Sep 5, 2005
The following essay appears as the Foreword to Step to Freedom, a memoir of my father’s service with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic from 1965 to 1967. Visit this page about the book.
On a rainy October day in 1999, I stood with my wife, Erin, waiting beside the grass airstrip of a South Pacific island. The plane that was coming to get us meant our Peace Corps service in the Republic of Vanuatu was coming to an end.
The day before, in the yard of Vaum Junior Secondary School and Liro Primary School, a hundred students had lined up in the hot afternoon sun to shake our hands and thank us for helping to build up their education. Their parents had feted us the night before, bestowing on us flower leis, pandanus mats and their gratitude for our health education and community development work in their villages.
It had been a fantastic experience.
Finally, after a seven-hour delay, the VanAir Twin Otter plane approached from nearby Ambrym Island, landed and came to a buzzing stop near the small cinder block building that was the Paama airport. With a quick wave to the crowd, we climbed aboard for the first leg of our journey home to the United States of America.
On the plane, banking past Paama, I was too tired for tears. What I thought about was Idaho, when I was 10 years old. My father, Joseph, would take all of the sofa cushions and line the floor of the dining room, where we would play a version of floor hockey with wooden spatulas and spoons and a Wiffle ball. By then, I’d already wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. In that same dining room Dad regularly showed his Peace Corps photos on the bare white walls, using a finicky slide projector and a Zuiker penchant for storytelling. The Peace Corps never had so good a recruiter.
Over and over, Dad told me and my brothers stories of his time as a Volunteer in the Crossroads town of Santiago de la Cruz, in the Dominican Republic in 1965 through ’67. His colorful slides showed poor people with smiling eyes, working on a project he’d promised would dramatically change their town and improve their lives. They were building a school.
Since he was usually behind the camera, only a few of Dad’s slides included him. One that did shows him kneeling in the crystalline Caribbean Sea. He is skinny, his eyes are narrow, and he holds a snorkel and diving mask. Thirty years after that picture was snapped, I’d look at it again and feel as I were looking at myself exiting the Pacific Ocean.
The physical similarities between us are uncanny — viewers of this photograph easily mistake the lean, quiet-looking man for me. As I’ve aged, my voice has come to resemble my Dad’s, my feet look more and more like his and his dad’s before him, my chest is hairy and my scalp promising a baldness, though that’s still years ahead (I hope).
We share other traits, too. We were both Peace Corps Volunteers on tropical islands. Although Dad was single when he went, and I traveled with Erin, we experienced similar things: riots in the capital, dysentery, scurrying creatures in the night, homesickness and hurricanes, but also work challenges, participatory rural appraisals, new friendships and cultural discoveries.
Step to Freedom chronicles the strides my father took as a young man eager to leave his home in Chicago for a poor corner of the world where he might make a difference. I can easily imagine Dad telling the story of his Peace Corps experience to his father, Francis, who would then retreat to Studio 3, his office, to record that story of adventure and perseverance and ultimate success. Even though he was typing my father’s story, my grandfather was also sharing his own, weaving in a life philosophy surely forged through his experiences in the tumultuous first half of the Twentieth Century. Francis was the son of an immigrant from Holland, and as a young man in the Great Depression and later the father of nine children, he learned all about hard work and self-motivation in the face of adversity.
Frank the Beachcomber, as he called himself, would later show me in Studio 3 his jars of shark teeth collected in Florida, and teach me to roll clay between my fingers just so to create a figure of a Canada goose for a mobile. As he did this, he imparted his love of adventure and storytelling and devotion to craft, whether for shell jewelry or photography or writing.
(My grandfather, with not even a high school education, wrote another book, the story of his childhood on a farm in northern Wisconsin. I plan to publish that book in early 2006.)
A copy of the Step to Freedom manuscript sat in my closet for many years. Yet only in the last 18 months did I finally read it, as I converted the original typewritten manuscript into this book you’re reading.
As I read the story, I was amazed at even more similarities between our experiences. Before I’d read of Dad’s thoughts on the importance of local promoters to community development, I relied on the energetic Johnny Bruce Tomatelu, my counterpart on Paama. Like Dad, I have an indelible vision of a beautiful, sensuous local woman bathed in water and light. (See my poem, To Play With Puppets). At the end of my service, I told a village gathering that they’d given me a home away from home, just as Dad told his Dominican friends: “Everyone has one country that they are a part of, but I am lucky enough to have two.”
Never have I been more proud to be the son of my father, and to have walked in his footsteps.
Twice Dad had come to visit me in Vanuatu, to see the black sand beaches and hilltop trails I walked. In May 2004, as a graduation gift for earning my masters degree in medical journalism, Dad took me with him on a return visit to Santiago de la Cruz, his first time back since he’d taken my mother there in 1969. We drove into the Crossroads, parked, and walked up a slight hill into the school he’d built. Instantly he was surrounded by teachers and students eager to meet him and to look through the picture albums he’d brought. For the next week, he showed those pictures nonstop as men and women crowded around, giggling as they recognized themselves in the photos. (See zuikerchronicles.com/steptofreedom for a gallery of those pictures and snapshots of our 2004 visit.)
Many of the people I met on that trip are the characters in this story, the faces from the Idaho slide shows. I met Teofila and her daughters, Percio Diaz, the children of Antonio Moreaux, and even Bob Parks, who traveled from his home in Guatemala to meet Dad on this reunion trip. But the most important person in Step to Freedom is my father. In this story, and in his life since, he’s given me a roadmap for my own life.
Thank you, Dad.
July 30, 2005
Durham, North Carolina
Anton Zuiker ☄
© 2000 Zuiker Chronicles Publishing, LLC