JFK was assassinated within a few weeks of our arrival in Nepal. I was posted with two other PCVs in a small, remote town in Nepal’s Himalayan mid-hills. We first heard the news early on Saturday morning (Friday night in the USA). Saturdays were government holidays, and most of the civil servants who worked in our town, the district headquarters, were at home for the weekend. For some of them, home was several hours walk away over the hills. But, to our astonishment, many of them showed up at our doorstep with the shocking news, expressing their grief.
At the sound of loud knocking on our door, I opened it to a frantic villager shouting in Nepali that someone had shot Kennedy. We were dumbfounded. He was quickly followed by others.
We I turned on our Zenith Transoceanic shortwave radio, but could find only one VOA station through the static, transmitting from South Africa. For most of an hour all we heard was funereal music, and then, on the hour, the tragic news.
To the Nepalese, Kennedy was a world hero. Later, we saw a poster showing JFK, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru walking hand in hand on a cloud (as three deceased world leaders). It was a popular poster… and I wish that I had had the foresight to keep one.
A few weeks later, Bruce (one of my PC companions) and I were trekking up district in the remote Himalayan mid-hills when we came to a farmer’s field on a steep hillside. At the upper end was the farmer. When he saw us coming up the trail, he dropped his tools and came down to meet us, expressing his profound grief and sympathy to us over the stone wall. We were amazed. Here was a poor Himalayan farmer in a remote district without newspapers and with only a few radios who not only knew about Kennedy but had great respect for him as a world leader and as our President.
On the day we heard of JFK’s death, another PC volunteer was trekking from the mid-Nepal town of Gorkha to visit us in our town of Kunchha. Along the way he heard people saying something about Kennedy, but his Nepali was not good enough to fully understand or, if he did understand, to fully comprehend or believe what he was hearing. Finally, as he approached a village about 2 hours from ours, an English speaking school teacher approached him and clearly stated the facts. Shocked, our friend sat down on a trailside bench and wept.
Three decades later, when I was working with some Nepalese foresters on a community forestry project, I met a new one and when I asked his name and birthplace, he said he was from that same village. Then he related the following experience from his childhood. He was a boy or 4 or 5 years then, and on that particular morning he followed his older brother to the school. When he got there he saw the tall foreigner sitting on the bench weeping. When he asked about it, his brother told him that the American was weeping “because his raja –his king– had died”!…
Dr Don Messerschmidt (Nepal 1963-65) is an anthropologist, writer, and an international development consultant. He was born in Alaska, and graduated from the University of Alaska in 1963. Shortly thereafter he first went to Nepal as a Peace Corps Volunteer working in rural development. He then stayed on in Nepal, where he lived off and on for many of the last 50 years as a teacher, rural development consultant, researcher and writer. In 1973 he was awarded a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Oregon. He has taught in both American and Nepalese universities, and has worked on numerous international development projects as a social scientist – in community forestry, social impact assessment on hydropower projects, public health, and irrigation. He is also the author of several books on Nepal, and many magazine articles, and in ‘retirement’ he leads treks and tours in the Himalayan states of Nepal and Bhutan. When not roaming the Himalayas he lives in Vancouver, Washington (next to Portland, Oregon) with his wife Kareen, and near their adult son and daughter.