By Willie Dow
It says in Bartlett's Quotations that experience is the best teacher. Indeed, Fred Shapiro, in his Yale Book of Quotations, confirms that Bartlett quoted the proverb properly.
We of a certain age all know that the proverb is accurate. Books are good. Professors are better. But nothing can match learning by doing. And when you're young and impressionable the learning is best and it stays with you longest. I'm going to discuss how I learned that was so.
There was a time, some forty years ago in the last century, when cadres of newly minted college graduates, caught up in the spirit of John F. Kennedy's call to ask what you can do for your country, set off to do good works in countries around the globe under the friendly umbrella of the Peace Corps. I was one of them.
The year is 1963. I've just graduated from what was then an all-male, local Ivy League institution. I have spent an anonymous four years there on a work scholarship, studying a lot, learning a little and terrified of the day when I would be tapped on the shoulder and told, "Kid, we made a mistake. Go back to Stony Creek and try again." While those smoother, smarter and more sophisticated thrive on participating in the Russian Chorus, The Yale Political Union, The Elizabethan Club and lost weekends at various women's colleges scattered throughout New England, I scrunch down in the stacks at Sterling Library trying to figure out what this fellow Eliot meant when he said "Mrs. Porter and her daughter wash their feet in soda water" and what in God's name Geoffrey Chaucer was trying to say when he wrote, "Whan that aprille with his shoores soote" in the preface to the Canterbury Tales. And as for Shakespeare, the legendary Maynard Mack helped a lot, but the waters were still very deep.
I emerge from my four years of college pretty much the same blue-collar bumpkin as when I began. Outside of two weeks at New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee and several trips to Yankee Stadium I have never traveled outside of Connecticut. I know there was a big world out there somewhere and I am anxious to learn about it, somehow, but I really don't have a clue as to how to go about doing so. The thought of living in another country, learning another language and another culture was fascinating but, I think, pretty much unreachable. Well, mirable dictu, along comes a vibrant and inspirational President John F. Kennedy, whose inauguration is blessed by Cardinal Cushing and poemed by Robert Frost from a short-circuited podium and my passport to that world is issued. There is, I learn, something I can do for my country. And I can travel and learn as well. What an opportunity.
The Peace Corps, now almost 50 years old, was officially established in March of 1961. Its roots, according to its public relations folks, are traced to a 1960 speech by President Kennedy at the University of Michigan in which he "challenged . . . students to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries."
In its present format, the Peace Corps has some 8,000 volunteers serving in some 74 countries around the globe. It has a budget of almost $320 million. Since its inception there have been almost 190,000 volunteers who have served in 139 different countries. Among its notable alumni are Connecticut's own Senator Christopher Dodd who served in the Dominican Republic in 1966 through 1968 and former Representative Christopher Shays who served in Fiji from 1968 through 1970. Its mission is to "help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women" and to help promote a better understanding of Americans and to help Americans promote a better understanding of peoples of other countries and cultures on the part of Americans.
Well, for me, in 1963, it offered a chance to live in a foreign country, learn a language and culture and, as a bonus, actually help out others less fortunate. What could be better for a former altar boy from St. Therese's? Actually not much. So I apply. I am accepted.
Before launching off to the far reaches of the globe, however, there is the more practical question of what to do when all this-after all it's only a two year commitment-is over. A classmate suggests applying to law school. And although I'd never seen nor met a lawyer, I follow his advice. And in the course of doing so, I have a significant and valuable experience.
The Dean of Admissions at Yale Law School is a gentleman named Jack Tate who, I learn much later, is noted for some position paper he authored while working for the State Department. I appear for an interview. I sit. He scans my resume, looks me in the eye and gives it to me straight: "Look", he says, "You've got a good resume. Unfortunately we only take people with great resumes. Here's what you do: apply to Penn, Chicago, Michigan, Virginia and Columbia. You'll get into all of them". He was right. I apply to all of them and get accepted at all of them. Wed to my Peace Corps dream, I ask to defer for two years. Penn says yes. Problem solved.
I've never forgotten that straight-on approach. I use it every day of the week with clients. It seems to me it's important to know where you stand. Not a lot of subtlety I suppose, but if you want a cheerleader you should go to a ball game.
