Peace Corps, Texas and LBJ
Sometimes I wonder what the last 40 years of my life has been all about, what I might have done differently….what might have been. This wondering is usually nothing more than a meandering of thoughts, brought back to reality by bills to pay, doctor’s appointments to worry about, and lots of friends and a lovely family to be with. But recently an unlikely event brought an unusual degree of clarity to me on where I have been, and why. This event was a reunion of 16 members of the Chile27 Peace Corps group that arrived in Chile in late 1967 (and 7 spousal gems found after leaving Peace Corps service). This group has had several reunions, including one in 2007 in Chile to commemorate 40 years since our introduction to each other, to service, and to the lovely country and people of Chile.
San Antonio, Texas, was chosen as the site for this reunion in 2010, hosted by Jane and Neal, who joined the Peace Corps as a married couple and who returned to Houston to raise a family. They love Texas, country music, Mexican culture, and Lone Star beer, and they have attended every reunion the group has held. For some of us who were single volunteers in Chile, Jane and Neal were (and in a way still are) kind of like our parents….a bit older, rather stable in their relationship, and comforting when times were tough (Jane made a smashing southern fried chicken). So the theme of our 2010 reunion in San Antonio was more or less Texas/Mexican food, Texas music, and renewed camaraderie on the Riverwalk.
For three days we talked, walked, visited the Missions outside of the city (the fully restored San Jose mission was especially interesting), heard how “defeat” can really be “victory” at the Alamo, drank way too many margaritas and Lone Star beers (well, I guess we still agree you can never have TOO many), and shared our pasts and our presents during several wonderful dinners. Around the pool at the hotel, in the breakfast room, and, when all else failed, in Jane and Neal’s room where the Chilean pisco and vino had been stashed, we talked about our kids and grandkids, our accomplishments, past adventures and planned trips.
We silently and sadly remembered our departed buddies Jaime and Charlie.
This was a lot like past reunions, really, except this one began to feel different to me. There was more talk about the folks we worked with and knew in Chile. We expressed desires to get back to see the ones who are still alive, and concerns about how the big earthquake in February might have affected them and their families. There was lots of talk about what we did as volunteers and we discussed the same concerns about the role of the Peace Corps in general and the US role in Chilean politics, then and now. Someone even suggested we should all join up again as Pc volunteers, but we concluded that probably we could neither pass the physical exam nor live on $95/month again. But what really made this reunion different for me was the combination of the three-day discussion with my longtime Peace Corps colleagues of 40 years, many of whom are to this day my very best and closest friends, followed by a subsequent three day visit to Texas Hill country about an hour or so to the northwest of San Antonio.
Settled by German immigrants, the area around Fredericksburg, Texas, welcomes visitors with good beer, great sausages, and very comfortable Bed and Breakfast lodging. But more importantly, it is a stone’s throw from Luckenbach (“where everyone is someone”), and the LBJ ranch. Our visit to the latter of these landmarks created in me a deep understanding of the issues we all grappled with as young Peace Corps volunteers in Chile, and still, as we begin to see “The light at the end of the tunnel” of our lives.
The LBJ National Historical Park includes LBJ’s birthplace, the small single room schoolhouse in which he first taught as a young educator and where the Headstart legislation was signed and first Headstart program initiated, the cemetery where LBJ, “Lady Bird”, and relatives are buried, and the Ranch (Summer Whitehouse) itself. You can’t visit these landmarks without remembering the excitement of LBJ’s attempts to create the “Great Society”, ideas and ideals that motivated, in part, our interest in joining the Peace Corps, learning about other cultures, and service. The birthplace, the cemetery, the schoolhouse, and especially the LBJ ranch are all expressions of modesty, simplicity, and down-home values. I was reminded why LBJ is, to this day, the US President in my lifetime I most associate with. As we visited this place, I couldn’t help thinking way back to the late 1970’s, realizing that this is what our Peace Corps service was about. We were motivated by the desire to help others, and grow as global citizens ourselves in the process.
But after reviewing, reliving, and lauding LBJ’s landmark social programs, our tour CD broke the spell and reminded us of the other side of LBJ’s administration, and the unavoidable other dimension to our Peace Corps service….the Viet Nam war. And I was forced to admit that even my favorite President was way away from perfect. Many of us had few options as we left college in 1967. It was either military service (and surely action in southeast Asia), or one of the legitimate alternative service or educational options, of which Peace Corps service was one. The Viet Nam war brought LBJ’s political life, and with it many of his worthy programs and goals, to a quick end, as well as a worse and final fate for so many of our brothers, friends, and young fellow Americans (and Vietnamese). Sad, but true, peaceful social change, international development and understanding, and our lives fell victim to the bipolar confusion of creating the Great Society and executing the Viet Nam war.
LBJ’s life-long partner, Lady Bird, exercised subtle but powerful influence over her husband, and over our society. Her legacy wildflower program came from a heartfelt desire to share the beauty of her Texas home with everyone she could. This expression of her desire to give, rather than to take, endures today, and a visit to the wildflower Seed Farm down the road between the LBJ ranch and Fredericksburg is a visual memorial to this wonderful lady. There is a bedroom pillow at the LBJ ranch embroidered with words that happily link Lady Bird with me and my Peace Corps group:
“I slept, and dreamed that life was beauty. I awoke and found that life was duty.”
As I gather together all I heard from my Peace Corps colleagues during our reunion in San Antonio, their successes in business, their personal lives, trials and tribulations (and there have been many) their plans and late-life dreams, I can’t help but conclude that we will always be balancing our desires for peace, a healthy educated world, and prosperity all around, with the reality of our “need” (or is it “fate”) to go to war, sapping our strength, our treasure, and our idealism in the process. But for a week in late spring, in Texas, a group of wonderful people, friends all, shared thoughts about our time in Chile as Peace Corps volunteers, a time and place in our lives when we chose Peace.
Written on June 7, 2010, in McLean, Virginia.