A Writer Writes

Mark G. Wentling (Honduras 1967-69 & Togo 1970-73) was a Peace Corps Volunteer and in Gabon and Niger  Peace Corps staff. He then  joined USAID in 1977 and served in Niamey, Conakry, Lome, Mogadishu, Dar es Salaam before retiring from the U.S. Senior Foreign Service in 1996.  Since retiring, he has worked for USAID as its Senior Advisor for the Great Lakes, and as its Country Program 1-captureManager for Niger and Burkina Faso. He has also worked in Africa for U.S. Non-Governmental Organizations and he is currently Country Director for Plan in Burkina Faso. On September 20, he marked 42 years in Africa.  He has worked in, or visited, all 54 African countries. He has six children and hails from Kansas. His novel, Africa’s Embrace, is scheduled to be published this year.

FORTY-SIX YEARS IN THE MAKING: MY FIRST PEACE CORPS STORY

by Mark G. Wentling

February 27, 1967. Forty-six years ago on this date I did not know much. The one thing I did know in those youthful days was that I was restless and wanted to go far away. I felt deeply that the moon, wind and stars were calling me to foreign lands. Thus, it took me less than a heartbeat to respond affirmatively to an invitation from the Peace Corps to serve for two years as a volunteer in Honduras. I was thinking at the time Honduras was in Africa and that was where I wanted to go. Yes, I did not know much back then.

I shocked many by dropping out of college less than one semester before graduation, quitting my job as night manager of the student union at Wichita State University and leaving everything on a late night Braniff jet flight (my first) out of Wichita. I said goodbye to family and friends, and the people (Marshall Williams’ family) who had so generously provided me with a place to stay. My good friend, Margaret Roberts, gave me a ride to the airport. A very excited young man, born and raised in Kansas, broke away from his roots and headed for unknown adventures.

I also did not have much. I boarded the plane with only a small carry-on bag. The first stop was Chicago and, after a couple of hours in the airport there, I was supposed to go on to Philadelphia for three days of orientation before continuing to Puerto Rico (PR) for three months of training. Things did not go as smoothly as planned because Chicago had had its worst snowstorm in a century and the airport was closed. I spent 24 hours camped out in O’Hara Airport before going on to chilly Philly.

I met and bonded with other Peace Corps trainees bound for Honduras at Hotel Sylvania in Philly. We were vaccinated, briefed and ticketed for our onward leg to San Juan. Adrenalin was running high and I don’t think any of us slept during our three days in Philly. Many of us hung out in our spare time at a nearby pub called McGilligan’s. I met for the first time Dick Feutz (from Paris, Illinois) at this pub. Dick and I remain in touch to this day and we still talk about all of our adventures, especially about what we did after our two-year stint in Honduras (e.g., three months of roaming around Europe and running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain in July 1969.)

I’ll never forget how warm and nice it felt getting off the plane in San Juan. I took off my winter coat and tossed it into the first trashcan I saw and shouted: “I’ll never need a coat again!” (Little did I know then that this was almost the truth.) Spirits were running high as we boarded the bus for the Peace Corps training center at Camp Crozier (this camp and another one, Camp Radley nearby, were named after the first two Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) to die in service in Columbia). Camp Crozier was located south of Arecibo, near Utuado, in something of a rain forest.

There were 96 of us (I was the only Kansan) who got off the bus when we arrived at Camp Crozier but only 62 (only six girls) of us remained when it came time three months later to swear-in and board the bus for our onward assignment to Honduras. Yes, many did not survive the day and night onslaught of classes in everything from learning Spanish to castrating pigs. Also, the constant psychoanalyses imposed on us made many decide to drop out. Just living jammed in wooden cabins crammed with bunk beds in a place where nothing would dry was enough for some to ask for their ticket home. Drown-proofing, survival drops in the rain forest and repelling down the steep concrete slopes of Utuado Dam also had many asking for their ticket home. Of course, even fewer actually completed two years in Honduras. As for me, I had a ball!

I loved every moment of training and burnt the candle at both ends. The best part for me was being handed a map of PR and told to find your own way to a place marked on the map and stay there for some days. This was called a “live-in” and my destination was Laguna in the mountains of central PR. The first challenge was finding my way there. I spent hours in a place half way up the mountain before I learned that I was in the wrong community. (A few words of Spanish went a long ways but not always far enough.) I struggled up the rough road and arrived in Laguna (strange name for a mountain top village) and slept on someone’s front porch that first night. This would be one of my three visits to this village.

