Copyright©2003 Jack Purcell
Sky mariners in some other reality probably navigate as old mariners here sounded the nighttime and foggy channel bottoms sampling with buckets to fix their positions by mud color, or sand, or shells. They’d examine the debris in buckets and ponder; arid southwest: almost turquoise. Inland California: grey-blue. Coastal: yellow hazy blue. But that was forty years ago. Maybe the atmosphere has grayed during these decades, the way my own mustache, eyebrows and hair has shifted to bare metal silver.
1964, blue on blue, I tunneled through tints and shades of airy void from the New Mexico desert to arrive in San Francisco several hours ahead of my outbound rendezvous. The old DC3 clubbed the air dizzy and crawled over the unconscious body getting me to the coast. Those blunt wings hammered the molecules of blue air into solid ice to hold man and machine aloft and skim across the bumpy surface.
But we were young in that country. The November 9, 1964, San Francisco Airport Terminal teemed with Peace Corps Volunteers. We milled around the gate awaiting our flight to Hawaii.
Ten more days and I’d be a full 21, a legal man. Full of mature, critical appraisal I skulked the waiting area; studied the rosy cheeks and sunny attitudes; the strapping young adults I knew I’d spend the next piece of my life among. Though some were older than me they were mostly kids.
I watched those youngsters straight-on for a while until they noticed. Then I shifted and gazed covertly at the reflections from the plate glass window/wall of our capsule. Those windows were all that separated us from the din of steel-gray planes and scorching ash-gray runways. Silent planes vanished into the heat waves and hazy yellow blue skies.
I pretended to read my book and scrutinized my soon-to-be-companions out of the corners of my eyes; strained to hear the dribble of their conversations which each seemed to say, “I’m a neat person. I’m worthy of this.” Some, I could surmise, tacitly agreed to allow certain others to be as neat as them.
We were elite, the acceptance letter assured us. Only one of every forty applicants, the letter whispered, were accepted for the intensive preparation to save the poor in hungry backward lands. We were all riding on the bobsled thrill of those flattering words. The resulting fast pulse beat of waiting in the terminal became a political caucus. Probably most of us figured those others were likely to be special, but secretly believed the Peace Corps made a mistake in letting our particular selves in.
The candidates talked films; of Viradiana, of Antonioni, of Fellini and of a Swede who made foreign films in those days. Of Existentialism. Talked about the beatnik poets. All so serious. What’s your major? Where did you get your degree? I pondered the words, scowling to myself.
I could see these mostly weren’t my kind of folks. I’d scraped and cheated to get a high school diploma several years earlier, did three years in the US Army. Hitch-hiked across the country several times, been in jail more than once. Sweated under a blazing sky in dozens of hellish jobs that didn’t carry any prestige in these circles of toy-people. Now we were going off to India to teach the natives how to raise chickens. Bouncing off through rainbow skies bearing the weight of the white man’s burden to teach a culture older than our God how to raise poultry. But we were young in that country,
I felt uncomfortable in my snazzy dark suit with narrow lapels. My only suit. It was the leading edge of fashion when I bought it for $20 a couple of years earlier in Boston. The pencil thin blue tie with gold flecks felt awful on my neck, and worse as I became conscious of the width of ties the others were wearing.
As the morning wore into early afternoon more of the India X Peace Corps trainees filtered into the waiting area from incoming flights, draining the rest of the country of heroes. I hung around alone and tried to guess which of the waiting passengers were trainees, and which were just transients.
I gazed at the women who were obvious volunteers, wondering whether any Peace Corps taboos would stand between me and female companionship during the next few months. I idly checked out the prospects. Most didn’t bear up under a lot of scrutiny. Rules of training could make for a long dry spell, and the fraternity boys were already busy staking out their campsites among the curly haired Goldiloxes of the crew.
Eventually, I noticed a lean, freckle-faced red-headed Irish looking chap hanging around watching, same as I was. He wasn’t mingling with the other selectees much, and he appeared gangling and awkward. I smiled to myself, musing, probably feeling superior. Just as I felt somehow superior to all these fresh-scrubbed college folks off to slum among the huddled masses. Labor, I learned, was his name. Rex Labor. At that moment I watched, listened to, and studied a future friend for life for the first time.
A lady schoolmarm, strangely vacant blue-eyed, lanky, ruddy faced and scarlet haired, from Virginia caught my focus. I heard her tell someone she was an English teacher. Lillie Rogers. Lillie Belle Rogers, I learned later. No raving beauty, but a touch of class, presence, bearing. Straight and tall. I sensed an underlying tinge of bitterness in her manner.
Sometime later it came to mind, a female counterpart to Labor. I didn’t sense that Lillie Belle would be the lady of this group I’d come to know best. I’d have rejected that notion, then. Lillie Belle Rogers. A long, sensuous neck ahead of Nancy Philson and Priscilla Thomas in a dead heat. Women I wouldn’t have picked for myself that day in the San Francisco airport. But in a few weeks, the training gave everyone a chance to show their mettle. Or their fluff. For those three and a few others, it was bare stainless-steel.
