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FORTY-FIVE YEARS IN THE MAKING: MY FIRST PEACE CORPS STORY

It will be 45 years on February 27, 2012, since I joined the Peace Corps and changed my life forever. All those many years ago I did not know much. The one thing I did know in those youthful days was that I was restless and wanted to go far away. I felt deeply that the moon, wind and stars were calling me to foreign lands. I also wanted to respond to the call President Kennedy made when he created the Peace Corps in 1962. Thus, it took me less than a heart beat to respond affirmatively to an invitation I received in late 1966 to serve for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras. I was thinking at the time that Honduras was in Africa and that was where I wanted to go. Yes, I did not know much back then.

I shocked many by dropping out of college less than one semester before graduation, quitting my job as night manager of the student union at Wichita State University, and leaving everything on a late night Braniff jet flight (my first) out of Wichita. I said goodbye to family and friends, and the people (Marshall Williams’ family) who had so generously provided me with a place to stay in those last days in Wichita. My good friend, Margaret Roberts, gave me a ride to the airport. A very excited young man, born and raised in Kansas, broke away from his roots and headed for unknown adventures.

I also did not have much. I boarded the plane with only small carry-on bag. The first stop was Chicago and, after a couple of hours in the airport there, I was supposed to go on to Philadelphia for three days of orientation before continuing to Puerto Rico (PR) for three months of training. Things did not go as smoothly as planned because Chicago had had its worst snowstorm in a century and the airport was closed. I spent 24 hours camped out in O’Hare Airport before going on to chilly Philly.

I met and bonded with other Peace Corps trainees bound for Honduras at Hotel Sylvania in Philly. We were vaccinated, briefed and ticketed for our onward leg to San Juan. Adrenaline was running high and I don’t think any of us slept during our three days in Philly. Many of us hung out in our spare time at a nearby pub called McGilligan’s. I met for the first time Dick Feutz (from Paris, Illinois) at this pub. Dick and I remain in touch to this day and we still talk about all of our adventures, especially about what we did after our two-year stint in Honduras (e.g., three months roaming around Europe and running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain in July 1969). This year we explored Kruger Park in South Africa together.

I’ll never forget how warm and nice it felt getting off the plane in San Juan. I took off my winter coat and tossed it into the first trashcan I saw and shouted: “I’ll never need a coat again!” Spirits were running high as we boarded the bus for the Peace Corps training center at Camp Crozier (this camp and another one, Camp Radley nearby, were named after the first two Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) to die in service in Columbia).

Camp Crozier was located south of Arecibo, near Utuado, in something of a rain forest.

There were 96 of us (I was the only Kansan) who got off the bus when we arrived at Camp Crozier but only 62 (only six girls) of us remained when it came time three months later to swear-in and board the bus for our onward assignment to Honduras. Yes, many did not survive the day and night onslaught of classes in everything from learning Spanish to castrating pigs. Also, the constant psychoanalyses imposed on us made many decide to drop out. Just living jammed in wooden cabins crammed with bunk beds in a place where nothing would dry was enough for many to ask for their ticket home. Of course, even fewer actually completed two years in Honduras.

I loved every moment of training and burnt the candle at both ends. The best part for me was being given a map of PR and being told to go a stay for some days in a place marked on the map. This was called a “live-in” and my destination was a place called Laguna that is located in the mountains of central PR. Part of the challenge was finding your own way there and I spent hours in a place half way up the mountain before I learned that I was in the wrong community. (A few words of Spanish went a long way but not always far enough.) I struggled on up the rough road and arrived in Laguna (strange name for a mountain top village) at night and slept on someone’s front porch the first night. This would be one of three visits to this village.

I got in trouble with training administrators because every time I would come back late from my “live-ins” and I expected to see a pink slip in my mailbox on the eve of our next live-in. (This is how some trainees were “de-selected,” i.e., you would come back from a live-in and some of your fellow trainees would be missing.) I especially got in trouble for coming back three days late from my third and last live-in. The Camp Director read me the riot act and I expected to be told to pack my bags but I was somehow allowed to stay in training. The Camp Director referred to me as a “high risk, high gain” trainee.

The reason I was late coming back from that last live-in was that I was busy trying to make a lasting contribution to Laguna. All along I was trying to think of something to make life less dull for the people of Laguna. They wanted a soccer field but the narrowness of the summit they lived on prevented the making of a soccer field. As far as I could see, Laguna had only enough space for the fine old sport of horseshoes. Therefore, I introduced this great game to the people of Laguna. (Please do not ask me where I got the horseshoes.) I wonder if the people of Laguna are still playing horseshoes today.

