The voice is identical. One sentence and 35 years melt away. Kim wants to know what kind of beer I think she should bring. No Lone Star here. We amuse ourselves with the possibility of finding a bottle of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine just for fun, but quickly abandon that notion in favor of a nice syrah, a cabernet, or a known microbrew. An hour later Kim meets me at a coffee shop in Berkeley. I’ve walked down the hill from my mother-in-law’s home. She’s driving a dusty, faded blue sedan.
“Can you believe it,” she says, “this old Toyota used to be Joan Baez’s car. It belongs to one of the guys at the home in Woodside where I’m staying. He let me have it for the day.”
“Far out,” I say, just to make her smile.
Settling into the drivers seat, I’m struck with the notion that because Kim asks me to drive, my journey back to the late 60s this day begins in Joan Baez’s car. What other strange trips lie ahead.
By 1:00, it all comes together. Almost 39 years to the day we first met in Austin, Texas, David, Kim, Terry and I marvel at being in the same room together. In David’s funky Victorian house, on an overcast Berkeley afternoon, typical for June, the hugs are unusually tight. We sneak long looks at one another. Smiles turn into laughs. Hours trickle by. Many old stories need re-telling, many new stories emerge. Before the day ends, we bring two other former VISTAs into the conversation through speakerphone. Michele, still in Texas and Arnie, now in Chicago, both take time from their 21st century lives to consider who we were in 1969 and who we have become today. Not surprisingly, their thoughts often coincide with many of ours. With few exceptions, we come to realize that going in, we all assumed that VISTA was only about those we would serve. In time we have come to believe that the experience was equally about our own growth, our own change, and our own needs. We could never have known that at the time. The selfless act of working for those less fortunate always says more about the giver than the receiver.
David at home June,2008
While some felt that the war on poverty was a game played with a stacked deck, others weren’t so sure. What is certain, however, is that our ideals and designs were massive, our resources almost non-existent. Both Terry and Michelle, who worked in semi-rural organizing efforts felt inadequate to the tasks left for them. Those of us who worked in the inner city could at least rattle off a number of projects we either originated or aided. The VISTA Communications Center on Rosewood St. impacted various community groups; we’re certain about that. Had we been able to use even a fraction of today’s technology, certainly we would have reached more people. VISTAs today regularly benefit from computers, email, cell phones and digital photography. They are no longer required to live in the communities they serve.
Terry and Kim June, 2008
Kim leans across the kitchen table in David’s comfortable home and says, “You never really know how many people you affect do you? People don’t always let you know, surely you know that, Bruce, as a teacher. I think there are probably people we met or worked with that do remember many of the things we tried to do.” I am quick to agree. “There may be no way of knowing or measuring our impact, but sometimes just being there, seeing and talking to people on their turf has far reaching consequences,” I say. “I’m certain for many of the folks we tried to help, the presence of a white kid from 2000 miles away, who volunteered to come to their communities, warts and all, was important. It may have been a rare opportunity to share a meal, a story, or, in my case with little Randolf, a bed with someone from another social reality.
“They may have only allowed us in their lives for the $2.00 a night we paid to stay in their places, but by the end we both understood our backgrounds a little better, “ says Terry.
“Hey do you remember the woman we lived with till the end of training in Houston,” Kim adds. “Perry, at the housing project, Perry that was her name.” “Yeah Perry, Terry says, how could I ever forget Perry.”
“This was a woman who’d survived a lot but in the end she had a simple explanation. In her bedroom, right on the nightstand she kept a bottle of bourbon and a Bible. That was it, those two things. That’s all you’ll ever need in this world Perry said, and she meant it.”
If Saul Alinsky’s ideas are any yardstick for success then we can look at what came after VISTA service. He stressed, “starting from where the world is now, not as we would like it to be.” Being a VISTA meant going to that world, surviving there and leaving it somehow different than it had been. To Alinsky, organizing meant working within the system. Ultimately, most of us did. Former VISTAs occupy every level of the health care, legal, and educational systems. They not only are teachers, doctors, attorneys, and journalists, they continue to be artists, musicians, and writers.