But that's later. Now it's on to save the world. Colombia is one of the first countries to accept Peace Corps Volunteers. I am assigned to one of the earliest groups. Now known best for cocaine and kidnapping, in 1963 Colombia's claim to fame was coffee, emeralds, plantains and, if you looked closely enough, an emerging marijuana prominence. What did I know? It was somewhere in South America, right below Panama [which formerly was a part of Colombia], had a capitol which considered itself "The Athens of the Americas" and a history of significant political violence which has continued into this century.
Our training group-about sixty recent liberal arts graduates-is called Colombia VIII. We will be trained to do community development work in this underdeveloped country. Training will be in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico for six weeks of history, language, organizing skills and an outward- bound component designed to build self-confidence. Then "out in the field" for two more weeks at various Spanish-speaking rural communities surrounding the empty-for-the-summer ski area at Taos.
The language and history is about what you would expect. Language lab many hours a day. Colombian history, culture, sociology and geography woven in and around the language. Organizing skills. Well that's another thing. We were all wet behind the ears. The entirety of our collective worldly experience is limited to fraternity rushes, keg parties and all-night term papers.
We are to educate the unsophisticated and illiterate denizens of a developing nation in the tools of democracy. We are to teach them how to organize into community groups which would then petition their government to respond to their needs. We are, you see, citizens of the greatest nation on earth, blessed with the knowledge, insight and wisdom that come from attending on a more or less regular basis classes at American academic institutions of higher learning. Too naïve to appreciate the arrogance of that philosophy, we approach our task, as only young people can, with vigor-a word from the glossary of our vibrant President-and enthusiasm. We, will, in less than two years, save the world or at least our part of it.
But first we must be physically fit. We will jog around the University's track. We will jump into it's swimming pool with our hands and legs bound by pieces of inner tubes and bob our heads, for minutes on end with lifeguards at the ready. We will rappel off the terrifyingly high outer walls of its football stadium showing no fear.
We do so, but with less than Navy Seals' tenacity. Bobbing for minutes becomes bobbing for seconds, swallowing enough chlorine to cauterize a machete wound. Fearless does not accurately describe our descents from the Everest of University Stadium. One of us, now an attorney in New Haven, was heard to yell "Bastard!" when striking his nose against the wall. Unfortunately his spotter, a not quite completely bi-lingual Mexican national, misunderstands. "Chew want to go faster? Just loosen your hands, amigo!" All part of the learning experience.
The field training is socially enjoyable, but educationally limited. Loosing sixty young men and women in an empty ski lodge in Taos with available alcohol and minimal adult supervision and long evenings invites interesting behaviors which, while perhaps not as pronounced as those which came to be acceptable after Woodstock, do not conform to the prevailing standards of Emily Post then extant.
Training completed, enthusiasm still at its steroidal apogee, we are off to Colombia. Now we are not only ready to save our part of the world, but, we are, we believe, superbly trained to do so. Not so fast, McGuillicuddy. We have much to learn.
We depart from the TWA Terminal at what is then known as Idlewild Airport for Bogota. Yes, one of us reminds our parents, that's the same name as the city in New Jersey, but this is just a little further South. We arrive and are indoctrinated in-country. Health concerns are paramount. Boil the water. Don't eat raw fruits. Wash your hands before you eat. We'll see you at a conference in six months. Off to the wilderness.
We are partnered. I am paired with Mel Kissane, a rather genteel graduate of Chicago's Loyola University. Our destination is Chimichagua, a tiny town eight hours by what amounts to a school bus on dirt roads south of the Caribbean Coastal city of Santa Marta, God knows how many miles from Bogota and a world away from anyone who speaks English. The nearest city of any size is El Banco, a latter day Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Magdalena River. That will be our first stop.
