I recorded an interview about my time in the Peace Corps for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Archive. You can listen to it here.
I recently wrote an article on oattravel.com in response to their question "What have you brought home from a trip–in your suitcase, heart, or mind–that keeps the destination with you?" You can read about it here.
“If you ever go across the sea to Ireland…” My sixteen-year-old alto voice harmonized with Celeste’s soaring soprano as we rehearsed Galway Bayfor the fiftieth time. The quartet I’d organized prepared for its singing debut at the Washington High Harvest Dance in October 1959. I’d been a Sacred Heart Shamrock in Miles City, Montana for the past three years. Now, in my senior year, I was a Washington Husky. I’d left a class of twenty-four and become one of 382 seniors. I would use my singing talent as a way to fit in at my new high school.
I swooned to Galway Bay’slilting lyrics, “…then maybe at the closing of your day you can sit and watch the moon rise over Claddah or watch the sun go down on Galway Bay…” though I had no idea in 1959 where Claddah or Galway Bay was. Fifty-nine years later, on a twenty-day excursion to Ireland, I found the meaning of both.
My husband, Walter, and I began our April trip with seven days in Northern Ireland. The streets of Belfast, lined by harsh, linear cement-like buildings, at first seemed dark and uninviting. But on day two, the sun shone through the stained-glass windows of Belfast’s white-stone City Hall and splattered green, blue and red across its variegated rust and white Italian marble pillars and floors. My spirits and opinion brightened. On a tour of the city building, I discovered that three elected women ran the local government. My admirations for this progressive place increased. In the hall’s museum, I donned an official red robe and Walter snapped a photo of me sitting in an ornate wood-carved magistrate’s chair. I felt regal.
Our next excursion proved more sobering. Our guide told us about the Troubles, the 1960-to-1998 civil conflict responsible for the deaths of 3,600 civilians and paramilitaries. Former Prime Minister of England, Tony Blair, and former President Clinton were also in Belfast to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of The Good Friday Resolution, when the hostilities ceased. We didn’t run into them.
Our tour bus drove us past colorful paintings on the sides of buildings that display the faces of the heroes of both Nationalist Catholics and Unionist Protestants. Captions below the building-size murals praise those on both sides for their bravery. We continued on to the Peace Wall, put up in 1969 to keep the two warring sides apart. Statements by regular and world-renowned citizens, expressing a desire for peace, fill the three-mile long, sixteen-foot high stretch we saw. The wall has yet to be removed due to continue angry feelings between the two populations. Many still live in separate areas and their children attend segregated schools.
“Just to hear again the ripple of the trout stream. The women in the meadow makin’hay…” The second verse to the Galway Bay song ran through my mind as our tour bus drove north on the left side of narrow, hedge-lined roads. We passed verdant green fields dotted with fluffy, suckling newborn lambs. The homes looked like they’d recently been painted white. Rows of daffodils, tulips or well-arranged heather plants decorated their manicured yards. We crossed several clear trout streams but I saw no women making hay.
At the Giant’s Causeway at the top of the island country, Walter led me out onto some of the 40,000 flat, hexagonal, basalt rock formations. They stretch under the sea, from Northern Ireland to Scotland. Some 60 million years ago boiling lava erupted into the Irish Sea from an underground fissure and formed the honeycomb-like structures, some 130 feet high. But an Irish legend says that the Causeway was actually the work of Finn McCool who used it to escape the Scottish giant Benandonner. This is but one of many Irish legends we were told.
A guard stopped us from walking to the edge where the Atlantic Ocean crashes onto the rocks. Going out too far on the foot-wide steps could be treacherous, he explained. The day before he’d almost been washed into the tumultuous waters by a rogue wave.
“…orto sit beside a turf fire in a cabin and watch the barefoot gossoms as they play.”We sat in huts and castles where the acrid, grey smoke from turf fires burned my throat. Novels of Ireland speak of ancient peat moss bogs where the damp, spongy, rotted fuel is dug out in brick-form. After months drying upright teepee-style the bricks are ready to be burned.
