Peace Corps Writers November 2006
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Peace Corps Writers 11/2006
from the Peace Corps
Peace Corps Writers has agreed to edit a collection of Peace Corps letters to be published as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. We are happy to say we will be advised in this project by Andrew Carroll, editor of the best selling books of “war letters,” featuring the extraordinary correspondence of American soldiers from many eras. Andrew Carroll is the Executive Director of the American Poetry & Literacy Project, a nonprofit organization he co-founded with the late Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, which distributes free books throughout the country to promote literacy.
Letters Home From Peace Corps will be one way for Peace Corps Writers to preserve the history of the Peace Corps. We believe that personal correspondence offers a valuable insight into the experience we all shared. Letters and emails to family and friends are treasured documents that we must save. Your letters home tell a story, and with this book, we hope to preserve your story as expressed in your own words for posterity, and we ask you to share them with us.
While we prefer to see previously unpublished material, letters and/or emails that have already appeared in local newspapers, self-published books, and/or family web sites are all acceptable.
Selecting your letters for submission
In selecting a letter (or email) to be considered for publication in the book, we ask that you choose it thus: Would a reader find the letter intriguing? . . . dDramatic? . . . hHumorous? Historic? Insightful? If you can answer yes to one of these questions, send it.
We will select the very best letters that tell the story through the eyes of PCVs and Staff of the Peace Corps since its beginnings in 1961.
Your letters can be about any aspect of the Peace Corps experience: Making the Decision to Join, Training, Peace Corps Service, Friends, HCNs, Family Visits, After the Peace Corps, Life as an RPCV, Returning to the Host Country.
Send us no more than three of your best letters or emails. Select the letter(s) that mean the most to you; that tell a story you want to tell.
Mailing us your correspondence
- Send a legible photocopy or typed transcript. If we have trouble reading your handwriting, your letter will not be considered for publication.
- Please do not send original letters. We cannot return anything sent to us.
- Send to:
Marian Haley Beil
4 Lodge Pole Road
Pittsford, New York 14534
- Send your emails to: email@example.com
- Please put in the subject line:
Letters Home From the Peace Corps
Please include for either letters or emails:
- Information about yourself or the PCV/RPCV or staff member who wrote the letter (e.g., where and when he or she served, and any other important personal and/or background information),
- Your phone number.
- Your email address.
- Your mailing address.
Do not send a query asking if we are interested in your correspondence. If your letters (or emails) are Peace Corps-related and meet the criteria described above, you should assume that we are interested in reading them and considering them for publication in Letters Home From the Peace Corps.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Marian Haley Beil
Editors: Letters Home From the Peace Corps
RPCV writer workshop in New York City
Peace Corps Writers, in cooperation with the Peace Corps Fund, and the NY Writers Coalition, one of the largest community-based writing organizations in the country, organized an 8-week creative writing workshop for RPCVs.
Taking this course this fall were Amy Willis (Botswana 199395), Mary Marks (Iran 196466), Ruth O’Brien (Jordan (20012002), Karen Beatty (Thailand 196870). The course was directed by Sean Tanner from the NY Writers Coalition who has lived in worked for peace organizations in Guatemala, Ecuador and Mexico. Stephanie Lawrence from the Peace Corps Fund, a recent graduate of Dartmouth College who spent her junior year in South Africa and Namibia, worked as an intern for the course. In late October, I spoke to the class about the development of this website and steps an RPCV can take to publish their writings.
Holiday books by RPCV writers
It is never too early to buy a special book for the holidays. While all RPCV books are worth buying, there are two new beautiful coffee-table books that will make perfect gifts.
From the American Himalayan Foundation and the National Geographic Society comes Himalaya: Personal Stories of Grandeur, Challenge, and Hope with chapters by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, President Jimmy Carter, Sir Edmund Hillary and others, including Broughton Coburn (Nepal 197375), one of the three editors of this amazing book of photographs and text. Coburn has spent two of the past three decades in the Himalayas working in development and conservation for the United Nations and World Bank
The Watch, written by Gene Stone (Niger 197476) and published by Abrams, is another oversize coffee-table book that surveys in text and photographs the best vintage and contemporary men’s wristwatches. The book covers fifty brands from Patek Philippe and Rolex to Seiko and Swatch with more than 680 photographs, including remarkable details of dials and movements. Even if you can’t tell time, buy this book and marvel as the beauty of these man made works of art.
And then Sarge said to me . . .
. . . Judy Guskin (Thailand 196164)
Judy Guskin can rightly claim to be the “mother of the Peace Corps.” In the fall of 1960 she was a young married graduate student studying comparative literature at the University of Michigan when, with her husband, Alan, she heard John F. Kennedy speak on the steps of the Student Union and introduce the concept of a peace corps.
Kennedy had arrived late at Ann Arbor that chilly October night and had not expected to speak, but a word-of-mouth rumor had spread around campus that he was spending the night at the University before campaigning in Michigan and ten thousand students gathered around the Union building.
Leaving his car and walking up the Union steps, Kennedy paused to say a few words to the students. It was late and cold and the crowd was edgy, having waited for him all night. Now, after 2 a.m. in the morning everyone was tired.
Kennedy began by telling a few jokes that didn’t work and the crowd reacted with hoots and boos. Like most college-age kids, they wanted to be dealt with, so Kennedy did just that.
“How many of you are willing to spend ten years in Africa or Latin America or Asia working for the U.S. and working for freedom . . .?” Kennedy spontaneously asked them. “How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana?” He continued this litany of challenges to future engineers and technicians, to teachers and students of international affairs. “How many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?”
On and on he went, telling them “. . . on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think, will depend the answer to whether we as a free society can complete.”
The crowd of students and faculty members listened silently and respectfully and then together in an unspoken, unrehearsed way, they began to respond. First, they nodded in agreement; then they began to applause, and finally they cheered the young presidential candidate and his grand vision for all of their futures, for all of our futures. Kennedy had caught a nerve in the psyche of America’s young people and it began to respond.
In the days immediately after Kennedy’s talk, Judy and Alan Guskin formed a committee bravely entitled, “Americans Committed to World Responsibility.” Then with several others graduate students, they composed an article for the Michigan Daily answering Kennedy’s challenge. It appeared on October 21 and within weeks there was a firestorm of petitions by students ready to volunteer to work in the Third World. From the Michigan campus these petitions circulated to campuses throughout the Midwest and onto colleges and universities back east, with much of the early organizing being done by the Guskins.
Two weeks after Kennedy delivered his challenge on the Michigan campus, Judy answered the phone in her married-student-apartment and was started to hear it was Kennedy’s campaign calling. JFK wanted to meet her and the other college organizers. On November 5, 1960, three days after Kennedy’s formal proposal of the Peace Corps in the famous Cow Palace Speech in San Francisco, Judy and Alan, and five carloads of other college kids, drove south from campus to meet Kennedy at the airport in Toledo, Ohio. Judy handed Kennedy the petitions and messages they had collected from students across America. Kennedy joked with her, saying, “I guess you don’t really want me to have them, do you?” He had realized this was her only copy of the hundreds of signatures and addresses. Then he added, “Judy, until Tuesday [election day], we will worry about the nation, but after that, the world.”
And so it began . . .
Here is what Judy Guskin (Thailand 1961-63), has to add to her story of the Peace Corps, and her time with Sarge.
ONE OF THE HIGHLIGHTS OF MY LIFE was being asked to lay a wreath on John F. Kennedy’s grave during the celebration for the 25th Anniversary of the Peace Corps. I was chosen because I organized students on the University of Michigan campus in support of the idea when it was mentioned by then Senator Kennedy at Michigan during the final days of his presidential campaign. I remember at Arlington Cemetary looking at Sargent Shriver standing besides me as we watched John F. Kennedy’s eternal flame and thinking how much the Peace Corps owed Sarge for his enthusiasm, optimism, hard work, and political skill.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I sometimes disliked all the public relations material Sarge and Bill Moyers generated. This was a typical attitude among the first Volunteers. We were a very independent lot. Most of us were in our twenties and wanted to work quietly, perhaps because it was unclear what it meant to be a successful Volunteer. We felt our host country nationals should be the people who determined success. To us, Washington just meant people behind a desk who told us what to do, and we didn’t want long distance interference. Did they really know what we were doing in the field? If so, why did they give many of us such vague job assignments? We felt we had to re-shape our jobs and we liked that challenge.
I remember when Sarge came to visit us in Thailand. We were invited to speak informally to him. We all sat around on the floor talking to Sarge and a major journalist who had come along. “Too much PR” we told him. “Don’t oversell us please.” If anything, we wanted “true” stories to be told about the complexities we were facing. “Don’t brag so much about us,” we said. “Don’t oversell our achievements.”
Sarge said he was surprised at our attitude. “You’re too self-effacing. You don’t know the larger picture,” he said. He knew the Peace Corps needed positive publicity to get money from Congress.
He could have told us he had met with over 363 members of Congress and that positive local stories were necessary to get votes to keep the Peace Corps an independent agency. (In 1962 the Peace Corps legislation was supported in the House 317 to 70 and won by overwhelming voice vote in the Senate.)
He didn’t tell us that the publicity was needed in order to increase the number of Volunteers to meet the increasing number of requests. (In 1961 13,000 applied for jobs in 9 countries while in 1962 over 20,000 applied and requests for PCV’s had come in from 32 countries. During the early years each week 300 to 400 articles appeared in the national press, 98% of which were favorable.)
He wanted to motivate us to continue to do our work with greater optimism and energy, and a sense that we were part of a social movement that could make a difference. I’d heard that a sign in his office said: “There is no place in this club for good losers.” He made us feel that we were a part of a special club, and we couldn’t let him down.
After the visit, Sarge wrote a personal note to our parents. I still have the one he sent to mine. They kept it all these years. He said we were doing wonderful work. Sarge’s visit made us feel that he had faith that we, young, bright, idealistic though naive and inexperienced, would make a difference even though neither we nor Washington were really sure how to define “success” at that time.
Sarge helped capture the public imagination with his view of the Peace Corps as a new way to show the world the best ideals of our society its humanity, caring, idealism, and willingness to work as partners with others.
It was important to look at not only what our work was, but also who we were and the spirit in which we tried to succeed. He knew from his own early experiences with the Experiment in International Living that we would bring home new perspectives on many countries in the world and on issues related to poverty and development. He strongly believed that we would be changed and would add to the “reservoir of compassion and understanding in America.”
