by Will Lutwick (Fiji 1968-70)
Peace Corps Writers
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975-77)
MR. LUTWICK HAS SUCCEEDED in creating an entertaining and thought provoking Peace Corps memoir. This is a fine example of what a memoir can be for those willing to invest in writing rather than type-writing. Although ostensibly a love story, the author explores military conscription, discrimination and guilt. Written with episodic, fast paced chapters it is intriguing. Once I started, I could not stop and yet, found myself thinking about his story and its themes long after the highlighted passages began to fade.
Twenty-two year old Lutwick arrived in Fiji in November, 1968, part of the third group of Volunteers. The program had begun only eleven months before, the same month that the tone of the Vietnam War changed and the anti-war movement became more vocal. For younger readers, North Vietnam began a major offensive (the Tet Offensive) in the south, attacking more than 100 towns, cities and American military bases. Although the attacks were smothered, their early successes surprised and angered many. It also stimulated an intense national introspection about the war.
Lutwick (and all your American men between the ages of 18 ½ and 25) was eligible for military conscription (the draft). Military service could be deferred for those in college or serving in the Peace Corps. This policy resulted in social tension since both deferments were not accessible to the majority. Local draft boards around the nation began to reconsider the Peace Corps deferment. In 1967, Volunteers in Honduras complained that of the 90 males serving, two had received a Final Induction Notice and two others a Preliminary Induction Notice within one month. All four expected to be recalled home and immediately pressed into military service. Jane Albritton (series editor for Peace Corps at 50) recalled that during the same period a volunteer finishing Peace Corps service in India was intercepted and arrested in Hawaii while on his way home. He was consequently pressed into military service. Lutwick expected a similar fate. A male Volunteer in Fiji’s first group of Volunteers had his draft deferment revoked, was recalled to the United States, drafted, trained and sent to Vietnam where he died.
Two important things happened during 1969 that altered Lutwick’s fate: the inception of a draft lottery system and meeting a beautiful Indian woman in Fiji. The lottery system consisted of picking dates. The armed forces only needed a fraction. For instance, in 1969 of the 365 days they expected to draft those born on the first 195 days chosen at random. Lutwick’s birthday was chosen as the 149th pick “so barring the sudden cessation of what had become a military quagmire, I was a goner,” he explained. About the same time, he switched sites and jobs, meeting a ravishingly beautiful young Indian woman at work. His Fijian boss advised him to “stay away, stay as far away as you can possibly get, from the Indian girls.” An adherent to Woody Guthrie’s hate for signs (except for the sign that don’t say nothin’), Lutwick began to woo the beauty.
Indian immigrants in Fiji represented the majority of the population. They practiced arranged marriages and honor killings for scoffers. Lutwick was intimately aware of this. During his first year of service, he lived in a bachelor dormitory, cleaned by a single thirtyish Indian woman. After being caught making love with a married construction worker who boarded there, they were both found hanged in her room. Fellow bachelors at the dormitory laughed and explained that “The whore was lucky they let her go out the easy way.” Unfortunately, Lutwick’s genes were jumping after he met Rani and biology trumped common sense.
Lutwick explains that as an orphaned American of the Jewish faith, he understood discrimination. However, he underestimated its ferocity in this foreign land. Rani’s brother beat her. Her parents advised her to stop seeing the Foreign Devil. On the streets, she was called a “whore.” During a trip to the beach, Lutwick and Rani were nearly caught by a group of hooligans armed with machetes. Finally, her family planned her kidnapping and forced marriage to an Indian. The ironic part is that the Fijian Indian community did not like him because of their own mores which had little to do with him per se. For example, “They thought Judaism was a type of Islam” since “both religions are from the same part of the world, so they must be very similar.” Lutwick was just another white face and not one of them. A close Fijian friend advised him that there were two viable alternatives; to “end the relationship, which would probably be best . . . or, marry her.” You will have to read this superb book to find out which of the two he chose and after, whether he was drafted.
Aside from the great storytelling, I appreciated how he interspersed his adventure tale with descriptions of the Peace Corps experience between 1968 and 1970. He touches on important topics like the Nixon Administration’s efforts to eliminate the Corps, attrition which (in his group) was 43% by the reporting date and obviously much higher two years hence, the misdiagnosis by psychiatrists and possibly, the lack of Volunteer supervision. Peace Corps/Fiji began in 1968 and included 250 Volunteers within two years. Apparently, it suffered from growing pains and it was common to find Volunteers with too much time on their hands. Peace Corps Director Joseph Blanchford addressed this in 1969 with his New Directions plan — placing Volunteers more directly under the auspices of their host countries and recruiting specialists instead of generalists. Blanchford also minimized the use of psychiatric evaluation during training the following year.
If you enjoy a roller-coaster memoir, you’ll love Dodging Machetes. It will probably win awards. Five stars.
Lawrence F. Lihosit, author of ten books, has been very active with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community, offering writing workshops, writing book reviews and articles as well as championing the creation of a permanent Peace Corps Experience collection at the Library of Congress. Peace Corps Chronology; 1961-2010 was nominated for the 2010 Peace Corps Writer’s Special Publisher Award and South of the Frontera; A Peace Corps Memoir received a commendation from U.S. Congressman John Garamendi (CA, 10th District).His latest book, Peace Corps Experience: Write and Publish Your Memoir, has been well received.