Gossoms, or good obliging fellows who help when they can, describe every Irish person we met, though none were barefoot. Locals were always eager to give directions or walk us to the place we’d asked them about. I especially appreciated their help holding my feet so I didn’t fall 150 feet from the castle top when I bent over backwards to kiss the Blarney Stone. That feat is not designed to be accomplished by short people like me.
“Oh the breezes blowing o’re the sea from Ireland are perfumed by the heather as they blow. And the women in the uplands diggin’ praties speak a language that the strangers do not know.” Walter and I were blown horizontal by the strong winds at the Cliffs of Moher that tower 700 feet above the crashing ocean surf. We climbed along the muddy, unfenced path clinging to our winter coats, lest they be ripped from our shivering bodies. Spits of water from the Atlantic anointed our heads as we stood marveling at the precipitous rock formations. Luckily, the winds blew inward so we weren’t pushed toward the ocean. Even Ireland’s frequent rains held off during our entire visit. Praties, the Irish potato, sustained millions of poor labor-class families, until a fungus wiped out the crops between 1845 and 1849. Then, one million Irishmen died of hunger and another million immigrated, most to the United States. Walter and I ate either fried, mashed, baked or boiled potatoes at every meal. They were delicious.
“Oh the strangers came and tried to teach us their ways. They blamed us just for bein’ what we are, but they might as well go chasing after moonbeams or light a penny candle from a star…”verse four goes. Like many countries, Irish history is replete with battles, bloodshed, and heroes. England annexed, then lost Ireland many times between 1100 and 1921. At times they prohibited the Irish from speaking their Gaelic language, obtaining education and jobs, and intermarriage with the English. In 1649 Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland, knocked down castles, destroyed entire towns, and beheaded any who rose against him.
The Irish independence agreement signed in 1921 left as part of the United Kingdom, six of the nine counties in the north. Three other northern counties were excluded because their slightly larger Catholic population would have outnumbered the Protestants, potentially resulting in electing mostly Catholic officials. The remaining twenty-six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties comprise The Republic of Ireland, which is part of the European Union. Citizens and leaders on both sides worry about how the long border between Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland will be affected by Britain’s split from the EU next year. Currently the border is free-flowing and open with no visible boundaries and no guards. They do not want to return to the heavily guarded checkpoints that existed during the Troubles.
Early in the trip, in Kilkenny, I had purchased a ring because it had a green stone. Upon arriving home, I was surprised when I looked at it closely. Two hands held the heart-shaped stone and a crown rested at the top. Then I remembered. At our final stop in Galway, the city was referred to as Claddagh because the ring is said to have originated there. The traditional ring is called a Claddagh. The heart represents love, the two hands, friendship and the crown, loyalty. I’d experienced all three on this trip and was delighted with my unintentional purchase.
And if there’s going to be a life hereafter and something tells me sure there’s going to be. I will ask my God to let me make my heaven in dear old land across the Irish Sea. Applause filled the Washington High auditorium that October evening in 1959, signaling the success of my quartet. The Irish tune had secured me an honorable place with my new senior class. Fifty-eight years later in 2018, I was happy to now comprehend the Galway Bay song, though it is no longer in my singing repertoire. But our young Irish guide, Mauve, sang it in her sweet soprano voice. The melody ushered me out of green, verdant and picturesque Ireland. I’m left with fond memories of a kind, fun-loving, interesting and musical people—my kind of heaven.
Each spring a torrent of muddy water raced through the deep ditch in front of my school. Only the bravest boys attempted to walk across the sideless four-plank bridge when the water surged over its top. Ismay School’s four teachers detoured a block downstream and entered at the corner of the schoolyard. There, a culvert took the rushing waters under the gravel road down to Fallon Creek. The rest of the year, the trench was bone dry.
