Footprints in the Mud: A Peace Corps Volunteer’s 40+ Years of Ties to Thailand
by Michael R. MacLeod (Thailand 1964–68)
Third Place Press
$16.95 (to purchase contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975–77)
THIS IS AN EXCELLENT BRIDGE between the original Peace Corps and a changing institution. Today, as the Peace Corps reevaluates itself, it is also a guiding handrail while crossing the fast moving river of doubt. The author served in Thailand from 1964 until 1968, entering months after JFK’s death and leaving months after the deaths of MLK and RFK. This was not just a tumultuous time at home with hundreds of cities in flames each summer, it was also a time of war abroad — very near MacLeod’s stilted wooden home in a far-off village.
Originally, Peace Corps Volunteers were trained in the U.S. and shipped abroad to serve, much like the armed forces. By 1964, halfway houses were developed. MacLeod, as was true of most Volunteers bound for Asia, trained in Hawaii. By the time he finished his service in 1968, almost half of all new Volunteers were trained in-country. Even training itself changed radically during his service.
Under the auspices of first Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver, training included rigorous physical activities, many of which were modeled after armed forces’ training. This was more than likely in response to accusations that Peace Corps Volunteers were draft dodgers during wartime. Even notorious hawk and future Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater from Arizona’s diamond desert commented, “The Peace Corps is beginning to remove doubts . . . I have been impressed.” During training, prospective Volunteers were constantly evaluated by teams who sought to weed out the unfit. The author comments on this. After his successful completion, a counselor explained how he was nearly sent home because he took physical activities so seriously that he was nearly deemed “too aggressive.” Once Shriver left the agency, military-style physical training was dropped, psychological testing was first reduced, then eliminated. Before MacLeod came home, even placement tests were discontinued because none of this ensured great Volunteers. A change began.
What did not and has not changed is the basic emphasis on learning a foreign language, rolling up your sleeves and asking in the local tongue, “How can I help?” This is, of course, the basic tenant of any good neighbor and the real Peace Corps legacy. For those of us who served and like MacLeod suffered loneliness, disease (Dengue Fever) and sometimes worse (he was beaten and robbed), it was our opportunity to rip off our American blinders and see the world for the first time. For those whom we served, it was and often still is the first time they worked alongside an American. Good intentions and hard work spawn empathy and sometimes friendship. In MacLeod’s case, it begat love — he eventually married a Thai teacher and thus became part of the extended Thai family.
MacLeod was also a teacher, as were half of all Volunteers at that time. Nearly two-thirds of Volunteers worked in education and health. Today, about half of all Volunteers work in these sectors. MacLeod’s work was intense; he taught at several schools which he commuted to on bicycle and train, rising at four-thirty in the morning. His own home was a wooden shack on silts without electricity or plumbing which shook as American bombers dropped excess bombs prior to landing at Takli, just north of the village where the author lived. During his stay, our nation built several air and special forces bases in Thailand from which to wage war across Southeast Asia. MacLeod, like fellow Thailand Volunteer A. A. Maytree (Land of Smiles), witnessed both Americans at war and at peace simultaneously. His school basketball team played against American servicemen and he “had to negotiate the way past prostitutes, once while shielding my impressionable young basketball players. There were bars everywhere and scantily clad girls standing or dancing around day and night.” According to the author, we ended the war but “left with a reputation . . . as a sex-tour mecca.”
Just like the metamorphosis MacLeod’s generation witnessed, so the Peace Corps today is changing. While two-thirds of MacLeod’s generation were males, today it is reversed. Our nation is now represented primarily by our female gender. Unfortunately, the world has become a more dangerous place and violence against Volunteers has skyrocketed. More than 1,000 females have been raped abroad in the last decade. Congress was warned in 1992. They did not even hold a public hearing on the topic of violence until 2004 and then again this year, nearly a generation after the first warning. So far, the Peace Corps has responded with pretty speeches, hiring more Washington numbers crunchers, inventing new forms and blaming the victims.
In his book, MacLeod does something very unusual for a Peace Corps author. He discusses two topics: What is the Peace Corps legacy? Should the Peace Corps continue? Our fifty year experiment in unarmed foreign policy has been a wonderful tool for helping our neighbors while learning humility. It should continue. Time to adapt to changing times. Time to continue the change from caterpillar to butterfly.
Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975-77) is the author of Peace Corps Chronology: 1961–2010, now in its second printing. His most recent book, Years On and Other Travel Essays was released in June. These and other books by the author are available on Amazon.com.