Peace Corps Catch 22
When I saw the movie, “Catch-22”, the character, Milo Minderbinder, reminded me of a similar person in the Peace Corps.
Milo, an Air Force supply officer, played by Jon Voight, uses his position to create a business empire called M & M Enterprises. M & M starts by wheeling and dealing in chicken eggs and eventually controls all of Sicily during the US military occupation.
Gary was the Peace Corp’s Milo Mindbender. Their physical similarities suggested first cousin acquaintance, not sibling kinship. It was their entrepreneurship personalities that suggested common DNA. Gary, like Milo, knew how to carefully analyze a situation and milk it for all it’s worth.
On January 17th, 1967, I received two letters in the mail. One, contained my college diploma. The other, from the U.S. Selective Service, was a notice to appear at the Oakland, California induction center for a physical examination.
A week later, a woman doctor with a stethoscope confirmed, I was fit for duty and forwarded me to the audiology exam. After the hearing test I was 4-F. I could hear, but not good enough.
A month earlier I’d volunteered for the Peace Corps. Unlike the military, they accepted me as is. 0n March 1st,1967, I flew to Hawaii as part of Malaysia Group 16 for three months training.
There were 52 volunteers,18 females and 34 males, who landed at the small Hilo Airport on the Big Island, aka, Hawaii. We were bused from the Airport to an abandoned grade school, known as Waikaiuka, a few miles outside of Hilo, the situs for our training.
Most of us were white, 22-to-25-year old’s, fresh out of college. The few exceptions included two elderly, a token black and a guy almost 30, Gary.
The females were RNs or medical technicians. The males, except for an old surveyor, a wildlife biologist, and a male medical technician were euphemistically cataloged as “farm school-teachers”, to be sent to Malaysia to teach the natives how to farm.
Of these, 4 had an agricultural degree, 6 could claim to have once lived on a farm, and the remining 21 were former urban dwellers.
I didn’t have an agricultural degree. I did exaggerate my agricultural background. I had read books about farming, had vegetable gardens, picked fruit and once irrigated an orchard.
The remining 20 had either lied about their background or the Peace Corps didn’t care, the latter the apt explanation. The presumption was we were American cultural ambassadors to the third world and the peasants would not turn to communism if they learned to do things the American way.
The Peace Corps is different than the perception it’s a group of idealistic people out to save the world. That image is a mirage. We all had personal agendas.
I never knew the females well enough to evaluate their idealism but suspected most sought the marriage that eluded them while in college.
The Vietnam War also meant lots of young males wanted to be American cultural ambassadors instead of being Secretary McNamara’s Vietnam War fodder.
The two old ones I figured had joined for a last gasp, life adventure.
Only one had an outright idealistic motive. Our black volunteer joined to spread the word of Malcom X to the Third World.
That left the 29-year-old, beyond draft’s age grasp, Gary. He also had an atypical background. He’d never attended college and was a bail bondsman before joining the Peace Corps.
Most of the males smoked on the school’s veranda in the warm Hawaiian evening. There, between drags, we related where we came from, and what we’d done previously as our anonymous faces jelled into ones of recognition.
Gary smoked Winston cigarettes and after a night or two, revealed his background, opened his wallet, and retrieved a picture of his going away party the night before he left for the Peace Corps. It showed him passed out in bed with 2 naked women.
Gary was an okay guy despite being almost 30, the age back then when you were supposedly no longer to be trusted. He, I, and 2 others decided to hitchhike around the island on our first weekend break.
We hiked down to Hilo from the schoolhouse and stuck out thumbs on the road circumventing the Island.
Our first ride was by a state highway trooper. He thought we were,
trainees for a Special Forces unit going to Vietnam. Gary, in the front seat, carried on the conversation and let the office assume what he liked. The officer went out of the way and showed us the Akaka waterfall.
At the limit of his patrol area, we got out and caught rides with others, all eager to extoll the island including the Parker Ranch where flora suddenly shifted from tropical to arid as we crossed from the windward to the leeward sides.
Between rides, standing on the highway with thumbs out, the 4 of us got to know one another. It wasn’t, however, until we got to the night’s destination, Kona, halfway around the Island, we became the 4-amigos.
Kona back then was a beach, a small hotel, a few houses, and a liquor store. We traipsed in to get a bottle of whisky, the intention to kill it and sleep on the beach.
As we debated the brand to purchase, Gary interrupted with the suggestion, we get 2 fifths instead of one, which we did. That night, however, we didn’t need the second bottle. After swigs passed to and fro, we fell asleep under a tropical moon telling jokes and stories, real or imagined.
With mild morning hangovers, we continued our trek to circumvent the island. From Kona, however, the road diminished to a little wider than one lane, just enough to let 2 cars squeeze pass. Traffic was sparse. In fact, until 10 AM, there wasn’t any.