It's warm and humid there. El Banco is a town of constant movement. The river traffic is fascinating. All sorts of provisions from cement to Coca Cola are brought inland by boat from the coast. Other boats head back North in the other direction loaded with plantains and other agricultural products. The main streets are paved. Traffic is mostly pedestrian, men carrying on their backs loads that would qualify them to compete in the World's Strongest Man Competition, women with laundry, groceries and other items on their heads and young kids riding donkeys loaded with provisions. Some Land Rovers, many trucks and busses and an occasional Mercedes. There is actually electricity in El Banco. In Chimichagua, our ultimate destination, not so much. And there are no paved streets there, only dirt. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
We spend a night in El Banco with our Peace Corps Volunteer Leader. We know he is our leader because they've given him a Jeep to visit the various volunteer outposts every month or so. He takes us to a movie that first night, an American flick, Quo Vadis, I think, with Spanish subtitles. We look up and realize that there's no roof on the theater, just the moon and the stars overhead. And when there's a break to the change the reels, the men approach the whitewashed brick wall which is the screen, relieve themselves, and return to their seats. We have much to learn.
Next, it's on to Chimichagua which will become the hub from which we will spread our eleemosynary talents. Our first night is in what passes for a rooming house, a kind of adobe building with a thatched roof. We each have a bed which, instead of inner springs, has a wooden frame over which is stretched a cowhide. It is, as my partner points out, like sleeping on a snare drum. A little unsettling, but hey, we're here to save the world remember. And, in the words of Samuel Pepys, so to bed. Our first night in our new home town is interrupted at 3:00 am by a portion of the thatched roof falling onto the bed. Too scared to laugh and too big to cry we make it through the night, bewildered but unsettled.
Mel and I are offered a home to rent, one of the nicest in town, with real beds with real mattresses and mosquito netting onto which the resident bats make nightly deposits. We quickly learn not to touch the sides of the netting to avoid it becoming a sieve for the deposits.
We agree to eat our meals at the rooming house where we spent our first night. We eat at a wooden table outside under a thatched roof. We are joined occasionally by other boarders or travelers and consistently by the owner's chickens who pridefully parade across the table as we eat. For me it's an adventure. Remember I could have been a first year law student in Philadelphia. For Mel it's not so good. After a couple of months he's had it. He throws in the towel. "I can't take it," he says. "I just can't take another day of eating that gray soup with a piece of yucca in it". It's home for Mel, and there I am, alone in Chimichagua. There will be a lot to learn.
The Island Trip
Chimichagua is a small town. It sits on the shores of a sizeable lake, the Cienaga de Zapatosa. In 1963 American visitors are rare, let alone members of El Cuerpo de Paz, the creation of America's first Roman Catholic President. No one speaks English and when we first arrive, we are armed only with limited pidgin Spanish. We are, however, well received. People like us. They want to welcome us to their community.
Shortly after Mel leaves I am invited on a paseo, a picnic of sorts, by a group of local politicians who, in retrospect, mistakenly believe I come bearing gifts other than an opportunity for sweat equity. We are going on a boat ride via outboard motor in a kind of dugout canoe to a small island on the lake where we will eat and drink and socialize. We travel out into the lake, seeing along the way caimans, macaws and occasional monkeys in the trees along the shore. We arrive. The women prepare the food. The men sit in a circle on chairs on a cement-floored patio and pass around a bottle of the local drink, ron cana, a rum drink made from sugar cane. As is the custom, each man takes a swig, swallows most, and then spits out the rest on the floor and passes the bottle to his left.
I watch carefully. I have been well-trained in the "when in Rome" etiquette by my betters in Albuquerque. The bottle is passed to me. I follow the custom. I take a swallow and then, as had the others, spit out the rest onto the patio. I pass the bottle to the gentleman on my left who says, in perfect English, "Please do not spit on my floor". I am flustered. Here in the middle of nowhere I am a caricature of the Ugly American whose image I have been trained to avoid at all costs. I am cognizant of the admonition that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. My drinking companion's hearty laugh relieves the anxiety. He was making a joke, showing off his limited knowledge of English. All is forgiven. Life goes on.
Our mission, community development, was to organize the community, to create groups or organizations that would give the people a voice through which to petition their government to respond to their needs. Whether it is improved roads, vaccination programs, clean water systems or the like, the people are to be represented through these organizations. Democracy in action.
But first the organization. That is my job-organizing the community. The people must come together and unite. And so it comes to pass that I attempt to hold a town meeting, New England style, to talk about the concept of community development and, to elect those who would speak for Chimichagua's citizens and represent their interests. Posters are printed and distributed. I have many one-on-one conversations with residents encouraging them to come to the meeting and to cast their vote.
