Chile 50 Years Past
Exactly half a century ago, a special collection of 75 university seniors were beginning the last year of their very sheltered, structured academic lives, soon to be faced with a decision that would tattoo their lives forever: enter military service, or do something that provided an armed services deferment, such as alternative service or continue on to graduate school.
In 1966 it was pretty much as simple as that. Employment right out of college was not an option for most, since it surely meant conscription, and that meant the Viet Nam war. I was in that group of 75, but we were still mostly unknown each to the other since we had been led by fate to university campuses in disparate corners of the country. This situation was about to change; we would all, a short year later, be chosen to spend at least two years in Chile as Peace Corps Volunteers.
I was struggling to conclude my forestry studies in Syracuse, NY, and so was Tom, who I did not know but must have passed frequently in the hallways (or more possibly, we later agreed, in a local watering hole, TC, The Tecumseh Club). Albert was also at Syracuse, but not in forestry; didn’t know him either. Charlie, Ed, and Flick were classmates at Idaho, John was at Dartmouth, Jerry in Kentucky, Jane and Neal in Houston, Lee at Lehigh, Bruce and Anne in California, Mack and Chris in Utah, Ron in Williams College, Doug and Kiva at Michigan State, Bruce (“Oso) from Oregon, Joe at Yale, Gary and Millie in Colorado, Kerrie and Grover in Connecticut and Chuck also in California. There were others, but this became our “core group”, since that’s how lasting relationships within the larger group have sifted out over a half century.
During our last year of college, then, we all eventually were notified that we would be going to Chile in the fall of 1967, preceded by a three month orientation program at the University of Washington in Seattle. We were to work with two very exciting programs of the progressive President of Chile, Eduardo Frei Montalvo: an ambitious national reforestation initiative and a self-help housing effort, both aimed at relieving high rates of poverty, unemployment, and social unrest.
Our orientation program threw this group of strangers, albeit likeminded idealists, together for an intense period of preparation for our journey to faraway Chile. We were faced with a new culture to begin to understand, a foreign language to learn, and frankly, deep anxiety for what lay ahead. This mix of challenges coaxed us into what became a bonded friendship that would be formed in Chile but cemented and enriched through the years. When we arrived in Chile in September of 1967, we were again dispersed, this time throughout the long, narrow country, unfamiliar at the time but that would be our home for the next two years. Some members of the larger original group became disappointed with the experience, and several went home early. But our “core group” remained for the duration, several even longer; Bruce, Flick, Ed, Charlie, Joe, Jerry and I married Chilean women before returning to the US. Bruce remained to work for a forest products industry, and John stayed to become a rancher although he ended up in the capital city, Santiago, teaching English before heading back home.
So, after completing our service in the Peace Corps in Chile, the group met as one in Santiago for three days of language testing, normal administrative processing, medical checkups, and late night camaraderie in the bars and back streets of the city. But again we went our separate ways. Over the years since, the group kept connected through memorable reunions in Washington DC, Miami, Mt. Olive (VA), Baker City(OR), Clinton (NY), San Antonio, Englewood (FL) and Sedona. Forty years after our arrival in Chile, the group met for three days at the same place on Lago Vichuquen in Chile’s Central Valley, where the forestry group had begun their service in 1967. Of course more recently our keeping together is facilitated by the internet and social media, although staying current with the latter is a stretch for some in this group of mostly septuagenarians.
Over the years careers have been built, and some have by now come to a successful end in comfortable retirement. Unfortunately we have lost a couple members of the group, but through marriage we have gained members, and lots of children and a growing cadre of grandchildren are now in the mix. Flick, a sort of philosopher along the line of Harrison Keeler, reminds us we are “in the fourth quarter” of our lives, which is pretty much irrefutable. But our spirits are alive and well, our memories selective and creative. We still enjoy travel and exploration of new places. We all, notwithstanding some health-imposed limitations, still enjoy pleasures we acquired while in Chile: a big glass of Chilean tinto to accompany an empanada de pino, roast lamb, or a steaming cazuela. Most of all, we all harbor very strong memories and intimate feelings for Chile and Chileans, who opened their arms, homes, and hearts to us a half century ago.
Our experiences in the Peace Corps provide a rich mosaic of life as a foreigner in Chile in the 1960s, a time of democratic emergence, economic opening, and social effervescence, and we were in it up to our necks. What we learned, saw, and did during those years, now about a half century away, provides a very interesting perspective when compared to what we have done since, where we are now, and how we see the US, Chile, ourselves, and our Chilean experience in the context of today’s world.
