of living down there it occurred to me I could probably write one. Josh and I spoke briefly about it once before we left the Peace Corps and then dropped the subject. About six months later while I was helping manage a two million dollar project for the US Army Corps of Engineers I started to develop an outline of what a book would look like and sent it to Josh. He filled in some of the outline, I began fleshing out another section, and before we knew it we had started writing a book. That’s when we started shopping around for someone to publish it.
Did you sell the book idea to Moon Handbooks before you wrote it, Randy?
We got it sufficiently advanced to have something to shop around, and then started identifying companies that might be interested in the book. I was familiar with and impressed with Moon Handbooks, because I’d relied extensively on the Moon Handbooks to Indonesia (by Bill Dalton) when I was living there from ’93 to ’94.
What set the Dalton handbook apart from the Lonely Planet equivalent was the depth of insight into culture and history, something which the Moon Handbook (and the travelers who used it) seemed to care a great deal about. So I suggested we start with Moon and then proceed to other book companies. Turns out, Moon was in the process of evaluating someone else’s proposal for Nicaragua, but when they saw our proposal they put the other guy on hold and paid attention to us. We spent about a month putting together the proposal sample chapters, outlines, bios for both authors, and an analysis of the competition that made perfectly clear how ready the market was for a book on Nicaragua. So Moon accepted our offer and gave us a tough deadline full manuscript to be due 4 months later! Everyone talks about the pain of shopping around your manuscript and getting rejection letters, but we were accepted by the first company we spoke to. Serendipitous, perhaps, or maybe the time was just right for our book.
Meeting the deadline required a day and night effort writing, researching, and coordinating. Towards the end we were working 16 hour days in a dumpy apartment in central Managua (you can check out our calendar for a sense of our timeline, and photos of our crazy living situation.
How did you go about writing the book, Randy? Did you do separate tasks and then get together?
I started writing the outline in the summer of ’01 and sent it to Josh. He added to it and sent it back and we were rolling. From there we worked separately until November. I was living in Managua where I was managing this $2M Army Corps of Engineers Hurricane Mitch Reconstruction program, and Josh was in New York. He came back down to Nicaragua to begin researching, and we both hit the road every chance we could to start researching and writing. After awhile we got into a constructive pattern of writing, researching, and swapping documents back and forth. Keeping track of it all was easily as hard and as time consuming a process as anything else was. Towards the end (crunch time) we were both holed up in Managua in the PimpTower, writing, editing, and organizing the maps and photos. It was intense and highly fun.
For our present book, Living Abroad in Nicaragua, we’re trying another approach: Josh has been working while on his year-long honeymoon in Asia and India, while I’ve been writing in my spare time while working for the Millennium Challenge in Washington DC, with an occasional trip to Nicaragua for fact finding and research. Thank God for broadband internet connections!
Anything you’d like to add, Josh?
Just that after divvying up the country on a bar-top in old Granada, we set off for our assigned regions, traveling by public transport to every corner of Nicaragua, then meeting back up in Managua to write up our field notes, edit each other’s work, and continue our collaboration on the background chapters. Then we’d repeat the process until we covered the whole country. It was highly intensive, working day and night for five straight months. We also relied heavily on our network of Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the country, which was an enormous mass of collective knowledge and contacts.
What are you doing now, Josh?
I’m in the middle of a year-long, round-the-world honeymoon with my wife, Sutay, a Colorado native, registered nurse, and RPCV (The Gambia 199698). As we pursue various research and volunteer projects (mostly in Pakistan, India, and Southeast Asia), I am posting scenes from our many adventures on the Tranquilo Traveler Round-the-World Weblog and also freelancing for a variety of publications, including Yoga Journal, Transitions Abroad, and Outside Traveler magazines. In addition, Randy and I are collaborating once again on a new Nicaragua guidebook for Avalon’s Moon Living Abroad series the book is an expatriate’s guide to living in Nicaragua and will be on shelves next fall.
And Randy, you’re in the U.S.?
That’s right. I’m a program officer for the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US government aid agency whose mandate is to rethink how we provide development assistance. I primarily focus on Bolivia, but I’ve done a bit of work in Mozambique and am about to move overseas again to run the overseas office of the MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation in Benin, West Africa. That position should provide a nice 2 year warm weather break from Washington’s cold winters!
My wife Ericka is Nicaraguan. She’s currently completing her masters in Spanish-English translation at American University. We got married in 2002 and are happy homeowners in Northwest Washington, DC. We met while she was working for USAID in Managua, Nicaragua.
So you two are a real Peace Corps success stories. Happily married, writing, traveling, and writing books. Could it be any better?
Well, the advances could be more and the sales better.
God, you sound like all writers! Anything more?
Yes, our website sites. Randy’s is www.therandymon.com; Josh is at stonegrooves.net.
Thank you both and when you come to New York, I’ll buy the first round of beers.
It’s a deal.