The flight to Oahu was long…..I was seated next to a tough blonde named Georgia Grover…..nice humor, vaguely pretty, and I began laying what I hoped was groundwork for later. Foundations for things to come but never came.
When we arrived on the islands I was already feeling a rising alienation from the group. I didn’t like a lot of folks in those days, and I could tell I wasn’t going to like most of these. The chaos leaving the main terminal created visible stress among the Chosen. We had half a mile or so to walk to the Hawaiian Airlines Terminal and the next jump to the big island. No transportation from one terminal to the other for the bags. An early test.
Husky young college gents struggled with their own bags and staggered in macho competition to help the attractive ladies. Mr. and Mrs. Eebie, the elderly retired couple of the group shuffled along behind with the jaded males and less attractive females. The girly girls and ex-twirlers chattered across the tarmac admiring the white man and his burden. Georgia Grover shrugged away the offers of help and shouldered her own bags. Most likely, Lillie Rogers, Priscilla Thomas, and Nancy Philson never had the offer.
Time passed quickly during the next weeks. Four hours a day devoted to language lessons. We built chicken house made from lava rock passed down hand to hand; chopped sugarcane in the fields for the thatched roof. Downed palm trees and built a walking bridge. The remainder of our days were spent in formal exercise, poultry disease classes, and getting inoculations against the diseases of the distant east. I came to know the other trainees, and them, me. I found a few worthy of respect.
Somehow we found time to frolic in blue green waters under the blue white waterfall of Rainbow Falls. We climbed the nearby cliffs and gazed into the discharge spray below the falls. And late one afternoon I found myself with Lillie whispering from a cradle of limbs in a huge banyan tree near the falls; lips brushing ear and neck to be heard above the cascading clamor of falling water. Forms and futures swirled in clouds studied through a break in the green umbrella.
Competition was a strong component of the training. A thin-line between competition and popularity. We were advised on arrival that most of us wouldn’t make the final grade. We’d be expected to excel but we’d be subject to constant scrutiny and weeding by the staff and in the end we’d also be rated by our peers. They wanted ‘team-players’. Roughly half of us wouldn’t make it.
One afternoon in a distance run I found myself beside the redhead, Rex. We outdistanced the whole crowd on a ten mile run, came in long before the others. Found we weren’t appreciated for our efforts. Evidently the run was intended to be something of a fellowship, team thing. Labor and I didn’t hear the message. The whole affair on the big island was a distance run, and Rex and I were neck and neck for last place.
That night, Rex and I went into Hilo and had a few beers, exchanged a few dreams, disappointments, and observations about the place and the people. We were young in that country.
Mid-selection was coming in that beautiful land, and before it arrived, I was fairly certain I would be one of the deselectees. I was also fairly certain Labor would be. Neither of us fit in. We were different, even from the others I thought would be deselected. By that time we’d been through the Minnesota Multi-phased Personality Test. The rumor was you couldn’t even lie consistently on that one, except they could sniff you out, flush you like quail in the cool dawn. I knew I was doomed.
The morning before selection time the staff added the final horror. Humiliation and forced betrayal. The peer ratings. We’d been warned and knew they were coming but they still came hard.
Question: Here is a list of your fellow trainees. Top to bottom, list the people you consider most equipped for the task of Peace Corpsman, down to least favorable. Top to bottom, which do you like the most. Down to whom you like the least. And so on. Sell your young souls, trainees; young Americans. We won’t accept the papers back until you’ve listed them all, every white space above a black line filled with a name of someone you’ve spent the last two months learning to admire or scorn.
I was angry as I watched 80 eyes probe the room checking names against faces. I worked out my own strategy, locked eyes, whenever I could. I reversed the list they wanted. Picked the weakest and least liked for my Ajax and Penelope. Threw the leaders to the dogs. With my own name at the pinnacle, of course. But I knew the exercise was futile.
Even so, I was crushed when my name came out on the list of get-outs. I didn’t notice how the others reacted, and I don’t remember much about the time between the boot and the airplane. I do know that somewhere in there, I decided I wasn’t going back to the mainland. Somewhere during that time Rex made a similar decision.
The rain was falling sideways when we got off the plane in Honolulu. Big Joe Weiss, Korean War marine was with us on the plane to Oahu. He listened to our dreams and talked quietly of staying in the islands with us. He was as crushed as I was about being given the shove. But in the terminal building, he couldn’t look at either of us as he told us he was going on to the mainland. I could see that big Joe was limping inside, hurting. Maybe worse than I was, with all my bravado.