While speaking at an RPCV conference, he spoke of how happy he was when returned Volunteers gave “Shriver Awards“ to former Volunteers who had continued humanitarian work. I sat next to his daughter Maria when he gave his speech. I saw tears in his eyes and hers as he spoke eloquently to a crowd who loved him.
Years later, when I was working for Sarge in the Office of Economic Opportunity to establish the VISTA program, Sarge asked me to come to his office to read a screenplay for a movie called “Volunteers” to star Tom Hanks and John Candy. It was a satire about the Peace Corps. It took place in Thailand.” As someone who was a Volunteer in Thailand, Judy,“ he said to me, “how do you feel about what they’ve done to the Peace Corps image? Doesn’t it make you very angry?”
When I finished reading the script, I told him that although it certainly didn’t present the truth about my Peace Corps experience in Thailand, it would probably be a funny film. “We’re part of the culture now,“ I said. “The Peace Corps will survive this movie.“
The Peace Corps survived not only the movie, but also the war in Vietnam and now the war in Iraq. The ideals of the Peace Corps are needed now more than ever. Hopefully a leader will emerge who has vision and determination like Sarge and gets positive stories to our media before this generation becomes too materialistic, too discouraged, and too cynical to try to do anything that makes a difference.
In this issue . . .
I am always delighted to be able to bring attention to the fine work of our fellow Returned Volunteers, but with this issue I am especially excited. The variety and depth of quality of the fifteen recently published books is terrific, and just wait until you read Literary Type and see what RPCVs are accomplishing!
In my interview with Joe Monninger (Burkina Faso 197577) he tells about his new book on the former heavyweight boxer Tony Galento, dog mushing and more. In the Writer Writers essay Darcy Meijer (Gabon 198284) remembers how she grew up in the Peace Corps and what she learned all over again as a Fulbright Scholar in Vietnam. For history there is also a short piece on the “The Fabulous Peace Corps Book Locker” given to all PCVs in the early days of the agency; and Ted Vestal (PC/Washington Staff & Ethiopia APCD 196366) remembers Joe Kauffman who directed Peace Corps first training programs from 1961 to 1963, and shares insight into the development of the training program for early Volunteers.
I hope you enjoy the reading.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers 11/06
The Roaring Twenty:
The First Cross-Country Air Race for Women
by Margaret Blair (Thailand 197577)
Letters from the Prettiest Girl in Arvin
by Rafaela G. Castro (Brazil 196466)
Chusma House Publications
Personal Stories of Grandeur, Challenge, and Hope
edited by Richard C. Blum, Erica Stone
and Broughton Coburn (Nepal 197375)
National Geographic Books
Artifacts of a Very Strange Mind
17 stories and a novel, The Lair of Lilith
by Rel Davis (Bulgaria 200103)
Backyard Race Horse
The Training Manual
by Janet Del Castillo (Colombia 196466)
My Mother Can Beat Up Your Father
by Danny G. Langdon (Ethiopia 196264)
Quick and Easy Vietnamese
75 Everyday Recipes
by Nancie McDermott (Thailand 197578)
One Fight, One Night, Tony Galento v. Joe Louis
by Joseph Monninger (Burkina Faso 197577)
Value-Based Metrics for Improving Results
An Enterprise Project Management Toolkit
by Mel Schnapper (Nigeria 196567) and Steven Rollins
J. Ross Publishing
A Culture of Corruption
Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria
by Daniel Jordan Smith (Sierra Leone 198487)
Princeton University Press
by Gene Stone (Niger 196971)
Harry N. Abrams Books
Exploring the Bancroft Library
The Centennial Guide to Its Extraordinary History, Spectacular Special Collections, Research Pleasures, Its Amazing Future, and How It All Works
edited by Charles B.Faulhaber &
Stephen Vincent (Nigeria 196567)
$39.95 cloth/ $29.95 paper
Living Abroad in Nicaragua
by Randy Wood (Nicaragua 19982000)
and Joshua Berman (Nicaragua 19982000)
Moon Handbooks: Avalon Travel Publishing
by Jan Worth (Kingdom of Tonga 1976-78)
American Teachers in the American Century
by Jonathan Zimmerman (Nepal 198385)
Harvard University Press
Literary Type 11/06
It has taken Jan Worth (Tonga 197678) 30+ years, but finally she has written her novel of the October 14, 1976 murder on the island of Tonga of the PCV Deborah Gardner. You might have read Phil Weiss’s haunting non-fiction account of that crime, American Taboo, and now Jan, who lived through that tragedy, has used the same murder in her novel Night Blind, just out from iUniverse.
Jan teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus. She has published essays, poems, short stories and reviews in such diverse places as The Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Drexel Online Journal, Michigan Quarterly Review, Passages North, Fourth Genre, Controlled Burn and Marlboro Review; and her poems have appeared in two editions of Contemporary Michigan Poetry, published by Wayne State Press.
Jan’s recent marriage has seeds of another novel. When Phil Weiss was researching American Taboo, he reconnected Jan and Ted Nelson (Turkey 196466), a PC/Washington staff member she had met in Tonga in 1976 while he was doing In-Country Training shortly after the murder took place. They began to correspond via email and in 2001 they met again after 25 years. They were married in 2005.
While visiting Washington, D.C. this fall, Ted and Jan took a taxi to the Peace Corps Headquarters only to find that on Saturday morning the building was closed. Not wanting to miss a romantic opportunity, they had the taxi driver take a photo of them kissing in front of the building. How’s that for a nice ending, or a nice beginning for another novel!
Kris Holloway (Mali 198991) author of the recently published, Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years With a Midwife in Mali had a short essay, “Obedience Training,” in the November 5 issue of the The New York Times Magazine. Her story, which was featured in “Lives” on the last page of the magazine, is one that many PCVs experienced when adopting a dog in the developing world and have to leave their pet behind. Kris, however, had a tougher goodbye than most Volunteers.
Kris ran up against a feticheur, the leader of the traditional religious community that scarified animals to bring honor, luck and rain to the village. Kris knew this man ate dogs and her pet was especially valuable because it belonged to an American.
Saying goodbye in Africa meant more to Kris than leaving her village and her host family. And what it meant she tells us in this short touching essay in this week’s Times.
The New Yorker, November 13, 2006 issue, has a long piece by George Packer (Togo 198283) entitled “The Megacity: Decoding the chaos of Lagos.”
Novelist Tony D’Souza (Cote d’Ivoire 200002; Madagascar 200203) finished his second novel a few months ago. It will be published by Harcourt next October. The novel is entitled The Konkans and is a love story set against the little known and real Goan (Konkan) Inquisition in India, instituted by St. Francis Xavier, which lasted 252 years, burned hundreds of thousands of Hindus at the Catholic stake, and is drawn from Tony’s family history. Tony’s mother was a PCV (India 196668) and met Tony’s father while serving overseas.
Recently Tony received a writing residency for 2007 at the Lannan Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Tony is now driving his pick-up truck through Mexico and Central America learning Spanish and writing. While on this drive, Tony heard that he had also won a Japan Friendship Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. This will allow Tony to have six months with all expenses paid to live and write in a Japanese town of his choice. Tony will leave for Japan in April, 2007.
Nita Noveno (Cameroon 198890) is the recipient of a fellowship for the Summer Literary Seminar in Kenya this December which will host distinguished African writers. She has most recently been published in Lost and Found: An Anthology of Teachers Writing and Worldview magazine and was a finalist for the Missouri Review’s 2005 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Her story “Mindanao” will be out on Ducts.org (forthcoming Dec 2006). Nita is ecstatic about returning to Africa.
Washington D.C. resident John I. Blanck Jr. (Lesotho 1989-91) recently published an op-ed piece, “Not Enough Respect on the Road” in the Washington Times about car-motorcycle accidents. He is currently working on an essay related to his first motorcycle accident.
Starting as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and later as a Nairobi-based consultant, Mark Hankins (Kenya 198387) has worked all over East and Southern Africa building the solar energy industry. When not working, a passion for African music has put Mark on stage with dozens of African artists, and Hankins (aka Markus Kamau) has built up a remarkable fluency for African pop. His new CD, “Chants Sans Frontieres,” is the culmination of 20 years of cross-cultural song writing and performance for him. For “Chants,” Kamau composed in Swahili, and raps with a deep expressive voice reminiscent of Manu Dibango. Leading the Boda Boda Band, he fuses rock and roll hooks, with soca rhythms, Congolese ndombolo guitar, Luo benga and Maasai chanting. Part of the attraction of this CD is the excellent musicianship of Boda Boda band and the guest artists, a who’s who of Nairobi players (including Kora-award winner Eric Wainiaina). Kamau’s song writing, whether it be in Swahili or English, tells real stories about Africa from the vantage of someone who has been on the ground, understood and can bring it back home. Have a look and listen at: cdbaby.com/cd/markuskamau
John Flynn (Moldova 1993-95) has a new story out at Hiss Quarterly. Read “Charred Rotator” at the site.
That Old China Gang
Few Peace Corps countries can boast of the writing talent and dedication to their host country by the first groups to serve there as can China.
- It begins with Peter Hessler (China 199698). Peter’s second book on China, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, has just been nominated for a National Book Award.
- Following Peter is Mike Meyer (China 199597) who is writing his first book on living in a Beijing hutong. Mike spent his Peace Corps years in Neijiang, Sichuan, then the heroin capital of the nation. Mike writes from Beijing, “The book is titled Echo Wall: The Last Days of Old Beijing, and it will be published next year by Walker & Company/Bloomsbury. I’m still writing it, so I’m not sure of the delivery date. The book charts all that’s been going on in Beijing regarding the ancient city core, most of which is being destroyed for Olympics city-brightening. For the past year, I’ve been living in an old courtyard with several families, and volunteering every day as an English teacher at the elementary school. I wanted to recreate my Peace Corps experience, only in a Beijing setting. This experience has been even harder than my Corps work here, I have no indoor plumbing, only the bathhouse and a latrine.” Check out Mike and the hutong at his YouTube site.
- Another guy from China 3 is Rob Schmitz (China 1996-98), the Los Angeles bureau chief for KQED, the NPR affiliate in San Francisco. Rob spent the year 2000 doing freelance writing in China for newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor and the Hong Kong Standard. He then earned his masters at Columbia School of Journalism where he met his wife the Chinese-American journalist and actress, Lenora Chu, who has appeared in, among shows, Desperate Housewives.
