Ron Schwarz (Colombia 1961-63) is an anthropologist who has been writing his Peace Corps story, Kennedy’s Orphans. Several years ago we met via the Internet when he took an on-line writing I was giving on ‘writing your Peace Corps memoir.’ This opening chapter was recently published in the Brooklyn Eagle.
From Kings Highway to Colombia
By Ron Schwarz (Colombia 1961–63)
BROOKLYN - June 8, 1961 . . . my mother answered the call.
I’m playing tennis with Dickie Cowan on center court at Forest Hills where the U.S. Open was staged until 1978. It was not an officially sanctioned match and our access to the grounds was due neither to club membership, nor a USLTA ranking. Rather, it was an ancillary benefit of our first paid job after graduating from Colgate and Harvard … painting seat numbers on the wooden stadium benches.
Match over and outside the stadium, Dickie, the more dutiful son of our duo, calls home. His mother, an English teacher at James Madison High School, answers. Her final words: “Tell Ronnie to call his mother.” I hesitate, but deposit my nickel and dial NAvarre 8-7734, my home phone number since 1944. Irene, my mother, whose ability to transit from fact to legend to myth would humble most African griots, informs me, “The White House called.” She adds, “They want you to be in the Peace Corps. They want you to go Colombia.” She sounds excited.
An hour later, I arrive at the family apartment on Kings Highway. My mother and grandmother have experienced a change of heart. They convinced themselves that poor Americans needed my help more than peasants in South America. They feared that the first and only male offspring of the Tarakan clan would contract leprosy, or worse, spend his post-adolescent years in a country where the opposite sex was neither white nor Jewish.
I call Washington, am informed of my selection, and asked if I can report for training in late June. The assignment: community development in rural Colombia.
I am perplexed and amused at being chosen for a rural project in a Spanish-speaking country. I was raised in Flatbush and took the BMT subway to Brooklyn Tech. At Colgate I majored in philosophy, studied French and did a semester of Chinese Area Studies. In my Peace Corps application I requested a post in Africa. My rural experience consisted of observing dairy cows while driving through upstate New York. And on a junior high school class outing to the Bronx Zoo, I petted a goat.
Latin America was, however, part of the U.S. cultural landscape in the 1950s and ’60s. Xavier Cugat records lay alongside those of Frank Sinatra and My Fair Lady in our living room. A Cuban, Desi Arnaz, played the bandleader husband on the TV show, “I Love Lucy.” And, while I had never met a Latina, my first heartthrob (circa 1948) was the Hollywood diva, Carmen Miranda. The prospect of Colombia dusted off prepubescent images of dark eyes and a deep cleavage.
The decision to accept the Peace Corps offer was not difficult. My fascination with foreign lands was nurtured by Uncle Nate’s WW II tales and photos of people and markets in Burma and India. And, unlike my Colgate classmates with entry-level jobs in Fortune 500 firms or places in graduate schools of medicine and law, I had no immediate prospects. The short-term plan was for another summer as a carpenter building houses in Long Island or skyscrapers in Manhattan.
A few weeks after the “call from the White House” my name, along with about 30 others, appears in the New York Times . . . a down payment on Warhol’s promise of 15 minutes of fame.