Poland RPCV Troy Headrick writes: Peace Corps Volunteers have historically been viewed as eccentrics or idealistic, hippie types who were out to save the world
I call myself a freak because that's what I am. According to Dictionary.com, a "freak" is "a person or animal on exhibition as an example of a strange deviation from nature." Lots of people who know me and are familiar with my way of living would argue that my lifestyle is certainly unnatural (to say the very least).
Here's the deal: Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV) have historically been viewed as eccentrics or worse by far too many Americans. This is perhaps due to the fact that the organization, early on, was made up of idealistic, hippie types who were out to save the world, and thus they were seen to epitomize the sort of bleeding heart liberals that your average Joe and Jane American Citizen, with their tendency to be fairly conservative and isolationist, find so repulsive.
This general attitude about Peace Corps Volunteers still exists and has been made clear to me on any number of occasions, but never so blatantly as the time Mike Wilson's parents came to visit him in Poland. Mike was my closest PCV buddy during those two glorious years of service. He was stationed in a town not too far away from Tarnów, the city where I was living. During our second summer as volunteers, his parents flew over from Kansas to visit him and have a look at his adopted home. As might be expected, my best friend was keen for me to meet his folks; thus, on a warm afternoon in August, I hopped on a train and traveled to Krakow where the three of them were sightseeing. After disembarking, I met Mike and his parents in the main market square in the city center and then we all went out for dinner.
Suddenly, in the middle of a wonderful meal of traditional Polish food, Mike's mother, a nice woman in every respect, turned to me and said, "You Peace Corps people are just a little different, aren't you? I mean, it takes a very unusual kind of person to live like this, all the way over here, in these conditions. Let's be honest, it's just not as modern here as it is back home. I mean, there are easier and more lucrative things you could be doing in America. Know what I mean?"
I certainly did understand what she was saying. There was nothing ambiguous about her message. And she was right. There were other easier and more lucrative things that Mike and I could have been doing, but neither one of us wanted easier and lucrative.
What we wanted, on the other hand, was the struggle, the sense of mission, the feeling of being personally and professionally fulfilled, and the authenticity of the experience of building bridges across national and cultural divides. And, on top of all that, we felt wonderfully purified by our simple (i.e., materially poor) lifestyles. Mike's parents -- though I have to give them credit for honestly listening to me that evening -- just found it impossible to get their minds fully around all that I was saying.
It was partly because while I was speaking they were thinking that you can't put self-fulfillment in the bank and partly because the vast majority of mainstream, middle-class Americans believe in something called "the American Dream," which teaches all good boys and girls that they should clamor after all the things that Mike and I seemed to have rejected, thus making us first-class weirdoes. Read more.
Judy Henry moved from New York City to Rowe, New Mexico in 1970 to become a hippie on the advice of her friend, Helen Thompson, with whom she had been in the Peace Corps in Ecuador
Caption: Judy Henry sings with friends Kate Moses, right, of Santa Fe, and Bee Zollo, left, of Eldorado at a hippie reunion at Henry’s home in Rowe. The event marked the 34th anniversary of the arrival of hippies in the community southeast of Santa Fe.
Judy Henry moved from New York City to Rowe, New Mexico in 1970 on the advice of her friend, Helen Thompson, with whom she had been in the Peace Corps. “She said, ‘Come to Rowe. It’s just like Ecuador but there is running water in the house,’ ” Henry remembered. So she came, driving a mail truck across the country with her then husband, getting hassled by the cops in every state along the way. She was 25 years old. “They called us hippies, but I never called myself a hippie,” Henry said. “We were just trying to get away from a crazy world. I was sick of what was going on. Like I am now, but I’m older now.”
She’s since learned to embrace the term. Saturday — on her 60th birthday — she threw a party. The flier said: “celebrating 34 years of hippies in Rowe.” It had all the markings of a hippie celebration. Bumpy dirt road to funky adobe house? Check. Potluck spread? Check. Peace, love and hot tubbing with your friends? Check. Many of the women wore their “hippie costumes:” denim cutoffs, braids, flowers in their hair. “I saved this dress from 1976,” one said. “I saved this body since 1976 and I’m still wearing it,” joked another. “My breasts too, nothing added, nothing taken away.”
“It was hard when I moved to Boston. There was a whole hippie fad and it was all based on what you where wearing,” she said. “I used to get really aggravated because I knew being a hippie was about living on the land and living simply, not jumping out of your Range Rover with your handmade clothes and your patchouli.” Henry is a Hospice nurse. She lives part time in Santa Fe, but still cooks on her wood stove when in Rowe. She doesn’t have any regrets about being a New Mexico hippie. Like many of the people at the party, Henry sees parallels between the political climate of the late 1960s and the political climate now. “If I was the same age now as I was then, I would do the same thing,” she said. “ I would drop out. Take myself away from the mainstream. I don’t like it. I don’t approve of it. I don’t want to be part of a war machine.” Read more.
Help! Our son wants to join the Peace Corps! As we recall from the 1960s, that's mostly a bunch of hippies or druggies wasting time instead of working.
Wow, it sounds as though your son was born about 30 years too late, for when the Peace Corps was first on the scene, it was thought of as a terribly important and generous way to help less fortunate people while at the same time seeing the world -- or at least an unfamiliar and interesting community. Now, in the face of a greedier time, we are expected to gravitate toward the higher-paying, prestige-loaded job at the expense of doing good.
I think it would be very big of you to support your son's decision. Remember, the Peace Corps is a limited assignment, and it might help him clarify his life's path, as there are valuable lessons to be learned in this type of foreign affair. After his service is done, there is plenty of time for him to go the corporate route, if that is the right one for him. I think you should be proud of your son for his independent thinking and altruistic spirit. Regardless of what first job he chooses, it will be a time of learning and self-discovery, as well as a period of forming values. He obviously doesn't care much for yours. And perhaps you should take a look at why not. Read more.