(in English and Ukranian; children's book)
by Alice Brew (Ukraine 200305)
photographs by Andrew Hamilton
SOMETIMES WE CAN appreciate a book not just because of its content or impact on our lives, but because of what it symbolizes and how it came to be. Alice Brew’s bilingual, family-oriented book of creative activities for special needs children represents a cross-cultural labor of love that grew out of the collaboration of two Peace Corps Volunteers and their host country nationals in Ukraine.
Brew wrote this book as a guide for care-givers and parents when she was working as a Peace Corps teacher at a center for severely mentally challenged children in Vinnytsia, Ukraine. For illustrations, she asked Andrew Hamilton, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, to photograph the activities in her art classes.
The author’s Russian tutor, Laryssa Oleksiyenko, translated the text into Ukranian, and Valentyna Bezdushna, a graphic designer in Ukraine, planned the layout. The book was printed in Ukraine with funds donated by the author’s family, friends and church and initially distributed at no cost to families with special needs children in Ukraine. Now the proceeds from the sale of this self-published book are donated to NADIYA, a non-governmental center that offers rehabilitative activities for mentally disabled children and young people in Vinnytsia.
In her introduction, Brew invites everyone in the family to join together and make art with things from around the home. Parallel blocks of text in English and Ukrainian describe materials and directions for twenty creative adventures with art, including painting, collage, printmaking, modeling, and construction. On each page, Hamilton’s colorful photographs show children actively engaged in each process along with examples of finished artworks, some made with pickles and olives. Facilitating the creating of these fun projects does not require a background in art, so the book should appeal to home schoolers and families with youngsters who are looking for something fun to do when there’s nothing to do!
Eldon Katter is the former editor of School Arts magazine and the co-author of Art and Human Experience, a middle school textbook series (Davis Publications).
Behind Enemy Lines
by John Durand (Philippines 196264)
Puzzlebox Press www.puzzleboxpress.com
IN BEHIND ENEMY LINES: A Memoir, John Durand presents vignettes of rural Midwestern America during the 1940s and 1950s. They reflect the innocent and uncomplicated values Americans today imagine existed during that time: devoted extended family, respect for elders, pride in work, unchallenged religious faith, zealous patriotism, and naive sexuality.
When he was six years old Durand fell victim to poliomyelitis (polio). Left with a slightly deformed left leg, Durand was fanatical about being seen as “normal” by his peers. Durand’s futile denial of his disability is the unifying theme of his memoir. Durand managed the less physically demanding rituals, such as serving at Mass and accumulating merit badges in the Boy Scouts, but his disability denied him success in high school athletics and discouraged him from dating.
Like most boys of his generation, Durand admired the heroism portrayed on the daily radio adventure shows such as the Lone Ranger and in the patriotic movies and adventure novels depicting brave American soldiers. Indeed, World War II propaganda defined his early images of manhood.
A high school senior in 1955, Durand joined the National Guard, “enthusiastic and eager to please” his superiors. However, his tour lasted just four months because of his “bum foot.” By this point in his life, Durand was beginning to realize how much his disability would prevent him from participating fully in activities of “normal” people. His “honorable discharge” stated that he had served with “Honest and Faithful Service.” Durand writes cynically: “Yeah, right. So what? Who cares?”
One of Durand’s strengths as a writer is his ability to capture the atmosphere of small town middle America in the Forties and Fifties. With great respect, he is able to describe life on a small farm where every family member kicks in with the chores, from milking cows to cleaning chickens, to plowing and tilling fields and canning fruits.
Durand’s simple, straight forward writing style is easy to read. However, Durand’s book is about the impact of polio on his search for self identity, a philosophical issue that he fails to examine in any depth until the end. In a chapter titled “Post-polio Syndrome,” he finally introduces his major theme of human duality: “the disconnection between mind and body, between soul and flesh, between the inner and the outer worlds.” Durand concludes:
After polio there was nothing I could ever do about my duality except live with it. That’s all any of us can do. Pick up the pieces and go on . . . whether those pieces include a disfigured face or a diseased body or the loss of speech or sight or useless limbs or those we love. But it took me a long time to learn that.
These memoirs end as Durand leaves home for college. A much more interesting story would be that which covers the “long time” that it took Durand to learn to “live with” his “duality.”
A writer/educator living in Arlington, Texas, Tony Zurlo has published poetry, fiction, and essays in more than seventy journals, magazines, and anthologies including the Writers Against War, Dissent Voice, Red River Review, New Texas, Snow Monkey, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has new poems appearing in upcoming issues of Pemmican and Identity Theory. Tony has published non- fiction books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, Algeria, and Syria (2006)
Girls of Tender Age
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567)
IN THE OPENING LINE of her memoir Girls of Tender Age, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith writes, “Here’s how my father describes our socioeconomic level: Working Stiffs.”
As a child of the working class myself and under remarkably similar circumstances as hers, I was immediately drawn in.
