Shriver Stories: What Sarge Did For Me

[About 10 years ago I put up a series of stories about Sarge Shriver  and I thought I might ‘reintroduce’ them as so many PCVs have come-and-gone through the agency since then and they might not know about the man. I remember in the mid-90s when running the New York Recruitment Office an RPCV recruiter came up to me and asked, “Now was Shriver the first Peace Corps Director?” I didn’t know whether I should hit him over the head or fire him! If there is one legend that we want to maintain, it’s Sarge’s… send me your experiences with the Man and I’ll post them on our site.

We begin with a story sent to me by Thaine H. Allison, Jr., a PCV in Borneo (1962-64) assigned as an agricultural extension agent in the village of Bandau, a place that is now called Kota Marudu, in Sabah Malaysia. Since leaving the Peace Corps and completing graduate school, Thaine has been a health economist working with the state of California, New York, among other states, as well as in several Latin America countries. What he remembers fondly from his years in the Peace Corps during the early days is how Sarge Shriver personally saved him from the army and the Vietnam War.]

What Sarge Did For Me

Sometime in the first couple of months after arriving in North Borneo my wife and I had a visitor at our distant outpost, a small village in the ulu [jungle] that was a five mile walk from the nearest road, or a four hour boat ride from the nearest town. Our Peace Corps location was without phones, running water, or electricity. We loved it.

On that particular day when nothing particular important was happening in town [actually, it was like every other day in Bandau] our Country Director walked into the village with a tall, good-looking stranger from Peace Corps Washington. It was the first time I had ever met the man who had sent me into the ulu of Borneo.

My wife and I showed him around town. First we took him to see my fledgling agricultural projects, and then to visit my wife’s school where he met kids who were thrilled to have class interrupted by this tall, handsome stranger.photo_9597_carousel

After that, we had lunch and a few beers at our house and sat around and talked about the Peace Corps in North Borneo. We told him about all our plans to bring progress to the ula and how different the village of Bandau would look the next time he visited.

We could have kept talking all afternoon but he had to leave so we packed up some fresh fruit and drinks for the hike back to the Land Rover and started off through the jungle for the main road. Walking the five miles to the highway gave us a chance to show off our new language skills, to introduce him to people we met along the way, people we had only recently met ourselves.

White people in this part of the world were something of a phenomenon, especially white Americans, and everyone wanted a chance to meet the tall, good looking stranger. Seeing our small parade, one man jumped off his bicycle, snapped to attention, and saluted us as if we were generals in some army, and not just a Sargent and a couple of young Peace Corps kids.

It turns out, after we asked a few questions of this man, that the last time he had met a white man on the trail he was beaten severely with a ridding crop. He was beaten by a Dutch planter who had been left behind after World War II and didn’t think the Host Country National (HCN) was showing enough respect to a white person. This White Man legacy was one obstacle, we all realized, we had to overcome to be fully accepted in the village.

When we reached Land Rover our new best friend from Washington thanked the two of us in a fatherly way and told us what good work we were doing for the Peace Corps, and he asked what he might do for us when he returned to Washington. Could he call our folks, he asked. Should he tell them how he had come into the jungles of Borneo and found young PCVs who were doing a great job for America and the world?

It was, after all, only a couple of weeks after the Cuban Missile crisis, and grinning that famous smile of his, he said mothers everywhere were worried about their children.

I thanked him and said that wasn’t necessary, but I did have a little problem with my draft board and pulled a letter out of my back pocket, a letter that had somehow reached me in the ulu. The letter from my draft board informed me that I was about to lose my U.S. citizenship for escaping to the jungles of North Borneo just to avoid the draft.

Our new friend slowly read the letter standing there beside the Land Rover in the middle of the jungle, and then he said quietly, but firmly, “The White House will handle this on Monday morning.”

I guess the White House did handle it on Monday morning for I never heard again from my draft board, thought I did hear how at the height of the Vietnam War [after Shriver had left the agency] my draft board did sent two U.S. Marshals to the Philippians where they handcuffed a Peace Corps Volunteer and returned him to Oakland to be drafted into the Marines.

Perhaps that story was just a Peace Corps legend, another folk tale passed from one generation of Volunteers to the next. I don’t know. But I do know that thanks to Sarge Shriver I was able to serve my two years in the wilds of North Borneo and never had to jump off a bike to salute a sergeant I didn’t respect as much as I respected and loved R. Sargent Shriver.

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