OK. Another reason for my late return from this third visit was that on my way back to camp I passed through Ponce where an annual festival was taking place and I could not resist joining in on all the fun. As I made my way through this joyous event I met up with Mary Jo Hernandez and she introduced me to her parents. They invited this poor Peace Corps Trainee to their mansion outside of Ponce for dinner and, later, as it was very late, they offered me a room for the night. Since it was a Saturday, I thought it would be all right to arrive back on Sunday to Camp Crozier. I was very wrong in thinking like this.

I arrived back at camp the next day happy as a lark but my spirited whistling stopped as soon as I entered my cabin (caseta 40). My bunkmates told me that I was in deep trouble. I was shocked to learn that camp administration was so worried about me that police authorities had been contacted and there was an all points bulletin out on me. Again, I found myself being yelled at by the Camp Director and again I thought my PC experience would be over before it even began. Somehow, I slipped through again by the finest of margins but I did have to spend several extra sessions with my Filpino-American psychologist explaining why I was such a daredevil. I was just a simple boy from Kansas enjoying his first time away from his past.

My PC career did almost come to an end, along with my life, twice during this three- month training. The first time was when I was learning a bit of construction work. I was holding back a big roll of reinforcement re-bar mesh while other trainees were trying to nail the ends of this roll down. The mesh slipped from their grip and whipped back at me, hitting me squarely in the head, knocking me out, but with the steel points grazing the sides of my head (the mesh was about 6” x 6”). If the mesh had hit me just a fraction of an inch to the left or right I would have been killed as one of the pointed ends would have been driven deep into my head.

In another instance my youthful exuberance almost got me drowned in the ocean near Arecibo. We got permission to go on an all night camp out on a beach near Arecibo. We made a campfire and drank a lot of PR rum. During the night a huge wave came in and washed all us about and some people were burned by the floating pieces of burning firewood. By morning the sea had settled and we found there was a new sandbar that allowed us to wade far out into the ocean. A few of us were about a kilometer out on this sandbar when another big wave came and knocked us about.

After we recovered our bearings, we found that the sandbar had also disappeared and, therefore, we began swimming for the shore. There was, however, a strong rip tide that kept us from getting much closer to the shore. As hard as I could swim, I could not get any closer to the shore and, then, my legs began to cramp up. I began to panic as I thought for sure that I was a goner. The last thing I remember before passing out was being slapped in the face by a buxom blond woman who was trying to calm and grab me. The next thing I recall was waking up laying face down on the beach vomiting up salt water. The woman who saved me was the Australian wife of another trainee. She was a professional swimmer and had worked as a lifeguard. I wish I could remember her name. We later learned that this was a dangerous beach and swimming was prohibited there.

After getting an X-ray to see if I had any salt water left in my lungs, I was again summoned before the Camp Director and given a last warning. He told me again that he was only letting me by because in his judgment I was a “high risk, high gain” type. He also said he could see a lot of positive things about me. He gave me high marks for my good class work and my voluntary participation in a U.S. Public Health experiment. (No matter that my gut has suffered all my life because of that experiment on sprue.)

The Public Health service wanted to carry out some tests on people who had never been to the tropics before. They were studying “sprue” (look it up in your medical dictionary) and wanted to confirm that you got sprue as soon as you entered a tropical environment. This experiment required that the participants swallow a metal object about the size of an acorn that was attached to a hollow tube. This object would follow your digestive tract and the doctors could tell when it got into your small intestine when a certain color of bile would come up and out of the tube.

Once they were sure that the object was in the intestine they would fit the end of the tube with a syringe and pull out quickly the stopper. This action would manipulate a blade in the object that would cut off a snippet of the inside of your intestine. Then, the hard part would come. They would have to pull the tube back out of your mouth. I had to do this three times and each time I almost passed out. This was a terrible thing to be put through! I did see under a microscope that the inside of my intestines did become progressively pinker and less hairy. Yes, once you go to a tropical zone, you get sprue.

We were the 8th group of Peace Corps Volunteers to train for assignment to Honduras. Each group that had gone before us had left some kind of monument in the camp that testified to their passage. In an attempt to outdo all previous groups, we erected a six-foot high concrete Christmas tree with a cut out in the middle in the shape of an upside down cross. I wonder if this monument and all the others still stand. Whatever happened to Camps Crozier and Radley? Given that thousands of “Kennedy’s Children” passed through these camps, they should qualify for the erection of some kind of national monument.

