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.
What would we say when it was finally time to say goodby? Would we do the macho, bravo number, clip her playfully on the chin and mutter something about, "Show 'em how to do it, kiddo"? Or would we blubber something about writing regularly and thinking about us and how we all love her?
Our little drama of departure took place during a swirling Savannah, Ga., spring morning two years ago as my wife and I prepared to say farewell, in truth, a second farewell, to our daughter, Eden, off on a Peace Corps assignment to Senegal, a West African country unknown by that name when childhood stamp collecting and a Scott's catalogue taught me everything there was to know about Nations of the World.
A First Farewell
The first farewell had been at LAX two months earlier when we watched Eden walk away from us alone--that terribly symbolic, lonely walk that reached from the known (us) to the uncertain dark unknown of the airplane, a blue tote bag, veteran of many UC Berkeley days, draped over her shoulders. The family around us was in various poses of tearful stoicism, and we wondered how this gentle, slender, recent psychology graduate could bring any order out of seeming distant confusion, food out of dust, water out of wasteland.
For the second farewell we had flown to Savannah hoping to find daughter and a sea island called St. Helena's somewhere in the clutter of bridge projects that bejewel the eastern portions of South Carolina. My wife and I, along with a collection of well-traveled parents, family members and friends, were gathered for "graduation exercises" for the 28 people who were making up the Peace Corps Senegal Project, 1983.
Would we talk of other goodbys, the summer camps, the first college trip, the first vacation out of state? Would we kid her about old friends and new acquaintances?
Our destination in South Carolina was Frogmore, a disorderly rural arrangement of a general store, feed emporium and modest buildings. A few hundred yards down an incredibly straight, tree-bracketed road we found Penn Center, the staging area for this group of Peace Corps volunteers. Penn Center was started in early Civil War years and was the first school in the South for freed slaves. Occasionally it is used for Peace Corps training, its climate and soil possibly close to those of some African countries. And for some volunteers, it would be an important cross-cultural experience, for most of the farmers of St. Helena's are rural blacks with a language uniquely theirs. Penn Center is used frequently as a conference ground and Martin Luther King Jr. often found seclusion there in the activist years before his death. The wood buildings of Penn Center, many dating back to the Civil War period, all had broad and handsome porches and steps that encouraged outdoor gatherings and talk.
Eden took us proudly to the fields where she had learned intensive planting, growing vegetables on rows of mounds to achieve maximum production and minimum weeding. Late-spring storms and an early harvest had left more empty mounds than vegetables, but we could share a certain pride that what she had wanted to grow had grown. And with equal pride she showed us a latrine project destined for somewhere in Africa. What she had to learn she had learned. Then we visited the livestock area, the chickens, the goats, the rabbits. Far from earlier Girl Scout experiences, she had learned firsthand the complete life (and death) cycle of the chicken. In fact, she told us, she had helped in a new and different way to prepare that night's barbecue dinner . . . chicken. Again she showed that what needed to be done had been done.
Thinly Masked Bravado
We shared meals with the volunteers and their guests, discovering that most of the visitors of this graduating class of volunteers expressed a certain thinly masked bravado. It went like this: The volunteers are bright and they can handle themselves, but did they have to go to such a remote area of the world? I'm sure we can talk at least once a week over a telephone. And the mails do go through. Or don't they? One family was already planning a Christmas visit to Senegal, wondering what to bring and how to get to whatever village their volunteer would be in.
We talked to trainers, a young woman recently returned from her tour in Senegal and she seemed brittle and tough, all at once. Another trainer and his wife seemed the gentle big brother/big sister and were terribly reassuring, especially about the ways of the Third World.
We met local families, the women who had cooked the volunteers' meals during training and had taken some of them into their homes. They were proud of this Senegal class, obviously better fed now than when they first arrived, they assured us.
Maybe the best way to say goodby would be without any stress. No pain, lots of gain. We wouldn't want to set off trauma . Just be confident and send her off with brave memories of solid folks.
Graduation night was a Talent Showcase at the Penn Center community house. Incongruously it was like talent night in Anywhere U.S.A. The improvised stage setting, the mimeographed programs, the welcoming ushers, the neat lines of folded chairs along the walls of the block building. Some of the volunteers (how many would complete their two years of service?), Velma and Ken and Chris and JoAnne and Allison and Cathy and Denise and Geral among others, put words to more familiar songs, thanking their trainers, their families, themselves in a paraphrase of a popular song:
The time has come
To close those crop books
And long last looks must fade
And as I leave
I know that I am leaving my garden
Of turnips, maize and sorghum rows
Okra won't grow
And fertilizer that burns
What, what can I give you in return?
If you wanted the sky I would try to reach the stars
Would rather you let me give my chard
To the trainers with love.
It was an evening of mixed and varied images. Of a young handicapped girl who had traveled with her family to greet her volunteer sister and who did a commendable wheelchair jitterbug with a tall friend. Of a 50ish grandmother, the obvious elder of the volunteer class, singing lustily with recent college graduates. Of a young dancer who would give up hoped-for theater auditions for a dig after her African roots. Of the young men of Frogmore, come to watch the talent and then to help celebrate with a light show and real rhythm & blues music and dancing. Of brave talk of tomorrow and the unknown tomorrows.
Then tomorrow. My wife and I drove back to the airport in Savannah to await the Peace Corps group, which would arrive together in a bus. By the time our car had been returned and we were checked in, the 28 Senegal volunteers were on the tarmac, a summer camp assortment of clothes and bags. There would be time before departure for a breakfast so we all overwhelmed the coffee shop. There in the midst of talk about missed telephone calls and missed training opportunities, the volunteers tasted for maybe the last time in two years the plasticity of coffee-shop eggs and Southern grits. Then the announcement came that our plane to Los Angeles was on its final loading call. Eden ran with us to the loading area.
Or would we just joke around at a time like this, make it a happy, covered-over goodby? Or would we say it straight out, hugging and kissing and telling marvelous truths about what we thought of each other in the disappearing time of the morning?
It was now a rush. The airplane engines were running, the baggage had been loaded, the boarding ramp was being prepared for departure and then we just held each other. Time to get up into the airplane and to leave her on the ground.
The incredible had happened. It wasn't designed to be this way. We were there to see her off, to buoy her spirits, to assure her of our love and pride. But instead, this volunteer in jeans, destined for an African home, had seen us off, had bid us farewell, had assured us, had buoyed our spirits. As the plane moved away from her, still waving to us, we felt strongly that in the months and years ahead she would assure others and buoy others and give love where it was most needed. There was no need for words in this goodby.