On a sunny April Saturday, when I was seven, I put on my white rubber overboots and the teddy bear coat with the red trim Mom made me. I climbed through the barbed wire fence across the road from our house determined to find the origin of the angry, churning waters. I clambered up the hill through ankle-high grass, stepping around mud puddles and through piles of snow the size of anthills. I jumped over streams that raced around limestone boulders and emptied into gullies. Water snaked from every direction on the hill as if an imaginary faucet was open behind each sagebrush. My face was hot under the sun’s rays in the clear Montana sky when I reached the top.
I took off my coat, perched on a rock and gazed in amazement at the liquid moving around me. The hilltop had no dirty rushing waters like that I’d witnesses surging over the school’s bridge. Quiet rivulets flowed into streams fed by the melting snow. I jumped down from the rock. Calm waters gurgled beneath my boots. I smiled. I had discovered something new.
The streaming forces of nature were like those that shaped my life. The emotional eddies that flowed through the hills and gullies of my Montana childhood began as silent streams of religious reverence and family protection. My desires developed at a creek’s pace when I was a teen, then erupted like a storm-stirred ocean as I entered my twenties. When I was twenty-two the waters gathered together and a tsunami of emotion swept me away.
From six to sixteen I lived in Ismay, a small cow town of two hundred, tucked into the southeastern corner of Montana. I was the eldest of three sisters and a brother. Our ’46 Ford carried us along Highway 12 to and from doctors’ appointments and shopping in Miles City, seventy miles away. At mile fifty-nine going home, we had to chose which road to take. Should we take the six-mile or the eleven-mile road? The roads formed a triangle with the highway. Each thoroughfare had its advantages.
The eleven-mile was narrow with ruts that ran deep in the hard packed gumbo dirt. But, it was more direct, so we could get home quicker. The six-mile was straight, wide, and graveled and so had few grooves. If we chose it, we’d have to drive two sides of the triangle, and the trip took longer.
If Dad was in a hurry to get home to milk the cow before dark, he turned the car off the highway at the eleven-mile road. Then, we would choke on the powdery dust as the car bumped over the deep gashes in the road. We didn’t chose this road in rain or snow for fear of getting stuck. Taking the six-mile was longer because we turned onto it farther down Highway 12. However, there, the car kicked up less dust and we wouldn’t get delayed if we encountered bad weather. The six-mile and the eleven-mile roads were like the behaviors we faced in Ismay: rough, fast and short versus safe, slow, and long.
Whichever route we took, the scenery was the same. Grain fields spread out beyond barbed wired fences. Farms and ranches poked up suddenly behind low rolling hills. The colors of the fields changed with the seasons. In summer some were yellow, pregnant with ripened wheat and others white with feathery frostings of seedlings blowing down from cottonwood trees. In fall, the fields lay brown and fallow, resting. In winter, they were white with snow. In spring, they were carpeted with the green of new shoots of grain.
The six-mile and the eleven-mile roads joined at Fallon Creek flowing fifteen feet below the Big Red Bridge, named for it’s rusting iron sides. All vehicles crossed the bridge’s one-lane with care. For city folk, getting their car to straddle the two elevated planks, that rose a few inches above the wooden platform, was unnerving. Locals didn’t worry about staying on the boards spread six inches apart or about a truck headed towards them. They knew the rules. Never turn the steering wheel when on the bridge. The first vehicle to the bridge has the right of way.
For the mile after the bridge, cottonwood trees peered down from thirty-foot tops and waved all comers into town along a gravel road. We bumped over two sets of Milwaukee Railroad tracks, took the second street to the right, and were on Main Street.
The town looked like those in the Wild West movies I saw Sundays in the Ismay school auditorium. We had cowboys on horses trotting down Main Street past false fronted buildings. In Ismay dogs ran free and neighbors’ pigs rooted among weeds in vacant lots. My family’s pig, like us, didn’t roam the streets. Mom and Dad corralled us safely on our three-acre property along with a cow, a few pigs and chickens and a garden. We were sheltered from the wildness of the bars—and the town’s other vulgarities, like cursing.