In 2001 Rob went back to China to film World Birthday, a New York Times Television production that aired on The Learning Channel. The program was about childbirth around the world and Rob spent a couple of months in Beijing filming childbirth and child-rearing there.
He returned again to China in 2002 on the Pew Fellowship for International Journalism, now known as the International Reporting Project, to film two documentaries in Tibetan areas of China and examined how modernization was influencing their culture. One of those films ended up on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
He returned in late 2004 for a month to cover Arnold Schwarzenegger’s trade mission to China for KPCC, the NPR affiliate in Los Angeles (He was working as a reporter in LA for them). Four or five stories on that trip all ended up on NPR. In May of this year he went back to China for a month to lead an educational tour of Yunnan Province organized by the American Museum of Natural History and to report environmental stories for KQED’s Pacific Time and for the business program Marketplace.
- Michael Goettig (China 1996-98) was a freelance journalist in China for seven years and is now in his final year at Columbia Law School, where he is the editor of the Columbia Journal of Asian Law.
- Also living in China is Craig Simons (China 199698), the Asia correspondent for Cox News, and Jake Hooker (China 1996-98) who is with the New York Times. According to Peter, “We live in Beijing and we see each other regularly.” Mike adds, “These guys are an enormous support and editing group, and I’m thankful for it. All of us have experienced the difficulty of making one’s way as a freelance writer.”
Hessler will be breaking up “that old gang of theirs” very soon and move with his new wife, journalist Leslie T. Chang, to the American Southwest to finish his third book on China. Peter says, “Together these three books will cover the ten years I’ve lived here, and I envision them as a sort of trilogy. Each has a slightly different emphasis: geography to history to economy, each of them viewed in the context of average Chinese people. The new book isn’t titled yet and I’m now finishing the research. After that, I expect to write about non-China subjects for a while, so I don’t plan on continuing to cover China after I move. At some point I’m sure Leslie and I will live here again, but we don’t want to cover China from the U.S.”
[Leslie herself is under contract now for a book about two generations of Chinese, partially about her grandfather who studied mining engineering in Michigan in the 1920s and was assassinated by the Communists in 1946 during the Civil War. Leslie, who was born in America, will tell her grandfather’s story, but also will look at the critical moments in modern Chinese history when people began to leave their homes in great numbers.]
Quizzing Peter about why there are so many “China writers,” he emailed me that obviously the number of RPCV writers has a lot to do with the fact that China is a unique place at a unique moment. He goes on to say:
“This is really the first period when it feels open for a writer. Ten to fifteen years ago it was extremely difficult to freelance. Government accreditations were hard to get, and independent freelancers were at risk of being expelled. It was hard for a foreigner to travel around without getting into trouble, and Chinese people didn’t like talking to journalists. That was already changing around the time I moved to Beijing, in ’99, and now it’s great for a freelancer, so much is happening, the accreditation issues are not as complicated, and it’s easy to live cheaply. Every one of the China RPCV writers spent time as a freelancer.
“Of course, it makes a big difference if you can speak Chinese. It’s significant that, of the RPCV’s that are mentioned, not one of us studied Chinese before coming to this country. The Peace Corps has an excellent language training program and a motivated Volunteer can learn an enormous amount, because sites are located in small cities without many foreigners.a
“And after service there are lots of opportunities to stay on and study informally or formally (both Meyer and Craig studied at Tsinghua University on fellowships).
“With regard to language, we owe an enormous debt to Bill Speidel, the first country director, who is an old China hand and really cared about Volunteers learning Chinese. He set up the original training program in Chengdu.
“It’s been wonderful having this small but close network of fellow writers and reporters with a similar background. The Peace Corps experience definitely shapes one’s writing and viewpoints, and I think that we have a different sensibility than most China-based journalists. All of us love to report from the provinces, where life reminds us of the years we spent as Volunteers. And our interests tend to be culture and society rather than straight politics.”
Talking with . . .
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
SEVERAL YEARS AGO I came across a novel entitled The Viper Tree written by an RPCV, Joe Monninger, who served in Burkina Faso. My wife, who has no connection to the Peace Corps and just tolerates my fascination with Peace Corps writers, spotted the book and said, “Joe Monninger! He’s cute.” So that was my first introduction to Joe Monninger who wrote for a magazine my wife edited, and that is where she met him she spotted him in the halls of her office.
Having never met Joe and having no idea of just how “cute” he was, I did contact Joe a few years later and asked if he would participate in a reading by RPCVs at Harvard University and that is when he and I met.
Recently I heard from Steerforth Press that Joe had a book coming out about the boxer Two Ton Tony Galento. Being a boxing fan, I contacted Joe about his book, his career, the Peace Corps, and surprising, his love of sled dogs. Here’s what Joe had to say.
Joe, talk first about your Peace Corps experience.
From 1975 to 1977 I was a well digger near the village of Tenado in what was then called Upper Volta. Now we know the country as Burkina Faso.
I returned to Mali in 1978, this time with U.S.A.I.D..
When you returned to Mali what did you do?
I didn’t stay long. A project out by Mopti fizzled. I found myself sitting in a house with little to do. I also nearly died in a car accident. A Land Rover slipped off the dirt road while the driver was going about eighty miles per hour and I was in the passenger seat. I woke up with blood all over me and was taken and placed in a bed with a dead man. It’s a long story, but I decided to come home.
Have you traveled elsewhere in Africa?
Not nearly as much as I’d like. I went to Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire and Togo between my first and second year of Peace Corps service. And I returned to America across the desert Mali, Senegal, then up to Mauritania, Spanish Sahara and Morocco. I love Africa. I still think of it often, and sometimes I smell a wood fire and it transports me back.
How did you get started as a published writer?
I finished third in the 1978 Redbook Short Story contest. That gave me a start. Agents contacted me and I adapted my story, A Slice of It, into a novel titled The Family Man. It was published by Atheneum/Scribner. After that I published novels regularly with Antheneum. New Jersey, Second Season, The Summer Hunt. I published The Viper Tree, a novel about Africa and witchcraft, with Simon & Schuster. I also published a mystery and a thriller with Don I. Fine. Then I had a golden retriever who got sick, and I took off for a summer to fly fish with her. I wrote a non-fiction proposal and Chronicle Books bought it. The book was called Home Waters. They also bought a non fiction book about renovating a barn, A Barn in New England which was an account of fixing up my house where I live now with my wife, Wendy, and my son, Justin.
Along the way I wrote articles for American Heritage, Sports Illustrated and the Boston Globe. A bunch of places. I publish fiction now and then in small journals and from time to time in Ellery Queen. I just sold a young adult novel to Front Street Books, a wonderful publisher. The novel is called Baby and it focuses on dog sledding.
How did you sell a young adult novel?
I was recommended to the publisher by a friend. It turned out to be the fastest purchase I have experienced as a writer. I sent it via email one afternoon and the editor bought it that evening. That never happens, but it did this once. It’s a novel about a girl who goes to live with a foster family in New Hampshire. And the family drives dogs. My son is an excellent musher. We run a four-dog team back behind our house several times a week. So, I knew about dogs. The novel was easy to write because of that. And, of course, I loved Jack London and Call of the Wild as a boy.
Where does your involvement with dog sledding come from?
An old railroad bed runs behind our house. It’s flat and straight and perfect for dog sledding. People ran their teams there. My son used to jump the fence and go help them. One day a wonderful couple, Bob and Julie Noyes of Vermont, asked him if he wanted to run a team. He came flying back to the house and asked if he could. My wife and I went over and met the Noyes and they were terrific fun loving, and crazy about dogs. They taught us everything we know. In 2003, if I remember correctly, my son who was 13 at the time won the New England 4 dog sportsmen class. He beat a lot of adults. He has a natural feeling for being on a sled. And he loves the dogs.
Do you raise sled dogs?
No. All our dogs came to us from the Noyes. We have their second team, as it were. They have much stronger, faster dogs than we do. Our dogs have become pets at this point. We bring them in every night and let them run in the backyard. Iditarod teams require kennels of 50100 dogs. We have no interest in an operation that large. And now, as my son is getting older, we are winding down. He has other interests and that’s as it should be.
Lets talk about your new book. How did you come to choose a fighter like Two Ton Tony Galento as a subject for a book?
Galento is bigger than life, of course, as the saying goes. He had a great appetite for life. I first saw Galento on TV in the ’70s. I was with my dad and we were watching a fight, an old black and white film, and I laughed at Galento’s chubbiness. My dad said, wait a second and watch, and Galento knocked someone down . . . probably Louis. Growing up in New Jersey, I always heard rumors about Galento . . . that he fought a bear, and a kangaroo, and so on. Turns out most of the rumors were true.
But what finally drew me to Galento’s story was the poignancy of coming so close to pulling off such an upset, but ultimately failing. We have lots of stories about underdogs’ victories. But Galento tried and lost yet redeemed something in himself. He was a joke, and a comic figure to many people yet he almost beat the best heavyweight of his day.
And finally, it is probably true that we can say this moment defined Galento. It’s rare we can point to a single night in a man’s life and say, there, that’s the pinnacle of his aspiration. Galento probably never thought about it that way, but everything up to that moment crystallized in the ring; and everything afterward reflected back to that moment.
Do you think Tony fought for the money or was he just a natural brawler?
Both, probably. He made good money from fighting. He cleared something like $40,000 for the Louis fight at a time when school teachers made maybe a thousand or two a year. But he also fought through the ’20s and ’30s as a young guy picking up a buck here, a buck there. Boxing brought notoriety. He became a figure in Orange and Newark. His name still resonates there with the older citizens. They named a street near the railroad station after him. So, I think he fought for a combination of reasons.
Fairly early in his career Tony had the money to buy a bar and make a living that way. Why do you think he continued boxing?
Probably, again, for the notoriety. I learned recently after the book was put to bed that Tony also ran booze. People shouted down to him when he arrived with ice “give me a one and a one.” That would mean, one block of ice, one pint of booze. He made good money that way. And the bar did quite well, although he was extravagant and a bit reckless with his money. His wife, Mary Grasso, ran the business well and worked like crazy on it. But, again, he had higher aspirations. Although he might not have articulated it, he wanted to make a name for himself, rise above his surroundings. To a great extent, he succeeded.
