Groton School Chapel Talk by Fred Beams

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Groton School Chapel Talk

January 10, 2008

Delivered by Fred Beams (Nigeria 27, 1966-67)

No doubt the movie aficionados in the audience will recognize these opening lines…“Is it safe…is it safe…is it safe?” These lines are from the mid-70’s movie Marathon Man, and they certainly speak to a topic that’s much discussed these days. Dare I ride a bicycle without a helmet? Go for a run without the protection of sunscreen? Where are the salt and the sand to prevent me from slipping on the January ice? If I were your age, or about 50 years younger, I wonder how the adventures I’m about to relate would differ. I wonder if I would have taken them at all.

During grade school I remember regular trips to the hospital to receive stitches or set broken bones – the result of falling out of trees, fighting with my brothers, or crashing my bicycle. Although I was an active and adventurous kid, nobody gave much thought to my general safety. In fact, my mother insisted that I spend the entire afternoon outside once I got home from school at 3:00. “Be home for dinner at 6:00,” was her only direction, as she gave me a snack and promptly closed the back door.

During high school and college I continued my extra-curricular life of outdoor adventure. I was often bumped and bruised, but now the roughing up took place during organized athletics rather than in my neighborhood. I had developed a certain facility for sprinting as I scrambled for extra yardage on the football field or accelerated toward the lacrosse cage. I loved the risky plays and the daring moves. My persistent academic struggles were offset by the safety I felt playing sports. I understood the rules of the game, and I loved testing my limits. But what happens when we don’t understand the ground rules? And how will we respond when we’re not even sure what game we’re playing?

When I was your age and a student at Loomis, President Kennedy announced the founding of the Peace Corp. Immediately I was intrigued by the focus on helping other people and the lure of adventure in far-off lands. I accomplished a lot in the four weeks that followed my Middlebury graduation in June of 1966. I got married to my first wife, enrolled in the Peace Corps, and moved to Roxbury to begin my training as a high-school teacher headed for Nigeria. The tranquility of the early ‘60’s had abruptly ended, the draft for the Vietnam War was in full force, and civil rights activism was sweeping the nation.

Assigned to a Peace Corps training site in the Boston area, I assumed a continuation of my comfortable Middlebury days. I’d be only a stone’s throw away from Harvard. I imagined balmy fall evenings under the lights at Fenway Park! Arriving at Logan Airport, I was perplexed when a couple of cab drivers refused to take me to my destination. When I finally found a willing cabbie, he barely slowed down long enough to let me out at my new address on Blue Hill Avenue. In fact, a few volunteers from my Boston-based chapter had already self selected OUT of the Peace Corps. They had simply refused to get out of the taxi on Blue Hill Avenue, returned to Logan Airport, and gone home.

As it turns out, Blue Hill Avenue became a new testing ground for my prowess as a sprinter. During the first week of Peace Corps training, I was taunted and chased by a local gang late one night. The thrill of making it to the safe haven of my ramshackle residence was accompanied by a rush as intense…and as satisfying…as anything I’d experienced in organized sports. And when I caught my breath, I wondered what had propelled me to get out of the taxi rather than return to the safety of Logan Airport. The next three months were full - learning about the people, history and customs of Nigeria, adjusting to life in Roxbury, and dealing with the constant surprises that Peace Corps training threw at us. For example, Thursday night (not Sit-down diner) was medical night and we never knew what was around the corner. They pumped us full of shots and vaccines – 25 in all – to guard against the health hazards of equatorial Africa. If we had reactions to any of the medications, we’d be better by next Thursday. Also anxious dental students finally got the chance for hands-on practice. Their assignment was to chisel out the remaining wisdom teeth in our group

Arriving in Nigeria, my group of 12 volunteers was assigned to assorted Catholic Mission Schools in the Midwestern region of the country. The headmaster of our school, Father Jones, picked us up at the Peace Corps training center in Benin City, the capital of the Midwestern Region. We then drove for an hour - took a ferry over the Niger River to Sapele - drove for another hour before turning off onto a nine mile bumpy dirt road filled with deep ruts past our new town Kokori Inland and then to St. Kevin’s School. Finally he dropped us off, all alone, late at night at our new home – a small cement house covered by a corrugated tin roof. We were literally in the middle of nowhere. Exhausted, we fell into bed and secured the mosquito netting just as we had been taught. Protected from the perils of malaria, we dropped off to sleep. But my malaria prevention measures proved fruitless as the effects of a spicy chicken dinner ripped through my gut in the early morning hours. In a mad dash for the outhouse, I tore my mosquito net enough to render it useless. So much for the best laid plans.

Although I had trained for three months to be a teacher, I had never actually conducted a class until I got to Nigeria. My Algebra One class, better known to my students here as Accelerated Algebra 1, was just fine. Introductory science was manageable. And then I was informed that my duties had been expanded. Overnight I had become an English teacher too. Why not? I was a native speaker, and so I could obviously teach the language.