At last, an old, salt rusted, 1958 Ford station wagon passed us, continued 50 yards, and pulled over. We ran up and scrambled aboard, Gary by now our elder statesman, was wedged in the front seat between two enormous full, blooded Hawaiians, Ralph, and Joey. The rest of us filled the back seat with me in the middle over a rusted-out floorboard.
Ralph the driver, asked in Hawaiian pidgin.
“Aloha! Where you go, we go?”
Gary worried about lack of traffic to get us back, replied while displaying our second bottle of whiskey.
“We go Hilo, go Hilo bar, Ralph!”
It wasn’t too long, as Ralph and Joey took nips, doled out by Gary, that Gary was using one hand on the steering wheel to keep the car on the pavement as our new friends kept proclaiming.
“Hilo, we go Hilo bar!”
They stopped at a roadside stand and introduced us to maki tuna sushi rolls.
Back on the road, sitting in the back seat, I thanked them profusely as I disposed of mine onto the exposed spinning drive shaft below.
After 4 hours, the traffic thickened, and we ended up at the rundown downtown Hilo bar they frequented. As cultural ambassadors in training, we were faced with tactfully abandoning them, after they'd served their purpose and get back to our schoolhouse. Gary bought bottles of Primo beer, slipped the old Chinese woman bartender $5 and we drifted away, mission accomplished.
Gary was an advanced ping pong player. In our little school rec room, he took a fair amount of my and others petty living allowances in one dollar game challenges. Typically, he lost the first game or two then subsequently won, his winning score a couple points higher than the losers.
Saturday nights he partially reimbursed us by buying Primo beer at the Huki-Lau bar in Hilo. There, we hustled the slim pickings of the female volunteers to the serenade of Don Ho wannabes and their renditions of “Tiny Bubbles In The Wine”.
As our training advanced the “Farm School Teachers” were segregated into three groups by future in-country location assignments, Malaya, Sarawak, and Sabah.
Gary’s future assignment was to Malaya, a former British colony started when they stole Malacca on the Malay peninsula from the Dutch who'd previously stole it from the Portuguese, who'd stole it from the Malays. Malacca was desired as it controlled the Straits of Malacca but when tin was discovered the English expanded inland and when rubber became king, they took the whole peninsula.
Sarawak was a former British sultanate taken by James Brook, an English expat who failed to make his fortune in India. He, instead, set up a hereditary kingdom on the island of Borneo and made himself Rajah.
I was assigned to Sabah the former British North Borneo Charter Company a corporate enterprise that ruled the natives and sent dividends to its investors.
Sarawak and Sabah combined made up the northern third of the island of Borneo. Both were bankrupt after their Japanese occupations during WW 2. The English not knowing what to do with them as they dismantled their colonies simply tossed them in as additional states of Malaya, 1,500 northwest miles away, to create Malaysia.
After three months of training, we were dispersed to our in-country locations. It wasn’t until a year later when I got a two-week vacation from my remote jungle outpost in Sabah, I saw Gary again.
With only a $110 a month Peace Corps salary it was difficult to finance vacation travel. To save hotel costs, crashing in on other Peace Corps volunteers was common.
One of my fellow passengers in the 1958 Ford station wagon Hawaiian excursion, joined me on vacation. On our Kula Lumpur stop, we renewed our friendship with Gary. He was posted in the state of Kelantan an area of conservative, Muslims. His location was a couple hours bus ride from the Kuala Lumpur Airport.
We didn’t need to take a bus. Gary sent a Land Rover, with driver, to pick us up.
The driver drove us to a large villa above a beach with a panoramic view of the South China Sea. An amah, (Malaysian servant woman) rushed out to greet us and a “house boy” hauled our meager bags up to spacious bedrooms with sea views and gentle breezes. We were told Gary would arrive at gin and tonic time, 5 PM.
Promptly at 5, he showed up with gin and tonics already prepared for him and us by the amah. Over drinks we talked about old times in Hawaii as my friend and I suppressed questions of what hell was going on.
After a sumptuous meal prepared by his cook and over cigars on the veranda, with another round of gin and tonics, I broached the subject of his Peace Corps lifestyle. He simply explained it was complicated and he’d show us more the next day.
In the morning, after a breakfast of fried rice with shrimp and strong American coffee, he explained the villa, servants, vehicles, food, and drinks. were connected to the Malaysian Air Force and a Major in the US Air Force. The Major traveled about Southeast Asia arranging delivery of USA military jets. Due to travel, he was hardly ever around and wanted Gary to stay at the villa to keep track of things.
After breakfast it got more complicated. We clambered into a Malaysian military Land Rover and a driver took us around to the complicated.
The first stop was to a chicken processing plant. There, Malay girls loaded up the back of the Rover with processed chickens. The driver next drove to a Malaysian Air Force base where the chickens were unloaded.
