A Writer Writes: The Lost Volunteer

The Lost Volunteer

Whatever happened to Jim King?

by Bob Criso (Nigeria & Somalia 1966-68)

Bob Criso

Bob Criso

In the past, I spent a lot of time searching for Jim King, eager to talk with him about the last intense days that we spent together in Biafra. Jim was stationed at Macgregor Teacher Training College in Afikpo, about an hours ride from my house in Ishiagu on my Honda 50. When the war was heating up in the spring of ’67, Peace Corps Enugu gave me a van and a list of people to pick up in case of an emergency evacuation. Jim was on that list and I picked him up during the last-minute rush to leave the country.

Jim, a tall, wiry, blond guy with glasses, was on the Peace Corps “whereabouts unknown” list for years. His family had moved from his last Altadena, California address while he was in Nigeria. With no forwarding address and one of the most common names in America, he was not an easy guy to find. I tried calling several James and other Kings in the California directory but always ran into dead ends. Over the years, I’ve asked a number of Volunteers who were in the Eastern Region if they knew where he was but the answer was always, “No.”

In the spring of 2013 I got an email from a woman named Eileen who had read one of my Nigerian articles online.

“I read that you were in the Peace Corps in Nigeria in the sixties,” she wrote. “Is there any chance you knew my brother, Jim King?”

Soon after that we spoke on the phone. I learned that Jim would have been hard to track down after he returned to the States because he had moved around a lot with different teaching jobs. Eileen had in her possession a trove of letters that her mother had saved, all written by Jim during his days in Afikpo. She was in the process of typing them up and had hopes of publishing them as her mother had wished.

Eileen sent me a copy of the letters (175 dense pages.)  I found them well-written, compelling and historically valuable. They tell a kind of coming-of-age story as we follow Jim’s experiences in a strange new land. Many of us will identify with the somewhat naive altruist who discovers that the Africa in his mind is not the Africa he finds at his post. We hear about his initial isolation in a bush assignment, a difficult principal, the snakes, the bats, the bugs, the health problems, the housing problems and the resulting depression.

Initially, the loneliness overwhelms Jim and at night he clings to the childhood Pooh bear that he brought with him. His letters home become a kind of almost daily lifeline that sustains him. At a low point, he talks to PC Enugu about going home but then gives it another try and becomes, in my opinion, an exemplary Volunteer. He spends a lot of time preparing for his science classes and labs, making trips to Enugu and Port Harcourt to buy supplies with his own money. He appeals to family, friends and organizations back home to send books and materials for his classes and gets excellent results. He gets very involved with school administration, activities and organizations. He uses money from his living allowance to furnish his stewards living quarters and to pay for a needy student’s medical bills, never giving it a second thought.

Dire circumstances seem to bring out the best in Jim. One example (and there are several) is when he is in the front seat of a taxi to Enugu and the driver falls asleep at the wheel. The taxi is headed straight for a tree when Jim grabs the wheel at the last minute and steers it away from the tree by a couple of feet. The driver is seriously injured in the crash, a couple of passengers less so. Jim has some scratches and soreness. A group of people that the driver almost ran over gather to beat him up but Jim intercedes then brings him to a hospital in another taxi.

The letters reveal that Jim is a polished writer and a keen observer who knows how to tell a good story. This is especially apparent when he vividly describes some of the tribal rites and rituals that he witnesses around Afikpo, things that I’m sure few outsiders have seen. He also has the ability to pull back, reflect and get perspective about what is going on around him. He is prescient about the direction of the war that has been brewing since he arrived in Nigeria in April of ’66. We are also reminded in the letters of what’s happening in the outside world with repeated references to race riots in the States and the escalation in Vietnam. He’s opposed to the war and worries about the draft when he goes home. Through it all, Jim reports objectively with no hyperbole or sensationalism. Part of that may be his wish to protect his parents but it could also be a kind of emotional detachment that insulates him from the gravity of the dangers around him.

Most poignantly, we read about a loving older brother who keeps up with the lives of his younger siblings. He writes to them frequently and wants to know about their lives. He offers his parents practical advice on how to handle his sister’s early dating and his brother’s budding activities and interests – all delivered with great underlying affection.

This was an exciting read for me, a rich and illuminating chronicle of a Peace Corps experience in the sixties not so different from my own. (I’ve often regretted not keeping a journal during my Peace Corps years.) Jim also wrote a book, a fictional account of his Nigerian experiences and a two-act play. Act II of the play, which Eileen also sent me, is about a small group of PCV’s whose lives are threatened by a menacing mob who have circled a PCV’s house. Some of the details he describes in the play are astonishingly similar to the experiences I recall myself when Jim was with me in those final days at my house in Ishiagu. In a way, I finally found the Jim King I had been looking for.

Jim’s peripatetic post-Peace Corps years ended when he finally settled down with a partner in Hawaii. When his partner contracted AIDS, Jim took care of him until his partner’s death. Jim had AIDS himself and when his father and brother visited him in Hawaii, they found him in poor health and circumstances. They took him and his two Welsh corgies home where they cared for him until his death in 1993.

I would give Jim King high marks for what he gave of himself to his family, his partner and the Peace Corps. His spirit lives on in the hearts of those he touched and in the words he left behind.

If anyone has any ideas about finding an editor and publisher who might be interested in Jim’s letters, book and/or play, you can contact his sister Eileen at aedenne@peoplepc.com

Bob Criso worked as a psychotherapist at Princeton University Counseling and Psychological Services and also had a private practice in Princeton. Now retired and living in New York City, he currently reviews plays and works on a memoir when he is not traveling. He can be reached at: bobcriso@gmail.com

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