Rex and I had a notion about catching a sailing boat, heading for Australia or New Zealand. We had a couple of hundred bucks each, guts, energy, and no promises to keep. We’d signed on for a two year stint in Injia, and Injia belched us back. We were a bolus flying out the mouth of someone who’s just had the Heimlich performed unexpectedly during an aborted dying incident.
We spent a few precious bucks on a taxicab…..told the driver we wanted the cheapest hotel he knew of. It was the Huna Hotel, he took us to. Twelve bucks a night. But we were young in that country.
The rain continued through the night, and we emerged from the room still full of energy and bravado….we were taking big steps, making deep tracks in our future lives…..we thought we were about to make big tracks on the land, as well.
We picked up a newspaper looking for boarding houses……Rex found one belonging to a Japanese lady named Matsushige….he wrote down the address as I looked over his shoulder….wrote on the classified page of the newspaper…..2323 East Manoa Road.
We took a city bus, carrying our bags, our belongings from the dead Peace Corps experience, and got off at the confluence of East Manoa and Manoa Road. The driver pointed a direction for us. But at 2323, our knock was answered by a man who appeared to be dressed in a pair of WWII Japanese uniform trousers. He curtly explained that he didn’t know what the hell we wanted, didn’t want to know. Didn’t appreciate our disturbing his home, his morning.
We walked to Manoa and looked….nothing made any sense.
So, we found a pay phone and Rex called the number from earlier…..wrote 2319 on the newspaper. Hung up the phone, turned puzzled from the booth. “Twenty-twee twenty twee?” I still burst out in laughter every time I think of that incident four decades later. I can still see him turning puzzled from the booth muttering, “Twenty-twee twenty-twee?”
We settled in at Matsushige’s that day, a second floor room with two bunks, 4 feet or so apart, parallel, a desk between the two at the head. Shared the john with some other roomers….settled in young, full of bravado, full of dreams.
Next day we went looking for work. Rex took a newspaper and headed down to check out the openings on Waikiki…..I headed for the bars on Hotel Street looking for a job or a hooker to prime me for my job search. Tomorrow I’d go down to Waikiki to find my busboy job at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Today I had more pressing matters.
In a while, I came to a booth with a pretty gypsy lady; flirted a bit, talked around the issue. Was certain she was a hooker. Finally, she demanded, “You want a gypsy good-time?”
“Yeah! A gypsy good-time!”
She took me into an attached room with nothing but a cot, sat me down. “$10″….she took my money and assured she’d be back in a moment. I sat there and knew when she brought in a snaggle-toothed crone that I’d just lost a sawbuck for another of my lessons in life.
“Here it is! A gypsy goodtime!” She and the crone danced back and forth in front of me, all of us laughing. My life has been rich in gypsy good-times. I’ve been a man wealthy in gypsy good-times, but that one was best. A gypsy-good time when the coconuts fell beside us and mangos piled high under the trees blocking the sidewalks where Rex and I grumbled in our cots picking off sunburned skin to throw to the giant roaches. We were young in that country.
We stayed in touch with a few of the trainees still on the big island. Lillie and I wrote and sometimes talked by phone. We made plans to meet in Oahu after final selection whether she went on to India or not. Nancy Philson and Priscilla Thomas came through a few days ahead, voluntarily dropped from the group. An evening of drunken revelry on hotel street and they were off to the future.
I met Lillie at the airport with the other triumphant survivors. Chianti, baby gouda cheese, and a rented jeep, and we made long and easy love on the beaches in sight of Chinamans Hat, Hanuama Bay, the Blowhole, toward the end, pounding surf spraying the moonlight. Her red hair tickled my face as we idled the jeep down the inland spine of Oahu, back to Honolulu.
Next night, the gin mills of Honolulu and Hotel Street. Lillie’d never seen a stripper….I took her to a place I’d been a few nights previously with Nancy and Priscilla. The best I’d ever seen, her veils of blue velvet, blue chiffon.
They boarded the plane, and India X was off to save the world from hunger, from savage restraints, from a historic dearth of fowl in their diets. Off to Gujarat.
In a while, I flew back to the big island and went into the jungle off the Kohala range, thinking to become a hermit, thinking to die there. While I was gone Rex met a Japanese Hawaiian girl named Janice and flew back to the mainland with her.
In six weeks I came out of the jungle, in a maelstrom of roiling grey blue clouds. I’d met myself for the first time. I finally had seen myself; also seen God in that quiet forest. I knew I had more to do.
Years later while he was in the Marine Corps Rex’s kids came to be among my favorite children….Janice, an object of my deep respect. From a distance I watched those kids and admired Rex and Janice as parents and friends. Their marriage gasped to an end before the 20th century finished wiggling.
Today Rex’s in Seattle, trying to find what he should do with his life. Searching for the greatest gypsy good-time of them all. And I wait for the moment I’ll return to the woods as I did so many years ago beneath a savage sky in some country of youth and springtime. Give me, Powers of the Universe, the springtime but spare me the youth.
Copyright©2003 Jack Purcell