Kids wouldn’t swear in front of us. If one said, “Damn” or worse, “Goddamn,” the other children were quick to correct the blasphemer. “Oh, you can’t say that when the Kohl kids are here,” they said. The offender would apologize and change his choice of words.
My parents expected us to be well behaved and adhere to the Ten Commandments and the Catholic rules taught in Sunday school and summer catechism classes. Since I was the eldest, I had to set a good example. But, I wasn’t always the angel they wanted, especially when sweets were involved. Once, when I was four, Mom noted my sticky hands and confronted me about the missing “juicy roll” she had made for the following morning’s breakfast. “I didn’t eat the roll,” I said before we sat down for supper.
“Evelyn, if you disobey me or lie,” Mom said with a stern look, “you won’t go to heaven.” I thought for a bit. Mom stood over me her hands on her hips. “Oh yes I will,” I said, looking into Mom’s accusing eyes, “I’ll just hang onto your hand to get there.” Her anger disappeared. At least I could count on returning to angelic status in summer catechism classes.
“Who thinks they have a religious vocation to become a priest or a sister?” asked Father Hanrahan the summer before I turned nine. The handful of Catholic children perspiring in the sweltering classroom at Ismay school looked longingly at the crystal rosary dangling from the seminarian’s hand. Shining like a diamond necklace, I knew it would be the reward for anyone who answered positively.
My arm shot up high, “I do, Father,” I said, “I am going to become a nun.” The prize, once again, was mine.
That afternoon, feeling pleased with my growing collection. I placed the crystal rosary in the dresser drawer next to my stack of holy cards and pile of religious medals. I’ d been awarded a white rosary that glowed in the dark the week before by my positive answer to Father’s other question: “Who has never committed a mortal sin?” I’d committed plenty of venial sins like talking about others, teasing my sisters and sassing my mother but never one of those big ones like stealing, killing, taking God’s name in vain or adultery, whatever that was.
This newest rosary was bigger and shinier than the one with pea-sized beads. I prayed with one of my prizes every Saturday evening when the family knelt in the living room around the sofa my parents built and another on Sundays when we drove eighteen miles to Mass at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Plevna.
Mom read to us every weeknight from a Catholic children’s newsletter and The Lives of the Saints. I pictured St. Catherine of Sienna starving or St. Sebastian with scores of swords stuck into his chest as I jumped into bed and huddled under the covers. I feared they, or the Blessed Virgin, would appear. More than my imagination made me ill with fright when I was in sixth grade and my protective bubble burst.
If a “killer tomato” and a “chicken bus” collide, would it result in a chicken-tomato stew? These are names for the colorful buses of Guatemala. They careen around mountains in the countryside and through crowded streets in the cities. But these missiles of mayhem start their lives as mild mannered school buses in the United States or Canada.
After years of transporting students they may be used as spare buses until maintenance costs dictate they be sold. At that point a potential owner buys the bus at a bargain price with a certified check, money order or cash. He arranges for a Guatemalan driver to go north to Canada or the U.S. and get his prize. The driver’s pay is $1000, less expenses for lodging, food and gas during the two-week trip. He joins the drivers of thousands of other used cars, trucks and buses taken down the PanAmerican Highway from Brownsville, Texas, through Mexico to Guatemala and points south.
The new owner of a bus may pay from $5,000 to $10,000 to have the bus modified and painted. If it will be used on mountainous roads, it’s cut shorter, so as not to overturn on sharp curves. Seats that previously sat up to 78 students, are placed closer together with less padding to accommodate a maximum number of paying occupants. Manual transmissions replace automatic ones for greater control and better gas mileage. While the interior and the engine are being modified, the outside is painted with colorful, vibrant designs or tomato red. The bus is given a name that reflects it’s new personality. A bus route is applied for and a tax paid for the first year of operation.