In the interim, Chile and the United States have each suffered its own 9/11; Chile in 1973 and The US in 2001. Chile’s 9/11 resulted, in president Bachelet’s words, “…in a temporary extinguishing of the flame of democracy, installing dictatorship, State terrorism, and arbitrariness and despotism in the heart of Chile.” According to the White House, the legacy of 9/11 in the US “…isn’t one of terror or fear, but one of resilience and hope”. Both countries have proved to be resilient in the face of not only political challenges but also natural disasters inherent in both. Both bear undeniably significant scars from their respective 9/11. And notwithstanding the positive statements of our leaders especially in anniversary commemorations of these tragic events, the present political environment surrounding the Presidential election in the US suggests there is, in fact, an undeniable tendency fowards fear and terror, but also bigotry too easily stirred up in the name of our “9/11”, while in Chile each commemoration of their “9/11” not only reopens old wounds but seems to throw salt in them. Both countries are far from “recovered” from their 9/11s, reticent, in part, to fully open their books, and their minds, to the events leading up to each 9/11 and responses since.
Both countries are struggling to face the forces of globalization with very open economies, welcoming borders, a commitment to free and fair trade, and respect for human rights and liberties. Both countries find their educational systems under heavy criticism for the unacceptably high costs and inherent unfairness of the skewed distribution of quality-enhancing resources. Both countries have mixed systems of health and retirement insurance which seem to be exaggerating economic and wealth inequality instead of ameliorating the disparity. Both countries find deep societal skepticism of public authorities, so governing appears in both countries to be similarly stagnant. All in all, and not wanting to adjudicate each of these issues here, suffice it to say Chile and the US have been on a half century of parallel paths of ever more complicated political and economic development, participating heavily in the wave of globalization with a big dose of modern capitalism. For Chile-watchers like this author, most notable over the years is the progressive cultivation of the US-Chile relationship. Our two peoples have always gotten along well, and our peace Corps experience is but one example of that. And now, our two governments have forged a solid partnership based not on a donor-developing country base as was the case when we first went to Chile, nor complicated by the ad hoc governments or imperialistic incursions of the past, but on collaborative efforts like the Free Trade Agreement signed in 2003, participation in joint military exercises in the Pacific, and the Visa Waiver program that now allows Chileans to visit the US without the requirement of a visa, and permits US tourists to enter Chile without being charged the high prior reciprocity tax.
On the final night of our last reunion in Sedona, two years ago, on the twilight soothed patio of a cozy restaurant overlooking the iconic red rock hills surrounding the valley, emboldened by several rounds of margaritas (an inexact but worthy substitute for pisco sours) and in the euphoria of sincere long held friendships, a commitment was made to meet once more in Chile as a group, to commemorate our arrival there 50 years ago.
Of course these commitments made in the alcoholic din of friendly revelry call for assertive action, the type of action that often suffers from procrastination or distraction. But in this case an erstwhile “working group” took a 10-day scouting trip through southern Chile early this year, and the ideal site for our reunion Peace Corps Chile 50 Años was found in Frutillar, on the shores of Lago Llanquihue at the foot of the spectacular Osorno volcano. Coming together, full circle after 50 years, is an exciting thought. We shall again take the daylong cruise across the beautiful Lago Todos Los Santos, share in a typical Chilean asado, trek through the Valdivian mixed hardwood forest in one of Chile’s world class national parks, enjoy the new lakeside cultural and concert center Teatro del Lago, and explore the seafood markets of Puerto Montt and Angelmó. We will gather together, order another pisco sour (probably more), share another bottle of fine Chilean Cabernet sauvignon, remember our friends who are no longer with us, and remind ourselves how fortunate we were to have decided, way back in 1966, to begin the process that a year later would transport us to Chile and transform our lives.
[Comment: This blog, daveschile, has offered several stories about Peace Corps Volunteers in Chile: Will John Get His Groove Back?; The Peace Corps, Texas, and LBJ; Viva el Instituto Forestal; Celebrating 50 Years of the Peace Corps; Trovolhue High and Dry; The Three Sisters; Peace Corps in Chile – A Story of Friendship and Service; and Emilio and the Pulga”. These snippets depict what the lives of some Peace Corps Volunteers were like, and you will appreciate that our experiences, all very different, are hugely responsible for what we are like now and why we stay together over the years albeit separated again by great distances. They are still available in the Peace Corps section of the blog]
Posted on September 11, 2016, in Leesburg, Virginia.