Was there any racial reason involving Joe Louis to explain why the fight was held in Yankee Stadium rather than Madison Square Gardens?
Not that I know about. The Galento team wanted the fight in Philadelphia. They felt, with reason, that the fight would have sold better there. The year before, when Tony went to Philly to prepare for a fight against a light heavyweight named Lewis, half a million people met him at the train station and paraded him through the town. It’s hard to imagine a half million people spontaneously coming out for any sports figure today. Joe Louis, of course, was loved in Harlem and across the nation by black citizens. His management team saw Philly as a place where Galento might have an edge. They were comfortable in Yankee Stadium and they hoped to pack it.
Tony was not the only fighter to drop Louis. What makes his knockdown so special?
Louis did seem prone to a left hook. Braddock and Jack Roper both knocked him silly with a left. And Max Schmeling got him with an overhand right. Galento, though, seemed such an unlikely candidate. He hardly trained; he smoked and stayed out late and drank beer. In fact, some people contend Tony was drunk when he fought Louis. It was almost as if he personified the average fellow in the stands stepping into the ring to fight the best heavyweight around. Most observers say Galento’s hardest punch came in the first round when he drove Louis to the ropes. People identified with Galento. He used to travel around with Babe Ruth and play Santa Claus. Galento was sort of your crazy uncle Charlie, or your brother-in-law who made you laugh at the family Thanksgiving dinner.
Was there any hint of mob connections to Tony when he was fighting? The mob was involved with a lot of fighters.
Sure. He won eleven fights in a row before fighting Louis, and a few of the fights seemed arranged, if not entirely fixed. He might have beaten those fighters anyway, but the money was in building his reputation for the Louis bout. The stereotype of boxers and gangsters hanging around together has a solid foundation. Tony did not stand on ethical niceties. At one point he was banned from fighting in Michigan after a dust up in Detroit. But a fighter can only sell his time in the ring, and only when people are interested. So, like most fighters, Tony did what he had to do to maximize his leverage.
Tony was tightfisted; had a mean temper; had a reputation as a dirty fighter; went through managers like he was changing clothes and deliberately insulted his opponents. Louis (later) said he had “charisma.” Why do you like him?
He seems human to me. He seems entirely flawed and yet his pleasure in living redeems him for me. He also had a generous streak where he would give a thousand bucks to a relative stranger. I grew up in New Jersey and knew some fellows like Tony. The popularity of The Sopranos touches on the same thing. We don’t admire Tony Soprano, exactly, but we understand him as a human. Plus, his world is humorous. He takes big bites.
What was his sister-in-law Mildred’s candid opinion of Tony?
She said he was complicated, but somewhat brutal. I learned recently that Tony got a motorcycle early in his career, and when he brought it home, his father took a pipe to it and destroyed it. A brand new motorcycle. Tony came from somewhere; he didn’t drop out of the sky. Mildred thought his fights were exciting and one of the highlights of her life. But she had no delusions about Tony the man. He was rough and self centered. He was also sentimental and generous at times. She didn’t think Tony was particularly nice to her husband, Russell. And yet Tony also possessed a certain glamour. He gave hope to people who didn’t have much hope. He loved everyday men and women and didn’t place himself above the regular joes. Also, he often visited charities and contributed his time. So, like most of us, he had his demons and angels.
Are you a boxing fan?
No, not really. I loved Ali, like a million other middle aged guys. Ali and Galento remind me of each other. Both clowned. Both boasted and used ballyhoo to get them places they might not have gotten otherwise. Ali, naturally, had gifts far beyond Galento’s as a boxer, but both captured the same American audience. They were brazen and funny and maybe could back up their big mouths or not. Ali, of course, became immortal in a way. Galento is a footnote in boxing history, but a funny one, and one that makes people smile when you mention him.
But boxing now. No, I’ll follow a big championship match, but I’m not a fan. Not in an everyday sort of way. It’s an awfully vicious way to make a living. And, of course, we only see the stars after their careers are over. We never see interviews of the boxers who lost more than they won. The stars fare badly enough; the second rung boxers are another story altogether.
All that said, boxing still holds a fascination for me and many others. Its drama, its ferocity, its clean brutality. I recently read A.J. Liebling’s boxing accounts from the New Yorker. They capture the humor, the pathos, the joy of the whole crazy world. It’s painful and funny and human. That’s’ why boxing still goes on and why we still watch it. If you think about it, the great boxing matches were great narratives. The reason we get excited by an Ali vs. Foreman fight, or a Tyson vs. Holyfield fight, is the narrative power behind them. Two stories, one for each fighter, braid together in the ring. But to watch a fighter you don’t know fight another fighter you don’t know . . . that’s like watching a football game late at night when you don’t know either team. You have no narrative to follow and it becomes far less interesting. As crazy as it sounds, wrestling has always understood the power of narrative. We want to see the Hulk fight someone else. We know it’s phony, but the narrative isn’t. So, that’s a long answer, but I am only interested in any sport when the narrative is compelling.
So you came to this subject matter because of the person?
That’s right. This really wasn’t a book on boxing, but a book on a man. Let’s face it, non-fiction authors are combing the internet and everywhere else for interesting stories. I know I keep my ear to the ground. Galento is an intriguing character, and the late 1930s are fascinating. But sports, sure, they provide a clear narrative. I used to read Chip Hilton, All-American novels. Chip would always win in the end. We don’t go to sports to be entertained, but to see people live out a moment in their lives. I still grieve for Bill Buckner . . . a great, great player, who will have to live in infamy at least among Red Sox fans for the remainder of his days. If it’s just a game, it shouldn’t hurt so much.
How do you write? Do you work on a computer? Do you do a lot of drafts?
I write standing at an old foreman’s desk with a good view of the dogs outside. I could watch them for hours. I write as many drafts as I need, and, yes, I use a laptop. Like any craftsman, we probably get better as we get older. A young mason doesn’t build a fence as quickly or surely as an old one, despite the fact that his strength is greater. I have a pretty good sense of narrative at this point. But Two Ton, with all the research, took three years. I wrote an entire manuscript and had to chuck it because I didn’t know what I was writing about. I knew enormous amounts about the era and about Galento, but I hadn’t done the tough job of asking myself why it counted. When I finally discovered it, the manuscript shrunk and I arrived at the technique for narrating Two Ton. I hope it works.
Do you write full time?
I’ve never been able to earn my living as a writer not exclusively. But I have always been writing full time, so to speak.
How did you get this book published?
Actually, I sent the proposal to Alan Lelchuk. Lelchuk is a great novelist and is an advisor to Steerforth Press. I met Lelchuk in an interesting way. When I was a grad student at University of New Hampshire I grabbed one of his books off the Diamond Library shelves. I had never heard of him, but the novel, American Mischief, looked interesting. I read his novel and was bowled over by it. I went on to read a bunch of his work. Then one day our Department Chair, Mike Deport, said his old friend, Alan Lelchuk, was planning a visit to UNH and did anyone want him to speak to a class? I was teaching comp at the time, but I quickly yanked Lelchuk into class. He turned out to be a great guy. He also had an interest in boxing, and New York and New Jersey, so when I wrote the proposal for Two Ton, I sent it to him. He liked it and sent it along to Chip Fleisher, the editor at Steerforth who eventually agreed to publish it. That’s how the book reached print.
Did you sell this book or do you have an literary agency?
I am with Sterling-Lord Literistic and have been for many years.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on another Young Adult novel. I am also looking at a few other sports stories. I’m also thinking about building a barn in my back yard. That’s not a novel, but it’s not entirely dissimilar. You have to plan and you have to do research.
Have you ever written or thought about writing about your Peace Corps experience?
I wrote a few short stories about being in the Peace Corps, or at least in Africa, and The Viper Tree, the novel I mentioned, is based in West Africa. I read somewhere that an author shied away from writing about his Peace Corps experience because it was so easy, in a way. The events are so vivid and unfamiliar that it seems like cheating a little. Of course, that’s nonsense to a great degree, but I know what he meant. I worry about the Peace Corps experience becoming my World War II stories . . . an old guy sitting on a bar stool and boring people around him with his adventures. So the answer to the question is, no, I haven’t.
What advice would you give to an RPCV who wanted to write?
One of the great and somewhat frightening realities about the Peace Corps experience is that it can force isolation on a person. It’s exhausting to be in another culture all day, every day. And speaking a second language makes it even more tiring. I never read as deeply, nor wrote with such concentration, as I did during my Peace Corps stint. Part of that was due to isolation. So, if someone serves in the Peace Corps, and is at all pushed to write, she or he is likely drawn to contemplation anyway. Given that character trait, the only thing to do is to write. I always imagine any good artist’s studio . . . all the wood shavings and plaster dust, and half finished figures. If we can think of writing like that, as an on going work, some good, some failed, some provoking us to better efforts, then occasionally achieving a satisfying result, we will be prepared mentally for a writing life. At the same time, writing must have a shape. We can certainly keep a journal all our life and many people do. But if we are interested in a publishing career, one that produces books and articles and stories, then we must give thought to the dimension of a book, the potential audience for a written work. So, write, but don’t be oblivious to what a reader might expect from a book. Ernest Hebert, a fine New Hampshire novelist, once said the biggest obstacle we face as writers is the excuse we give ourselves that we will do it better next time. It’s a lie we tell ourselves. This one we are working on, it’s pretty good, but the next one, the next book or story or article that will be the real proof of our abilities. That’s a comfortable excuse and it let’s us off the hook. No, do it now, prove it now, do your best now. Give it everything. That’s the only way to go at it, I think.
Well said, Joe. Thank you for your time. And good luck with Two Ton . When will Steerforth Press publish the book?
It is in bookstore now, as they say.
Letters from the Prettiest Girl in Arvin
by Rafaela G. Castro (Brazil 196466)
Chusma House Publications
Reviewed by Martha Martin (Costa Rica 197981)
THERE ARE THREE MAJOR THEMES that thread their ways through this intriguing collection of essays by Rafaela Castro. One is related to Rafaela Castro’s experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Brazil. The other two themes have to do with her cultural heritage and the tumultuous relationship between her mother and father.