Ms. Tirone Smith spent her childhood in Hartford, Connecticut, in the 1950s. Her parents came from large ethnically defined (Italian and French) Catholic families. She was a smart, seemingly “plain” but feisty little girl who, unlike her parents, went on to college and then the Peace Corps. I followed pretty much the same path around the same time in Jersey City, New Jersey. At times, I felt like I was reading my own life, down to the photos throughout the book that could have been taken from our family album. I especially enjoyed being reminded of cultural touchstones of the times (how about Dondi, Dragnet and Miss Rheingold!), of the rich lode of lovable and often wacky characters in large extended families, of the common female malady of being “on the verge of nervous breakdowns,” of the mysteries of the Catholic faith as interpreted by children, of heating one’s home with a coal furnace, etc. Reading this remembrance of East Coast urban, Catholic, blue collar life in the ’50s, told with a droll humor as well as sparks of anger, was a welcome indulgence in nostalgia.
However, Ms. Tirone Smith’s life differed greatly from mine in two major ways. Her older brother Tyler was autistic, and a fifth-grade classmate of hers was the victim of a serial killer in a neighbor’s yard a few houses from hers. It is the telling of these experiences that makes this book worth writing and worth reading. And it is in the telling of these stories that any nostalgia for the ’50s quickly evaporates.
From today’s perspective, the ignorance about autism at the time and the total lack of resources outside of the family to help the boy are shocking. The result is that Tyler, who is also an idiot savant obsessed with World War II, essentially holds the family hostage to his symptoms, habits, or eccentricities e.g., no one can ever cry out or make any noise without Tyler gnawing at his wrist. He hardly sleeps because of his “rounds” a series of actions or rituals he needs to take to negate things that stir up the demons in his head from the color red, to a touch, to looking in a northerly direction. The family goes to extraordinary lengths to accommodate him and care for him for years and years with no help from anyone except relatives who occasionally provide them some respite. Ms. Tirone Smith’s father especially carries the burden her mother escapes through night work, bowling, golf, seemingly anything that takes or keeps her from home a good part of the time. The author clearly loved her brother and is quite sanguine about the impact he had on her and the family. Yet, she clearly experienced shame, distress and a compromised childhood because of him. She writes, “The good that comes of being raised in a loony bin is our ability to weather the most awful of crises remain calm and take care of business.”
Despite its horror, the story of the serial killer was actually less interesting to me than the story of Tyler, and certainly less inspiring. (I wonder if the story of serial killers preying on young girls has become too commonplace?) Ms. Tirone Smith alternates chapters of the book between the chronicle of her own life and that of Robert Malm, the killer, until they intersect with the murder of her classmate. Her memories of how her family, her school and the community managed the aftermath of the crime with the children stands in stark contrast to how such traumas are handled today. In this book Ms. Tirone Smith makes amends to the memory of her friend and finally addresses and resolves her own suppressed feelings about the case. In my view, she errs by drowning us with too much detail about the investigation of the case, the appeals, and even the execution of the killer. The extensive number of pages devoted to these details detracts from the narrative arc and central themes of the memoir. Reading those chapters made this reader feel as though she was into another and different kind of book, and I was eager to return to the story of the author, her brother, her parents, her aunts and uncles, etc.
One doesn’t have to have grown up, as I did, at the same time and under the same circumstances as the author to enjoy reading this book. Girls of Tender Age is a well-told story of family life the bitter and the sweet. And, in the compelling story of her brother’s journey in life, Ms. Tirone Smith provides an instructive tale of courage, devotion and love in the face of formidable challenge.
Maureen Carroll (Philippines 196163) lives in Washington DC. Somewhat retired, she has recently returned to contract work for Peace Corps, training new country directors for a few months a year. Otherwise, she finds numerous, thoroughly satisfactory ways to enjoy life, including reading good books like Girls of Tender Age.
Hang In There
My Journey of Service Living in Caribbean and West African Cultures
by Elizabeth J. Quinn (Jamaica 198588, Sierra Leone 198990)
READING THE LAST PAGES of The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer, I was surprised to encounter the phrase, “Hang in there!” spoken by one of Gary Gilmore’s attorneys to Gary on the day he was executed. It must have been more than a coincidence, with Hang In There lying on the couch next to me, waiting to be read. Both books struggle to come to terms with the human condition, whether the fate of a death row inmate or the plight of school children in Jamaica and Sierra Leone.
Hang In There is a book that anyone over the age of 50 who is considering the Peace Corps should read. As Elizabeth wrote in a letter home from Sierra Leone, “All younger Volunteers have gained weight. All over 50 looking quite tired, drained, and very thin.” Elizabeth served close to three years in Jamaica but ended her service in Sierra Leone after a year. It is quite effective to read about the two tours back-to-back, one highly successful, the other less so.
Elizabeth served as a business education Volunteer in both countries during the eighties. Typing was a key component of this education, and very few people in either country had a grasp of keyboarding, a skill that is critical in today’s business world because of the advent of personal computers and laptops.
