Today and tomorrow’s post (part two) is a short story that was written many years ago. We had decided it was too long for the blog, even in two parts, but since many of our readers are also writers, I think you won’t mind the length. ~Jeanne
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; hammered the molecules of blue air into something solid as ice to hold man and machine aloft and skim across the bumpy surface.
In some other reality pilots and navigators of the heavens probably do spectra-soundings of color and hue, the way old mariners sounded the nighttime and foggy channel bottoms sampling with buckets to fix their positions by mud color, or sand, or shells. These sky mariners in the elsewhere examine the debris in the buckets and ponder; arid Southwest: almost turquoise. Inland California: grey blue. Coastal: yellow hazy blue. But that was 1964. Perhaps the atmosphere has grayed these intervening years, the way my own mustache, eyebrows, and hair has shifted to bare metal silver.
But we were young in that country. The November 9, 1964, San Francisco airport terminal teemed with us. We milled around the gate that Sunday 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 carried more years, I thought to myself 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 shielding us from the din of steel-gray planes and scorching ash-gray runways cut by yellow stripes threading the distant taxiways to vanish in the heatwaves and hazy yellowblue 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 themselves.
We were an elite, the acceptance letter implied. 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. As a result the fast pulsebeat of waiting in the terminal became a political caucus. Probably most of us figured those others were likely to be awfully special, but secretly believed they 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 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, I thought, who were going off to India to teach the native 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 had been 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.
Trainees impressing one another
As the morning wore into early afternoon more of the India X peace corps trainees filtered in the waiting area from incoming flights, draining the rest of the country of heroes…..I hung around alone and tried to guess which 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 of whom 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. McCreary, I learned, was his name. David McCreary. At that moment I watched, listened to, studied a future friend for life for the first time.
Strangely vacant blue-eyed, lanky, ruddy faced and scarlet haired, a lady schoolmarm 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, and in some ways, a female counterpart to McCreary. There among all the others, I didn’t sense that Lillie 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, polished metal.
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 which never came.
Arrival in Honolulu
When eventually we arrived on the islands the alienation I felt was already rising. I didn’t like a lot of folks in those days, and I could tell I mostly wasn’t going to like 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 for the bags. An early test.
The husky young college gentlemen 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 while 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.
Hilo Training Center
During the next weeks the time passed quickly;…..language lessons, chicken house made from lava rock passed down hand to hand, chopping sugarcane in the fields for the thatched roof, a walking bridge made from downed palm trees, formal exercise, poultry disease classes, inoculations against the diseases of the distant east. I gradually came to know the other trainees, and they, me. I gradually found a few worthy of respect.
Somehow we found time to frolic in bluegreen waters under the bluewhite waterfall. We climbed the nearby cliffs and gazed into the swift discharge.
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.
One afternoon in a distance run, I began jogging beside the redhead, David. We outdistanced the whole crowd on a ten mile run, came in long before the rest. Found we weren’t appreciated for our efforts. Evidently it was intended to be something of a fellowship, team thing. The whole affair on the big island was a distance run, and David and I were already far behind.
That night, David and I went into Hilo and had a few beers, exchanging a few dreams, disappointments, and observations about the place and the people. We were young in that country.