I was most fascinated with the story of her parents’ migration to California from small rural communities in Texas and New Mexico towards the end of the Great Depression, and their struggles to make ends meet as farm laborers in their new state. As the author writes at the beginning of Essay 4, “We always called ourselves Mexicans when I was growing up, never Mexican American, or Chicano . . .. It was a recurring motif in our dialogue . . .. In Arvin we went to school with white kids whose parents came to California during the dust bowl migration of the 1930s . . .. There was no identity problem among us because we were mostly Okies and Mexicans.”
Years later, looking back on her Peace Corps Volunteer service, the author expresses surprise at the fact that she ever was accepted into the Corps. “Peace Corps Washington, composed of great white men educated in America’s elite universities, wanted the cream of American youth to become the pioneers of the New Frontier in foreign relations. Their ideal volunteer was middle-class, college educated, blond, blue-eyed . . .. In our group, the three young Mexican women and I were an anomaly . . .. Yet, ironically, even though the four of us Mexican women might have been accepted as an administrative oversight, we were absolutely perfect for Peace Corps life. Our cultural heritage, language aptitude, social experiences, and the ability to work extremely hard prepared us well for the rigors of Peace Corps training and for life in South America.”
The major theme of this collection of essays has to do with the description of the relationship between the author’s parents and of her own relationship with her mother. The first essay is a description of a photograph taken of the author’s family and of how the photograph reflects the character of each family member. In describing the early years of her parent’s marriage, “we do know that he had more than one extramarital affair. He was in his early 20s, handsome, and Lola was either pregnant or overweight; there was much bickering and fighting between them in the first few years after my birth.” Earlier, she wrote that “He was almost puritanical in his sexual values and outlooks and wouldn’t allow my mother to be seen in shorts while in public . . .. ” In Essay 8, the author relates that her mother lived with her in an in-law apartment that her husband remodeled for her, but grew discontent and began to complain and eventually moved into a mobile home to live by herself in San Francisco. Her mother eventually died alone there, in her sleep. In spite of the amazing descriptions throughout the book of how hard her mother worked to work through her many disappointments with her marriage and through all of the difficulties she encountered while struggling to make ends meet I sensed the author’s dissatisfaction with her and their relationship at the end of the final essay. In that essay the author writes, “I cannot think of a more mysterious and complicated relationship than that between a mother and her child . . .. ” It is interesting to me that we have such high expectations of our mothers and of our relationships with them, and I wonder sometimes why we do not have the same expectations of our relationships with our fathers.
Overall, I found the essays were a delight to read, refreshing, thoughtful and, yes, very provocative.
Martha Martin is an Admissions and Academic Consultant at the School of Management at George Mason University. She just ran in her third Marine Corps Marathon for a personal record and is currently working on a creative non-fictional account of her years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Costa Rica. She has two daughters, one who is an alumna of George Mason University, the other a senior at same.
Soldiers in Hiding
by Richard Wiley (Korea 196769)
(new edition with preface by the author
and introduction by Wole Soyinka)
Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 199798)
NINETEEN YEARS AFTER earning literary kudos as the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, Richard Wiley’s Soldiers in Hiding has been re-released by Hawthorne Books as part of its Rediscovery program. The “rediscovery” of selected and esteemed works of literature will, if Soldiers should serve as any standard, offer readers a disturbing glimpse at a world where the changing circumstances of a man’s life test the depth of his values and offers a haunted glimpse of his struggles. Soldiers in Hiding is similar to novels penned by other returned Peace Corps Volunteers, which capture the introspective musings of a character forced to adapt and thrive in a foreign environment. For Teddy Maki, the rending of his personal and national allegiances complicate the very notion of identity, plaguing him with a guilt that burdens and transforms him into the kind of man who cannot find home even within his own skin.
We have an initially unflattering impression of Teddy. He is a middle-aged Japanese-American host of a popular entertainment program in Tokyo, which, in his own words, effects to destroy intelligent culture (“I must push toward the collapse of culture in the remaining years that I have . . ..”). We are in the years immediately following World War Two and, as Japan struggles to redeem its pride following a humiliating defeat by the United States, Teddy is an oddly appropriate symbol for the times: wealthy, famous, embittered . . . and a philanderer without scruple or any constructive vision for the future. He keeps a mistress and blithely provides incorrect directions to American tourists trying to find their way around the city.
Wiley provides a context for his life by recalling readers to Teddy’s childhood in Los Angeles he is an American citizen, we learn where, as a boy, he develops an awareness of (and a disdain for) the old-country traditions of his Japanese-farmer father compared to the more modern and attractive manners of his uncle in whose home Teddy relishes spending his summers. Predictably, Teddy learns to play guitar and begins a band with his friend, Jimmy Yamamoto, and, even more predictably, scandalizes their local ethnic community by naming the band the American Japs. After taking their act to Japan, ominous overtones quickly pervade Teddy’s life. He is introduced to the realm of physical pain after getting knifed by a stranger then suffers equally in his love for a Japanese woman, Kazuko, who marries Jimmy. Ideological pain, finally, confronts the two young men during the first heady days of war. Following the announcement of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Teddy and Jimmy remain unaffected. But their Asian countenances make it increasingly difficult to avoid the involvement that consumes the loyalty of other young, similarly-featured Japanese men and, at Kazuko’s urging, Teddy and Jimmy enlist in the army to take up arms against their own country.
His national allegiance already compromised, Teddy draws further from any sense of a strong identity following the incarceration of several American soldiers. Major Nakamura, who leads Teddy’s military unit, decides to punish one American who, he perceives, acts with too much pride for a prisoner of war. Made to stand for days at end in the middle of an open yard, the American receives some chocolate from Jimmy, who feels compassion for him. Unfortunately, Jimmy is caught in the act and, rather than obeying Nakamura’s order to shoot the prisoner on the spot, Jimmy is himself shot and killed by the major. Nakamura then hands Teddy the gun to carry out the sentence, but he exhibits no bravery equivalent to that of his friend. To avoid his own death, Teddy executes the American.
Following his discharge from the army, Teddy returns to his Japanese friends with news of Jimmy’s death. Kazuko reveals she is pregnant with Jimmy’s child; with her silent consent, Teddy assumes the role of husband and father. But Teddy is a changed man, war-weary, humiliated, unmoored from role, purpose and cause. Gone is the pride and irreverence of his youth, while the trauma borne by his failure as a Japanese soldier lives on, as does the loss of his friend and his false role as father to the infant, Milo, who is born immediately following an air raid over Teddy and Kazuko’s neighborhood. The war sweeps over every aspect of Teddy’s existence, even the life of his new “son.”
Teddy’s growing detachment reminded me, somewhat, of the film, Apocalypse Now and, especially of Marlon Brando’s depiction of Kurtz, the renegade Special Ops colonel whose journey into the heart of darkness during the Vietnam War reduces him to a hardened core where individuality, morality and ethics cease to matter. Teddy’s war experiences and waning sense of purpose are nothing as extreme or dramatic as Kurtz’s madness but his self-destructive tendencies accumulate alarmingly in the post-war years. Japan is eventually defeated and General Douglas MacArthur’s first message to the Japanese people is broadcast against the backdrop of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” and, in particular, an interpretation produced by Teddy and Jimmy’s band from years ago. The nationwide publicity launches an unsuspecting Teddy to stardom as a cultural entertainer and icon for his generation but, as his star rises, so do his personal failures bring him down, transforming him into the crushed man we meet at the novel’s start.
Wiley’s investigation of the Teddy Maki trauma might be engaging enough, were his mission more ambitious. More ambitious: and, ultimately, more redeeming. If Colonel Kurtz reflects a man’s destruction at the hands of unmanageable experiences, Teddy represents a soldier whose life is only buried or “hidden” by experience. Years later, after Milo has grown and an extra-marital affair has estranged Teddy from Kazuko, Teddy meets Major Nakamura again the incarnation of a nightmare that has plagued him since his time as a soldier. Teddy learns that Nakamura, a school principal before the war, became a pharmacist afterward. The major’s seeming ability to live a normal life despite the war’s violence and its memories, infuriates Teddy, who decides to utilize his entertainment program to launch a kind of war-crimes tribunal by proxy, to show Japan the devil Nakamura really is.
The novel closes on the stage of a makeshift Japanese theater, which Nakamura has constructed on his property. Teddy finds his prey adorned in a drama mask, acting out a role of a well-known play. Several members of Teddy’s troupe bizarrely join Nakamura as the play turns into a re-enactment of the death of Jimmy Yamamoto. Teddy is helpless to stop the proceedings and begins to acknowledge the “role” Nakamura simply believes he played, and the responsibilities he had no choice to accept, during the war. While the play-acting implies a controversial dismissal of charges and accountability against the major it likewise offers Teddy a way to forgive himself for the death of the American soldier and relinquish the guilt that has crushed and distorted him. Much of this is implicit in the novel’s final pages but Teddy abandons his project to crucify Nakamura (whose pale and jaundiced countenance tells that life has not been easy for him either), restore his life of its cynicism and return to an affectionate marriage with Kazuko.
Soldiers in Hiding offers the opportunity for redemption. Teddy’s protean roles throughout the novel as a Japanese American, a failed Japanese soldier, a bitter entertainer, a false father and, ultimately, a true husband test his will to remain strong and faithful to his life. Much is lost to those struggles: his American loyalty, his friend, his sense of home, nearly his marriage. But in a final confrontation with Nakamura who he believes causes his suffering, Teddy Maki recognizes the essence of human fragility and accepts the restorative nature of forgiveness for acts committed.
The Peace Corps challenges its Volunteers to bring their Americanness to foreign cultures and remain honorable to their own values without dishonoring those of the populations they serve. It is not always an easy calling, as any PCV can tell you. But in his engaging and somewhat disturbing novel, Richard Wiley vaunts the challenges of identity and role-play into the context of a world war. The story is worthy of praise and awards.
Joe Kovacs served as a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Sri Lanka. He writes for WorldView magazine and is currently seeking an agent for his novel Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. He also is a martial arts practitioner and holds the rank of brown belt in tae kwon do.
One Fight, One Night, Tony Galento v. Joe Louis
by Joseph Monninger (Burkina Faso 197577)
Reviewed by Craig Carrozzi (Colombia 197880)
WHEN JOHN COYNE put out the word over the e-network advertising first-come-first-serve to review a book about Two Ton Tony Galento, my finger itched to hit the reply button. The name Tony Galento triggered ’60s memories of Gillette Razor, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, and Palmolive After Shave commercials shown before Friday Night at the Fights. It conjured images of grainy “classic” fights shown on an even grainier black-and-white television set. It reminded me of my dad, very much a son of the depression, hearing the name Galento and saying, “That guy was a palooka.“ And finally, it restored to me flashing images of a short, barrel-shaped, balding, hairy, ungainly man waiting in the corner to battle the great Joe Louis in one of the most unlikely heavyweight championship match-ups in professional boxing history. Then there was the fight.