Many of the issues Elizabeth faced in both countries will be familiar to all Returned Peace Corps Volunteers: crowded, dangerous public transportation, difficulty getting enough clean water, little or no electricity, dirt everywhere, poor sanitation. Issues that are perhaps more unfamiliar to many RPCVs were present in Sierra Leone and included public flogging of students in the school where Elizabeth taught, polygamy, and the wife of her school’s principal insistence that their daughters undergo the rite of female circumcision at puberty as part of the initiation to the secret Bundo Society.
Elizabeth felt that she had failed because she did not complete her second Peace Corps assignment, but perhaps in the end it was really the more successful of the two. She confronted her school’s principal with the most serious issues that had hindered her during her work at the school, and during the week she was in-charge as Mistress she demonstrated that it was possible to run the school without resorting to public flogging of students. Additionally, as I read through the memoir, I noted a definite change in Elizabeth herself, from being a somewhat passive traveler in her life, to becoming a much more aggressive leader in it.
I am not sure why the decision was made to capitalize all of the journal entries in Hang In There, but because there were many of these long entries during her stay in Sierra Leone, it added to the more confrontational feel that the second half of the book had. It was somewhat difficult to read the capitalized text, so perhaps it would have been better to indent the text or find some other way to denote journal entries.
Martha Martin is currently an Admissions and Academic Consultant at the School of Management at George Mason University. She is also writing a creative non-fictional account of her own experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Costa Rica, but it is a very slow-going endeavor.
by Bryant Wieneke (Niger 197476)
IN 1965, PRESIDENT JOHNSON ASKED Secretary of State Dean Rusk to pull the Peace Corps out of Santa Domingo because the Marines were going in to protect American lives and property. Rusk responded in essence by saying that the United State has more than one foreign policy and he would not comply with the president’s request. As it turned out, Peace Corps nurses treated wounded Santa Domingons. The idea of having more than one US foreign policy comes to the forefront in Priority One with the caveat that it is post 9/11.
One prominent character in the book is a USAID worker who worked at the State Department, but left that position to become an AID worker following 9/11. He is assigned to a Northwestern African country to study and improve the availability of potable water, given the long term impact of the drought in the Sahel. Once there he agonizes extensively over whether his mission will ultimately improve the lives of the residents of the country.
Another character is a former colleague of the AID worker who also left State following 9/11. But he has become a CIA operative in the same Northwestern African country. His mission is to illuminate a weapons factory so that a B-2 Stealth Bomber can destroy the factory because U.S. intelligence believes that terrorists are using it to produce weapons-grade uranium.
Among the other characters is a Russian woman who is overtly trying to harvest water and grow crops using an underground trickle system in this parched land. As the story develops it is revealed that she is a KGB agent in on the scheme to destroy the factory. The factory was originally developed by the Russians, but was sold to some local terrorists, and the Russians are embarrassed that they did not take more care in disposing of the factory and let it fall into the hands of the terrorists. Thus, Russia is now working with the Americans to destroy the factory.
And, finally, there are two disaffected young men from the country itself. For them, the United States has replaced the former French colonists as the object of their hatred because of its economic and cultural dominance, and they are recruited by the terrorists and ultimately end up guarding the factory.
All of these people’s lives intertwine when the AID worker is coerced by the CIA operative to take him to the factory to check it out. That evening the AID worker has a one-night fling with the KBG agent not knowing her true reason for being in the country.
The CIA operative sustains a crippling fall, and he and the KBG agent coerce the AID worker into illuminating the target for the B-2 bomber crew. During this time the AID worker and the CIA operative each address the pros and cons of their respective missions. This becomes the stuff of the overseas experience of having to consider the greater good following 9/11.
Finally, like the two former State Department colleagues, the bomber crew also has a difference of opinion in their approach to combat. The pilot, who would be considered a “hot dog” in military flying parlance, and has made a vocation of reading military history and thinks that war should be avoided at all cost, chokes at the first pass at the illuminated target and does not release his bomb. His co-pilot, an older “by the book” pilot, takes over the mission and makes a second run at the target, hoping that it is still being illuminated. The AID worker continues to illuminate the target hoping that the bomber would return after failing to drop its ordinance on the first pass.
Following the destruction of the factory, the AID worker and the KBG agent narrowly escape being confronted by the two terrorist guards.
The final kicker is that, after failing to waylay the AID worker and the KGB agent, the two terrorists contact their base camp and learn that while one factory was destroyed there is another that was not. This leaves the reader with a feeling that another drama could unfold in a sequel Priority One, Number Two? Two such books would be good candidates for a series of two films. In fact, Morocco has been the host to a number of desert films and most theater audiences enjoy watching things blow up as part of a twisty human drama.
