Published in Writers on the Range
When “All in the Family” hit the TV screens in 1971, the war in Vietnam was raging, cities from Washington, D.C., to Detroit, were charred from riots in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and many young people like me were leaving those cities, moving West to rural America.
Archie Bunker stayed in Queens, where a “bar was a man’s castle,” while daughter Gloria and son-in-law “Meathead” tried to help Archie grasp hippies and anti-war protests.
We called ours the “back to the land” movement, and we chuckled with Meathead as Archie Bunker got chuckles from our dads. But we were done watching “Leave it to Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” Our flexible families were radically changing.
Well, the family has changed again, and, I’d argue that my own, occasionally dysfunctional family is closer to what’s happening in America now than either of the television versions of the past.
In 1965, I joined the Peace Corps and went to Turkey, where I spent most of the next five years. I’d grown up in Minnesota and California, child of immigrant families from Germany and Norway. In Turkey, I met a Peace Corps Volunteer from Pennsylvania whose own family roots traced to Italy and Poland. We married and moved to rural northeast Oregon in 1971, just as Archie was hitting the airwaves.
As the Vietnam War dragged on, adoption services began bringing mixed-race Vietnamese children to the United States and then poor children from India and Central America. Simple American adoptions had only recently come out of a closet — historically they were hush-hush affairs with unmarried mothers going to visit faraway aunts and doctors quietly arranging adoptions.
In 1976, we adopted a one-year-old white boy born in New Jersey and brought to Oregon by a mom too young and poor to raise him. In 1983, we adopted a boy from Calcutta, estimated to be six.
We thought all we needed was love to bring these kids into the American mainstream. We didn’t realize that kids bring past trauma with them. We also didn’t imagine that being brown in eastern Oregon would be so hard.
The white son had his next bout with trauma when a classmate committed suicide in his presence. He transferred schools, became a star athlete, went to college — and struggled. He joined the Navy and married a woman whose father served in Vietnam and his mother is from the Philippines. Their road seems smooth right now.
Color wasn’t an issue when the kids were young, but as our brown boy hit junior high, conscious and unconscious racial slurs got louder. He got the “N word” more than once, transferred schools twice, and at 18 moved to Portland; he didn’t graduate from high school. He had babies and couldn’t manage them, so I raised a mixed-race grandson and granddaughter in eastern Oregon.
Again, early years were easy, but racial slurs murmured in school hallways and on athletic fields made their high school years hard. “How’s being black?” wrote a classmate in my grandson’s yearbook. His friendships withered and he took out anger on the football field. His sister graduated on-line and moved away.
I did not realize how isolated they both felt until my grandson went to nearby Eastern Oregon University. There, the student body is 25 percent non-white. He loves college.
Their father, born in Calcutta, has found a life and a wife in Phoenix, Arizona. She is an immigrant, too, from Uganda, and they and their two-year-old son came to visit us last Christmas. There was apprehension on all sides: If brown gets noticed in small-town Northeast Oregon, what will the locals do with this new Indian-African family?
The two-year-old stole everyone’s hearts, at home and in town, and the grandkids I raised are beginning to understand their father’s hard journey as they begin their own adult journeys in a rapidly changing America. Even Eastern Oregon is growing multi-colored with Mexican and Thai restaurants, students from across the world, and the resurgence of American Indians.
It won’t be easy, but my grandkids, brown and black, representing the heritage of four continents and one island nation, are gaining confidence. They will grow my family tree in directions my German-Norwegian-American grandparents, parents — and Archie Bunker — would never have imagined.
This is what America is becoming, and it’s a good thing.
Rich Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to lively conversation about the West. He writes in Oregon.
Here is Rich’s story of his Peace Corps years
I was a Rural Community Development Volunteer, Turkey IX, 1965-67, in a mixed Turkish-Kurdish village near the city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey. We were the first foreigners officially allowed in this largely Kurdish region in some years, because of previous upheavals and restrictions. Our—my village partner was Barb Bailey, who recently passed away in her native Seattle, and was eulogized by the mayor for her contributions to the city—village included Turkish refugees from the Balkans who had come to the country in “people trades” between the wars, and had been sent to eastern provinces to “Turkify” the region. At the time, I might add, the “progressive” Kurds we came in contact with were much more interested in land reform than they were in Kurdish nationalism.
In the fall of 1967, I was fortunate to be in the first group of Peace Corps Fellows. Twenty of us spent a year rotating through Peace Corps offices in preparation for going on staff overseas. We also met weekly — or maybe bi-weekly — with Director Jack Vaughn. I worked in selection, recruited on the West Coast, and was one of two evaluators of Peace Corps Iran in early 1968. My partner, Park Teter, spoke Farsi and took the lead. I traveled the north and northeast of the country and got by with the Azerbaijani Iranians with my Turkish. We shared the Arab speaking regions.
After a brief stay in the States, I was shipped off to the German Peace Corps, which was beginning its own evaluation program. I spent a month with them, including more than a week in Tunisia interviewing German — and some American and VSO — Volunteers. As I recall, it was on the way home from Germany that I took a quick detour to Oslo to meet a group of nurses headed to Iran with their service corps. I thought then and wonder now how we hear so little of other volunteer programs from other countries working across the world.
The year in D.C. was tumultuous — the first Pentagon March; the Poor People’s Campaign (a group of RPCVs worked as a kind of speakers bureau); King’s assassination, and then RFK’s — and I was happy to return to Turkey on Peace Corps staff. But the world there had changed too, mostly due to Vietnam. Volunteers were drafted from the field; there were constant criticisms of America in Vietnam and calls for American troops (over 20,000 as I recall) to be sent home; and when Robert Komer, a CIA veteran who was appointed as Ambassador to Turkey immediately upon leaving Vietnam and the “Phoenix” pacification program, the newspapers, from far left to far right, announced that the “American Butcher of Vietnam” had arrived in Ankara.
PC days in Turkey were numbered then, and I spent my last helping volunteers transfer to other countries or return home early. I left Turkey in June of 1970, and after another year in D.C., ended up in a Rural Community Development Program with the Oregon State University Extension Service in Wallowa County, Oregon.
I’ve now lived in this beautiful, remote place for 50 years—my one-year Extension contract extended with 12 years of bookstore ownership and helping to launch and lead two non-profits: Fishtrap, which promotes Western writers and writing (we once did a Peace Corps Writers weekend here, with John Coyne and Richard Wiley as special guests); and The Josephy Library, which promotes the history and culture of the Inland Northwest and the Nez Perce Indians who once called this place home.
A final Peace Corps word. One of the first people I met here was Gardner Locke, a WW II vet and nuclear physicist at Hanford who given physics up to raise beef cattle. In that narrow window when the PC took families in as Volunteers, Gardner and his family — wife and a couple of still young kids — went to Ecuador, where they became Extension agents and fast friends with Moritz Thomsen. Gardner told me once that I’d never left the Peace Corps — and neither did he. He’s gone now, but we spent happy hours working together on a community ski run. But that’s another story. . . .