Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Peace Corps, part 2

Above: with my friend Dick Kimmins at his mother's house in Springfield, Tennessee, 1965.

I left you yesterday secure in the knowledge that at the age of 34 I had finally found myself a permanent job. I've made previous reference to a period of "floundering," making do with that state via TM, etc. Since I've come this far, it seems now I should tell you about some of the things that led up to this celebratory landing of mine, finally, on my feet.

I never had the slightest idea what I wanted to "be." Growing up, I "enjoyed" things: writing, music. Languages. But these were simply external activities, things that grew out of innate talents from which for some reason I never imagined making a living. I've given much thought over the years where this ambivalence about jobs came from. It could be from my father--he had a successful journalism career, but his essentially pessimistic nature never seemed to make him very excited about it, or proud of it. He seldom brought his work home; he communicated no enthusiasm to me about how he made his living. I grew up thinking a job was just a means to a life, a necessary thing everybody had to do in order to keep body and soul together. With that as a model, the question of what to "be" became redundant. I already "was" something. I was me! Somehow that seemed enough. Skills and interests seemed periferal, just extensions of Me. "Me" would get by somehow. That's how life was lived.

The permanent backdrop for all of this was the military draft. It was always there looming as I was growing up. It scared the heck out of me from my first awareness of it, and as Viet Nam first appeared on the horizon and then grew, it became less and less a desired option. So there was at least something I could point to and know I didn't want to be: a soldier.

The Peace Corps was begun in 1961, when I was 15, and all of a sudden I had something I really enjoyed imagining myself being: a Peace Corps volunteer. It was a relief finally to have a goal. The idea remained in the back of my mind through my high school years and into college. There, Joe Kimmins, the older brother of my dorm neighbor and best friend, Dick, took a big-brother interest in me and adopted me as an intellectual pen pal. It was the Kimminses in general and Joe in particular who taught me how to think and planted the seeds of adulthood in me. In the course of our correspondence, in 1965, Joe told me he was applying to the Peace Corps. If I ever needed confirmation that my own idea had been a good one, there it was. Joe went to Morroco in 1966 and I read his letters voraciously, identifying with every second of his two-year service. My own chance inevitably came and I took it as a matter or course, fighting Uncle Sam's other ideas all the way but in the end, succeeding.

And then it was over. In 1972 I was 26 years old and the one goal I had set for myself, being a Peace Corps volunteer, was behind me. There was no "next"; I was right back where I started before the Peace Corps had been invented, at zero. The obvious answer was to get a job with the Peace Corps, but that seemed like a copout at the time. I had a mantra: "there has to be life after the Peace Corps."

In college, I had changed majors literally every semester, finally landing on French in my junior year because I liked it and it was easy. (Not French education, mind you. Just French language and literature. I added no practical skill to the merely social one of making conversation in another language. The thought of teaching for a living was not appealing.) I gravitated to the music department to make friends and music and had a wonderful time there. But again. Me, a music teacher??? Please.

Everyone expected that I would be an entertainer because that's what I was best at. I like standing on a stage, I love an audience, and I had the requisite pretty singing voice to make standing there meaningful. So after the Peace Corps, I decided that's what I would do. I had begun writing music in preparation for a career. I went to Boston with that express purpose, and set about things. I auditioned at a Back Bay coffee house and was picked up for a weekly gig. It was at that point I made a pivotal discovery: I had no ambition. I still liked singing and the communion with the audience, but I realized much more than that was necessary. You needed boundless ego. You had to want to make yourself a product, like sliced cheese. Just digging down into myself to find the spiritual wherewithal to perform was a huge chore after being dead all day, marking maps for the AAA, and, worse, that deadening job was paying the bills, not the music.

With mix of guilt, disappointment and relief, I gave up the gigs. I sang at parties for friends and was still known as the Guitar Man, but I no longer tried to pretend I had it in me to pursue a show business career. I went back to that familiar old acquaintance, zero, and kept marking maps. Boston friends, meanwhile, knew how frustrated I was, sitting there with AAA green ink-stained fingers, fresh from that life-changing Peace Corps experience, and asked me the obvious question: "why aren't you recruiting for the Peace Corps???" The mantra just repeated itself: "there has to be life after the Peace Corps."

Out of nowhere one gray, cold, Boston April day, my old college friend, Dick Kimmins, gave me a call. By then he had left Lexington, where we had gone to school together, for Louisville. He told me that the local PBS station was auditioning entertainers for a childrens's show they were going to produce and I should come and try out. Hmmm...another stab at this game? But it made at least a little bit of sense, and it seemed somehow easier, being part of something bigger, than trying to carve something out all in my own. For sure, nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I flew out to Louisville to audition. It was clear from the time I entered the studio, however, that I was not what the station was looking for. I sang my song (Buffy Saint-Marie's "The Piney Wood Hills") and left for a visit with Dick. I had been realistic about my chances and wasn't really all that disappointed.

Where Boston had been cold, gray and wet, April in Louisville was beautiful. Spring was burgeoning with its inimitable green, the breezes were warm and fragrant. I felt some life returning to my numbed soul. Dick and I went sightseeing to beautiful Churchill Downs. We chatted and strolled the grounds, making our way into the infield. There we lay down with our backs against that luxurious carpet of bluegrass and looked into the clear blue sky. I unburdened myself to my old best friend and told him about the trouble I was having getting started in life. As I spoke, the words came to me as if I'd never heard them before: "why aren't you recruiting for the Peace Corps???" The mantra, for once, was gone. With my best friend, in Churchill Downs on that beautiful day in 1974, I came back to life.

Well, that's what I thought at the time.


Cuidado said...

My favorite:
I already "was" something. I was me!

Ralph said...

Things are so easy to the young and stupid, aren't they? Ignorance truly is bliss!

Ravel said...

I really liked this Part 2.
And the great pic, too.