3. Decisions (part 2)

I first aspired to the U.S. Peace Corps after graduating from a Blue Hills Technical Institute, but I had taken an assistant project manager position at a mechanical contractor corporation and decided against the engineering path in favor of business. So I continued studying at Northeastern University, commuting into the city.  Upon graduation in May 1985, my rudder was still loose. What did I know about the real world? Incidental contact and studying people and places through a few history classes were not the same as living it.

Meanwhile, my cousin Gail from Connecticut had recently returned from Peace Corps service in Paraguay, South America. That brought the possibility closer to home for me. I completed and sent in a comprehensive application via the US Peace Corps recruiting office in Boston; although still not committed—I had telephoned the recruiter a short while later to put my application on hold. The question was: do I try the pervasive corporate ‘80’s” thing—Reaganomics and real estate, voodoo economics and value added resellers? I researched opportunities at the university placement office and inquired of a few corporate training programs, but then I realized something—it was the “Booming 80s,” but I didn’t feel like booming.  I wanted something more.

Another serious consideration was applying to the U.S. Navy officer programs.  Flying jets would be my first choice, naturally; however, imperfect eyes restricted me to Geophysics (no thanks) and the Supply Corps (being the business person for a ship handling supplies, payroll, etc.).  The business aspects were appealing, but ... being on ship six months at a time with only my male comrades-at-arms? And did I really want to commit a part of my life to the ability to war, regardless of my view of the merits of the conflict?

So, the choice: the U.S.N. Supply Corps, without my supply of peace, or the U.S. Peace Corps, without supplies of so much taken for granted in the industrialized world. Which mission was more compatible with my values? Well, the year before I was born, 1961, Congress and President Kennedy created the Peace Corps, declaring its mission to be promoting peace and friendship by: (1) help peoples of other countries meet their needs for trained manpower; (2) promote a better understanding of Americans by other peoples; and (3) promote a better understanding of other peoples by Americans. I eventually made the call to the Boston Area Peace Corps Recruiting Office to reinitiate my application—at least see if I could get in. 

Meantime, I re-examined Peace Corps information package [as of 1986] yet again. Over twenty-five years, 120,000 Americans have shared their skills overseas helping developing countries meet their manpower needs. There were 6,000 volunteers working on mainly self-help, grassroots projects in sixty-one countries in areas ranging from Accounting to Animal Husbandry, from French to Fisheries, from Skilled Trades to Secondary School Teaching. Could I fit in?  Statistics on Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs):
·       Average age–28;
·       males—53%; females—47%;
·       over 55 years old—6%;
·       average cost of support per PCV for one year—29,000;
·       deaths—193;
·       early terminations—27%; extended service—14% beyond the normal two years;
·       some illustrious Returned PCVs—Senators Tsongas, Dodd, and Wofford; Congressmen James Courter, Tom Petri, and Toni P. Hall.

And so the application and screening process continued. A National Agency Security Check was performed to ensure my loyalty, honesty, and fitness for a low-level federal security clearance. I got fingerprinted at the Braintree Police Station. The physical exams by a federal military doctor were rigorous: a complete review and documentation of all my medical history; physician review of all my systems; vision; hearing; blood; urinalysis; electrocardiogram with analysis; chest x‑rays; dental x‑rays and so forth. I secured written references submitted directly to the Peace Corps from a current job supervisor, a past supervisor, two college professors, a friend, a coworker, a classmate, and the one person who knows me best. 

Why was I doing all this? What could I possibly end up doing or becoming? Again I reviewed the programs being considered for me: Business Management, Appropriate Technology, and Public Health and Sanitation. 

Business Management. This involved a development strategy of small enterprise development in the non-urban areas of underdeveloped nations. By extending the infrastructure to rural areas it would create economic opportunities for the vast majority. Examples: (a) develop a simplified accounting system adapted by rural banks and small business operations; (b) aid a shopkeeper in ginger tea production and distribution that would lead to employment opportunities for local families; (c) train people from an isolated and poor minority tribe to market their quality handicrafts and turn profits into improved nutrition and medical care; (d) help a group of blind people develop a weaving factory and obtain self‑supporting income.
It sounded intriguing, giving sorely needed assistance while gaining insight into the personal dynamics of business in a cross‑cultural context. Next.

Appropriate Technologies. Firewood, charcoal, and the burning of vegetable matter and dung were the fuels used by the vast majority of rural dwellers for cooking and heating. These traditional sources of energy were harnessed with animal and human power, which limits economic growth. Also, population pressure and climatic changes had strained these resources. For instance, a person may have to walk a couple miles for over four hours daily, gathering firewood for the family. The Sahara Desert [as of 1986] was expanding at up to thirty miles per year, and the Amazon forests appeared set to disappear in a few decades at its rate of destruction. Also, less firewood caused people to use crop residue and animal dung, the traditional fertilizers, leading to less food production in already needy areas. The program goals were to save fuels for cooking and heating, increase the amount of food available, and save time and effort in performing household tasks.
Could I picture myself fostering renewable technologies by, say, building simple solar devices, particularly for grain drying and water heating? Building pedal powered devices for grinding grain, or building mud stoves to conserve firewood? Hmmm. The interesting part perhaps would be organizing community activities to make it happen. Next.

