Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A piece of Peace Corps

Sargent Shriver & Dr. Samuel Proctor at his Peace Corps Inauguration 12/28/61(source)
On my return trip from Washington, D.C. last week I got off the train in Newport News and rolled my carry-on-sized suitcase to the Norfolk/Virginia Beach transfer bus parked in front of the Amtrak station.  A new bus driver, a woman in place of the man who always drove on my trips before, barked at me to put my carry-on under the bus.  I protested.  "The other bus driver (the one who calls Norfolk 'Nor-fowlk') always lets me bring it on," I said.  She shrugged her shoulders and pointed to the holding area as she nodded towards my bag.  I stubbornly tried to plead my case again, heard myself sounding like a child and finally relinquished my hold on the piece of red rolling luggage before clambering onto the bus with a pout on my lips. 

Tired from travel and with blisters on my feet from walking around the city (with my treasured carry-on in tow), I mumbled 'May I sit here?' to a woman sitting with her hands on a bag in her lap.  She nodded her consent and I collapsed into the seat.

We pulled out of parking lot without speaking to one another and, 20 minutes later, made eye contact for the first time since Newport News as we approached the Norfolk stop to see if the other was getting off.  "Not me," I said.  "Me either," she replied.  I do not know how our conversation started from there but start it did.

Mamie Proctor, I soon learned to be her name, was on her way back from a visit to Maryland to attend her granddaughter's 6th grade graduation.  We talked about her other grandchildren and her two daughters and what her home in Virginia Beach was like.  I talked about my own grandmother and marveled at how incredible these women are - getting around better and more nimbly than some people my age!

She asked about my visit to Washington, D.C. and I told her about WRI and apartment hunting in the city.  Then, I talked (of course!) about my Peace Corps experience in Mali and the coup d'etat that brought me back home and left millions of others in a state of uncertainty (on so many levels).  She nodded throughout my story and asked questions about my host family, what I ate, where I lived and the work I did.  It is conversations like these that are truly humbling and make me feel so proud to have lived in Mali and to have the chance to share a piece of the country I love so much.

After exhausting my Mali-centric talking points, Mamie began talking about her brother-in-law, Dr. Samuel Proctor, who she remembered as working with the Peace Corps in the 60s.  "He worked in Niger," she said.  "No, Burkina Faso!  Well - I can't remember where he worked but he was a Country Director of sorts in Africa at the beginning of the Peace Corps."  Turns out it was Nigeria and he was the associate director of Peace Corps Africa in the early stages of PC's development.  To think a piece of Peace Corps history was sitting with Mamie the whole time from Newport News to Norfolk and if we hadn't started talking - I would have never learned about her brother-in-law (and her captivating family!)

Dr. Proctor led a fascinating career as a minister and civil servant - you can read more about him and his varied career here (he passed away in 1997).  As I talked with Mamie I was not only interested to learn of another link to the Peace Corps but also so thrilled at the sweet way lives of loved ones can be remembered and their memories carried on.  

An hour and a half after leaving Newport News (it was a traffic-y Saturday night in Hampton Roads!), our bus pulled up to the stop on 19th Street and Pacific Avenue in Virginia Beach.  Flashy cars with loud music pouring out of open windows, barely containing the scantily clad tourists inside, inched by in the thick traffic as we stretched our legs and waited for our luggage to be retrieved from the holding area.  Mamie's friend, and fellow retirement home resident, Jack was waiting outside the bus stop with his trunk open, smiling and waving at Mamie.  I looked at Mamie and then looked at the bus driver.  I smiled - tickled to have met such a delightful woman who I would not have sat next to had I had a clunky carry-on with me.  The formerly surly bus driver plopped my suitcase on the sidewalk in front of me.    "Thank you," I smiled and then, with my red carry-on in tow, rolled away.  

Have you ever had a time when you thought - wow, what if I had missed this chance?  When was it?  Why was it so special?

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