For a week straight I’d been sneaking into NYU’s Bobst Library on an expired one day pass. My mission? A haphazard, undirected and fairly aimless study of my upcoming Philippines Peace Corps service.

I spent a day reading Kathleen Nadeau’s History of the Philippines. Another I devoted entirely to the year 1961: I would flip between Making Them Like Us: Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s and the ‘61 entries in Filipino Short Stories in English, 1956-1972. I can’t say why. On the subway I read Tuttle’s Basic Tagalog for Foreigners and Non-Tagalogs. That at least was practical.

But my high stakes game of library crashing would catch up with me. The security guards would wise up, I would be found out, my expired pass would be confiscated, and I would leave Bobst with head hung low in scholarly shame.

No matter. During that week, the truth is I had no idea what I was looking for, and by the end of it, only a vaguely better idea of what I was getting into.

Then again, put it in perspective: as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 21st century, my unknowns were comparatively few. When on March 4, 1961 President Kennedy tasked his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver with Executive Order 10924, making him “responsible for the training and service abroad of men and women of the United States in new programs of assistance to nations and areas of the world,” Shriver was staring up the hill of one helluva steep learning curve.

Likewise with the volunteers: my correspondence with volunteers Sylvia Boecker (1961-63) and Nick Royal (1962-64) reminded me to cherish internet research and modern libraries. Sheila writes, “I knew that the Philippines had been part of the Spanish Empire. I think that is all I knew when I was accepted into Peace Corps.” And Nick: “I was offered a post in the Philippines—had to look that country up on the map! I thought, ‘Well, the Spanish were in the P.I. for 400 years, so Spanish must be spoken there.’ False assumption, but off I went to the Philippines.”

In Making Them Like Us, I read all about early Peace Corps. The first training programs featured lessons in boat building, spear fishing, coconut husking, weaving palm fronds and climbing coconut trees (40). Each day, volunteers did 140 jumping jacks, 120 sit-ups, 120 touching toes, 30 push-ups, and 100 jumps in place; in the pool five laps of crawl, three laps of breast stroke, and two of side stroke (41). Language acquisition was not emphasized. [Author's note: after publication of this, some early volunteers commented that this was not their experience.]

[Peace Corps Volunteers, 1961]

In contrast, my twelve weeks’ training in the summer of 2010 would involve four hours daily of language study, practicum training sessions in the local schools, extensive teaching pedagogy, and zero jumping jacks.

Scholar Fritz Fisher said the early training reflected contemporary fascination with the western pioneer mythos. The volunteers reflected it, too. One of the members of the 1961 group to Manila said “the new frontier of the Philippines is like our wild west. There it is Indians; here it is head hunters.” Another called the country “still quite primitive, but it is also a pioneer country in the process of change.” Another: “I don’t think I want to stay with the professors even if the opportunity presents itself. I want to get down there with the real folks in the grubbiness — mix in as I become one of the great unwashed” (50).

Change. Progress. Head hunters.

I wondered how Filipinos saw their nation in 1961. Saw it, at least, through the lens of literature. I opened the anthology.

She was as tall as Renato. She had proud breasts and rounded hips that promised passion and many sons. (A.R. Baban, “A Bride Across the River”)

Andres Claudio is coming home, she repeated, smacking her lips a little, her wide, plain face looking almost beautiful in the morning sunlight of Maytime. (Albina Manalo-Dans, “The End of One Maytime”)

Then there was only the call of a bird in the heavy silence of the mountain. (Jose V. Ayala, “The Mountain”)

No head hunters. So far.

Of course, the early vision for the Peace Corps was partly political. A month after issuing Executive Order 10924, and only three months into his presidency, Kennedy gave the go-ahead for a covert invasion of the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy’s worldview, and part of his aim for the Peace Corps, was influenced by intellectuals Max Milikan and Walt Rostow who believed that the battle against the Soviets should not be waged solely with ICBM stockpiles and embargos; it needed to include humanitarian foreign aid and development to commie-vulnerable nations (9), and Peace Corps was one way to do that.

You can hear this in a Kennedy speech on the Corps: “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” (12; May, Passing the Torch, 286).

Missionaries. Filipinos had seen their share of those.

During my research. I even found a mimeographed 1963 training manual. It included a section devoted to educating volunteers about the communist agenda.

Given the zeitgeist, the anti-communist inflection is understandable. But in Sargent Shriver’s hands, politics took a back seat to humanitarianism. And that pioneering American spirit. Which is a good spirit as spirits go, but it is also a myth.

I heard from behind me the rumble of wheels coming through the bookstacks. Imagining some college work study student pushing a cart of books, I moved my backpack out of the way. As the wheels passed I looked up and saw that it was in fact the library janitor, a middle-aged, tatted-up Hispanic man with a Stalin moustache. He pushed his maintenance cart past. He tapped on the women’s bathroom. “Scuse me?” he said. “Maint’nance.”

He slung them quite deftly across his thin narrow frame to the truck, his long neck swinging back and forth from stair to truck like a goose whose head is copped by a dark helmet of hair. (Benito Lim, “The White Mulberry”)

I looked down at the Peace Corp book. Fritz Fischer was on about Sargent Shriver assembling the team that would make up the first the Peace Corps administration. He said that Shriver, in choosing handsome Hollywoodite Frank Mankiewicz, “understood that the media would find it irresistable that a member of a famous film family was leading a group of ‘blond, beautiful, and brilliant Kennedy clones through the world’s mountains and jungles.’” (Redmond, Come as you are”, 286; Fischer, 25).

The janitor was in the women’s bathroom. I thought of myself, sitting in the Elmer Bobst Memorial Library, reading books about the Philippines, and I remembered how Lindsay, my Peace Corps interviewer, had given me the spiel about how just as Americans may have stereotypes about developing countries, the inhabitants of those countries have stereotypes about Americans.

I contemplated my blond hair, my Caucasian-ness, and realizing I was very much the type Shriver probably envisioned tromping through the world’s mountains and jungles, I felt both relief and disgust.

[Philippines Peace Corps volunteers, 2010]