smaller-recollectionsRecollections of our Peace Corps Service 1963-65:
Kick-Off, Life in Guatemala, and Afterwards
Compiled by Ramona Whaley, edited by Dave Smits
Peace Corps Writers, $13.75
288 pages
2012

Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)

Recollections of Our Peace Corps Service 1963-65 is a unique compilation of stories and essays written by an entire group of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, “Guatemala III,” a “mixed bag” that included an African American, Japanese Chomorro, Jews, and Hispanic Americans.  The book is divided into three sections: (1) Roads to the Peace Corps and the Training Experience; (2) Service in Guatemala; (3) Thereafter. 

Each writer recalls being inspired by JFK’s unforgettable “ask not” speech, and they all share the “black anguish” of his assassination.  Several participated in the March on Washington in 1963 and heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “mountaintop speech” that filled them with an idealistic, determination to promote justice, equality and civil rights for all Americans.  They recount their dismay when their training assignment in Puerto Rico was canceled due to an outbreak of dengue fever there,  causing them to wait several weeks in a jobless, sometimes homeless limbo until they were directed to training in Los Cruces, New Mexico.

One gains an inside view of the history of Guatemala from RPCV Dave Smits, who writes about the overthrow of Communistic Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, the invasion of U.S.-trained troops from Honduras, the establishment of Yankee imperialism, and the rise of brutal death squads called “The White Hand” and “Eye for an Eye” that were responsible for 80,000 murders between the 1960s and the 1990s.

Bob Keberlein talks about Peace Corps’ collaboration with CARE in Guatemala, and his marriage to a devout girl who tended the local church.  Volunteers worked with CARE on general community development, school programs, sports, gardens, a library, health and sanitation facilities, nutrition, literacy, and a host of other projects that volunteers inevitably involve themselves.

Another volunteer, Ashley Smith, was glad she learned to eat black beans and rice, speak Spanish and make friends, because she, too, married a Guatemalan.

Carolyn Plage tells us that the group began with 69 trainees, several of whom were “selected out,” sent home for medical or psychological reasons, while others simply resigned.

My good friend in the RPCV Florida Gulf Coast group, Marcia Lang, recounts the mandatory drown-proofing and mountain climbing training they all underwent.  They had to traverse a canyon hanging from a rope, rapelling down cliffs on the other side.  As her trembling hands grabbed for ledges, the carabiner that attached to her belt and to the instructor far above, broke.  He swore and yelled at her to “just fix it” and, despite her terror as she tried not to look down into the rocky abyss, she did.  Her experience became legend among the group. 

Marcia also had an unfortunate time with her dog, Pepe, who bit her and several children who then had to have a series of painful rabies shots before they found out that poor Pepe did not have rabies.

Marcia’s strangest story happened when she became sick, then slowly paralyzed, and had to be evacuated from her village by helicopter.  Suspecting a spider bite, no one could really verify what had brought her close to death but, as mysteriously as the paralysis afflicted her, it slowly dissipated until she was well again.  She was thereafter called “Spider Woman.”

Bernie Engels was the jester of the group; all his stories are funny, especially “The Great Jalpatagua Pig Project (or Porky meets Pablo).”  The first thing he learned was that “… mature male pigs are known as boars and not, ‘Holy sh-t look at the size of those mother f—rs!’”  He also learned the “…fine art of breeding pigs … not for the faint of heart or those of a prudish nature.”  And how to communicate with a pig … “right, pig Latin!” He had me laughing out loud. 

Ann Silverman tells of the American Ambassador, John Edward Mein, who lived under heavy security and never “mixed it up” with the group.  She delivers the shocking news that he was the first U.S. Ambassador to be assassinated in 1968. I could not help thinking of the last Ambassador who was murdered, Christopher Stevens,  in Libya. 

Several photos enhance the narratives, such as Bernie Engels riding a horse at a village festival, Dave Smits birthing a calf, his wife, Pat, “hanging out” on a rope above a ravine, and Tim Kraft with villagers building a cistern.

In the Thereafter section, we learn what became of the valiant volunteers after their Peace Corps service.  They organized two reunions, one in New Jersey in 2003 and the other in Guatemala in 2005.  Their 50th reunion in 2013 was held in Sarasota, Florida, where a dozen RPCVs had as much fun as they ever had.  Many have sustained ongoing relationships with their “families” in Guatemala.

