So, in the third week of December of 1967, my parents arrived. I met them in Maiquetia, the airport 9 miles East and South of Caracas, then a city of nearly 2 Million. We motored up the hill, several thousand feet, then spent the night at Los Pinos, a hotel favored by the Peace Corps volunteers. The next day, after a look at the sights, we rented the only kind of rental car that was rented, a VW bug (2 doors). My dad was over 6 feet and about 80 at the time. Mom was a spry 60 and would inhabit the rear seat for the next 3 weeks. When I drove the bug off the lot, a driver cut me off. I reacted as Venezuelans (among whom I had been living for a year) ordinarily would react. I put both my hands out the driver’s side window and told the guy loudly with appropriate blue (spanish) language what I thought of his parentage. My father made no comment, but my mother was visibly shocked, though she had understood not one word. We drove to a tiny village in the mountains North of Caracas, Colonia Tovar, which had been created in 1890. A shipwreck that year had resulted in 200 German immigrants being stranded on the shore. They had walked to about 8,000 feet of altitude and then created an Austrian village with half timbered houses, German food, and had continued speaking only the German language. Germans came every ten years or so and always trudged up to the town, improving the gene pool. In the late 50s, the Dictator Perez Jimenez had built a road to the town and it became a tourist destination. It was as unlike the rest of Venezuela as New York’s entertainment district… From there we drove to and through various (hot) cities and then up to cold Merida in the far Northwest. Merida was a University town in the high Andes with a 14,000 foot mountain in the middle of it. We rode the 3 tiers of teleferico cable cars ever higher and I have a picture of my Dad stepping around piled snow to get to the observation platform at the top, where it was hard to breathe. We drove down through the Llanos, cattle-bearing endless plains, to my City, Barquisimeto, where endless commerce and rail yards awaited. As Christmas day arrived, my folks were in a little hotel at the Obelisk on the Northern edge of Barquisimeto. I drove home a mile or so away to tend to the lettuce garden (see prior post). When I returned, my folks were on their second maitai and were bemused by the roller skaters. Twas a tradition throughout Venezuela that the teenagers skated around the clock the few days before the Christmas feast. No one worked for about 2 weeks and everyone repainted his house, usually with garish memorable colors. Venezuela was known for its 20 varieties of light beers and the 40 kinds of rum, a large amount of both being consumed during Christmas week. It was a good time to stay off the roads.
I had told my landlord (Genaro) who was an Italian immigrant, who had then told the front door renter, a native criollo, that my parents had come to Barquisimeto from the States. The front door guy, Leonardo, came round and insisted that he would throw a fiesta for my folks. A day or two later, at about 2pm, Leonardo showed up behind his house, but in front of my house. He was leading a pretty mature goat. He announced that dinner would be around 5pm and cut the goat’s throat. He produced a 4 by 8 foot piece of dirty tin, which he stood up against his back wall. He butchered the goat and hung it up on the tin to bleed out. When I picked up my folks at about 4 pm, the flies had pretty much had their fill. We stood around pitching darts and watching Leonardo roast most of the goat over the fire in a pit which he had dug in front of my house. I made the salad and, about 5:30pm or 6pm, paper plates and silverware appeared. Roasted goat and yucca plus salad and new glasses of Cacique Rum were handed out. I watched my mother struggle to consume an appropriate portion of goat, but noticed that my dad had gotten through his plate pretty fast. I later found he had tucked a lot of pieces of tough goat in his pants pocket. About 7pm, the 4 man musical conjunto set up shop in Leonardo’s front house’s living room. The entire barrio population for a couple of blocks round showed up to meet the Americanos. My mother was given the big green-plastic-covered barcolounger chair by the front door in Leonardo’s house and was introduced to every arrival, though she spoke no spanish and understood not a word. The barcolounger had no springs and whenever she sat, she went right down to the floor – and getting up each time was a struggle. The party was boisterous and about 9:30pm my parents were fading fast. At that moment, about ten soldiers from the Circolo Militar arrived with automatic weapons in hand to inspect everyone’s identity cards (cedullas). They were looking for guerrillas, who would be without identification papers. The soldiers were introduced to my parents who wondered why heavily armed paratroopers had come to the party. We left about 10pm over the protestations of Leonardo. When I returned about midnight, the party was really getting going. As they say… priceless. My folks then felt like they had really seen something of the country… After some time at the beaches, my folks went home – but left the goat meat behind, buried in my garden.