Priority One successfully explores how things have changed in the post 9/11 world. The continuing failure of nations to address long term programs such as education and health results in the recruitment of terrorists from among the billion people in the world who are poor. The lack of opportunity for many to earn a decent living is also the result of the short-term self-serving nature of the developed world. Special interests conspire with their governments to retard development in lesser developed countries by protecting their agricultural subsidies for such commodities as cotton, fish and grain. These subsidies result in artificially lower prices compared to those for the same products in developing companies. This also results in nations like the United States and France dumping surpluses on the world markets further depressing prices for those same commodities.
In the early ’80s legislators in the US Congress had to choose between foreign aid to lesser developed countries and antipoverty programs in their districts. They had to plunk for the latter in order to “deliver” Federal funds back home. This was the inception of the loss of long-term resolve to make the world a better place to live. In addition, the long-term needs of people in developing nations have been replaced by short-term anti-terror goals that ironically have arisen for the absence of the former.
A good example is the war in Iraq which has become a recruiting ground for disaffected youth around the world. And it is not just Al Qaeda, but a host of similar independent organizations without any affiliation. Before the invasion of Iraq, it was estimated that there were about 70 such organizations and as we have recently seen, Al Qaeda and other groups are even warring among themselves over strategies for resistance in Iraq.
The book offers an interesting review of this less than “brave new world” and besides being a good read, it is thought provoking.
David Gurr has trained Peace Corps Trainees for Brazil and Turkey, served as a social science researcher in Viet Nam, studied anti-policy poverty and economic growth policy, and for the past 40 years has worked with anti-poverty programs at the federal and the city level, overseeing anti-poverty grants. Also, for the past 11 years, he has served as a project officer with AmeriCorps/VISTA.
Tortillitas Para Mama
And Other Nursery Rhymes/
Spanish and English
Selected and translated by Betsy L. Bucks (Colombia 196466), Margot Griego, Sharon S. Gilbert and Laurel H. Kimball; Barbara Cooney (illustrator)
Reviewed by Karen Williams (Malawi 1980-83)
BRAVO TO THE PUBLISHERS for reprinting this appealing collection of simple Latin American nursery rhymes. Playful verses collected by the authors through the oral tradition are written both in Spanish and English, some with suggestions for finger plays.
The verses, each only several lines long, provide lovely images as well as pure fun with language. The collection begins with a dream at dawn about an angel. The child wakes to find Mama and a good morning kiss. Near the end of the book the moon appears:
|Ahí viene la luna
Echando las Cáscaras
En esta laguna
||Here comes the moon,
Throwing the waste
Into the pond.
The bilingual experience provides an excellent opportunity for young children to begin to experience and appreciate different languages and cultures.
Each poem is accompanied by the rich, warm paintings of Barbara Cooney, the well loved master of children’s book illustration. The pictures are simply rendered but full of detail adding an authenticity to the cultural experience.
Some adult readers may be overly sensitive to one verse where Mama gets the burned tortillitas and the best are saved for Papa. In another verse a little girl may be beaten if she soils her dress. But these experiences, very real for some children and so simply stated, add to the authenticity of this book and will provide thought and discussion for even the youngest readers.
Today, especially when children are more apt than ever to be sitting in classrooms with children who are immigrants and refugees from far away lands and vastly different cultures, there is a need for this kind of book to be shared. There is too little fine literature published for children today that provides a true meaningful insight, into different cultures. The bilingual component in Tortillas Para Mama is an added bonus.
Karen Williams, author of the award winning Galimoto and several other books for children about Africa and Haiti, has two new picture books about refugee children due out in 2007.
Downclassing Journeys in American Literature from Melville to Richard Wright
by Patrick Chura (Lithuania 199294)
Reviewed by David Espey (Morocco 196264)
THIS ENGAGING STUDY traces in life and in literature the curious but persistent belief among genteel Americans from the mid-19th to mid-20th century that descending to a lower-class existence would strengthen one’s character and spirit. Living among the poor and working for their betterment promised “vital contact,” an invigorating and restorative experience that would benefit the middle-class individual as well as the poor laborer.
Patrick Chura scrutinizes this inversion of the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches myth among American writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne to John Steinbeck and Eugene O’Neill. He finds that downward mobility was frequently an illusory, often futile, experience but also a social phenomenon that provided writers with rich and dramatic material.
What led privileged Americans to give up at least temporarily a comfortable and respectable existence for the hardships of life among the poor?
Perhaps it was a discontent with the “unmanly ease” of the middle class and a romanticization of the virtues of the poor, often sustained by a genuine desire to help one’s fellow man. Men were drawn to the masculine challenge of proving themselves by roughing it, but many women also went to live among the poor.
Chura locates the literary roots of American downclassing in mid-nineteenth century communal moments like Brook Farm, the back-to-nature sentiments of Thoreau’s Walden, and the submission to the hard life of the common seaman by Herman Melville and his literary characters. Teddy Roosevelt provides a later example of escaping “overly domesticated male selfhood” though strenuous physical life in the American West.
