I would say, “I want to help out.” I wasn’t sure I could do it, but it seemed worthwhile. I felt certain I would witness change as people were helped. I didn’t really know it though. Deep down I had doubts. The faces, ribs, bellies of starvation and malnutrition, gaunt, showing, and pouched, in the slums of the world without running water came in and out of my mind. It caught my imagination. I could see myself working for CARE or a rice project as part of the Green Revolution. That would’ve justified my giving up a career in the theater. But there wasn’t a chance for me. I knew nothing about starvation, and besides I was assigned to teach. With the end of training near and time running out, I thought there was no one I could talk to about it. The one person had been deselected. For the first time I saw I should’ve taken her place. There was sincerity about her and honesty; it had attracted me to her; and you could see she would’ve made a good volunteer. The Peace Corps had been wrong about her. I should’ve been on that flight home instead of her.
I didn’t know what to say to Susan. I couldn’t say, “We made a mistake. We don’t make mistakes like that. When have we ever turned around and gone back? What do we do now?” And all of that would’ve impacted our marriage, and to tell the truth, I didn’t want to give up. I didn’t want to think of failure. I didn’t want to think ahead. So I took off, down the lane through the fields, with the cane grown up over my head, and walked just as I had as little boy through the vineyards of California. Just as dangerous. Looking ahead I couldn’t see very far, and then the ocean wasn’t that very far away.
I took to going on long walks at night and long after everyone else had gone to sleep. I would scold myself. One night I ran into Don. He surprised me in the dark. I was just as confused as I had been for a long time. I thought that as our science instructor, and a returned volunteer, that Don could tell me if my fears were justified, but, as I stood in a T-shirt and boxer shorts, I was, to tell the truth, afraid if I confided in him I would be on the next plane home. I could so easily have been deselected; one poor rating would’ve done that. I could simply tell him. But then, I would be nagged with a sense of failure, and I had had enough failure in my life. But what if Don were indifferent? Could I trust him to be indifferent? Indifference would be key to my trusting him. We went and sat on the front steps of the schoolhouse, under the flagpole, with the hosting cord flapping in the wind like bunting on the Fourth of July. Just the connection I needed.
That was how we became friends. Nothing said, no explanation was requested, yet something special happened. To begin with he knew I knew nothing about science, and I had begun to get the sense he knew that way before we met that night. I was scared. Why hadn’t I been deselected before then? Why hadn’t he facilitated that process? But what had he seen in me to make him think that I could ever teach science? I certainly trusted his knowledge…about rocks and animals, non-living and living things…as the first indication that he also knew something about people. That was only the first thing that came into my mind. I knew there was more to being a Peace Corps volunteer than an assignment…more to it than teaching science.
The first thing I would have to do was to ask Don a question or two. I waited for him to speak to me. There was a long silence, but yet it seemed as if we were communicating. And that drew us closer to each other. Mixed up with this was my fear. I could see that he was also pondering something, even if he didn’t seem afraid. I thought I heard him mumble something. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, or were they fully closed? It would’ve been hard to tell on this particular night, colder and darker than you would’ve expected for Hawaii. It wasn’t what I would’ve expected from him. For one thing what was he doing up at that hour.
Such intimacy wasn’t new for me. A few times in my life something special like that happened. But that was rare. Generally it occured when I first met someone or when someone first paid attention to me. I always had to commit myself and then something happened that took care of whatever was going on.
I was so connected once with a whole group of people…after my focus and concentration on horseshoes won me a week of competition even though I had rarely played the game before…that they threw me into a swimming pool with my clothes on.
Don said, “you’ll do fine.”
Fine? I felt he had no right to tell me I would do fine. Who was this person? He didn’t know me. The word “fine” was never a word that I would use to describe what I wanted to do. Excellence, or the word “run” did fit though.
I said, “how do you know?”
“I’ve been there. And I know that it’s better not to know too much.”
He spoke with authority, and it sounded good, but I didn’t know what he meant. Weren’t we being sent over there to do job…we were selected because we were at least BA generalist, which meant with my MA I was slightly over qualified or more than met the educational qualifications. (It could’ve meant I also was a lemon in a barrow of apples.) And then I saw where Don was coming from. If I had been a science teacher, I wouldn’t have been a generalist. This might’ve explained it. And I could see he had my future in his hands.
He said, “You never know what an outcome will be until you give it a try. That’s pure science. Impressions count. The rest is bullshit.”
That would’ve suited me had it been true. “The rest is bullshit” was obviously a statement about Don’s attitude. I could see at that point that his mind had drifted.
He said, “They say they want me to go back and give it another try. As if they weren’t satisfied. I’m not interested in repeating myself. What are you going to do?”
I still didn’t know. I knew I wasn’t a science teacher. I said, “What do you think I should do?”
“I don’t know. No one will care, except you. Have you talked to your wife about it?”
I said, “But that doesn’t help.”
“You’ll do what you have to do. As far as the Philippines, they have their own agenda.”
He looked at me. I saw that he had a decision to make too.