Public Health/Sanitation. Over sixty percent of the people in the developing world were drawing their water from unsafe sources. The World Health Organization [circa 1986] estimated that eighty percent of all diseases in the world were water related, with 400 million people having gastroenteritis, 200 million schistosomiasis (snail fever), 30 million onchocenciasis (river blindness), and 160 million malaria. Also, the dehydrating effect of diarrhea, usually caused by unclean water, was the leading cause of infant mortality in the developing world. These illnesses cause suffering, sap energy, shorten people’s working span, and cause death. Cumulatively, they were an impediment to their national development.

River blindness—that was the scary one for me. Someone had erroneously told me that snail parasites in African rivers enter your body through the foot and eventually blind you.  (Actually, black flies inject tiny worms; they were also present in and around Central America).  I was willing to give two years to an altruistic cause, but not two eyes.

On my application I had been able to indicate a preference area for work as well as geography, so I stated that I would go anywhere and do anything, except to go to Africa (rather arbitrary, but I felt obligated to somehow shape my destiny), and would prefer to be near either mountains or ocean (natural beauty on which to focus in trying times).

The health and sanitation projects that I might have worked on were: assess village sanitation levels; work with and motivate village health committees to develop sanitation improvement plans; advise villages in the construction of simple sanitary facilities like latrines, wells, refuse dumps, animal corrals, and in homes; experiment with sanitary technologies; educate villagers in their use and maintenance; devise workshops to teach simple techniques of sanitation to villagers and health workers. “It’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it” has never been a phrase more apropos

The recruiters warned me that I would need not only technical skills for these assignments, but a cultural sensitivity, flexibility, patience, determination, enthusiasm, and a sense of humor. I appreciated the last criterion, but could not ignore the magnitude of the challenge while envisioning altruistic tasks that would foster a nation’s development, if only in some small way, and also enable me to develop significantly as an individual, personally, spiritually, and professionally. 

Two more interviews with Peace Corps Recruiting staff in Boston went well. Without medical snafus, and with my legal clearance and so forth, a nomination and acceptance should be in the offing. But going through this long process, it was like pulling teeth. Actually, they did pull my teeth—two molars. They required a dental surgeon to remove two sub‑surface molars that looked like they could possibly become impacted in the next two years, thus eliminating the threat of serious dental surgery in a remote, unpredictable location abroad.

Finally, I was nominated to a Peace Corps assignment. This was not an acceptance, however. My application had entered a more official stage of consideration. I was still competing with others for the assignment under a specific skill program—in this case, Public Health/Sanitation, and probably in the Caribbean Basin (sanitation in the Basin—ironic). Hey, on an island, I thought? Are you kidding? I could handle that. Although, it did seem too close to Massachusetts, perhaps not even exotic enough. Not that I pictured pith hats and bush knives in the jungle (although I admit having shopped at the Banana Republic by that point in time). They had even called this the “post‑nomination” stage, which gave me a thrill. I was that much closer to all that I had been imagining.

The New York Evaluation unit would further process and evaluate my application and I would have to fill out additional paperwork that should arrive in the mail about two weeks later.  I was getting anxious. Doesn’t all this paper take away precious trees that could be used for rural cooking and heating? I was getting into the spirit. I was to hear within thirty days—“no later than June 20, 1986”, but of course if I didn’t hear by June 30th, they said to further wait three weeks before calling. Ideally, the final acceptance and invitation to a specific country assignment should be two months prior to departure. As soon as August—yikes!

After having my fingerprints re‑taken (because the spaces on the fingerprint form were printed, not typed—arrgh!), my application was sent on to Peace Corps Placement in Washington, D.C. There, they tried to match me to specific assignment requests from host countries. One step closer to the border I was, ready to walk a mile in another's shoes, then maybe 100 miles in their socks, then 1,000 in bare, tan feet, and then probably swim. Surely, I would accept an invitation, having been intently focused on this goal.

But then bad news arrived: the timing was not right. They called to tell me that I was not processed in time for the summer departure. Did I still want to be considered? Yes, yes of course.  To bide my time, I began waiting on tables full time at Charley’s Saloon in Braintree and driving two ten-hour shifts on weekends for a local taxi company. At home the telephone rang, but it was not the Peace Corps. I waited nervously, became busy again, and put my future into Fate’s hand.  Fate put the envelope into my mailbox. I opened the envelope. Another form?  No, it was an invitation—to the United States Peace Corps!  It was an unforgettable moment of truth, of incredible possibilities. Where in the world was I going?

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