Bob Keberlein, who married the “devout girl” in his village built a retirement home there after years of teaching in Wisconsin.  He speaks of the “dusty, dirt byways” that became paved roads filled with vehicles instead of cattle and horses, and the sight of electric, telephone and TV cables everywhere . 

Betsy Markland Schwartz took a bike ride with a few friends in their 60s from the Mexican border to Guatemala to meet her son, who had married and lived there. Hers is a story rife with danger, hardship and humor that was published in the Guatemalan newspaper, La Prensa Libre.  Not only that!  In 2009, this intrepid woman joined “Follow the Women/Pedal for Peace,” a group of 300 women from all over the world who cycled through the Middle East to Jerusalem, to raise money to help build a playground in Gaza.  Betsy’s team raised $4,271of a total $14,000.  (See www.pedal-4peacesc.wordpress.com.) Betsy also joined Habitat in Jordan and bicycled to Syria and Jerusalem, Lebanon and Turkey, and was tempted to bike through Iraq.  These stalwart women faced political roadblocks, hunger, thirst, and hostility, but also thrived on the help and kindness of strangers everywhere.  Besides raising money, the group’s mission was to “to Go, to See, to Tell and, finally, to Act.”  She does a great job of telling in her lengthy letters from the field.

In 2007, Evelyn Brubaker Glasscock traveled to Bosnia, Herzegovina and Croatia on a Woman-to-Woman mission of The Christian Church.

Lynda Sanderford Morrison celebrated Peace Corps 47th anniversary in Armenia, her husband having served in Iran, she in Guatemala, and their son in Morocco.  Along with her husband, Gordon, they involved themselves in the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama.  After 9/11 they devoted themselves to supporting Muslims, and cross-cultural understanding.  She celebrates their Peace Corps experience, because ” … we each became immersed in cultures not our own, and this was the benefit of the experience.” 

Bryce Hamilton worked with fellow RPCVs at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, which unfortunately was marred by the Mexican Government’s repression of student dissidence and the massacre at the Plaza de Tres Culturas.  Bryce also worked with the “Environmental Teach-In” program in Washington, D.C., whose name was subsequently changed to Earth Day.  He and his wife collect quilts, most notably from Amish women, and give lectures and workshops around the world.  He founded Project Minnesota-Lèon, that connects Minnesotans with Nicaraguans. 

Bob Hetzel became the superintendent of Cairo American College in Egypt, and thereafter Director of the American Embassy School in New Delhi.

Dave Snyder worked in multi-national organizations in Colombia, Puerto Rico and Panama, while his wife, Sally, helps him recycle inkjet and toner-printer cartridges. They worked with The Wings Foundation, a nonprofit based in Antigua concerned with family planning and women’s health.  They also support The Colombia Project, which was formed by RPCV Volunteers of South Florida that helps womens’ groups with micro-lending.  This project, managed mainly by my good friend, Helene Dudley, won the Lorette Ruppe prize a few years ago, and is yet another example of making a big difference in people’s lives after Peace Corps.

Marcia Lang went to California and ended up working in Modesto’s Welfare Department, also earning an MSW at Fresno State. After graduating she worked in Rochester, NY with emotionally disturbed children, then went to India where Jay Jackson, a fellow PCV in Guatemala, was working with CARE in Rajasthan. They married the next spring and traveled the world together with CARE for twenty-five years.  According to CARE policy, spouses could not be employed, but Marcia volunteered, teaching blind and deaf people in Colombia, organizing theater groups in Indonesia, Egypt and Honduras, among other activities.  Jay went on to work with Mercy Corps in Guatemala, and Marcia collaborates with Mayan women artisans there, selling their handicrafts through the US National Committee for UN Women in Sarasota. 

Tim Kraft became a Peace Corps recruiter after his service, studied at Antioch College and got a Peace Corps scholarship to Georgetown University.  He later became Jimmy Carter’s appointments secretary, an elections observer in Nicaragua, Peru and Honduras.  He laments that Peace Corps is not better supported by our government.  “When you compare the efforts for peaceful outreach versus the carte blanche acceptance of preemptive warfare, I think our nation’s priorities are badly warped.”

I cannot recount all the stories of this amazing group of volunteers in this review but, as we are urged in the introduction, “All of it is told in a very articulate and moving way.  Take your time.  Read every page.”

More pictures and stories of this amazing RPCV group can be found at http://sites.google.com/site/peacecorpsguatemala3/.

Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. She wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, (amazon.com) and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon.