A Life In Time: A Woman’s Journey from Orphanage to Peace Corps
by Kaye Stone (India 1966-68)
The Stone Publishing Group
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975-77)
KAYE STONE’S PEACE CORPS MEMOIR is an intriguing personal story by a sheltered young orphan, educated in a Christian college, who served in India during that period when the agency fielded more than 15,000 Volunteers worldwide, and 754 on the Subcontinent. Her account via letters is a reminder of both changing American womanhood and an agency in transition.
Raised in an orphanage from the age of six, the author seldom traveled or even dated. Until high school graduation at the orphanage, “Dating was complicated . . . The boy had to ask permission. If the superintendent consented, the girl and boy could sit in the living room of the cottage for several hours on a Sunday evening.” Within a few years while serving in the Peace Corps, she was sought after by television and movie actors. Along the way, she learned to lead instead of follow.
In January, 1966 when Ms. Stone was invited to serve, Sargent Shriver still headed the agency. By the time she reported for training in Hawaii, Jack Vaughn had succeeded him. Military-style physical fitness became optional, but constant psychological testing still existed. In Stone’s case, she met regularly with psychologists who “asked about my dreams and if I believed in ghosts.” They also held “sensitivity training” during which a psychologist secluded small groups of trainees to talk for 36 hours. Finally, you were graded (and possibly sent home) based upon your Washington file, your psychologist’s report, and whether you were popular with your trainee peers. Amusingly, Stone dated one of the psychologists. “Several days later the administration put a sign up on the board saying that trainees and staff were not to date anymore.” The selection board recommended that she go home since they “didn’t think I was serious enough to succeed in India.” It was the intervention of an Indian official Stone had befriended that ultimately swayed them. He told the young trainee “to go on as I had been . . . he knew the Indian people would find me refreshing.”
In India for less than one month, Stone learned how Volunteers were and are targeted by the international gypsy crowd — those youngsters whose aim is to travel as long as possible. “Last night two boys in my group came to our apartment at 11:30 p.m. with a boy and a girl they had met on the beach who needed a place to stay.” Although interesting, this sort of house guest usually overstays his or her welcome. In this case, their four day stay turned into two weeks “and they did not seem to be leaving” until she finally had other friends intervene.
The most fascinating part of this book is to follow a Volunteer’s personal journey in an era when Peace Corps job assignments were often part-time or non-existent. Because the agency fielded so many Volunteers in an incredibly short period of time, it was common that their assignments were ephemeral. During this time, it was also common to have two passports, one personal and one official. “The Peace Corps told us not to travel on our Peace Corps passport . . . but to get a new tourist one,” she reports. So, it must have been very difficult for the Peace Corps to keep track of Volunteers, especially those who had no work. This happened to the author and within a short time she “went to the director and told him I had absolutely nothing to do.” Instead of going home early or simply traveling (as many did), she became a part-time model and movie extra in Bollywood.
Her job (and that of many Volunteers at that time) was to catechize birth control, visiting factories, checking records to discover which male employees had sired two or more children and then explain to them how the Indian government would pay them to undergo a vasectomy. This was part of Indira Gandi’s population control program that soon led to forced vasectomies and abortions, a controversial program that was not abandoned until her 1976 murder. Although population control was, and is, a worldwide concern, the Peace Corps’ participation has been viewed suspiciously in some host nations as a form of genocide, something normally ignored in American public discussion. Popular books and reports concerning population control like those from the Club of Rome were ridiculed by many as racist. In Bolivia, it is said that population control led to the expulsion of Peace Corps in 1971. When Stone served, the world population was about three billion. Today, it is seven billion and the role of birth control is still controversial.
The most humorous and telling detail of the book involved her return home. Arriving in Washington D.C. late on Sunday night, lost and nearly broke, she called the White House. After a series of phone calls, she was instructed to take a taxi to a corner where she could meet a secretary who would hand her taxi fare. She waved down a cabbie who laughed “but took me right there.” As promised, a member of the Peace Corps/Washington staff stood on the corner with a handful of cash. Funny, the Washington staff is more than three times larger today but I don’t believe they do that anymore.
Lawrence F. Lihosit is the author of four books about or inspired by the Peace Corps including: Peace Corps Chronology, 1961-2010; South of the Frontera – A Peace Corps Memoir; Whispering Campaign – Stories from Mesoamerica; and Years On and Other Travel Essays.