I feel bad that over the years I have lost track of all those I trained with nearly 45 years ago, especially my fellow bunkmates from Caseta 40. There were two bunkmates who made a career with USAID like I did: John Gelb and Eric Zallman. John retired some years ago and I have not heard from him since. Eric, who was in the top bunk above me, died about 15 years ago from a heart attack while serving as USAID’s Director to Peru.

By some miracle, the Kansas kid survived and in late May 1967 he was among the fresh PCV recruits bound for Honduras. (Of course, by this time, I knew Honduras is in Central America and not in Africa.) We stepped off the plane at the airport in Honduras’ capital, Tegucigalpa, wearing our best clothes (all guys had to wear a tie), and we were met by senior host government officials. We expressed our delight and respect by singing in our best Spanish the Honduran national anthem. After a few days of orientation in Tegucigalpa at Dona Mercedes Pension, we were given maps indicating the locations of our assigned communities and told to find our own way to the places we would be living for the next two years.

I was assigned as the first PCV to Nueva Ocotepeque, a community located near Honduras’ border with El Salvador and Guatemala. This was considered a remote site and I was told that it was because of my “high-risk/high-gain” nature that I was assigned to such a distant site. It took me three days of rough travel through the Honduran mountains to get there by using shoddy local transport. When I arrived there was nobody expecting me and the mayor of the town did not know quite what to do with me. It took me a few days to find a place to stay. I ended up living through thick and thin for two years with the family of Don Ernesto de Mejia. (I miss them.)

Many are the adventures I could recount (some of which should never be retold) about my two years in Honduras, but I’ll save all that for another time. For now, I’ll just say that things did not go well for Nueva Ocotepeque, as it was mostly destroyed in 1969 by the infamous “soccer war” with Honduras and remained a demilitarized zone for 20 years. I left Honduras very sad and joined Feutz and Buzz Tomasino (from Egg Harbor, New Jersey) for our grand tour of 12 European countries and the famous Festival de San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain. This was the adventure of a lifetime!

I returned home to Kansas in late September 1969 to find a military draft notice waiting for me. I was all set to find my real end in Viet Nam but, after showing the little old ladies (they were truly such) at the local draft board the record of all the tropical illnesses I had while serving with the Peace Corps in Honduras, I was given a physical deferment. I looked up Margaret Roberts but she was to be married in a few weeks time. I surprised everyone and in the spring of 1970 finished my Bachelor’s degree.

But I did not stay around for the graduation ceremony, as the biggest surprise yet was sprung on me. The Peace Corps had accepted my request to “re-up” for another volunteer tour in Togo, West Africa! I hitchhiked part of the way and took a bus on the last stretch to Philadelphia. I found myself again at Hotel Sylvania with another group of excited trainees, waiting to go to the Virgin Islands (VI) for three months of training before going on to our respective countries. I felt like I was back where I belonged and the VI is made out of all the stuff that creates fabulous dreams!

I finally arrived in Africa and the rest of what I would do in my life began when I stepped off the plane in Lome, Togo on September 20, 1970. On that date, a whole different, much longer and more complex story began, but its telling will have to wait until for another time. I pray that the good luck I have had in surviving so many close calls over so many years will continue until then.

Yes, I consider myself to be one of very lucky ones and I am happy to be still in a life that started nearly 45 years ago. One thing led to another and I have been fortunate to have had a long career in Africa with the Peace Corps, USAID and International Non-Governmental Organizations. I marked 41 years since my arrival in Africa on September 20, 1970, and I expect to be on the continent for some years to come. I have worked in, or visited, 53 African countries. People say that I was born in Kansas but made in Africa.blue star


AuthorMark G. Wentling spent nine years with the Peace Corps (Honduras, 1967-69; Togo, 1970-73; Peace Corps Staff, Togo, Gabon and Niger, 1973-76) before joining USAID in 1977. As a U.S. Foreign Service Officer he served in Niamey, Conakry, Lome, Mogadishu, Dar es Salaam and Washington, D.C before retiring from the Senior Foreign Service in 1996. Since his retirement he has worked for USAID as it Senior Advisor for the Great Lakes and Country Program Manager for Niger and Burkina Faso. He is a 1992 National War College Graduate. He has also worked in Africa for U.S. Non-Governmental Organizations and he is currently Country Director for Plan in Burkina Faso. On September 20, he marked 41 years since arriving in Africa in 1970. He has worked in, or visited, 53 African countries.

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