Two men partner in operating a bus: the driver, who hopefully has a driver’s license, and a helper who shouts out destinations, collects fares, sweeps passengers on and off and organizes luggage, livestock and produce inside and on the roof, often while the bus is in motion.
The bus system in Guatemala is difficult to decipher; there may not be a system. Scores of independent companies serve most places anyone wants to go. There is an extensive network going to every town, village and tourist destination, but it is complex and decentralized with no plan as to where the bus terminals are located Riders can’t predict where they’ll be let off or how safe an area will be.
Compared with other modes of transportation, buses are inexpensive and therefore, crowded. The red city buses are temptingly cheap at 25 cents a ride, especially if you have to cross town. In Guatemala many are painted a bright tomato red color and zoom around at high speeds. They stop every few blocks along city streets to pick up riders and have an armed guard on board to prevent robberies. The buses careen wildly on the streets of the capitol city Multicolored chicken buses, often transporting live animals, roam urban and rural roads. Both kinds of busses are frequently involved in accidents, though more assaults take place on the red buses.
“Killer tomato” buses earned their reputation because they are easy targets of extortion and violence by street gangs, organized crime and drug cartels. so they are driven by aggressive operators at high speeds. There is no authorized public transportation system in many cities so the drivers often rent from a bus owner and receive subsidies from the government when they help provide transportation. This money and the cash from passengers makes them vulnerable to being robbed. Once extortion money is paid, the criminals often up the ante until it no longer pays to run the bus.
The cost of hiring armed security guards makes a profit even less likely and doesn’t always discourage thefts. Justice has historically been weak to the point that the homicide rate in Guatemala is more than 48 per 100,000 inhabitants. (In Mexico it is 14; in the U.S. 5, per 2009 statistics.) In 2010, 130 bus drivers and 53 bus helpers were murdered, according to El Periódico, the Guatemalan daily paper.
On chicken buses there is little to fear except a bruised tailbone from bouncing over speed bumps at the entrance to each village. Occasionally, a zealot gets on for a few miles to loudly preach his religious dogma to the captive audience imprisoned like sardines in a can. He is soon replaced by Indian women dressed in blouses, skirts and head coverings of dizzying Mayan designs transporting their poultry and vegetables to and from the market.
How many people can fit into a chicken bus? Always one more. And, when there is a collision, it is a colorful stew.
“Italian Cruise Ship with 4200 Aboard Capsizes off Italian Coast,” shouted the headlines on every TV, radio and newspaper on Saturday morning, January 14. Oh those poor people, I thought as I watched the first cell phone pictures of passengers, wrapped in beige blankets or orange life jackets, struggle to leave the sinking ship in the night. How frightening to be eating dinner and suddenly have your food slide to the floor because your ship is tipping over, I empathized, even though I’ve only been on a couple of cruises. Then came videos of the dark hallways crowded with masses waiting to exit. I could hear children crying in the background. No one on board, including the cowardly captain, seemed to know the extent of the danger they were in. So many, except the captain, were uncertain how to escape. As the day wore on, it appeared most everyone had abandoned ship by either jumping into the water, climbing down the ship’s tipping side or making it into a lifeboat. I was relieved for them, and the story began to move to the back of my mind.
The next headline was “American Couple from Minnesota missing on Italian Cruise Liner.” Reports gave the number of Americans on the Costa Concordia, and said all but two had gotten off safely. Do they report that because American lives are more precious than any other nationality, I thought. The U.S. media always distinguishes between Americans and all others, as if there are only two types of people on earth: Americans and others less important. Is that a bias or feeding our public what it wants to know?
On Sunday morning I was reading an e-mail from my cousin Jan in Minnesota when a photograph of her sister, Barbara Ann Heil and Barbara’s husband, Jerry, flashed across the TV screen. My God, that’s my first cousin they say is missing! My next thought was, What an awful photo of her. Couldn’t her children have found one that showed her with hair?