I got in trouble with training administrators because every time I would come back late from my “live-ins” and I expected to see a pink slip in my mailbox on the eve of our next live-in. (This is how some trainees were “de-selected,” i.e., you would come back from a live-in and one or two of the other trainees would be missing.) I especially got in trouble for coming back three days late from my third and last live-in. The Camp Director read me the riot act and I expected to be told to pack my bags but I was somehow allowed to stay in training.

The reason I was late coming back from that last live-in was that I was busy trying to make a lasting contribution to Laguna. All along I was thinking of something to make life less dull for the people of Laguna. They wanted a soccer field but the narrowness of the summit they lived on prevented the making of a soccer field. As far as I could see, Laguna had only enough space for the fine old sport of horseshoes. Therefore, I introduced this game to the people of Laguna. (Please do not ask me where I got the horseshoes.) I wonder if the people of Laguna are still playing horseshoes today.

OK. Another reason for my late return from this third visit was that on my way back to camp I passed through Ponce where an annual festival was taking place and I could not resist joining in on the fun. As I made my way through this joyous event I met up with Mary Jo Hernandez and she introduced me to her parents. They invited this poor Peace Corps Trainee to their mansion outside of Ponce for dinner and, later, as it was so late, they offered me a room for the night. Since it was a Saturday, I thought it would be all right to arrive back on Sunday to Camp Crozier. I was very wrong about that.

I arrived at camp the next day happy as a lark but my spirited whistling stopped as soon as I entered my cabin (caseta 40). My bunkmates told me that I was in trouble. I was shocked to learn that camp administration was so worried about me that the police had been contacted and there was an all-points bulletin out on me. Again, I found myself being yelled at by the Camp Director and again I thought my PC experience would be over before it began. Somehow, I slipped through by the finest of margins but I did have to spend several extra sessions with my Filipino-American psychologist explaining why I was such a daredevil. But I was just a boy from Kansas enjoying his first time away from his past.

My Peace Corps career did almost come to an end, along with my life, twice during this three-month training. The first time was when I was learning a bit of construction work. I was holding a roll of reinforcement re-bar mesh while other trainees were nailing down the ends. The mesh slipped from their grip and whipped back at me, hitting me squarely in the head, knocking me out wit the steel points grazing the sides of my head (the mesh was about 6″ x 6″). If the mesh had hit me just a fraction of an inch to the left or right I would have been killed.

There was another instance where my youthful exuberance almost got me drowned near Arecibo. We got permission to go on an all-night camp out on a beach. We made a campfire and drank a lot of PR rum. During the night a huge wave came in and washed all us about and some people were burned by the floating pieces of burning firewood. By morning the sea had settled and we found there was a new sandbar that allowed us to wade out into the ocean. A few of us were a kilometer out on this sandbar when another big wave came in.

After we recovered our bearings, we found the sandbar had also disappeared and we had to swim to shore. There was, however, a strong rip tide that kept is from getting closer to the shore. As hard as I could swim, I could not get any close and, then, my legs began to cramp up. I panicked. The last thing I remember before passing out was being slapped in the face by a blond.

The next thing I recall was waking up lying face down on the beach vomiting salt water. The woman who saved me was the Australian wife of another trainee. For years I could not remember her name. It has only been in the last few months that I have found that her name is Jennifer McCurry and she is living in California. Later we would learn that this was a dangerous beach and swimming was prohibited.

After getting an X-ray to see if I had salt water left in my lungs, I was again summoned before the Camp Director and given a last warning. He told me that he was only letting me by because in his judgment I was ”high risk, high gain.” He also said he could see a lot of positive things about me. He gave me high marks for my good class work and my voluntary participation in a U.S. Public Health experiment. No matter that my gut has suffered all my life because of that experiment.

The Public Health service wanted to carry out some tests on people who had never been to the tropics before. They were studying “sprue” (look it up in your medical dictionary) and wanted to confirm that you got sprue as soon as you entered a tropical environment.

This experiment required the participants swallow a metal object about the size of an acorn that was attached to a hollow tube. This object would follow your digestive tract and the doctors could tell when it got into your small intestine when a certain color of bile would come up and out of the tube.

Once they were sure that the object was in the intestine they would fit the end of the tube with a syringe and pull out quickly the stopper. This action would manipulate a blade in the object that would cut off a snippet of the inside of your intestine. Then, the hard part. They would have to pull the tube back out of your mouth. I had to do this three times and each time I almost passed out. This was a terrible thing to be put through! I did see under a microscope that the inside of my intestines did become progressively pinker and less hairy. Yes, once you go to a tropical zone, you get sprue.

