I am one of the thousands of returned Peace Corps volunteers that Chris Matthews of MSNBC predicted would support Barack Obama after he lit the fuse in Iowa. But I had already been tapped by Harris Wofford, a Kennedy-era warhorse and director of the Peace Corps program in Ethiopia, who is now stumping college campuses for Obama. About a month ago, Wofford announced that Obama’s message of hope and challenge was the only one that speaks to young Americans -- and old Peace Corps volunteers.
It will probably sound corny to young people, but 42 years ago, our Peace Corps group sang “Gonna Climb a Mountain” as we flew across the United States in an old DC-8 on our way to Turkey. And I once linked arms with a thousand folks and sang “We Shall Overcome” in a black Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. You don’t get that kind of tingle from a big check or new car.
I’ve been waiting decades for that feeling to come back, rejecting politicians from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton who’ve said that money and the profit motive are the best and most efficient means of organizing human societies. I’ve nothing against business and profit, but they never seemed the most important things in life. It probably started with my Minnesota Lutheran parents, who taught us that family, friends, church and a good education were important. Mom always worked, sang in community and church choirs, and taught Sunday school. We took to heart her story about the college scholarship she couldn’t use because she had to work full time.
The Depression got in the way of dad’s college education, too. He had jobs and several businesses, but what I remember most was his insatiable curiosity and all the magazines in the house -- Look and Life, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. There was a photo studio and darkroom in the basement where we created Christmas cards for the whole town, and a radio and TV repair shop took up a corner of the patio. We four kids went to college in part to make a living at secure jobs, but also to discover interesting work, to use our God-given minds. Two of us went to the Peace Corps.
It may have been an advertising cliché, but the Peace Corps was the “hardest job you’ll ever love.” I still laugh about my 22-year-old self and four other volunteers getting on a train in Ankara and heading out to remote villages in eastern Turkey with all of three months of training. It was supposed to be a 24-hour ride, but it became 48 hours after a train derailed ahead of us. So there we were in the middle of the night, packing our worldly belongings and CARE toolkits along a lantern-lit path to a train on the other side of the wreck. Each of us stayed for our two-year hitch, living with people who taught us their language, opened their lives to us and used us to help improve life in their villages.
I easily avoided going to Vietnam: I was 26 by the time they started drafting everyone, but I marched on the Pentagon in protest and supported what the Peace Corps tried to do around the world by testifying in Congress to this amazing fact: The Peace Corps budget for one year amounted to what we were spending in one day to fight the war in Vietnam. Eventually, I found a community development job with the Extension Service in Wallowa County,Ore.
The job was supposed to be a short break on the way back to some bigger work overseas or maybe back in Washington. But Milton Friedman’s laissez-faire economics, David Stockton’s trickle-down economics and corporate capitalism were making the wider world unpalatable. Meanwhile, in Wallowa County, I found that liberals and conservatives, Mormons and Methodists, could get together to make the 4-H program work. We could form basketball leagues, food co-ops, soccer programs and about the finest little ski run that anyone could ever want.
I skied it last Sunday, zipping down that hill with a couple of friends who’d helped build and maintain it. It seemed to me, as I dodged 6-year-olds on snowboards and moms guiding 3- and 4-year-olds down the hill, that it was almost as good as the idealistic fire lighted by Barack Obama.
Rich Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He directs Fishtrap gatherings for Western writers in Wallowa, Oregon.