Yankee Stadium, 1939, a sweltering summer night. Joe Louis, at the very peak of his career, administering a methodical dissection of a pudgy man’s face, whacking him like a speed bag, and making his mouth look as though he wore a clown’s makeup. But in between, the rotund one, as Howard Cosell would have said, lashing out with a thunderous left that shook Louis in the first round and deposited him on the seat of his pants for the fleetest of seconds in the third and then . . . Those were my memories. I hit the mouse and won the prize.
Two Ton: One Fight, One Night, by Joe Monninger was both more and less than I expected. The book more than restored my childhood memories and perceptions it enhanced and deepened them. Tony Galento, the man and fight character, is vividly described by Monninger as a Runyonesque cross between James Cagney and Popeye the Sailor Man. His favorite phrase is, “I’ll moida da bum,” when speaking of prospective opponents, and he is also quoted, after almost dying of pneumonia, “before I won my bout with dat bum ammonia.”
He is very much the Italian-immigrant son of the Great Depression: Orange, New Jersey, working class, willing to do almost anything to make a buck. Galento boxes a bear on a regular basis in his bar, Tony’s Tavern, takes on multiple opponents in a single night, and even gets into a water tank to battle an octopus. After his boxing career is over, he appears as a union thug in On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando. A convincing role for a man who could have easily passed for a teamster truck driver or a mafia enforcer. And, in fact, a suspicious aroma of funny-looking fights and held-up purses dogs Galento during his winning streak in the run-up to the Louis fight.
A man of enormous appetites, Galento imbibes oceans of beer, consumes pounds of hot dogs and spaghetti and meatballs at a sitting, and never ever lets training interfere with a good meal or a good time. He’s the Babe Ruth of the boxing world without the overwhelming talent and charisma. Joe Six-Pac with one hell of an attitude, a sense of humor, and a left hook to match. While Joe Louis is rumored to have flings with Mae West and is known to have had one with Olympic gold medal skater Sonja Heinie and a few Hollywood starlets, Galento might have got a few of the ones hanging around at last call if his wife had left.
So it goes. Always there is the juxtaposition between the handsome sleek young Joe Louis, his image carefully guarded and burnished, his public statements honed and monitored by his management team, and the outrageous public utterances of the troglodyte Galento and his bombastic manager, Joe Jacobs. Buffoonery with a purpose. Laughing all the way to the bank.
Remember, the era is the 1930s when sport writers could refer “affectionately” to Joe DiMaggio, one of the most elegant and image-conscious athletes of any time, as “The Big Dago.” Political correctness never interfered with the pursuit of money and ethnic and racial rivalries were exploited to the hilt down on the street. Joe Louis was the classy “Brown Bomber” who whipped that “Nazi” Schmeling, but it’s another story if he goes against one of our own white boys in the stadium. Dago, Mick, Kike, Nazi, Greaser, or Nigger, it’s all grist for the mill and the pursuit of selling tickets in tough economic times. It’s 1930s America and Monninger describes it well. He intercises the actual call of the four round fight with images, anecdotes, and events from the era.
That said, I was put off at times by relentless statistics: how much concrete, steel, and wood went into the construction of Yankee Stadium; how many newtons the force of a falling apple are contained in an average heavyweight’s punch and its effect on an opponents brain, etc., etc. Monninger’s sometime obsession with statistics struck me as excess padding.
Beyond that, I was troubled by a tendency to attribute mass emotions and feelings to a crowd and society by Mr. Monninger as he assumed the role of omnipotent narrator in a nonfiction work. Such as, among other examples, the “swells at ringside” felt, thought, said, “no one, deep down, expected Galento to put Louis on the floor.” No, how about some of the gamblers who picked Tony based on his dynamite left?; the thought that he had that one punch that could put Louis out as it had so many other opponents? More than a few “swells” won money that night by betting Galento would go more than two rounds. He was, after all, a dangerous brawler who had put many good fighters on the floor..
Overall, however, these were hiccups on a trip down memory lane and a very enjoyable read about the kind of fighter we may never see again. Well, unless you leave out the fat old George Foreman.
Craig Carrozzi has published five books and written numerous book reviews. He is currently co-writing a screen play based on his historical novel, The Curse of Chief Tenaya.
A Writer Writes
Gabon, Vietnam and Growing Up
by Darcy Meijer (Gabon 198284)
In 1982 I became a teacher of English as a foreign language with the Peace Corps. I was posted to Gabon in Central Africa. Twenty-three years later, in 2005, I won a Fulbright Scholar’s grant to train English teachers in Vietnam. I was accompanied by my husband and three children.
Last month I was asked by Peace Corps Writers’ John Coyne to compare my two experiences. They were 23 years apart a lifetime, and many of the differences I noted were in myself at 22 and at 45, apart from comparing the two countries. Having been in Gabon may have helped me live in Vietnam in the sense that I built on that experience as an older and wiser person.
I HAD JUST GRADUATED from Boston College with a B.A. in French and English, a degree I valued but didn’t know what to do with it. I had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris my third year of college, and this caused me to be very restless as a senior. When I got word from Peace Corps that my application had been accepted, I was ecstatic at the prospect of being on the road again.
I flew into Libreville, Gabon on July 4, 1982, the youngest in my group of 30 trainees. It included fish breeders, agriculturalists, construction workers and EFL teachers. For many in the group, this was their first experience overseas.
The Corps provided a short training course in TEFL methodology in-country. I hadn’t thought of pursuing a career in teaching before my PC stint, and to be honest, I was a really bad teacher my first year and only a little better my second. I was lonesome, frightened at the responsibility, and awed with Gabonese culture, so different from my own.
I was single with no children, and the most common question I heard was, “Where is your husband?” Many of the Volunteers lied that they had husbands in the States, and others sported faux wedding rings, both to no avail. Fending off advances with good-natured rebuffs was the best solution in the end.
Other Gabon RPCVs with whom I’m in contact say that when they first learned they were to live in Gabon, they consulted their maps to locate it. It is hard to find substantial information on Gabon. President Omar Bongo, the longest-serving president in Africa today, keeps information to the outside world at a minimum.
Gabon is the size of Colorado, right on the equator in Central Africa. Like many of its African neighbors, Gabon was a colony of France until 1960. It is the second wealthiest nation in Africa, with huge reserves of manganese, uranium, gold, bauxite, and oil, as well as ebony and mahogany. It also has the 5th highest cost of living index in the world. It was an expensive place to live, and my monthly stipend barely covered my living costs. (The expense partially explains why the Peace Corps withdrew from Gabon in July of 2005 the other main reason was Volunteer security.) Gabon and the U.S. maintain a minimum of trade contact, although President Bongo did give President Bush a machete as a gift last spring.
If you think of wild, mysterious Africa, Gabon is the country you are probably imagining. There are pygmy villages, Bwitists who trip on iboga, warring sects that thrive on ignorance and deal in death, army ants that carry off domestic animals, parasites that eat you first and ask questions later. And the country is very beautiful, with plateaus, waterfalls, rainforest, and species after species of flora and fauna.
During the three days my Peace Corps group spent in Philadelphia prior to flying to Gabon, we were told that Volunteers who go to South America learn how to be militant, Volunteers who go to Asia learn how to be contemplative, and Volunteers who go to Africa learn how to laugh. The Gabonese certainly do have the ability to laugh at themselves and at their situations. I was so stunned by the differentness and naive when I lived there, however, that I could not see much beyond myself. I regret that I did not learn more about Gabonese character.
Because of my fear and immaturity when I lived there, the whole experience remains a mystery to me. I don’t remember details, and I can’t figure out what I might have contributed. In an effort to reconstruct what I have forgotten and get a bigger picture of the culture, I have been editing the newsletter of the Friends of Gabon The Gabon Letter for the past four years. It has helped.
ON MY 45th BIRTHDAY, in 2005, my husband, three children and I flew from Knoxville, Tennessee to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Fulbright had awarded me a one-year grant to lecture instructors of English on teaching techniques. I had obtained my M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California twenty years before and had been working in ESL for 23 years. Behind me I had much experience in teaching, training, curriculum development and just living.
Before leaving for Vietnam, my husband and I learned all we could about the country. This was not difficult as resources are plentiful. The shared history of the U.S. and Vietnam has gone a long way toward putting the country on the map for Americans, though the focus for most is the War. The nine-year-old daughter of a friend e-mailed me while we were in Vietnam, asking whether the country was as safe as her hometown in North Carolina. She wanted to know whether we heard gunshots every day. I told her that the War ended in 1975 and that the U.S. State Department considers Vietnam to be one of the safest countries in the world. The crime rate is very low and there is almost no violent crime. The American War is part of the past for the Vietnamese Americans are having a harder time coming to terms with what happened. The relationship, though based on conflict, forms a foundation on which to learn more. More books by Vietnamese, Vietnamese exiles in the U.S., and American researchers of Vietnam are coming out every year. We continue to learn about the country from several angles.
In Vietnam, I got the feeling that the country is healthy. Since Renovation policies were adopted in 1986 and President Clinton lifted the trade embargo in the mid-90s, the economy has improved a great deal. People are hopeful. They send their children to good schools with confidence that education will get them good jobs.
The Vietnamese currency is the dong, and 100,000 dong is worth about $6U.S. I was shocked at first to be asked for 12,000 for a lunch and 30,000 for a motorcycle ride because it sounded like so much. I got used to it quickly, but then my relative wealth made me feel guilty about the measly $80/month that workers at some international companies are paid; about my $1 haircut;about my $2.50/hour massage; about the piddling amount that the babysitter asked for. We gave more, and our Malaysian neighbors advised us not to do it again lest we “spoil the market.”
I DIDN’T ADAPT EASILY to life in Gabon. I flouted some social mores. I am blond, pale and thin, though strong, and healthy Gabonese women are vigorous, rounded and capable. Gabonese women wear several light, colorful pagnes cloths wrapped around the body at home and in the village. Although I didn’t dress in an overtly sexual way, I wore Gabon-made sundresses which showed lots of flesh, like the Gabonese. The problem is that I am not as amply built as the women there. I looked different in my clothes and attracted attention.
