Letters from the Sixties: College, Peace Corps, Marriage
by Jon C. Halter (Venezuela 1966-68)
Self-published (available on Amazon.com)
Review by Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000-03)
Having lived through the staid Fifties as they morphed into the tumultuous Sixties, I fully expected a wild ride, given the title of this book. Instead, these selected letters reveal a rather wholesome young man, Jon Halter, apparently a straight arrow throughout, someone whose most significant deviation from ordinary middle-class American life -and it did turn out to be significant-was joining the Peace Corps and marrying the Venezuelan sweetheart he met while in service. He is revealed as a conscientious son and faithful husband who saved his prolific college correspondence with his parents and, later, with his new wife, who was waiting alone in Venezuela for her visa to join him in the U.S. After the birth of their son, also named Jon, the author began regularly writing again to his parents. His letters are long and detailed, nothing like today’s tweets with their strict character limitations. Were the letters saved with a future book in mind? Only his side of the correspondence is included.
A great many words, rendered in an unusually small typeface, are packed into these dense 308 pages, which also include photos from college, Peace Corps, and marriage at the end. The main audience would appear to be Halter’s own immediate family, although the book also serves as an historical archive for the years depicted. These letters have an unvarnished immediacy, an unpretentious innocence, having been written during the period actually being described. In the letters, young Jon shows himself to be both a prolific and capable wordsmith, foreshadowing his later 35-year career as a writer/editor for the Boy Scouts of America, a calling that started with his involvement in promoting scouting as a Peace Corps volunteer. However, his first post-Peace job turns out to be writing for a publication called Petroleum News.
The letters, selected from an even larger batch, begin with the author’s first days at Syracuse University in 1960 and end in 1971, more than two years after his son’s birth. This well was before the era of e-mail at a time when snail-mail took its sweet time to arrive, especially from abroad. While Halter was in college and the Peace Corps, he apparently wrote to his parents at least weekly, and, later, separated from his wife for more than four months while her visa was being processed, he wrote to her almost daily. Taken together, the successive letters end up documenting a small slice of history, with references to “Negroes” and to the prohibition against the wearing of slacks, shorts, or short skirts by female students on campus. Nonetheless, the college letters, in particular, have a repetitive quality, full of routine details about roommates, fraternities, exams, grades, illnesses, and sports, but with a few moments that especially stand out, such as in October 1960, when the author heard presidential candidate Senator John F. Kennedy speak at a campaign rally and took his photo.
The narrative pace picks up a bit during the Peace Corps years when the author, after training in Mexico, is sent to promote recreational activities in Venezuela, something hard to imagine happening in Venezuela today, where Peace Corps volunteers would hardly be welcome. In his letters, Halter warns his parents not to use fancy stamps on their replies to avoid tempting stamp-collecting Venezuelan postal clerks. During his service, although he often seeks out friends among fellow volunteers, he also meets and courts his future wife, Corina, the daughter of his Spanish tutor (he’d studied French in college). Corina knows English, having learned it after a brief childhood sojourn in the U.S. So most of his letters to her are in English, although one in Spanish is reproduced in the book. Apparently Corina worried that Jon might stray during their separation, at least judging by his frequent reassurances. A letter to Senator Jacob Javits asking for his help in expediting his wife’s visa is also included.
This collection gives details of a largely straight-forward and conventional early life, and one apparently quite satisfying to those actually living it, which is all that really matters. After experiencing my own personal struggles, drama, and tragedies, I’ve found it quite a revelation to get this intimate glimpse into a very different, calmer, and more normal mode of existence. Everybody has a story to tell and this is Jon C. Halter’s story.
Barbara E. Joe, a native of Boston and an alumna of the University of California, Berkeley, is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother (last name comes courtesy of a Korean father-in-law). From her century-old house on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, she works as a freelance writer, Spanish interpreter, and translator. She joined the Peace Corps at age 62,serving as a health volunteer in Honduras from 2000 to 2003 and wrote Triumph & Hope: Golden Years With the Peace Corps in Honduras (amazon.com, Kindle & Nook), declared “Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2009” by Peace Corps Writers, among other awards. She is now completing another memoir of her Cuba and other Latin America experiences. She has also written articles about Cuba, Haiti, Romania, Sudan, and other countries visited for humanitarian reasons. For the last nine years, she has served as volunteer coordinator for the Caribbean for Amnesty International USA and is also a board member of several non-profits working internationally. In April 2011, she was featured in Woman’s Day and in August 2011 and April 2013 appeared in videos distributed worldwide on Voice of America News. On her blog, http://honduraspeacecorps.blogspot.com, she reports on her humanitarian return trips to Honduras (nine so far) and other topics.