The rear of the Rover was then loaded with cases of Tiger Beer, the official Malaysian beer, and liquor.
We then did a tour of Chinese shops with beer and liquor unloaded and a check list of shop merchandise hauled aboard. By the end of the day, the shops items filled the Rover. Then the driver drove back to the chicken processing plant. There Malay girls wearing hijab scarves, squealed with delight as they unloaded about half of the Rover shopping goods.
The last stop of the day, before returning to gin and tonics, was at a large chicken raising farm, where, young Malay girls, who raised the chickens, gleefully unloaded what was left in the Rover.
Gary informed us they enjoyed their employment because it got them out of the leech infested rice paddy fields, but the hardest part was to get them to artificially inseminate the hens with rooster semen to have fertilized eggs to hatch.
Throughout the day, Gary stopped and chatted to individuals to which we were not a part of the conversation. These jovial conversations included lots of handshakes.
Back in the villa, sipping gin and tonics, we demanded the complication explanation.
“There’s only one bar here. When I first arrived here, I went there and met a US Airforce Major. He was bored but perked up when I told him I was in the Peace Corps. He inquired if I’d be working with the Malay girls. I told him probably. He complained they were hard to meet as the area was conservative Muslim.
I told him I needed a place the girls would like to visit but the Peace Corps would probably send me some jungle dump. He immediately told me I could stay at his villa, a place the girls would love. I stayed there that night and agreed to work with him and his Malaysian Airforce friends.”
“What about your Peace Corps assigned farm school?”
“They took me out to some boondock, jungle spot with a run-down house next to a little school. It didn’t even have electricity. I told them to turn around and take me back to town. I wasn’t staying there.”
“What did the Peace Corps ambassador do when you refused to stay at your assigned farm school?”
“He didn’t know what to do. Meanwhile, I went to the Malay, Kelantan Agricultural Director and told him I’d rather do something big than teach farmers how to grow rice when they’d been doing it for thousands of years and I didn’t know a thing about it.”
“The chickens, beer and shops?”
“Look, first you need to analyze the situation and then milk it for all it’s worth.
This place was an English colony with Brits lording over the Malays. Now the English are leaving, and the Malays are taking over. What do they want? They want what the English Tuans (lords) had. The Agricultural Director of Kelantan even has an English wife.”
“So, you called him Tuan?”
“No, no! Tuan, Dato, Datuk those are just titles. What did the British have? Big houses, lots of servants, trophy wives, parties, you know. What else did they have that the new Director of Agriculture wants?”
“Let me guess, a university degree in agriculture?”
“Are you crazy? Do you think the English Ag Directors were agricultural experts? No! They were political appointments from Merry Ole England. Sent off to Malaya, they had a slice of the go around action. The Malay Ag Director wants that too, plus great parties.
“The Ag Director’s wife often goes to Merry Ole England to see family. Then, it’s party time at the villa when she’s in England.”
“The Chickens, beer, shops?”
That’s the go around. I suggested to the Ag Director we get a government grant and together import white leghorn chickens from the US. The lay an egg every day and you can process the wannabe roosters in 8 weeks. We could flood the market with eggs and chickens instead of people relying on scrawny and expensive kampong chickens that lay an egg every now and then. That’s go around. The girls who raise and process chickens get out of the rice paddies and get Chinese shop gifts. The good-looking ones party at the villa.
The Malaysian Air Force gets rid of its excess, tax-free beer and liquor, the shops get cheap boozer, the Malaysian Air Force gets free chickens and eggs, and It’s party hardy. It all goes around, and the Ag Director gets a slice.”
“What does the Peace Corps ambassador say?”
“Yeah, a word he probably picked up from the Brits embassy he hangs out at. He heard about the parties, came out from his embassy compound in Kula Lumpur, saw my Land Rover, the villa, and the chickens and kept repeating preposterous. Once he calmed down, he told me to go to the farm school or he was sending me back to the states.”
“What’d you do?”
“I went to the Ag Director and told him his go around slice, and the parties were ending. He called the Prime Minister, who understands the political situation.
The PM called the Peace Corps ambassador to his office and told him if he sent me home, the PM was sending him, and all the Peace Corps volunteers in Malaysia home. The Peace Corps ambassador decided instead to stay and doesn’t come out here anymore.”
We had a nice visit but had to leave. The Agricultural Director’s wife was making another trip to see family in England.
Gary was the most successful Malaysian Peace Corps Volunteer of Group 16. He knew the Malays already understood the American way. He died in 2015, carefully analyzing the situation and milking it for all it’s worth to the end, an unsung American hero.
To my knowledge, things still go around, and they still raise chickens in Kelantan.
Author Notes: Gary died in 2015, analyzing situations and milking them for all they're worth to the end.