“Upon this Rock . . . ” by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia)

by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963-65)

My site as a Peace Corps Volunteer was in a village in the foothills of the Andean Mountains, called La Plata. It was located at about the 4,000 ft. level, and had about 3,000 residents.  One afternoon, there was a knock at my door. When answering it, I was greeted by three campesinos dressed in traditional garb with ruanas over their shoulders. They said that they were from the village of La Union, which was accessed only via a three hour bus/horseback ride up the mountains, and that their Mayor had recently given them permission to build their first school.  Would I come up to see its potential site? We agreed to meet in one week’s time if they could provide a horse for me. On the appointed time and date, we met at a road-head and rode up a steep mountain trail to the village.

Upon arriving, it was obvious that La Union was a village populated by people of rather limited economic means. They quickly showed me the parcel of land that had been set aside for the school. Smack in its center was a huge boulder, making it obvious that unless it was removed, construction of the school could not be initiated. I was handed a mallet and I used it to strike the boulder right at its upper-most point. The resounding effect made it clear that, like an iceberg, only 5% of what one sees constituted the mass below it. I casually remarked that the only way to remove it was by the use of dynamite. Satisfied with my assessment, I saddled up and left.

About a week later, there was another knock at my front door. When opening it, one of the three compesinos, throwing the ruana over his shoulders to reveal an industrial sized stick of dynamite, asked: “like this, Geronimo?” I had no idea how they got it nor did I ask. So, I commented, “well, yes, but now you need blasting caps and a line of fuse,” with the full belief that this would get me off the hook.

About another week later, the same three campesinos knocked on my door, repeating the same line of “like this, Geronimo?” throwing back his ruana to reveal blasting caps and a length of fuse line. I was now hooked and agreed to go back to La Union and dynamite that boulder.

I returned in about a week’s time. Someone produced a four ft. long hand operated Starr Drill. Again, I had no idea how they had gotten hold of such an instrument. I instructed them to drill two holes in the boulder, initiating the drilling on the top most point and then angling the lines to meet as far down as they could drill. I then cut the stick of dynamite into two even sections, stuffed them into the holes, tied them into a fuse line, with a heavy packing of mud, topped off with the heaviest timbers they could find over the two holes.

I then warned everyone to take cover and set the fuse. Within less than a minute, there was huge blast running down the valley, with the timbers going sky high. We waited until the air had cleared, then approached the boulder. Upon doing so, it appeared no differently than before. I asked one of the campesinos to strike the bolder at the points between the two holes. He gave it a mighty whack but nothing happened. I asked him to repeat it once again, which he did. Again, nothing! I asked him to strike it one more time which he quickly did. But … this time, the bolder began to shatter like a month old cookie! Now, they could go ahead and easily ply it apart and begin construction of their school.

During the construction process, one of my site partners from La Plata, Lee Arbuckle, went up to see how it was going. He was met at the trail-head by a young man who had a waiting horse for Lee. As they got up the trail, after about 20 minutes or so, the young man turned around in his saddle and asked Lee “where are you from?”  When he responded “I’m from the United States of America,” the young man turned his head forward. Then, after 20 seconds or so, the young man once again turned to face Lee, saying “Is that as far away as Bogota?”

About 5 years ago, one of my other site partners, Bob Dietz, retuned to see if anything we had initiated was still in operation. He went up to La Union and to his surprise, found that the school was still fully operational.  He asked the principal: “Do you know who helped get this school built?”  She replied: “We forgot their names but they were Peace Corps Volunteers”.

Thus, it was upon this rock that a door was opened for its students to enter a wider world of possibilities.

After his Peace Corps tour, Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963-65) worked at PC/HQ. Later he was a Senior Consultant to Harvard Medical School’s international programs; and was Director for International Affairs for Project HOPE. When the Berlin Wall came down, he joined USAID and managed the U. S. Government’s response for social investments in the former states of the USSR and Central & Eastern Europe, then served as Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Science in Public Policy.




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  • Great story! And yes, do we ever fully recognize the impact of our Peace Corps service?
    Ten years after I served in Colombia and left feeling that I had accomplished nothing in my site, my spouse and I returned. We stopped to visit with some of the women I had worked with.
    Of course, Dona Ana, one of my favorite people, insisted we come into her house… she now had a wood floor where previously it had been dirt.
    While she and I were chatting, my spouse noticed three pictures hanging on her wall with a lit candle in front of them: one was Pope John Paul, the second was President Kennedy (he had been killed while I was a PCV in the barrio), and the third picture was the photo of my partner and I which we had given to her when we were leaving.

  • Kay, your story is very familiar. I, too, was in Ethiopia when Kennedy was killed and when I returned a year later after my tour ended and was an APCD in Ethiopia I would often see in the small homes of rural Ethiopians a photograph of Kennedy that had been torn out from a magazine or newspaper and pinned to the dung wall. He was honored at much as, if not more, than the Emperor himself.

