PORTFOLIO

Peace Corps and Kenya tie friends after 45 years


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It was not "The Big Chill" but a small, intense burst of warmth -- an informal reunion of four Peace Corps volunteers, Kenya, class of 1969.

We gathered with our wives in New York, the perfect backdrop for this grand convergence, with its standing promise of sweet surprise.

On day one, I landed my first-ever Buddhist cabbie, a mellow Nepali immigrant. Is there a more useful approach to the harum-scarum driving in Manhattan than Buddhism? Or a better portent of four days of harmony?

The reunion also forced a tacit nod to Buddhist acceptance. We're card-carrying members of Medicare, and cancer and heart problems have surfaced. Mortality was an unwelcome guest lurking in the background. We would seize this precious moment.

We came from California, Montreal and Pittsburgh. We had met over the years in various combinations. But this was the first time all eight of us could assemble in the same place.

Richard, a money manager, was our New York host. He was a great Peace Corps volunteer. Still is. He's been in continual contact with his Kenyan village since 1970, helping develop a water system at present among many projects he has jump-started.

He and his wonderful wife, Gretchen, a world-class flutist, also made their mark at home by starting a music-focused charter school in Queens.

When they picked up restaurant checks during the reunion and I tried to pay him back, Richard said he still owes me big-time for all the weekends he stayed on my sofa in Nairobi. Well, OK then.

The Montrealers are warm, funny Steve, a retired anthropology prof from New York, and the brilliant Salma from Zanzibar. Their 31-year-old daughter lives in Harlem with her boyfriend, and this delightful couple hosted their elders for a superb African-inflected dinner. The circle of friendship thus expanded to the next generation.

Post-Peace Corps, Steve taught briefly in Harlem and felt his life was in danger every time he went there. It was a pleasure now to see the neighborhood safe and at ease with itself, throbbing with life and friendly people.

Returning from Harlem to our hotel, my wife and I came upon not the Beatles but four fine imitators doing an infectious rendition of "You're Gonna Lose That Girl." To make sure I didn't, I grabbed her for a few dance steps right there in the Times Square subway station.

Peter and Judy from Palo Alto we see most often because Judy has Western Pennsylvania roots. Peter, an accomplished book author and artist who never leaves home without his sketch pad, did some drawing at the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

The new World Trade Center complex is achingly sad but an architectural marvel that makes the unspeakable sacred. From there, we stumbled upon a lovely path along the Hudson, encountering assorted friendly New Yorkers.

Judy, a retired teacher full of life, carries our spirit. She went to Kenya after our stint began, married Peter there and taught high school there like the rest of us. She was the reunion organizer and official photographer, orchestrating an update of a 1969 Kenya group photo prominent in all of our homes.

This new shot was taken on a rejuvenated Brooklyn dock, where Gretchen's wind quintet performed in a barge converted into a mini-concert hall. How glorious the sounds of Bach, with the setting sun streaming through the windows behind the players, lower Manhattan majestic in the background.

Was this Brooklyn or the gates of heaven?

Then came the farewell dinner at a cozy restaurant up the hill in a leafy neighborhood. We've lost a step as drinkers, but we did our best. The natural lubrication of good feelings and rich humor heightened the bittersweet moment of togetherness and departure.

Peter would write later: "We think often about these lively and indelible friendships, and what, if anything, we ever did to deserve them; the luck of getting to find out together who we really were in a strange land, among strange people who asked only that we express a joyful and common humanity."

The eight of us are a diverse lot -- New England WASPs, heartlanders, Jews, an Irish-Italian ethnic and a Muslim African-Canadian. There is an ease in being together, which must be one definition of friendship. My appreciation of all of them, already sky high, soared in New York.

Peter Leo of Squirrel Hill, a retired Post-Gazette columnist and occasional Portfolio contributor, can be reached at peterleo11@comcast.net.


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