Stormy and I have met several people who were in on it at the beginning. They heard “The Peace Corps Speech” in person.
It was at the University of Michigan in 1960, when then-presidential candidate Senator John F. Kennedy laid down a challenge to young people, to serve their country and promote the cause of peace by working in developing countries around the world. That, and vote for him. It would be good for the young people, good for people in other countries, and good for America’s image abroad.
Our friend Randall, whom we met since moving to Denver, was one of them. He joined up right out of U-M, working in one of the first groups to go to Nigeria. Another friend, Bertina, who was then a grad student and young mother, had her hands full at the time but filed the thought away for later use: “Some day I’m going to do that.” After her children had grown up and had their own families, and she could consider a break from a busy work life, she put her grandma-ing on hold and joined up in 2002. She was, as we were, part of a growing number of older people choosing the Peace Corps as a challenge in later years, a change of pace, or just as a fun and hopefully worthwhile thing to do.
It wasn’t in the University of Michigan speech but rather in his inaugural address that Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” That challenge has been merged, over these many years, with the idea of Peace Corps service and has shaped and colored many lives. People working together for the good of the country and the world.
For Stormy and me, chancing upon a Peace Corps recruiting event as we were starting to consider retirement, the possibilities jumped up unexpected. Wow! What’s that? Could we? The old idea met us where we were and dared us — dared us! — to shake off inertia and dull contented comfort.
“The Peace Corps! So they’re still around — who knew? It always seemed like an exciting thing that young people could do, back in the sixties when we all first heard about it. Peace, man. Have a flower.” — Breeze, p. 5
Buncha hippie kids. Well, in retrospect, not really. The young people in our group, mostly just out of college, were as serious and committed as anyone could be, and had a good time meeting the challenges involved. The older ones of us, the Elders I should say, sometimes had a hard time keeping up in language learning and maybe in some of the physical challenges, but we had other advantages that balanced things out. Dealing with bureaucracy, for example, came easier for those of us with a few years on us than for the “kids” who hadn’t spent a lifetime doing taxes, filing for permits, working for (or against) big companies, or just being out on our own. The respect naturally accorded elders in many foreign cultures was another advantage. Besides, as we learn when we gain in years, bruises, and wisdom, “We may be slow, but we’re wily.”
Of course, it wasn’t really “the toughest job.” I like that cute slogan though. I have a T-shirt, from the association of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, that shows someone stretched out in a hammock under a palm tree and the slogan amended to “Still the toughest job I ever loved.” Funny. We had it pretty easy, teaching English to kids who mostly wanted to learn it, forming lasting friendships and learning new ways of thinking, and doing the occasional bit with youth clubs and an orphanage. But still, it was a life-changing experience. I do recommend it, for people both young and old.
“The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love”
And stars reshaping into doves
The Peace Corps! (Are they still around?)
I simmered with the thought I’d found.
At my age, no! Don’t be absurd.
No way a star can be a bird.
But still the challenge beckoned me
With more years gone than yet to be.
I’ve done it all, I smugly thought.
I’ve bought and sold and learned and taught.
I’ve sailed and flown and danced and run
And lain for hours in the sun.
Been shot at, cussed at, spit at and bit,
Jumped from a plane. The thrill of it
Seems shallow now that I have grown
But these are memories all my own.
But years go by and so does life
Mortgage, carpool, love my wife
Could we? Might we? Dare we go?
It’s so unlike us! Never!
Now time speeds up, and days grow cold
I face the music, growing old.
Goals achieved, mistakes I’ve made
What will last and what will fade?
“Ask not…” the charge that bid me go
To work the fields and plant and sow
The seeds of hope in distant lands
With grateful smiles and willing hands.
That’s what will last, the sweat and smiles,
A welcomed hand across the miles
To meet the goals, to heed the call.
I loved the toughest job of all.