Review: A TIME THAT WAS . . . by Philip Salisbury (Liberia)


time-that-was-150A Time That Was . . .: A Peace Corps Volunteer’s Experience of Pre-revolutionary Liberia, West Africa, 1962–1964
Philip S. Salisbury (Liberia 1962–64)
244 pages
$19.99 (paperback), $29.99 (hard cover)

Reviewed by Lee Reno (Liberia 1963–65)

A Time That Was . . . is an interesting and engaging read, particularly for PCVs who were in Liberia before the Liberian civil wars, and perhaps their children. A PCV in the first group of PCVs to Liberia in 1962, Salisbury writes in his introduction,

In the pages that follow, I present a rewrite of my journal entries. Despite gaps in coverage, I made an effort to recall days that were written about. My purpose is to communicate the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of a twenty-two year-old who was encountering his first experience in an unknown culture as well as provide a sense of the services I rendered to the Peace Corps mission in Liberia.

Your reviewer arrived a year later with the Peace Corps Liberia III Public Administration Project, pleased to be assigned to the coastal city of Buchanan (pop. Circa. 10,000). I believed the Volunteers serving up-country in the bush would have a more difficult assignment: No hot and cold pressure water, no or limited electricity, lack of companionship with other Volunteers, etc. This book proves my beliefs.

As Indiana Jones said, “Why does it always have to be snakes?” Salisbury’s first day at his post 15 miles from the Sierra Leone boarder includes an encounter with a large pit viper (which he and his roommate kill). Later there is an encounter with an eight-foot spitting cobra (also killed), a 20 foot plus anaconda (ignored), and more encounters. I’d have asked for a transfer, but he and his roommate, Clyde Titus prevail.

It appears that several (many?) up-country Volunteers in that first year had Jeeps. This was later curtailed after several serious accidents. But the Jeeps were useful, not only for transportation to Monrovia and Sierra Leone, but also as a means of transporting ill and injured Liberians to distant medical facilities. Salisbury and Titus established a clinic in their house to treat the “country sores” of their students, a practice I had not heard of, and am uncertain how much training they had to carry out a minor medical practice. As is often the case, PCVs saw a need and provided a solution.

One thing that surprised me was that they were able to possess fire arms, which they used for a number of treks into the bush. It never occurred to me that Peace Corps Volunteers could have guns. These treks were arduous and sometimes lengthy. One included a seven-day hike through bush country where Salisbury and Titus conducted hut counts and the feasibility of schools in each village they came to. Salisbury’s written report of the census was well received by Peace Corps/Monrovia headquarters and other institutions working on improving education in Liberia.

Another surprise is the author’s description of President Tubman’s Unification Council, held up-country to help integrate tribes into the “civilized society of the Americo-Liberians. Apart from the frustration caused by the interference with classwork caused by the insistence by the school head that students spend extensive periods of time drilling (marching) in preparation of their appearance at the Council (as it turned out the students didn’t get to march), is what took place when the Council convened. President Tubman called out about 40 Jehovah Witnesses in attendance and questioned them on their loyalty to the government and required them to salute the Liberian flag. When they refused, soldiers proceeded to beat them with rifle butts causing extensive injuries. Some soldiers mistook Salisbury and Titus for Jehovah Witnesses and they came within a heartbeat of being beaten themselves escaping only when they were able to find an officer who recognized their Peace Corp identification. This happened several months before the Liberia III training began and would seem to have been crucial information to share with the new Volunteers. I have no recollection that it was, as the first I heard about the episode was in Salisbury’s book.

To me the most interesting parts of the book, and best written, were from Salisbury’s recollection of activities that took place when he was not keeping his journal. An example is his discourse on building the school in Pleebo, and a journey to the site where Liberians were butchering an elephant that was killed in a nearby river. I’d heard the story many times from my friends, Tom Otwell, David Swanston, and Eddie Archer who were also there at the time.

My only disappointment with the book is what didn’t get mentioned. For example, the author only mentioned a visit from Sargent Shriver, but not a mention of what was said between them. Nor was there mention of the assassination of President Kennedy which had a profound effect on many of us PCVs serving so far from home as well as many Liberians. Kennedy’s picture was displayed in many of their homes (although that might not have been the case up-country. And personally, I thought it would have been interesting to hear Salisbury’s observations of the arrival and integration of the Volunteers who arrived with Liberia III. We thought we were a special bunch which may account for the lack of mention. Finally, there was no mention of Club Beer, Liberia’s fine locally bottled beer. It grew on you, especially at 25 —or maybe 50 — cents a bottle.

The book is a fine rendition of early PCV life in up-country Liberia in the early days of the Peace Corps. Salisbury and his comrades made it particularly interesting with their extensive treks to places unvisited by most foreigners.

All in all, reading A Time That Was . . . brought back many fond memories, and some that may not be so fond.

Reviewer Lee Reno was a Liberia III Volunteer in a Public Administration Program. He was assigned to the Bassa County Commissioner on the Atlantic coast to assist in county administrative matters. The Commissioner hadn’t been told of this assignment and rejected it leaving Lee to find something to do. He ended up establishing and running the pharmacy in the government hospital in Buchanan, and working with the local electrical power generating plant establishing systems to make it self-sustaining. He is about to retire from the law firm of Reno & Cavanaugh that he helped to establish in 1977. The firm concentrates on developing and preserving affordable housing and other real estate matters throughout the U.S.

His wife for over 50 years, Gina Peek Reno was a Liberia II Volunteer, who was a teacher at the elementary school level. She is looking forward to retirement as Deputy Commissioner for Policy at the Social Security Administration at the end of the Obama Administration.

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