Another error I made let’s say I danced with more men than was good for my reputation. This would not have been so bad, except that I dated one of my students. He was as old as I, a redoublant (a student who has repeated many classes). My students could not respect me after this, so I had trouble in the classroom maintaining discipline my first year. This was a painful lesson, and I’m grateful to have learned it early in my career.
Looking back on my heedlessness, I see that I really should have adopted myself out to a local family there some kind people to be my friends, show me the ropes and keep me out of trouble. I would certainly have contributed more toward my work and social objectives there.
IN VIETNAM, I HAD NO such problems. As a mid-life mother and wife, I was not in the dating market. My role was cut out for me. Having children was a great social ice-breaker in Vietnam as it is everywhere. Mine were 4, 5 and 15, and they provided a topic of conversation, a reason to smile, a basis for understanding among the people we met.
Caring for children also requires being grounded. In Vietnam we basically followed the same family schedule we do in Maryville, Tennessee, and this was good for all of us. I am a creature of habit. Routine keeps me focused and contented.
Another difference between the two countries which facilitated my adaptation was that people in Vietnam are very modest. Even in Ho Chi Minh City, you rarely see midriff shirts or shorts, never mind plunging necklines or mini-skirts. Two young female volunteers visiting my university from an Australian education program hadn’t noticed this. I was leading a poetry lesson, and Anna (the ample-bosomed one) and I were showcasing our accents. As we recited from Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” 42 pairs of eyes were fixed on her unrelenting cleavage, incapable of paying the slightest attention to the intonation pattern. Later I was asked by the Dean to speak to the girls on their sartorial choices. “It was many and many a year ago in a nipple, oops, kingdom . . ..”
Exploring the country
IN GABON, MOST OF US PCVs were young and free-spirited. All of us had come for the adventure, with a measure of altruism added. Peace Corps accorded us plenty of independence. My location in-country was a rough and tumble town called Lastoursville on the “route economique.” There was one muddy Main Street on which Muslim commercants sold dry goods, one impoverished produce market, and one public water pump. You had to go to the post office and wait for hours to make or take a phone call. Many truckers passed
through and you could always see brawls on Saturday nights. None of the EFL teachers had trucks or motorbikes; I left Lastoursville only a handful of times, to travel in Cameroun during Christmas break and to train new EFL Volunteers in the northern town of Oyem.
IN VIETNAM my family and I saw most of the country. I attended national education conferences and Fulbright seminars, and conducted workshops for teachers. For these trips and with my family, I visited the major cities Hanoi, Hue, Haiphong, Danang and Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, as well as many smaller towns. I will never forget the beauty of Ha Long Bay or Bach Ma National Park in the Central Highlands. Each region has its special dishes, language accent and history. We toured Vietnam and deepened our appreciation of the country with every trip.
MY B.A. WAS IN FRENCH and English, and I had studied in Paris, so I spoke French fluently before I taught in Gabon. This made getting things done easier and got me acquainted with functionaries like the sadistic Chief of Police. It may also have shut me off from the local culture, as I didn’t make the effort to learn Baduma or Banjabi, two of the 60+ languages that the Gabonese speak. I never pounded bananas, never helped the women on the plantation, never had the brousse experience. I did improve my French, however, and delighted in the modifications that the Gabonese had made to the language. Two favorite expressions of mine were “Moi connais ou?” and “C’est quoi, ca!?” The first translates literally as “Me know where?” and means “How am I supposed to know?!” and the second translates as “That’s what, that?” and means “Whaddaya call that?!” Gabonese speakers would clap their hands after these utterances, and then hold them out palms-up to stress their humorous mockery.
When I joined the Peace Corps I had no arrogant delusions that I was helping poor primitives to find the right way to live. I went to Gabon with no missionary zeal to convert the Gabonese to the Western model of life and government. I wanted to help the students speak English better and I wanted to learn about Bantu culture.
I conducted my classes in the American style, but I would have been wiser to exercise my authority more often. I should have been stricter like my African co-workers. One of my co-workers, M. Coulibali from Mali, called his students “Petits Microbes” and made them kneel in the noonday sun when they did badly on tests. While not condoning his strategy, I observed that the students worked harder for him than for me. I lost status because of my leniency.
I STUDIED VIETMANESE A LITTLE in-country, and my efforts reminded me how hard it is to start out in a new language. It was humbling. There are six tones in northern Vietnam, only five in the south. For example, in the north, there are six ways to intone the word ma. Depending on the mark on the a, the word can mean ghost, rice seedling, nevertheless, horse, grave or cheek. Some sounds are low falling, others are high rising. The story goes that an American dignitary visiting Vietnam addressed a large audience with the intention of saying, “I am honored to be standing before you today.” What came out was, “The sunburned duck lies sleeping.” He hadn’t studied his tonemes.
By the time I worked in Vietnam, I had the confidence to lead workshops and large classes of teacher-trainees. My primary goal was to help the educators make their English curriculum more communicative. In my first months, I noted the dynamics between teachers and students and followed suit. What’s more, after teaching international students, Asians in particular, for 22 years, I knew what to expect. School officials treated me as an authority; co-workers, as a respected “Aunt-friend,” seeking advice and asking after my family’s satisfaction with life in their country. My husband, who is Dutch, and I were invited to several embassy dinners, sponsored by both The Netherlands and the U.S. We were even invited to gawk at Prince Andrew of England and Crown Prince Willem of the Netherlands.
THE MEN IN GABON are quite lazy, and most families survive from their plantations. The women care for the children, haul water, maintain the crops and sell what they can for school fees and other expenses requiring cash.
I CAN SAY THAT I ADMIRE the disposition of the Vietnamese. I recently asked a fellow teacher here in the US how his experience in Peace Corps/Thailand affected him 15 years ago. He said that before he left the U.S., he had taken it for granted that venting your emotions, especially anger and frustration, was healthy. But in Thailand he saw things as the Thais do: it’s better to preserve good relations and let bad feelings blow over. Vietnamese people demonstrate that same wisdom. They don’t share bad moods in ordinary conversation but act cheerful so others will feel good. During my first semester in Vietnam, I lightly told one of my classes that I felt sleepy. They reacted with sympathy and sadness. I had depressed them.
I also admire the resourcefulness of people in Vietnam. One day I stopped on Hai Ba Trung Street. Like many other street names in Vietnam, it’s named after Vietnamese heroes in this case two brave sisters who fought Chinese invaders a thousand years ago. I wanted to know if the shoe repairman under the umbrella on the corner (next to the tailor with his sewing machine and the lady pressing sugar cane juice) could repair my leather bag. He said yes and I sat down on one of the ubiquitous tiny plastic stools to wait. Five minutes later he was twisting the inner tube out of a motorcycle tire, and my bag had been put aside. In another few minutes, the inner tube customer was back on his motorcycle, and the man had taken up my bag again. He repaired it flawlessly for half a dollar.
ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING things about living overseas is seeing how other expats deal with it.
In Vietnam my daughter attended the British International School, thanks to the generous education allowance of my Fulbright grant, and the majority of her classmates’ parents were wealthy American, Asian and European corporate people. Most had chauffeurs, gardeners, full-time maids, nannies and enormous houses in private gated compounds. I think it’s living beyond your means if you have to hire all these people to keep your life going.
During our stay, one of the compounds added 2 meters of concrete and barbed wire to the top of the already-high surrounding wall. The names of the streets in the compound included Lotus Road, Rose Road, and Tulip Road, but more fitting names would have been Paranoia Place, Whites Only Way, and Lotta Bucks Lane.
On several mornings in Vietnam, my husband and I had breakfast at the rice joint across the street from our house. The place had an aluminum roof, and the walls were a patchwork of battered sheetrock, plywood, two decapitated trees and more aluminum, all pasted together with ads for Fanta. The floor was uneven, and customers tried not to get stuck with the table in the corner, where the stools wouldn’t stay upright. The owners loved our boys and automatically served two plates of rice to them when we entered. Half of the patrons were male construction workers, and the other half were people who ordered to-go without getting off their their motorcycles. I told our Malaysian neighbor (married to an Australian construction manager) that we liked this rice joint, and she couldn’t understand where it was. It didn’t exist for her, though it was right across the street.
The effect of life and time
SO, WHO IS THIS PERSON who lived in Gabon and Vietnam? What has changed over the years to make these experiences so different?
Soon after I left Gabon, I wrote an essay called “Unmoveable Feast” in which I described a dinner that I ate with some Gabonese friends. My hosts pushed me to ingest what I was certain was a bovine asshole. I would have done the deed if they had not knocked the aperture from my hand at the last minute. By the time I got to Vietnam, I knew my personal limits. I did not drink snake blood wine or eat dog.
Peace Corps impressed on us the fact that we represented our country, with warnings to behave ourselves. But in Vietnam I represented myself and my profession. My husband thinks travel does not “teach us new things” so much as remind us of aspects of human culture that have become dormant or discarded in our own national cultures in favor of the priorities we have selected. Examples of priorities include heaters, air-conditioning, bug zappers, leaf blowers, and subdivisions technical manipulation of our environment. These choices are opposed to awareness of our dependence on and connection with the earth, the land where our food comes from. This is not to speak of our high estimation of our jobs and money over our ancestors and the appreciation of our physical being.
I was able to learn much more about Vietnam than about Gabon when I was there because I knew what I wanted and had built up knowledge about the world in the 23-year interval. I did 100% better in my job because I was prepared and because I enjoy teaching. My family made and makes me feel contented (and tired) and focused every day. Much of my pleasure in Vietnam came from seeing things through their young eyes.
Succeeding in Vietnam makes me feel more at peace with what I think was a bungled job in Gabon. I had felt lousy for two decades about my poor Gabonese students my guinea pigs. Now I see that, given my resources at the time, at the age of 21, I couldn’t have done much better. Now my question is: What next?
To Preserve and to Learn
The Fabulous Peace Corps Booklocker
by Jack Prebis (Ethiopia 196264)
For a short period of time in the very first years of the Peace Corps all Volunteers were given booklockers by the agency. The lockers were meant to provide leisure reading for the PCVs and then to be left behind in schools, villages, and towns where they served. There is some mystery as to who first thought of the lockers and one rumor has it that the idea came from Sarge Shriver’s wife, Eunice.