The year of 1968 commenced with constant research, then reports, then idea sharing, and action in the concejo municipal where I worked. There was tax money and therefore fire equipment and stoplights appeared and were put into use. The municipal slaughterhouse was reorganized, moved, reconstructed. Steve Woolf drew plans and Central Government funds were obtained for housing to be constructed cheaply on ejido (public owned) lands. Every large City in Venezuela owned fairgrounds and (as in Ireland) the cities would try to make their fairs lavish so that citizens would come from afar to see the marvels of the fairgrounds, just like County Fairs used to be in the U.S. Barquisimeto embarked on a massive redo of its fairgrounds and Woolf was tasked with designing a massive 90 foot structure that would be the symbol of the Barquisimeto Fair. I worked with the Woolfs at their house in the Barrio far to the North as Steve designed a structure with about 30 straight pipe collums which were mounted at a slightly off vertical slant in a circle. This formed an hourglass structure but stabilization was a puzzle… The bolting of the joints of the uprights proved to be a mathematical riddle which was finally solved by Steve. We constructed a 12 foot high model which nearl collapsed and tried to squash Bev woolf and I as we painted its columns. The council accepted the hallmark structure and Steve supervised a very costly and challenging construction of the 90 foot structure at the Fairgrounds, which for years was the logo for all Fair publicity. Along the way there were trips into Caracas for Peace Corps business meetings, trips on the train on the weekends to the Puerto Cabello beaches, trips to Merida for sightseeing, trips with an arab coworker friend who raced go-carts and taught me how to do that and to crew for his cart. I have always been an avid reader. At night, to save money (which was always short), I would cook at home in my electric frypan and would read until late (under a mosquito net) from the book locker, some 120 paperback books selected by other volunteers to be in the locker which every volunteer received.
The social life in my barrio was a problem. Everyone drank to excess and booze was really cheap. There would be a party somewhere every night and it was hard, and became harder, to say no to invites. After a few months of coming home nearly 3 sheets to the wind from accepting multiple rum and cokes, I consulted with volunteers longer in-country than I. I was told to just say, “Gracias, pero no quiero otro trago. Me hace dano al higadu.” This means that one has a liver (higadu) problem and that you just cannot drink much. With this handy phrase, I put an end to having to sleep with one foot outside the bed or hammock on the floor, outside the mosquito net (which was hazardous), and began getting more rest and more reading time. Somewhere 2 or 3 months into 1968, I had gone to a volunteers party at the home of Doctor Stephenson in Barquisimeto. This was a despedida, a going away party, for a group of 30 volunteers, each over 65. They had come down to work in the prisons, teaching inmates how to make artificial legs and arms, had finished their stint, and had decided to go home in an unusual way. They all bought motorcycles, outfitted them with racks, and were leaving as a group to cycle to Indianapolis, where they were to substitute for the pace car to open the Indianapolis 500 race for 1968. The party lasted all day, drinking beer in the sun, volleyball, swimming, etc. Ed Kaufman and I decided to see if we could get dates so we could go downtown in a taxi and see an incredible new Action Film starring Lee Marvin, regarding an escape from Alcatraz, a thrilling film named “Point Blank”. Ed asked his choice and I asked this blonde chick whom I had noticed a few weeks before. Her name was Susan Fennell, a tall teacher volunteer from a tiny town 120 miles to the East, several years younger than I, a farm girl from Illinois. We all went to the movie. She fell asleep in the open air theatre and she snored. I wrote her off.
