Reviewer Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. She has written a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and is working on a memoir of Haiti.
A Peace Corps Memoir: Answering JFK’s Call
by Terry Sack (Bolivia 1963–65; PC/Washington 1968–69)
Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
WHEN I FIRST SAW the title, A Peace Corps Memoir: Answering JFK’s Call, I expected a dry narrative of a typical Peace Corps experience, but the author’s unique stories and clear writing style surprised and delighted me. And how could I forget that there is no “typical” Peace Corps story.
Author Terry Sack heeded John F. Kennedy’s call to join the Peace Corps after he heard him speak at the University of Michigan in 1960. Sack’s training took place in a hotel, a university, and Puerto Rico, quite different from the three-month in-country training of later Volunteers like me. While Sack complains about the lack of even one Bolivian language teacher, and his mystification surrounding the subject of culture shock, he understands that Peace Corps was still in its infancy, trying to “. . . sort out what worked and what didn’t.” Like most Peace Corps Volunteers, he longed to get the training period over with and get to Bolivia.
Once at his site in the village of Trinidad, his counterpart, a prestigious local doctor, introduced the 23-year old Sack to the villagers and spoke to them about working together to build a better future. “This was clearly a novel idea,” writes Sack, for himself as well, as he wondered what his role in that future could possibly be.
His descriptions of local food (tough beef and chicken necks, alongside delicious bananas and grains), and his health (physically in shape, but acquiring parasites and pinworms), and his constant conversations with other PCVs about bowels, all reminded me of Africa or, for that matter, any developing country where Americans can be so vulnerable and indigenous people so stoic. Culture shock, from the honeymoon to the hostile stages, made him wish he’d paid more attention to the discussion of the syndrome during training.
Sack’s book is more than a personal memoir; it is an historical document of Peace Corps in the 1960s, replete with letters from Sargent Shriver and President Lyndon Johnson. Many engaging photos are sprinkled throughout, recalling, for example, that in those days PCV women wore dresses, not blue jeans. Sometimes the wealth of details becomes tedious, such as the itinerary he lists for a trip to Machu Picchu, complete with travel schedules, modes of transport, altitudes, miles, etc., which reads like a Lonely Planet excerpt. That’s OK, if the reader is interested in such minutiae, but I preferred reading about his emotions and interactions with the colorful people in his life.
Most poignant was his love affair with Dorys, a quiet, virtuous village girl. Passion took many months to unfold, but when it did it gripped them both in its irresistible, powerful throes. Inevitably, one evening long kisses led to lovemaking as Dorys fumbled with their clothes and pleaded in a “. . . strange and husky voice.” “Her head was thrown back, her eyes were closed, and the soft skin of her throat glowed in the dim light.” And he responded, “Yes, oh, yes, mi amor!” One consumation, a love that could go nowhere, tore their hearts. He would be leaving in a few weeks. “Nothing, not hugs, kisses, nor words of endearment or protestations of undying love, was sufficient to keep the powerful feelings of loss, grief and separation at bay.”
By the end of his service, Sack had helped villagers build a school and a bridge, taught English and worked on health and agriculture projects, though the accomplishments were arduous and somehow not as glorious as he had initially expected. “I struggled on,” he says, “firm in the belief that I was not Don Quixote in search of the impossible while merely tilting against windmills. Surely one person could make a difference even in the face of imposing obstacles.”
When it was time to go home, Sack went through the agonizing quandaries that most PCVs endure, asking himself: “How successful would I be in integrating my Peace Corps experiences into my future life? The answers to these questions would take time. Little did I realize then that it would take a lifetime.”
Sack has revisited Bolivia eighteen times since 1988, and has visited old friends at his site, including Dorys, who is a happily married wife and mother.
I wondered how Sack could remember so many details from his experience, whether he had kept a minute journal of those days, then at the end of the book he clears up the mystery by acknowledging his mother, ” . . . who lovingly, and unbeknownst to me, saved the letters I wrote home.” We should all have such mothers!
Sack later worked in the Office of Volunteer Support for Peace Corps in Washington DC, and is now a retired Professor Emeritus of Counselor Education at Applachian State University. His self-published book has an attractive cover and easy-to-read text. The reader will appreciate the fact that it is impeccably edited, an important feature missing from many publications, even from the most prestigious publishing houses.
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