There is a very real danger to romanticize the ‘60s while looking back. Media creations like the term “hippie” don’t help. Anyone who was there knows the complexities of that decade and the shifting consciousness that embraced young people was filled with blessings and curses. As writer Leonard Pitts Jr. suggests:
Whatever you think of the ‘60s, though, one thing is undeniable: They
tore us apart, ripped American society to pieces and threw those pieces
in the air so they rained down like confetti, falling into new configurations,
nothing where it used to be. It was an angry time, those who found stability-
“identity”—in the old configurations fighting those intoxicated by the poss-
ibilities of the new.
I’m not sure the pieces that rained down were like confetti. Some of them landed more like bricks in my neck of the woods. Many folks I know are still angry, their cynicism honed into daggers. But the bulk of us remained intact. We may be a bit more judgmental or critical than we used to be, but we continue picking up the pieces of this culture that continue to fall.
The best explanation of what it meant to be a VISTA Volunteer came during our training. One of the trainers, assuming the stance and tone of a Southern preacher told us a version of a story that has many incarnations. He stared silently over his eager flock and began, “If you want to know what VISTA will be like, and if you are ready for this job, let me tell you the story of the chicken and the pig.” He proceeded to relate the tale of a chicken and pig who were walking by a church where a gala charity event was taking place. Caught up in the spirit of giving back the pig suggested to the chicken that they each make a contribution. “Great idea,” the chicken says, “Let’s offer ham and eggs.”
“Not so fast,” said the pig testily. “For you, it’s a contribution. For me, it’s a total commitment.”
After the nervous laughter subsided he finished his presentation with one line:
“We’re asking you for a total commitment.”
Where Are They Now?
By the mid 1980s, I lost contact with most of my VISTA family. A community of innovative educators replaced my troupe of poverty warriors. Over the decades, I had exchanged phone calls with Kim and Arnie a few times, bumped into David around Berkeley occasionally, and spoke to Terry every year between April 4 and 7, our birthdays. When I began this project, I had the power of the Internet in my corner. The ease with which I managed to track down most of the people mentioned in this book never ceases to amaze.
It has always been my opinion that most, if not all of us never drifted far from our values. That translates to working in either helping professions, or some sort of field that promotes social justice. You be the judge.
Of the original 30 or so on the VISTA Houston, Texas list, excluding the one’s who were attorneys, here is what I know:
Jose Arcaya –Forensic psychologist, New York, New York.
Albert Boo Bronson- attorney and photographer
Hugh Grady-College professor, Shakespeare expert, Pennsylvania
Sue (Grady)Wells-College professor, English, college writing, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pa.
Kim Greene-MSW Director Health agency Miami, Fla.
Arnie Reichler- Director Career change program, Chicago Ill.
Larry Schaaf –Professor, History of Photography, Baltimore, Md.
David Soffa- Raconteur, architect, stringed instrument repair, Berkeley, Ca
Terry Toombs- Masseuse, Petaluma, Ca.
Mike Gilfix, attorney and elder care advocate, Mountain View, Ca
Two ex-library books sit on top of the books jammed in the top shelf of a small bookcase in my office. I’ve purchased them online from small bookstores that advertise through the large online powerhouses that dominate the trade. According to my research, they are among the only books ever written about VISTA. Both hardcover, they once sold for top dollar. Now they barely bring one dollar. Aside from an Americorps/VISTA web site featuring vignettes from various volunteers, a fine article written by San Diego Union journalist Lee Grant about his experiences in Houston the year before mine, and a recruitment pamphlet offered as a collectible by Go Antiques .com, they are what remains from the VISTA I knew. The two books, entitled, VISTA and Warriors For The Poor remind me of those old black and white films we used to see in high school. Both volumes have been stamped discarded.