We were the 8th group of Peace Corps Volunteers to train for assignment to Honduras. Each group that had gone before us had left some kind of monument in the camp that testified to their passage. In an attempt to outdo all previous groups we erected a six-foot high concrete Christmas tree with a cut out in the middle in the shape of an upside down cross. I wonder if this monument and all the others still stand. Whatever happened to Camps Crozier and Radley? As thousands of “Kennedy’s Children” passed through these camps, they should qualify for the erection of some kind of national monument.

I feel bad that over the years I have lost track of all those I trained with 46 years ago, especially my bunkmates from Caseta 40. There were two bunkmates wo made a career with USAID . John Gelb and Eric Zallman. John retired some years ago. Eric, who was in the top bunk above me, died over a decade ago from a heart attack while serving as USAID’s Director to Peru. A lot of these former PCVs will be getting together in Colorado in October 2013 for a mega-reunion of  former Honduras Peace Corps Volunteers. Sadly, the Peace Corps closed 2011 its program in Honduras because of the in-country violence.

By some miracle, the Kansas kid survived and in late May 1967 was among the new PCV recruits bound for Honduras. (Of course, by this time, I knew Honduras is in Central America and not in Africa.) We stepped off the plane at the airport in Honduras’ capital, Tegucigalpa, wearing our best clothes (all guys had to wear ties), and we were met by senior host government officials. We expressed our delight and respect by singing in our best Spanish the Honduran national anthem. After a few days of orientation in Tegucigalpa at Dona Mercedes Pension, we were given maps indicating the locations of our assigned communities and told to find our own way to the places we would be living for the next two years.

I was assigned as the first PCV to Nueva Ocotepeque, a community located near Honduras’ border with El Salvador and Guatemala. This was considered a remote site and I was told that it was because of my “high-risk/high-gain” nature that I was assigned to such a distant location. It took me three days of rough travel through the Honduran mountains to get there by local transport. When I arrived no one was expecting me. The mayor didn’t know quite what to do with me. It took me a few days to find a place to stay, but I ended up living through thick and thin for two years with the family of Don Ernesto de Mejia. (I miss them.)

Many are the adventures I could recount (some of which should never be retold) about my two years in Honduras but I’ll save all that for another time. Now I’ll just say that things did not go well for Nueva Ocotepeque as it was mostly destroyed in 1969 by the infamous “soccer war” with El Salvador and remained a demilitarized for 20 years. I left Honduras very sad and joined Feutz and Buzz Tomasino (from Egg Harbor, New Jersey) for our grand tour of 12 European countries and the famous Festival de San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain. That was the adventure of a lifetime!

I returned home to Kansas in late September 1969 to find a military draft notice waiting for me. I was all set for Viet Nam but, after showing the little old ladies at the local draft board the record of all the tropical illnesses I had while serving with the Peace Corps in Honduras, I was given a physical deferment. I looked up Margaret Roberts but she was to be married in a few weeks’ time. I surprised everyone and finished Bachelor’s degree in teh spring of 1970.

Still, I didn’t stay around for the graduation ceremony as the biggest surprise yet was sprung on me. The Peace Corps had accepted my request to “re-up” for another tour in Togo, West Africa! I hitched hiked part of the way and took a bus on the last stretch to Philadelphia. I found myself again at Hotel Sylvania with another group of trainees waiting to go to the Virgin Islands (VI) for three months of training. I felt like I was back where I belonged and the VI is made of all the stuff that creates fabulous dreams! And, I was happy.

I arrived in Africa and the rest of what I would do in my life began when I stepped off the plane in Lome, Togo on September 20, 1970. On that date, a whole different, much longer and more complex story began, but its telling will have to wait until after I leave Africa. I pray that the good luck I have had in surviving so many close calls over so many years will continue. Yes, I consider myself to be one of very lucky ones and I am happy to be still in a life that started 46 years ago.

I surprised myself by staying with the Peace Corps for more than 10 years … six months as a trainee, five years as a volunteer and almost five as an (APCD/Togo), PCD/Gabon and PCD/Niger. In 1976, I moved across town in Niamey, Niger, and started a career with USAID that led to my working in a dozen African countries and having the opportunity to see all 54 African countries. And this long African saga is not over as I have been working and living in Burkina Faso since 2009.  And I plan to hang in there as long as I can.

After all, it has only been forty-six years as of today.