I am befriended by several men who apparently embrace the community development concept and are willing to participate. They assist in spreading the community development gospel, encouraging their fellow citizens to come to the meeting and to participate in the democratic process the young gringo preaches.
And so on a Sunday afternoon in the central market the meeting is held. A modest crowd of nearly 100 or so listen as I mount an elevated platform to describe, in ungrammatical, poorly pronounced Spanish, what we intend to do. Nominations are made. Blank paper ballots are circulated and returned, folded and placed in a cardboard box. There is a blackboard on which I have chalked the names of the nominees. My apostles, always eager to help, remove the ballots, one-by-one, and announce the names which I dutifully note on the board. Democracy in action. The people's representatives will be selected and they will speak for the community. I tally the names as they are read but I soon notice, however, that the names announced by my helpers are different than those written on the ballots and, amazingly, are almost always the names of my helpers. When I note this apparent disparity, I am met with waves of rapidly-spoken Spanish I can neither understand nor quell. Before I know it the winning slate is announced and elected with the deftness of a Chicago mayoralty election in the Richard Daly era.
This, then, is my introduction to democracy Chimichagua-style. All is not lost however. As often happens, progress is a one- step-forward-two-steps-back proposition. The Community Development committee, while perhaps not elected as pristinely as I had wished, does accomplish some things of value. Some of Chimichagua's streets are improved, however modestly. A vaccination program is implemented as well. In a neighboring town we do set up a well which provides a central location for water which, while not up to Poland Springs standards, is better than what was there before. The lessons continue. We're not saving the world perhaps, but we are making progress.
November 23, 1963
For most of us of a certain age, November 23, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated is a day of images. Television coverage of the School Book Depository Building in Dallas. The Zapruder film of Jackie Kennedy reaching back in the Lincoln Convertible. Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. The riderless horse in the funeral procession. Jackie Kennedy and her children as the hearse passed by. For those of us not in the United States at that time it was a different experience.
In 1963 there are no cell phones nor, in Chimichagua, any, hard-line phones. Communication is mostly by telegraph. Electricity is sporadic. No TV's. Most folks don't have radios. You get your news periodically, weekly or monthly. You receive Newsweek a month late. Local papers- El Tiempo or El Espectador from Bogota or El Caribe from Barranquilla-come days or weeks late. Our lives, like the Chimichaguans with whom we live, are day-to-day lives, focused on the tasks of just getting by, not on world events reported in the media.
And so on November 23, 1963 I learn of President Kennedy's death not through the ordinary sources. I return to my house from somewhere, I can't remember where, and there are neighbors inside. They are there to offer their condolences for our loss. This is a loss they felt as well. Remember Kennedy was our first Roman Catholic President. Colombians and all Latin Americans, for this reason, and for others as well, felt an allegiance to him. And so for a number of days I receive many, many visitors who come to us to convey their condolences for our country's loss.
The sincerity of this gesture was and remains a very impressive experience and to this day helps serve as a guide to appropriate behavior in times of loss. Still more lessons.
There is another loss that leaves a lasting impression. It is a lesson in closure.
A young girl from Chimichagua, perhaps twelve or thirteen, falls out of a boat in the river and drowns. Her family and indeed the whole community are affected. Her body cannot be found for two, three or even more days. It consumes Chimichagua. It is unsettling. Efforts are made again and again to find the body. Finally she is found. She is laid out in a central plaza so all can come and see and confirm that she is, indeed, dead.
I am 21. I have very limited experience with death. I am unsettled by the news of her death-I know her a little, mostly by sight. I find that I share the concern of the community with the gnawing uncertainty that remains when her body cannot be found. And I learn too, despite the rather grisly manner of displaying the corpse when her body is finally recovered, of the relief that comes from closure.
One of the many benefits Peace Corps life in Colombia, at least the part of Colombia where I was stationed, was proximity to nature. I've mentioned the bats that lived in the ceiling of my bedroom and the caimans, macaws and monkeys I would see on an almost daily basis. There were iguanas lizards, three feet long or more, which would run along the ground or through the palm trees, even occasionally falling unexpectedly out of the trees, landing with a great thud and then racing across the ground into the rough along the roadways.