About 5 months later, I met her in more auspicious circumstances, when we both were returning on a puddle-jumper flight from Caracas. We shared a Time magazine, had dinner, and seemed to hit it off.
Some 1 month after that dinner, around September, 1968, the local Area Director for the Peace Corps, Bill Dewey, was asked to leave his post in Barquisimeto, move to Quito Ecuador, and become the Country Director in Ecuador for the Peace Corps there. Peace Corps Venezuela had no way of quickly replacing Dewey. At that point in time, the 1968 November (every 5 years) national election was nearly upon us. Peace Corps Caracas was very nervous because the concejos municipales were becoming increasingly the scene of shoot-ups. Each mayor would hold an audiencia every Friday morning and listen to any citizen’s gripe or petition… In my own concejo, twice shots had been fired at Mayor Gallardo during the audiencia, and it was happening elsewhere. My entire group was being asked to pack up and go to Puerto Rico – where the group would hunker down and together write the definitive manual about managing cities in Venezuela, combining best practices from each of our 30 different cities. By October 1968, I had decided that I did not want to go to Puerto Rico. I wanted to stay around for the election excitement in November – and that would give me time to “run out the string” with the blonde chick, Susan Fennell. Dewey asked me if I would leave the concejo, take over Dewey’s job as an area director staffer, and thereby make it possible for Dewey to move to Quito Ecuador. I said yes. Peace Corps said that I would continue to be paid as a volunteer but I would act as if I were a trained staffer. I got as jeep and the duty of seeing every one of 50 volunteers in an area the size of Texas at least once a month (and writing weekly reports to be mailed in to Caracas showing every one was getting seen and their problems were being solved, work, health, or romance)… I agreed and picked up a wreck of a green 4 wheel drive 4 door Willys jeep and commenced driving about 750 miles a week on treacherous roads that had no lights but lots of burros and cows on them at night. I slept in 2$ a night hotel rooms or in volunteers’ living rooms, having an office and a secretary receptionist in Barquisimeto. Along the way, I dated the blonde chick (Susan) who lived in a tiny town outside of San Felipe which was at one end of my territory. This presented a dicey issue as the Peace Corps did not allow staff to date volunteers. I was a volunteer but I was also a staff. I didn’t ask. After 6 months of dating, I produced a ring, proposed to Susan Fennell at her house in a blinding rainstorm, and she said yes. I called the Director of Peace Corps Venezuela (Henry Wheatley) the next morning after I banked the yes – and had to tell Henry about the engagement. I expected that he might fire me… When I got him on the phone and got 2 sentences out of my mouth, Henry said, “Shit, I didn’t win the pool.”” I enquired about that and Henry told me that, each week, the Doctors posted incoming reports on a big board in the basement of the Cracas Peace Corps offices. All 300 volunteers were listed on the left side from floor to ceiling, In boxes stretching out in a line to the right, entries were made in the volunteer’s “channel” showing the date and file number for each report mentioning that a volunteer had been visited. This would quickly demonstrate who was not getting seen. If a volunteer fell ill or went missing, the relevant reports would be quickly retrieved to be consulted. Susan Fennell’s bar chart line had stretched out far ahead of all the others (as she was being seen a lot) and the doctors and some staff had wagered when an engagement might occur for her and me. Dr Rauenhorst had won the pool. Henry had not…
The election concluded and the Country did not fall into a civil war… The ADECOS were for the first time replaced by the COPEIANOS (Christian Socialist Party) but the peace held. In February, 1969, Susan and I took an incredible trip across Venezuela then into and all around Columbia, and then into Ecuador, staying with the Deweys in Quito at one point. We saw a lot of old cannons in old forts and some bustling amazing cities. I received a puzzling phone call from the States about the chance of a job with a small law firm in Phoenix, Arizona… By March 10, 1969, it was time for me to leave Venezuela and for someone to replace me as Area Director in the area around Barquisimeto. After an appropriate 3 day party, I left my bride-to-be to finish another 6 months of her time in the Peace Corps and I set off for the United States. I wore traditional Venezuelan dress and I went via a plane that landed in Miami. On the gangway out of customs there, I was surrounded by blue haired ladies who were loudly discussing social security payments. I immediately began to miss Venezuela. Re-entry in my native Boston was a bummer – and the Peace Corps physical exam was checked by my own Doctor at the Leahy Clinic – who found that the Peace Corps physical exam had missed several cysted parasites. After a sort of nasty disgusting week or two, I managed to put to death the last living souvenirs of my 2 and a half years of living in Venezuela. It was time to interview around with half a dozen Boston Law Firms and deliver on my (almost forgotten) 3 years of legal education at Havard Law School. I had to go look for a job… and to then decide where I would start a home and a family.