The ascetic traditions of Christianity obviously influence a belief in the redeeming quality of living among the poor, but Vital Contact probes the psychology and the politics of downclassing rather than any religious sentiment. Indeed, as Chura makes clear in his reference to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), downclassing was a kind of religious experience without religious doctrine, a moral reaction to the excesses of American capitalism. As James put it, “We have grown literally afraid to be poor . . .. We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealization of poverty could have meant: the liberation from material attachments . . ..”
Journalists like Nellie Bly in the late nineteenth century exploited the sensationalism inherent in the genre by, in effect, adopting disguises, working briefly in sweatshops and factories and then publishing exposés. Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1903), though it detailed British rather than American urban squalor, has some of the same underground quality.
But Vital Contact is dominated by the figure of John Reed, the Harvard graduate who rallied striking workers in Paterson, New Jersey, by teaching them college fight songs and staging a worker’s pageant in Madison Square Garden before going off to fight and die in the Russian Revolution. Less dramatic but perhaps more effective were the women who became social workers among the urban poor in the tradition of Jane Addams and the Hull House movement.
These real-life characters inspired novels that probed their motives and questioned their success. Chura draws attention to the first novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, Ernest Poole’s now-unknown The Harbor (1915) as well as Max Eastman’s Venture (1927), both of which mirror (and question) Reed’s heroic involvement in the Paterson strike. These two novels, as Chura shows, act as “a corrective to the myth of seamless cross-class association.” The better-known USA trilogy by John Dos Passos details the sad failure of American socialism and labor movements in this period. Mary French, the devoted social worker who leaves Vassar to better the plight of the workers, is not revitalized by her contact with the poor. To the contrary, at the end of the trilogy, she is in ill health, burnt-out, exhausted, and disillusioned by the “laborfakers,” middle-class individuals whose dedication to the poor is a fantasy or a sham.
One of the values of Vital Contact is that it clearly relates the naïve and hopeful beginnings of downclassing in nineteenth-century American culture to the psychological complexities and political failures of such actions in the first half of the twentieth century. The best literature about downclassing focuses more on the dark ironies of this human impulse. From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s exposure of communal idealism in The Blithedale Romance to Richard Wright’s Native Son, in which a wealthy and well-meaning white woman is savagely murdered by a black worker, the “vital contact” promised by downclassing is shown to be anything but therapeutic. Yet it provided great literary material for writers from Melville to Steinbeck. In its own way, Chura’s study helps illuminate the axiom in American literature that “Nothing succeeds like failure.”
I wonder how literary treatment of downclassing in England, a society which was even more haunted by class rigidity and class guilt, compare with such activity in America? (George Orwell’s 1933 classic in the genre, Down and Out in Paris and London, owed a good deal to the American Jack London’s The People of the Abyss.) Although it is not within the realm of Chura’s study, British literature of downclassing must surely have influenced American writing, and vice versa.
A second question: How might the concept of “vital contact” apply to one’s Peace Corps experience? It is easy to imagine how Chura’s own service as a Peace Corps Volunteer could have influenced his interest in the topic of Vital Contact. More than once while I was reading the book, I thought of Moritz Thomsen’s Living Poor, still the best Peace Corps memoir I’ve seen. Former Peace Corps Volunteers may recognize in their own experience some of the issues Chura discusses in his book with the difference that we were traveling to a foreign culture outside of the U.S. rather than within it.
David Espey teaches in the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a Fulbright Lecturer in Morocco, Turkey, and Japan. He recently published an anthology of travel literature Writing the Journey (Longmans, 2004) (reviewed in Peace Corps Writers, March 2005). His essay/memoir on Paul Bowles is in Peace Corps Writers, January, 2002.
A Writer Writes
Fe, Fi, Foe FEMA
Thirty Days in Beaumont, Texas
by Terri Elders (Belize (198790); Dominican Republic (199294); and Seychelles (1995); PC/HQ (200004)
Just as Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed New Orleans, Terri Elders and her husband were sailing to Alaska. They missed many shipboard activities as they were huddled in their cabin watching with increasing dismay as the tragedy unfolded in New Orleans. At one point Terri turned to her husband and said, “I’m a child therapist. There’s got to be some way I can help all those children who are being uprooted.” When they returned home, she immediately responded to the call of the Department of Health and Human Services for licensed health professionals along with 30,000 other medical personnel she later learned.
In September, she received an e-mail from the Crisis Corps that was sent to many RPCVs, and, having heard nothing from HHS, Terri sent in her application. Though at the moment she is an AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer, she received permission from her state office and her agency, Rural Resources Community Action, to serve with Crisis Corps for a month.
“When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.”
AS I WRITE THIS on the Winter Solstice, exactly two weeks have elapsed since I returned to Colville, Washington, from my 30 days deployment in Beaumont, Texas, as a FEMA “affiliate.” As a former Peace Corps Volunteer, I had been invited to serve with Crisis Corps through the Katrina Initiative, which marked the first time in the Peace Corps’ 44-year history that Volunteers have worked domestically.
