I once mentioned to a very lovely friend of mine I wanted to read a very obscure book called “High Risk/High Gain” by Alann Weiss. Now when I saw her next low and behold she somehow managed to get a hold of it. How? I’m not sure. Now it has “Lakeside Community Library” stamped on it so I’m assuming she stole it from that particular book depository. More likely she found it second hand on the interwebz, but I enjoy the vision of her in some crazy comical chase scene through the halls of an old dusty library being chased by a librarian that could be described with the same adjectives, too much to cede it to reality.
Now High Risk/High Gain is actually about Peace Corps training in the ‘60s in the early, early years of Peace Corps. Back then training was done in Manhattan. So Allen Weiss is preparing for teaching in Nigeria, and having fun coming to terms with the massive and sometimes seemingly bass ackward bureaucracy that is Peace Corps (I say that with all due love). So often I’ve wanted to share quotes from the book, like from almost every other page. For example, “I mean here’s this organization famed for self-reliance but they don’t seem to trust us to find our way into Manhattan without getting lost.” Now I could modify the last part of this statement in so many ways and it would still be true. It’s amazing how so many things are still the same or relatable now. Here is a particular passage I couldn’t help but share. Someone on Peace Corps staff is giving Alan the straight talk about what’s to come, I’ve pared it down a bit:
“Guys like you get all fired up and join and nine times out of ten it doesn’t work out the way you thought it would. The Peace Corps is occasionally as exciting as its press releases, in the rainy season we may have to ferry you over the roads in canoes, sure there’s romance, but mostly its simply day-to-day hard grueling work, just putting one foot in front of the other. Oh, we’ve had our smashing successes, a kid in the Philippines saved an entire rice crop, a gang of kids in Pakistan started producing chicks by the thousands in modern hatcheries, these are things you can count, rice saved, chicks hatched, but most of our people just shuffle along, serve our their two years in an unspectacular way, and return to America changed how? in a way we can’t yet say. Nothing much seems to have been done, nothing you can put your finger on, it’s a hell of a thing, and let me tell you, teaching is probably the most unrewarding of the lot.”
He then goes on to describe how Peace Corps is proof the US is finally “growing up.” And wraps up with, “This is America living up to its promise. So goddamn you, don’t talk to me about mud huts, your job goes beyond mud huts, beyond mere teaching, your job is to help carry America into the twentieth century. We’re already too far behind… Now what do you say? Are you for us, or agin us?”
Hard and unrewarding work that is part of something bigger (we hope)? Same ol’ Peace Corps. Some things never change…