The strangeness, they will tell you, was not in the going, but in the coming back. It was then that the culture shock set in. After they came back from Colombia and Botswana, Ethiopia and Malaysia. It was then that they noticed things differently, felt themselves indelibly marked.
Carmine De Stasio is 26. He came back from two years in Lesotho, a small kingdom surrounded by South Africa, in 1978, 16 years after the first Peace Corps volunteer left for Ghana, ablaze with all the shining idealism that John F. Kennedy's proposal had sparked in them. Yes, he says, it was strange coming back from a place like Lesotho to confront his family and life as a stevedore on the New Jersey docks.
"My family was overwhelmed that I was back; they were very protective. They kept saying, 'Your dreams are over, you're back to reality.' And I thought, 'This is reality?' I had just been in a place where people live day to day wondering where they're going to get food that day. And here I am in a place where what people worry about is who shot J.R. It was weird." a
Yesterday about 2,000 of them convened at Howard University for a National Conference of Former Peace Corps Volunteers and Staff, a small slice of the more than 80,000 Peace Corps volunteers in the country. They came to the weekend conference to look at ways in which they could bring the Peace Corps experience home to America. But they were there in large measure to find old comrades and to rekindle the past, to "keep a connection we don't want to lose," and to hope for "a renewal of values," as one former put it.
They took comfort in the speeches that spoke the language of their old fervor: Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga talking of the Corps' "people-to-people program of building countries"; another speaker promising that things can change with "reason, sympathy and imagination." And they groaned when Peace Corps director Loret Ruppe told them that budget restrictions meant that operations in Korea, Colombia, Nicaragua and the Ivory Coast would close next year and the current total of 5,700 volunteers in the field would be reduced by 200.
The former volunteers had a different look to them somehow, less dressed for success, their identifying badges attached to faded dashikis and bright Guatemalan peasant shirts. For some of them it has been nearly 20 years since they set off, eager and innocent, to follow the call of a young president and to let their bountiful optimism spill over into the parched poverty and grim scratch for living in back country villages around the world, to confront what one of them called "the Oz factor -- the moment when you really know you're not in Kansas anymore." The times have tempered them, sent them in different directions, but still the bond between them was as intense as it was in the years in which it was forged.
"We're the only ones who understand what the others have been through," said Fred Thompson, president of the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. "They come back from this intensely personal experience, and no one cares, no one understands the frustration and anger."
Thompson himself was a volunteer in Turkey from 1967 to 1969, and he says it is different now for the volunteers who came later, for those who enlisted after Vietnam and Watergate. "The Peace Corps promised the world to me," he says. "Everything was possible. Now it's an entirely different era. Now it seems almost impossible to get a handle on the problems of the world. In some ways what we're celebrating here is the fact that the Peace Corps still exists."
Those who enlisted in the late '70s do seem to bring a different perspective to their experiences. "We aren't like the ones who went in the early '60s, the B.A. generalists who had no skills or experience, just the fervor of their idealism and desire to change the world," said Robert Ridinger, who worked as a librarian in Lesotho. "By the time we went, the countries were asking for people with more specific skills and experiences."
By the time the later crop of volunteers signed up, the motivation for enlisting had changed as well to include a rapidly shrinking spectrum of employment possibilities on the home front. The feelings of the good the volunteers might have done seems, correspondingly, more muted.
"You felt good in one way," said De Stasio, who taught woodworking to village high school students. "But there was always a catch. You could teach them to make something and then they wouldn't have the money to buy the tools they needed."