Thrilled to be one of 272 Crisis Corps Volunteers to serve in the six Gulf States since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had ravaged the southeast, I was equally overjoyed to return home. The twelve-hour, six-day weeks had worn on me. Now, two weeks later, I’m still not quite yet wholly in the holiday spirit.
Though Peace Corps has always maintained that its Volunteers overseas should expect to be challenged, to have their patience and mettle tested, to be pulled, pushed and forced into new ways of thinking and behaving, I had never anticipated experiencing culture shock and life-changing experiences within the borders of my own country, or, even more improbably, be slapped by reverse culture shock upon returning home. As I go about my holiday preparations, I am haunted not by ghosts of Christmas Past, but by specters far more corporeal.
This past weekend as I decorated our Blue Spruce with the miniature violin from Vienna, the embroidered red heart from Kenya, the carved parrot from Costa Rica, I reflected on the kind of Christmas the people I saw at the Beaumont Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) would be experiencing. And I thought how not only my holidays but my life would be altered if all of my possessions suddenly had ceased to exist, not only ornaments, childhood photographs, souvenirs from my travels, but my income tax returns, birth certificate, marriage license, either washed away in the floods of New Orleans, or melted by mold in the travel trailers of Beaumont.
I wondered about the carefully coifed 74-year-old ash blonde who had sobbed that she might as well put a gun to her head if she were to be put out of her midtown Holiday Inn on the December 1 deadline FEMA initially had announced for its hotel and motel residents to find other lodging. Though FEMA and Texas agreed to extend this deadline until February and she does have a room, will she go to church on Christmas morning? She had confided that she had lost 40 pounds since Rita roared over Beaumont, destroying her travel trailer and all of her personal belongings. She had one decent outfit that fit, purchased at a Goodwill store, but felt God was punishing her for some unknown reason.
Over the weekend as I pushed my cart through the pet supplies at Wal-Mart, I lingered to select a stocking of doggy treats for my akita. Then I remembered Cathy, the young woman who had broken her collarbone in an auto collision just days before Rita swooped through. A mandatory evacuee, she had been bussed to Houston, to be housed in a hotel there, hours from her local physician and available medical treatment. Her border collie, Heidi, had not been allowed on the bus, so she put her into a local kennel for safekeeping, but the pet escaped during the aftermath of the hurricane. Now Cathy roamed around Beaumont posting flyers, praying for Heidi’s return.
As I wrapped packages for family, I thought about the father and son who came into the Disaster Recovery Center weekly to check on the status of their applications for personal property damages. Dad had been evacuated earlier from New Orleans when his 9th Ward home had been washed away. Then he and his Beaumont son fled oncoming Rita. “I’m Rita,” the son used to identify himself with a wry grin, “and he’s Katrina.” He was savvy to FEMA’s habit of identifying applicants by disasters. “We’re just glad we got each other,” he added, “Even though we go by these girls’ names nowadays.” His father giggled.
Luxuriating in a bubble bath last Sunday afternoon, I thought about the FEMA folks who had been working 12-hour days, 7-day weeks for months, and how little rest and relaxation they might be getting over the holidays. Though we received contradictory instructions daily, and nobody seemed to be sure what rules and regulations were currently in effect, the FEMA workers on the ground showed endless patience and compassion for those who had survived the disasters.
How must they feel when people entered the DRC wearing popular anti-FEMA t-shirts (“FEMA: Fix Everything, My Ass” or “FEMA: Forget Every Minority American”)? What inner reserves did they call upon to continue day after day, week after week, with people who had drifted to the outer edges of civility. I remember the man who started shouting the minute he got to the reception area: “I’m an American citizen! I’m a member of the NRA!” Albert, one of the lead supervisors, attempted to introduce himself, offering his hand. His courtesy was met with a screamed, “I’m not shaking your hand, you jerk!” Yet within half an hour Albert had settled the man, navigated through the FEMA database to discover what had happened to his reimbursement checks, and received an appreciative clap on the back as the man exited.
As the days drew closer to the holidays people became more desperate. “I’m hoping for a reimbursement for my generator and chainsaw before Christmas,” one man explained. “I won’t have any money to buy presents this year for the kids.” “My baby and I have been sleeping on the floor of my disabled father’s subsidized housing, and he’ll be evicted if they discover us.” “What’s taking the government so long to give us what we’ve been promised?” “What happened to the forms I faxed FEMA two months ago?” “How come all my friends and neighbors got their $2000 emergency assistance and I’ve been found ineligible?”
Some of the strangest stories were from applicants who came in with bundles of photographs of their ruined home. Clearly, a tree occupied most of a kitchen. Clearly, an entire wall had collapsed in a back bedroom. Yet the inspector had recorded “insufficient damage.” I began to hear stories of FEMA inspectors who would not enter homes, just browsed around outside. One man claimed he hopped into his car to chase down a departing inspector who refused to return and look at the upstairs where the damaged property was. Others claimed their inspector had been named Nicolas Cage. Or James Bond.