For some, where appropriate, the Peace Corps would provide a stipend for a horse to travel from town to town. I get one, more because I want one rather than need one. It comes with a saddle and a cowboy hat, every young boy's dream. I name my steed Roscinante after Don Quixote's horse. It is a nice horse, really. It has a very smooth gait and does, in fact, facilitate travel to one neighboring town to which I am also assigned.
There is one problem, though, Roscinante is hard to catch. And so, after traveling to a borough way off the beaten path, I put him in a large fenced pasture for the night. In the morning, however, my version of Secretariat does not come when called. Moreover, when approached, he enjoys running away. Hours are invested in trying to lasso him, all without success. Cowboy hat to the side, I am not quite the Roy Rogers I imagine myself to be. Help comes in the form of a mare, much tamer by far. When she enters the pasture, Roscinante approaches, is lassoed and I am shortly on my way. Once more, thanks to the knowledgeable agrarian hosts of this underdeveloped land I am provided yet another lesson.
Sloths are interesting animals. When I express an interest, one of Chimichagua's youngsters sells me one for about Two U.S. Dollars. When I take it to the major coastal city of Barranquilla and return to Chimichagua I joke that I sold it there for a large profit. Within days I am offered five more. I respectfully decline. One sloth every two years is enough.
Macaws are another matter. They are as common as robins. These large, gold-breasted parrots are mean and loud and they chew up anything they can bite onto-trees, wires and an occasional finger. I buy three, again for $2 each, keep them for many months and, at the end of my tour, bring them back home with me and eventually sell them for a large profit to a pet store in Branford.
Other Aspects of Colombian Culture
It is hard, back in 1963, as an American, not to feel a little superior to some aspects of the Colombian way of life. These folks simply are just not that advanced. I watch in amusement as vendors prowl the streets selling tickets to a government-run lottery. Colombians are dedicated to buying these tickets, betting on the million-to-one chance that they will become rich. Ridiculous.
And the universities. This is really hard to understand. Periodically the students---the students for crying out loud--- go on strike, just like the teamsters. They actually shut down the universities. They hold their administrators hostage until they get what they want. To a recent graduate from the United States this is simply preposterous.
And, of course there is this other cultural oddity in all of Latin America. The children don't have just one last name, their father's. No these folks use both their mother's and their father's last names. How weird is that? Another indication that we have much work to do.
Time is, of course, a valuable teacher. We Americans have now caught up with the less sophisticated people we were sent to help. Anymore lotteries in the U.S. are so ubiquitous it is impossible to pay for gas without peering through a plexi-glass display of scratch-off tickets with more colors than a box of Crayolas. When I return to the United States Mario Savio and others are sitting in university presidents' offices and shutting down universities across the country in a way that would make Colombians proud. And of course, anyone familiar with ordering Tee shirts for Little Leagues of Youth Soccer Teams knows that hyphenated last names have become the norm.
There are other, more substantial lessons that come from a Peace Corps experience in those early years. It was not then, as was intended, a substantial benefit to the host countries, at least I don't think so. Yes there were the modest improvements to the streets, perhaps a well that functions a little better than what was there before and maybe some kids got vaccinated who would not have been. In reality, though, it is for me more of a one way street, all running in my direction.
I learn respect for people who are uneducated and often illiterate who care for their families and work hard to put daily bread on their tables under difficult and trying circumstances. I learn they can be understanding, knowledgeable, in some ways wise and incredibly generous despite very limited resources.
Their priorities, of necessity, are the practical, very mundane, day-to-day concerns that earning a living to survive requires. While changing things for the better is an admirable goal, just getting by is often as much as can be expected. Lofty ideals are admirable but when working to put bread on the table is a priority, they are a luxury.
The Peace Corps of today is better and improved. In its infancy one part of the Peace Corps premise-that we can help people to lead better lives in underdeveloped nations by showing them how we do things-was flawed. The thought that unskilled college graduates would teach a better way of life to people struggling to get by was both naïve and arrogant. Now that its volunteers are more skilled and its projects more concrete and more focused, it can and does do what it set out to do.