“Escaping Vietnam” — a poem by John Holley (Colombia)


A Writer Writes

Escaping Vietnam


Prime draft bait I was: twenty-four years old
and able-bodied, with my educational
deferment fast expiring as the enraged
war machine scrambled to find fodder to cast
into the useless Vietnam whirlpool deathtrap
it could never convincingly justify.

To avoid the inevitable and stall
the military until the magic age
of twenty-six when recruits were rejected
for their resistance to blind obedience,
I had applied for alternative service
in the Peace Corps, which while still promising
a warm and distant clime, would be of more merit
than killing, safe, and maybe even fun.

It was an angry and turbulent time:
emerging from my tiny student garret
where I hungrily pursued graduation
as my ticket to physical survival,
I found the university surrounded
by blue uniforms in response to protests
against the war I was trying to avoid:
classes and exams were canceled or postponed,
threatening to eliminate a tidy exit
to my academic career which might
jeopardize the attainment of my only
alternative to fighting with a gun.

So while I sat trembling one mid-May day
in an accounting class, an impoverished
and intense product of American culture,
alienated by my elders and the rasping city,
in the midst of a revolution which might
eventually cost me my precious life,
aggravated by an absolute silence
regarding my pending Peace Corps acceptance,
and the deadline for the draft drawing near…

I cracked: in the middle of a balance sheet,
I stood up as if in a trance, my mind propelled
beyond the confusion and anxiety
which had haunted my steps for weeks. Unthinking
and bidden by some hidden unknown force,
I was thrust on the street and directed
to JFK airport on a quest to secure
an escape from the fires and insanity of Vietnam.

Using the last of my limited food money,
I flew to the Washington D.C. headquarters
of the newly formed organization to enquire
about my long-submitted documents.
Still carried by my altered state
of mind, I entered the unfamiliar building
and rode the lift to the eighth floor office
which processed all entry solicitations.

When I requested information about
the status of my outstanding application,
the person responsible denied knowledge
of my existence and bid me good day.

Astounded by this news and its implications,
I turned and moved in a daze out of the door
and through another directly across
the hall. The empty room was darkened
by closed Venetian blinds which permitted
only sufficient light to reveal several
small stacks of anonymous office folders
scattered around the carpeted floor.

Without hesitation, I was transported
in a single motion to one of the piles,
retrieving sight-unseen the uppermost file
which to no great surprise bore my name.
Then, as if nothing extraordinary
had just occurred, I delivered the file
back across the hall with the utmost calm,
and so was clearly not destined for Vietnam.


— John Holley (Colombia 1968–70)

consulting-intl-devAs a Peace Corps Volunteer John Holley was a member of Colombia 1968–70 working on a business consulting program. Following that experience, he became a successful consultant to health organizations all over the world of development. He is author of the book Consulting in International Development: a Primer.

To purchase Consulting in International Development from Amazon.com, click on the book cover or the bold book title, and Peace Corps Worldwide — an Amazon Associate — will receive a small remittance that will help support the site and the annual Peace Corps Writers awards.

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