One of our Crisis Corps Volunteers came to me in reception with a personal request. “Could you send me only happy people for the rest of the day? I’m exhausted by people yelling at me.” Even some of the FEMA stalwarts had begun to snap at one another and at us. FEMA staff cautioned us we should probably bring a change of shirt should we plan to get a quiet dinner immediately after work. Though it was not mandatory that we wear our FEMA shirts, I felt uncomfortable in mine, a little like an impersonator.
After Thanksgiving, the Texas State Manager’s office attempted to promote some holiday spirit, draping with candy canes the boxes in the reception area that contained granola bars, Goldfish, and other snacks for the famished. I watched a trio of female evacuees from Orleans Parish stuff handfuls into their purses and pockets.
A few hours later a young woman asked what she could do to obtain food stamps, no longer being issued at the DRC. I directed her to the candy cane man, knowing that his office had cartons of canned spaghetti, chili, corn, cereal and raisins for the neediest people coming through. I was sorry I had neglected to let the women from Louisiana know of this resource.
One cheerful young man who came in to talk with the Small Business Administration about repairs to his church, where he had been a choir director, demanded to know what we had against Christmas music. I explained that the former preschool where the DRC was housed probably had no sound system. Even so, I agreed, music might lift people’s spirits.Then again, I was reminded that we had many clients in the building to arrange for hurricane-related funerals, and maybe they would not appreciate a festive atmosphere.
Late one afternoon a car in the neighborhood hit a power line, plunging us into darkness. The people in the waiting room began to joke, “There goes FEMA, still keeping us in the dark.” Sometimes it almost seemed true, that secrecy and evasion had become a way of operating. For instance, though the Army Corps of Engineer’s Blue Roof tarp program had ended the Saturday after Thanksgiving, people continued to complain that their tarp had blown away and that it was raining inside their living room. FEMA supervisors came around and tore down the flyers with the telephone number we’d been told to give out. “That number’s no longer in service.” When I asked what to tell the complainers, I got a terse reply: “It’s the homeowner’s responsibility. Tell them to climb up on the roof with some duct tape.” Even if they are in their 80s? Even if they are in walkers and wheelchairs?
Examples of inefficiency emerged daily. One afternoon as new people were being trained, all the experienced people were taken away from the computers to do menial tasks while the trainees were left with only a lead supervisor to answer questions. This was on a day that I had logged 310 people into the reception area, all with dozens of questions about their cases.
Another day the FEMA management announced that the three Crisis Counselors, who had been sent from Houston, no longer would be available. Some of our group would be told we would substitute. A nurse and a substance abuse counselor stepped forward, and I, a licensed clinical social worker, agreed to do some backup, even though Peace Corps, mostly for legal purposes, forbids volunteers from providing clinical services. Though I explained this to the FEMA official, his response was that he would be the one who would determine who would do what in that setting. Fortunately a new crew of contract counselors soon arrived so I could escape from this double bind.
One morning a lead supervisor brought me 24 forms that needed to be replaced in the FEMA handbooks. All the old forms on the shelves had to be discarded and new sets had to be made. The only change was that the acronym JFO (Joint Field Office) had to be substituted for DRC (Disaster Relief Center). I had photocopied sets for about four of them when another lead supervisor took the handbook away from me and told me to throw away all the work I’d completed. No explanation. A few days later the new FEMA director announced that the second supervisor no longer would be working at that particular DRC.
Anxious applicants would ask daily how long the DRC would remain open in Beaumont. If it were to be closed, the nearest one would be in Houston, two hours away. FEMA did not know for certain. The director hoped it would be there through February, but the pressure increased on reception to double count applicants who checked in and then had to go out to retrieve a missing document. “If we don’t keep the numbers up, all of the employees here will be out of a job,” one lead supervisor explained.
Even away from the DRC, the effects of Hurricane Rita remained glaringly evident. I rented a bedroom from a woman in nearby Lumberton, who spent weekends with her neighbors and friends sawing up the ten trees that had been uprooted from her one-acre land. Holes several feet deep dotted the backyard. Directly across from the DRC we could see the remnants of a former Hollywood Cineplex. Just around the corner workers were reconstructing a partially demolished Taco Bell. The curbs of the country road I lived on were littered with freezers and refrigerators, awaiting pickup. “We were under mandatory evacuation for two weeks,” one woman explained, “and there was no way to scour away the mold.”
NOW THAT I’M BACK in northeast Washington, I’m reading daily about FEMA faux pas in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, about unfair preference to the middle-class victims of Hurricane Wilma in Florida, about claims and counterclaims of bureaucratic conflict in New Orleans. FEMA continues to get a bad rap. Though my personal experience might be a small sample to generalize from, I think the fault is in the design of the agency itself, and the lines of command. Somehow red tape and regulations have thrown up barriers to the delivery of services to those who need them most.
I might not want to wear my FEMA shirt again until Halloween. But by writing about FEMA, the good and the not-so-good, I’ve exorcised some of those phantoms, and am ready to embrace the holidays.