Idealism wakes up in America

 


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.
High Country News Classifieds
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.