So, at this point, coming to the end of my 28th year, I had had a string of lucky breaks: my mom had been a stay at home mom, young and bright, for my first seven years, and I was the first child in the family, so I got a lot of attention; the schools in Arlington Massachusetts were good ones and I went from there to Hingham, a well off town with great schools; Dad had been blackballed in some clubs at Harvard around 1920 because he was Irish and Mom had been paid less at Boston University because she was a woman – discrimination was a dirty word around our dinner table; living in the restaurant in Hingham had been hard but it taught me a good work ethic; I got in to Brandeis, a young vibrant University with great teachers; I had a scooter or motorcycle for much of my college time and got to spend time in Boston at events in that cultural City; I fell into civil rights related activities and it propelled me into student government; as Treasurer of the student union at Brandeis, I learned about balancing budgets and fiscal controls; I got into Harvard Law School and was forced to work to stay in, which made me study like crazy and budget my time to keep up with classmates who only attended school; I got to join the Peace Corps instead of the war corps so I learned a language and a culture, and this occurred just before the Peace Corps began to change from its original idealistic direction; I found a good life-partner at a great timing point so we got to choose where we lived, how we lived, and what work we did. And now, I started on a new string of incredibly lucky breaks and choices in a BOOMING young city… See next post.
Loved reading this. Please keep it up!
I served as a PCV in Barquisimeto and Yaritagua and El Tocuyo as an organizer for the Boy Scouts of Venezuela about the time you came to Venezuela. I transferred to Caracas in mid 1967 to work in the national Scout office editing their magazine, organizing courses for PCVs who might want to use Scouting as a tool for community development in their sites, and organizing new units at barrio schools. While in Barquisimeto I became engaged to a Venezuelan girl, the daughter of a woman who taught Spanish to PCVs. Ed Kaufman would remember her as he was one of her students. We had planned an earlier wedding but when Henry Weatley came on board he didn’t like the idea and asked me to postpone it until a month or two before termination. (We’ve been married for 46 years; our son, also named Jon, lives in Mesa AZ). On a return visit to Barquisimeto in Jan 68 we visited the Fair. Did you have anything to do with getting the East Meadow L.I. High band to perform? Or the guy from Expo 67 with all the knives sticking through him? I have published my letters to my parents from that time (“Letters from the Sixties: College, Peace Corps, Marriage” available from Amazon. Now I’m working on publishing my diary.
I enjoyed reading your Peace Corps memoirs and other chapters in your blog. You certainly had an eventful early life.
John Halter referred me to this blog about your Peace Corps experience. John and I served as Volunteers in Venezuela from June of 1966 to June of 1968 in what was called a Directed Recreation program.
I enjoyed reading about your experiences, they certainly brought back reminiscences. I am impressed with your memory for details.
My experience in Puerto Ordaz had a different “feel” from that that you describe in Barquisimeto, no doubt due largely to differences in our ages (at that time), backgrounds and assignments, as much as the different locations.
For a comparison, here is a blog that I wrote about my time there. http://charleymallon.blogspot.com/2015/04/my-peace-corps-experience.html
Good work David, thanks for bringing back memories.
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