It is believed that the books were selected for the first locker by a young Foreign Service officer. A second selection was done in 1964, and that same year Jack Prebis was made responsible for the 3rd edition of the locker that was assembled in the fall and winter of 1965.
DEVELOPING THE Peace Corps booklocker was the best job I ever had. As sometimes happens with fun jobs, this one fell in my lap. Returning in 1964 from my secondary school teaching stint in Ethiopia, I headed to Our Nation’s Capital, hoping to land stateside Peace Corps work. Back in those days, the Peace Corps was fresh, free-wheeling and unbureaucratic, shot through with idealists. (Thanks in part to the five-year rule, it remains staffed with idealists.)
To my good fortune, as I was being interviewed was it by fifteen people? the person who had been working on “the booklocker” was heading to Chile on staff. My biology major and chemistry minor seemed perfect for the unexpected vacancy.
After dispatching a mile-high stack of unanswered mail from publishers wanting to donate their remaindered titles (we already had a warehouse full of books totally unsuited to host country needs, aspiration and mores), I got down to my major function feet on desk, reviewing paperbacks for inclusion in the next booklocker.
What power! Aside from deciding what Volunteers and their friends would be reading over the next few years, with 4,000 footlockers to fill with 250 books each, I soon learned I wielded some influence. It was tough resisting the offers of free trips to New York City and attendant free lunches. But I learned quickly that publishers often were happy to do press runs of hardback or out of print titles if they had a guaranteed 4,000-book sale. With that bit of knowledge, I obtained such titles as The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola and Blossoms in the Dust: The Human Factor in Indian Development by Kusum Nair [available used from Amazon].
I also learned that my English-Literature- major friends had something concrete to offer (as opposed to being skilled Botticelli players). They were more than happy to help review contemporary titles and offer suggestions on the classics with never a consensus on either, I might add.
But eventually, I developed a good mix of fiction (over half the books) and other sections like “American Studies” and “Africanor LA or NANESA [North Africa, Near East, South Asia], Studies” depending on the destination. Debated along the way: Was Henry Ford a suitable example of American industrialization and the free enterprise system? (More or less). Or, would Ayn Rand stimulate depression and early terminations? (One couldn’t be too careful.)
There were clearance hurdles I had not anticipated with the State Department and USIA. After some concessions on their part over a few titles, there remained two objections: No Exit [an existential play by Jean Paul Sartre] and Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Finally, I agreed that we didn’t need to export the Communist line, but contended that Catch 22, in spite of depicting the U.S. military in a less-than-complimentary light, likely would not get wide distribution among host country nationals, but would be good escape reading on quiet nights. And so it was.
Peace Corps Writers pays homage to the booklockers of yore with occasional recommendations from our editor, John Coyne, of books and fine writing from RPCVs, and about and relating to the Peace Corps. By coincidence, John has a Booklocker recommendation in this issue.
To Perserve and to Learn
Remembering Joe Kauffman
and the Early Days of Peace Corps Training
by Ted Vestal (Staff: PC/Washington & Ethiopia APCD 196366)
DR. JOE KAUFFMAN, ONE OF THE founding hands of the Peace Corps died September 29th in Madison, Wisconsin. From 19611963, Joe was the first Director of Training at a time when no one knew what a Peace Corps was supposed to be much less how to train Volunteers. In the old Peace Corps Headquarters at 806 Connecticut Avenue, he ran a respected Division staffed by some well-degreed, experienced former university professors and administrators. They worked on a crash basis primarily with colleges and universities which at the time had not had much experience in training Americans to work overseas. The Training Division’s activities were informed by a series of conferences the Peace Corps had held in 1961 on how to train Volunteers for service in particular nations of Asia, the Far East, Africa and Latin America and on subjects deemed essential to prepare PCVs for overseas service.
Like many of the Peace Corps/Washington staff, Joe was an ambitious, energetic veteran of World War II, having seen combat as an infantry sergeant in North Africa and Italy. He earned a doctorate at Boston University and worked as Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League in Omaha and Denver before becoming Assistant to the President and Dean of Students at Brandeis University. At the time Sargent Shriver asked him to join the fledgling Peace Corps, Joe was Executive Vice President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Joe was the type of academician that Sarge liked: a take-charge, get it done kind of guy who worked directly with students. Kauffman was respected for his intellect and well-liked for his personal dealings with colleagues.
Shriver and his cohorts rigorously debated the training of PCVs during the early 1961 planning seminars at the Mayflower Hotel. First, they were concerned with how to prepare what President Kennedy had described as “all those with the desire and capability to help foreign lands meet their urgent needs for trained personnel.” Secondly, the planners had to demonstrate that training of PCVs could counter critics of the Peace Corps who envisioned ill-informed kids running off to foreign countries, disrupting U.S. foreign aid policies.
The Mayflower Hotel discussions and heated arguments produced several dominant ideas that became the basis for Kauffman’s early training contracts. Chief among these were the models of 1) the Experiment in International Living, 2) Outward Bound programs, 3) the use of psychiatrists in training, and 4) knowledge of American government and institutions sufficient to be able to defend them in debate with would-be detractors.
Shriver’s participation in the Experiment in International Living in Germany and France in the 1930s doubtlessly was a strong force in shaping his picture in the head of what PCVs might encounter overseas and what type of training should prepare them for it. The Experiment programs featured home-stays and the development of some empathy with overseas hosts, knowledge of the culture and society of the countries being visited, and some facility with foreign languages. Obviously one had to be in good physical condition to take part in bicycle-camping tours that were integral to the Experiment.
Outward Bound training had been developed in Britain in World War II to give young seamen the ability to survive harsh conditions at sea by teaching confidence and tenacity. Joshua Miner of Phillips Academy had brought the innovative program to the United States in the 1950s, and Shriver contacted him about adventure based, experiential learning. The entire Outward Bound philosophy of impelling participants to achieve more than they ever thought possible through exacting physical challenges and of team-building and development of compassion for others through bold undertakings fit the adventurous image Shriver wanted the Peace Corps to have.
The use of psychiatrists as an integral part of the Peace Corps operation probably stemmed in part from Sarge and Eunice Shriver’s experience with the Kennedy Foundation and its emphasis on mental retardation. In a staff meeting in June 1962, Shriver discussed with his medical staff how psychiatrists could be used in training. They concluded that psychiatrists could assist the Medical Division in selecting out the medically unfit Volunteers and selecting in the psychologically sound ones judged capable of coping with adventurous hardship in the field: a process of “strengthening the healthy” for their service abroad.
From the beginning, the Peace Corps was the target of Communist propagandists. The Soviet Union, PRC, Castro’s Cuba, and other leftist governments denounced the organization as a tool of capitalist imperialism. President Kennedy contended, however that “our young men and women, dedicated to freedom, are fully capable of overcoming the efforts of Mr. Khrushchev’s missionaries who are dedicated to undermining that freedom.” How to prepare PCVs to be well-versed in understanding U.S. government, society, and culture in order to stand up to false allegations that Marxists/Leninists were likely to bring up where ever the Peace Corps went became a challenge to Kauffman and the Training staff.
Under pressure and short deadlines to get training started and PCVs into the field, Shriver had Albert Sims, head of the Institute of International Education, solicit universities and colleges for domestic training. Kauffman and associates then worked with university representatives to create training curricula. Sometimes the demands of the Peace Corps were difficult for the academy to meet. The most useful foreign language instruction for PCVs would emphasize the spoken word and conversational ability. Yet this was to be done by foreign language departments that had been churning out majors in European languages with the hope that the graduates would be specialists in the literature being studied. In the early 1960s much language instruction still was rote memorization of the “amo, amas, amat” variety of Latin learning. By holding the professors’ feet to the fire to produce practical results in preparing PCVs to communicate in their host countries, the Peace Corps helped modernize the curricula of foreign language instruction throughout the country. Likewise, the academy did not have much experience in cross-cultural training, so improvisation was rampant. Universities were more successful in teaching civics and history, preparing Volunteers “to discuss adequately and intelligently the United States when questioned.”
The first training programs were held at the University of California, Berkeley, for Volunteers going to Ghana, and at Texas Western College for those assigned to Tanganika. These were the trailblazers for a legion of subsequent training programs throughout the nation that prepared PCVs for service in countries that many people had not been aware of only a few years before. Somehow Kauffman and his team came up with a mixture of idealism, naiveté, and brilliance that infused the training programs with a spirit and content that gave the PCVs a quick inoculation against ignorance about their assigned countries.
One of the most publicized training sites was the Puerto Rican Field Training Center, located in the mountains south of Arecibo. There PCVs received Outward Bound Training designed to generate self confidence and erase unreasonable fears of the unknown. Many trainees were not sure about the connection of the training to their teaching or community development assignments, but the media reveled in reporting the strenuous physical training, the repelling down dams, rock climbing, drown-proofing, swimming several lengths of a pool underwater, and four-day survival treks. The Outward Bound experience actually came to play a less significant role in training after the first two years of high profile exposure in Puerto Rico.
The Training Division under Kauffman learned as it went along and brought pressure to bear on universities to reform and improve as they negotiated contracts for new training programs. The entire training operation in a hitherto untracked area was a culturally awakening experience for some Ivory Tower academics. The procedures and experience gained by working with the Training Division in the early days of the Peace Corps yielded rich dividends to higher education in general and to other Government agencies as well.
In 1962, Kauffman figured in an iconic Peace Corps tale. On a visit to Ethiopia, Shriver asked Emperor Haile Selassie if he could pet the Emperor’s pet lion Tojo. Joe Coleman, Director of Peace Corps Research at the time, purportedly turned to Kauffman and asked, “What is the line of succession at the Peace Corps, anyway?” Joe’s reply was not recorded.
After he left the Peace Corps, Kauffman joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1965 as Dean of Student Affairs. In July 1968 he returned to his home state to become president of Rhode Island College where he served until January 1973. He then returned to Madison, where he was a professor in the University’s Department of Educational Administration and continued his lifelong commitment to public service via a variety of positions well after his retirement in 1987.
Opportunity for Writers
The International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) has a new quarterly webzine focusing on the importance of freedom of expression. We invite writers to submit essays on the subjects of 1) nationalism, identity, “the exile experience,” patriotism and/or citizenship; 2) cross-cultural literatures, translation, critical analysis of fiction and poetry with an eye on history or current events. See their site for details and submission procedures.