More than 100,000 volunteers will have served in the Peace Corps by the time it celebrates its 25th anniversary later this year. They are not the only Americans who have been changed by this personal outreach to remote parts of the world--a fact the Peace Corps director Loret Miller Ruppe has been noting in recent public statements. Families and friends, parents especially, saw them off for the unknown with fear and pride, and then shared vicariously in the experience of unfamiliar lands and peoples. Many times they visited volunteers in places where few Americans had gone before.
This month, Robert Epstein, Times executive arts editor, is visiting his daughter, Eden, a Peace Corps volunteer in Djiamand, a rural village in Senegal, West Africa. In the following articles, Epstein recalls his daughter’s entry into the Peace Corps and Times Staff Writer Kathleen Hendrix remembers her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer.
On Oct. 10, 1963, I sat at my typewriter at the kitchen table forcing my mother to lay out the supper dishes around me while I rushed through the final pages of my paper on the role of Pandarus in Chaucer’s “Troilus and Cressida"--the last thing standing between me and a Master of Arts in English Literature from New York University.
My father was already seated at his place, watching the evening news on the small television near the table. He looked at me for a moment, his only child, in my characteristic deadline panic and chaos, reached over, put his hand on my arm and said in a reproachful tone--humorously, as the emotional moments of the family were often handled--"This time tomorrow you won’t be here.”
Hold Off on the Tears
For almost 2 1/2 years I wouldn’t be there.
I was leaving my parents’ home in Rochester, N.Y., the following afternoon for the Peace Corps. We would hold off on the tears until then.
Since 1961 there have probably been about 100,000 scenes approximating the one that unfolded the next day:
The three of us making inane conversation on the way to the airport. My oldest friend, Maggie, whose daughter Katie was my godchild, was there with a brown orchid corsage to pin on the trench coat she knew I’d be wearing. Another friend, Jean, single and half wishing she were going too, aunts, uncles and cousins, the Conroys and Fitzpatricks--my parents’ dear friends, supportive and worried how my parents would be taking it. (They were taking it head on--grieving, excited, brave and proud.)
I was off for the unknown--overnight in Los Angeles, then on to Hawaii for 10 weeks of training. It was exciting. But then, after that, and without returning home, I would be off for Southeast Asia, for Sarawak on the island of Borneo, part of the newly formed nation of Malaysia. All anybody in Rochester had ever heard were tales of “the wild man of Borneo.” (Already a huge, high school-sized Hammond map of the world was tacked in place on my parents’ kitchen wall, a surrogate of sorts for Kathleen.)
As for Malaysia, we had heard that on the day of its birth less than two months ago in August, Indonesia’s President Sukarno had declared war on it. Borneo was divided between Malaysia in the north, Indonesia in the south. Not only would I be living in the jungle on the equator. I would be living in a war zone.
War on the Horizon
We were, it turned out, worrying about the wrong things. We knew nothing about the other war coming up over the horizon out there. The “konfrontasi” between Indonesia and Malaysia was mostly border skirmishes. And the countries would reconcile in 1966.
All it meant for me was that I never did get to Java or Bali (off limits in Indonesia). Also, since Sarawak was a former British colony going through the transition phase, I got to know firsthand the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the Gurkhas and the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders (at one point the latter troops were garrisoned in some civil service quarters in my little town of Marudi up the Baram River toward Indonesia). I would include light, reassuring references about the nature of konfrontasi in letters to my parents, but they continued to be haunted by it the entire time.
What was on my mind as I stood there at the Rochester airport with all that before me, consumed with excitement, dread and home-sickness, was one overriding thought: Not only was I going to places I had never been before, but for the next two years I would not see one person I had ever known before. It would be strangers from there on out. (I was almost completely right. Until I saw my parents again in Rome in January 1966, the only person I came in contact with whom I knew even remotely was a Maryknoll missionary priest in Hong Kong who was originally from my parish. An old Borneo hand by then, I had gone on leave for Christmas in Hong Kong.)
Laughed, Cried Their Goodbys
We all laughed and cried our goodbys, me noticing in my peripheral vision that my Uncle Bill held off to the side and did not say goodby to me. He had a bad heart. I knew in a flash he did not expect to see me again. He did, though. He died in 1980, six months after my father.
I left. It was a turbojet for the Rochester-to-Chicago part of the trip. Nowhere to sit until the tail, where there was a semicircular, loungelike arrangement. People would have discreetly ignored the girl with the tears streaming down her face were it not for Maggie’s brown orchid. They asked.
“Because I’m on my way to the Peace Corps,” I waveringly managed to say. Strangers all, they united to buy me a drink.
At O’Hare I called my cousin Dorothy in Ohio. I had spent a summer with her and her husband in Vienna the year before. Until now, always my partner in crime. Goodby.
At LAX I saw my first palm tree and felt exhilarated, tears long gone. I wouldn’t cry again until November in Hawaii. Then would come the morning when I was winding up two weeks of practice teaching at the junior high in Hilo--part of my training. I would be standing there, staggered by the weight and scent of the eight leis students had draped around me, when the Intercom would come on twice with a message from the principal: President Kennedy had been shot; President Kennedy was dead.
But all of that lay ahead of me when I landed at LAX. I stayed overnight at the Sheraton Towne House, the first time I had spent a night alone in a hotel. I talked to my cousin Virginia in San Francisco. Her parents were visiting from Rochester. We were a close family. They got on the phone. “Good luck, honey,” Uncle Jack said. They sounded strangely solemn to me. I probably sounded strangely blithe to them.
Trepidation again in the morning. I walked a few blocks to a Catholic church and went to Mass. Please God. . . . The van to the airport.
This was it. I was off on the great adventure of my life.
For my parents, it would be a time of waiting, worrying, learning and vicariously sharing. To this day the beaded bookmark my student Luhong made for my mother is in her prayer book. Recently in the desk in the upstairs hallway I came across the picture postcards of old headhunters in tribal dress that Charlie Baya had sent them, scribbling on the back his droll testimony that this was how they all dressed. Years later, long after I had returned, Yong Wen would write my parents thanks for the money they sent when he needed help with tuition. After I became godmother to Audrey, the new daughter of Jane and Jacob Sebastian, the science teacher in Marudi, my mother had sent a Sears catalogue, and then had ordered and shipped Jane’s requests; “Care packages” to me; manila envelopes of news clippings from home; canceled American stamps for my students; Kennedy memorabilia when it started coming out to satisfy my students’ and my joint passion. . . .
I realized how much they had been with me some months after I was home. I was still sick with longing for Borneo, the center of my universe, and I had been asked to bring out the photographs to show to Jack Kirby, a family friend and a contemporary of my parents. He sat there patiently, in some consternation at my attitude, looking at the strange people, often tattooed, some with spliced ears, in their equally strange, rough environment--long houses constructed out of bamboo and hand-hewn planks. I told him, but how could he fathom how they had entertained me in their homes, how I taught their children or brothers or sisters, how some of them--the ones in skirts, shorts and blouses--were my students? There was not much in the pictures of their great humor and irony, or personality quirks or uncanny sophistication that never failed to baffle me.
Finally he asked his only question: “Kathy, when will these people ever be civilized?”
Before I could answer, my father did.
“They already are, Jack.”