  • What a pleasure to find this story!

    Jerry Norris was a house-mate of mine in La Plata for a short time in 1963 when I first arrived in Colombia. My assignment, as an Architect PC Volunteer, was to participate in a program, funded by Alianza para Progresso, to build schools in rural areas such as Jerry describes so well.

    I worked with the local school Architect for the Huila district, Eduardo Hakim, to help rural communities build thirteen schools in Huila, not including the one that Jerry describes. The program provided funding for materials, the community provided the labor; it was a very successful and rewarding experience.

    I had a lot of respect for Jerry, who was a pilot that had flown a Stearman double wing open cockpit airplane. We enjoyed to share pilot stories as I had a private pilot license and flew my Cessna 140 from Seattle to Miami and back before joining Peace Corps.

    I was in Neiva at the Post Office when everyone around me erupted in emotional distress over the news of Kennedy’s assassination; I’ll never forget that experience of overwhelming empathy from the Colombian people.

    • Ah, Phillip, you brought back such pleasant memories of that Stearman aircraft! It was, as you said, a two seater, open cockpit, bi-wing aircraft, with a brute of an engine. While in flight school at the Institute of Aviation, University of Illinois, we used it extensively for a full semester of aerobatics. It was a most forgiving aircraft. There didn’t seem to be any errors in its handling that it wouldn’t shrug off as common. It became my favorite aircraft, even after earning a Commercial Pilot’s License, I flew it whenever possible.

      Thanks for the memory.

      • Hey Jerry! Lots of memories of my few weeks living in La Plata – Jaime’s log school house idea, Roberto and his euphemism for the locals, an all-day drunken horseback ride, fueled by aguardiente, tour with a government official and lots of campesinos, on horses and walking, to view a potential road route into the interior. You know how that went. Do you recall that the campesinos had a name for the large pockets in the chaps we wore to ride through the brush? They called them “para aguardiente”

        When I returned to Seattle in 1965, I found a 1943 Aeronca C-3 for $900, rebuilt the front cowling and flew it around locally. A far cry from the Stearman, but so primitive it was just fun with few instruments to deal with. Who needs a gas gauge instrument when you can have a float in the tank with a bent wire indicator, which is right in front of you, to show how much fuel remains?

        I have photos and sketches from my time in Colombia that you might like to view on MagCloud.com You can view without buying. search for “Aza Summers”

  • A cool story. But I’m not sure why that Peace Corps Volunteer was surprised by the fact that the campesino was able to get a hold of some dynamite in 1963. I’m sure that the Colombian Military had plenty of it and there was plenty of mining going on in Colombia at that time as well. But, awesome that they remember Peace Corps in such a positive way.

    But along the lines of that story, I worked in a town called Piedecuesta in Santander in the late-1970s. The town, at that time, was surrounded by sugar cane and tobacco plantations. (Now it is big apartment complexes and shopping malls). But I was walking back to town along a rural road from my job site one day at dusk, and I fell into step next to a grimy bedraggled sugar cane cutter with his machete swinging at his side returning home from work. We started talking and after a few minutes he commented on my accent and asked where I was from. I told him San Francisco in the United States. He gave me a black-toothed grin, their teeth get like that from chewing on the cane stalks all day, and said, “I’ve been to San Francisco.” I’m like, “For real?” And he says, “For sure. I was part of the Colombian military forces that fought in the Korean War on the United Nations side. We shipped out of the port of Buenaventura on the Pacific Coast and went to San Francisco, California for a week before going to Korea.” “Small world,” I commented, shaking my head. “Did you have a good time in San Francisco?” He grinned again and said, “A wonderful time. The time of my life.” “Glad of that,” I responded.

    Then he looks up at me and asks, “So, what are you doing here in Colombia?”

    “Oh, I work for Peace Corps (Cuerpo de Paz in Spanish, literally: Body of Peace).

    “Oh, yeah? I’m surprised.”


    “You don’t look like the missionary type.”


    “Yeah, Body of Peace. Isn’t that like one of those Mormon Missionaries?” (Mormon Missionaries were everywhere then.)

    “Not exactly.” I laughed. “But I am having a good time here. The time of my life.”

    He stuck out his callused hand, we shook, and he said, “Good times are the way to peace, brother.”

    “Si, senor.”

  • Mi querido amigo…. que cuento mas interesante… What a great story!!! After knowing you for more than 50 years, your life story gets richer and richer. For so many reasons you have a special place in my heart. Keep sharing.

    Abrazos, Rafael Bates Jaramillo de Medellin (my adoptive name from friends in Pasto Narinno back in the

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