Jan’s memo verified the report: my cousin Barbara and her husband were missing. The story immediately moved to the front of my mind and became personal. I needed to know everything. I googled “Italian cruise ship,” and read my cousin’s name on fifteen news stories. I wrote Jan to say I hoped they’d be found soon and offered her my limited knowledge of Italian. I felt helpless. I took out the photograph of barb’s fifteen young grandchildren she had mailed to me this past Christmas. She sent one of their smiling faces every year. She attended countless numbers of their communions, recitals, swim meets and soccer, baseball and basketball games. Who would take her place if she were gone forever, I worried.
I posted one of the articles I found, onto my Facebook page. I desperately hoped someone might respond who had seen Barb and Jerry in a video or encountered them getting off the ship. Jan, who was now in Italy with Sarah and Jon, two of the Heil’s four children, immediately wrote asking me to take down the posting. They were trying to control media access to the family, which was extremely difficult and very stressful. My publicizing information wouldn’t help. I listened to a radio interview Sarah had given saying how her parents had worked hard all their lives to give their children private school educations all through college and just now were spending money on themselves. A family blog started on Tuesday, January 17. I went to it hourly hoping for good news.
I kept imagining Barb and Jerry stuck in their cabin. A Korean couple was found stranded in their compartment, but there was no news about my cousin. Ironic, I thought, Barb and Jerry adopted a Korean orphan over thirty years ago, named her Sarah, and made her part of their family.
Maybe they stayed on the ship because they couldn’t swim, or they helped others get to safety first. That would be so like them. All her life Barb had cared for others. She helped a son cope with Crohn’s disease, nursed her husband through serious back surgery and every day made food and delivered it to homeless shelters. These were just the challenges I knew about from her letters and Jan’s visits. She came through pancreatic cancer and a hip replacement; maybe she can survive crashing onto a rocky reef. Why do I mourn someone who’s not been a major part of my life since childhood?
After my parents moved us to California when I was sixteen I saw Barb twice: once, on her way to teach native Alaskan children at a missionary school in the middle of northern Alaska (after three years of college), and again in 2005 when my husband and I visited her and her two sisters in Minnesota. The specter of death brings back wistful reflections of our childhoods together.
Our fathers were brothers who visited one another with their families of same-aged girls every few months. We lived in eastern Montana and Uncle Joe lived on a farm in western North Dakota, three hours away. We would arrive at their farm and head for my cousins’ playhouse. For hours, we made green salads out of weeds and hamburgers out of thick grey North Dakota mud. We dressed our dolls in frocks we had sewn. Together, we rode their ponies, chased the sheep and gathered the eggs from the hen house. When it was time for real salad and hamburgers (products of their farm) we giggled at the picnic table in their tree-lined windbreak . After a dessert of homemade ice cream, it was time to head back to Montana in time to milk the cows. We always hated to leave.
Two weeks after the Costa Concordia’s accident, e-mails from Jan have diminished. A more attractive photo was displayed on televison (thank heavens!). I saw Sarah and Jon on CBS in the prow of a boat placing daisies in the sea for their mother and white roses for their father. Hillary Clinton called Sarah with condolences. The Heil Family Update blog is the only news being quoted by the hungry media; it has moved on to more current disasters. Caring friends and relatives keep praying, but we now hope that the bodies of Barb and Jerry will soon be found so their children can bring them from Italy for services in Minnesota.
I am left to contemplate death—and life: what it means to have lost someone I loved when a child but so seldom saw after; how different her life and faith were from mine; and how deep must her loss be to her children, young grandchildren and community. Most of all, I think of other deaths, my father’s, my brother’s and my own which somehow seems so much closer now. Everyone I have known is a part of me, maybe a tiny part, and their passing affects me. If we believe that we are all a part of the whole of humanity then everyone’s passing affects everyone else.