I’ve often wondered why the Groton English Department has never recruited me. Maybe it’s because they found some of the student essays I had corrected in Nigeria. One of my favorite comments was “too confusing” – scrawled in red pen and spelled “t-o c-o-n-f-us- s-i-n-g.” TO CONFUSSING.

Still my students were excited about the class which consisted of 30-plus boys aged 13 to 18, sitting two to a desk in a Groton-sized classroom. The school consisted of cinder block walls four feet high and a tin roof. Open space between the top of the walls and the roof allowed the air to circulate on hot, humid days. When it rained, the headmaster routinely cancelled classes. The pounding of raindrops on the tin roof made it impossible to hear a word.

At first my students, sitting ramrod straight in their white uniforms, were quiet and attentive, eagerly asking questions. At the same time, they were quietly testing their new teacher. Although the school had clear-cut disciplinary procedures, I preferred my own notion of reason and persuasion. I was confident in my approach to discipline until the inevitable square-off occurred. One student was blatantly rude to another. When I called his name and asked him to come forward, his hostile posture and intense glare shot a wave of deadly silence through the classroom.

Punishment at the Kokori Inland School was not delivered in demerits, and I can assure you that “caning” was not included in the Peace Corps curriculum for training teachers. I knew I was out of my depth, but failing to respond would have been my undoing. This student had been slowly but steadily pushing me, and had left me no choice. I told him to go and fetch a green stick. A refusal on his part would require me to send him to the “Mean Dean” who was known for not holding back when he delivered a strike. Offenders routinely returned from his office, their hands covered with good-sized welts. The boy retuned, handed me the stick, held out his hand, and stared straight at me. A weak hit and I’m in trouble, an aggressive strike and I’m a tyrant. I delivered the hit. Because the student flinched, I was required to deliver the strike again. After this incident, I was able to retire my caning stick for good.

Due to the intensity of the noonday heat classes ended at 1:00. Day students went home for lunch, while boarders cooked their mid-day meal over fire pits behind the classrooms. By 4:00 things had cooled down and everyone gathered for athletics. On day one, I was told to meet a group of boys for soccer practice on the field in front of my house. This so-called field was covered with grass that reached my waist. My passion for work crew must stem from this moment! The students arrived waving gleaming machetes. Imagine supervising the second form clearing the Oates Field with machetes. The rhythmic swinging of the broad blades was mesmerizing. Slowly but surely a soccer field began to emerge when suddenly shouts and screams pierced the air. I was sure that someone had severed a leg. Instead a five-foot cobra, slithering through the grass, had bitten Tokumbo, the senior prefect.

The local one-room mission hospital was 12 miles away…down a dirt road much more primitive than the one leading to the boathouse. Since I was the only one with a motorcycle, I was elected to take him to the hospital. There was no time to weigh the risks, although I did wonder about the safety of travel on that unexplored ribbon of dirt. What would happen if Tokumbo fell off the motorcycle? What would I do if he passed out? As we sprinted toward the hospital, we passed rubber trees and an occasional family compound. Tokumbo began to mutter and I feared he was becoming delirious.

Here’s the essence of his ramblings: He had been bitten by the cobra because it had been charmed by his father’s third wife. She was jealous of his mother, his father’s second wife. Among his father’s thirteen wives, wife number two had special status because she had produced the first son. And the first son, the delirious passenger clinging to my waist, was Tokumbo. Naturally she had cause for jealousy and retribution. Tokumbo stated that his father’s third wife had asked a local witch doctor to send a snake to bite him. You always had to be on the lookout for bad juju and Voodoo curses. This was simply part of the territory.

After three days in the hospital, Tokumbo returned to school. He told me that I had saved his life and had become a hero in the eyes of his family. He wanted me to join his clan that weekend for a celebration. We hopped on my motorcycle and rode the ten miles to his village. I joined his father in a tiny mud building on one of the hottest days of the year. It was 112 degrees and 98% humidity. There we ceremoniously shared a warm bottle of Guinness while the rest of the clan gathered outside in the sweltering heat, blocking the doors and windows, and any hope of air circulation, while they pointed, stared, and discussed my virtues.

I often rode my motorcycle on paths narrower than the cross country trail to visit other Peace Corps friends stationed miles away. I imagined myself like Steve McQueen in the Great Escape, courting danger, but always able to sprint to safety. I wore shorts, sunglasses and tall, black rubber boots for protection from the bites of poisonous snakes and rabid dogs. Travel was not easy, but NOT to travel seemed out of the question. I learned to cross rivers by giving pennies to kids who helped load my bike safely into a nearby canoe. To complete my journey, I also learned the necessity of denying pennies to the hoards of kids claiming some relation to the canoe paddlers. I learned to disregard the kids who insisted they had touched my motorcycle in transit. I was always relieved and a bit surprised when I landed safely on the other side of the river.

As time passed I settled into a comfortable routine of teaching, coaching, and interacting with my students. The more time I spent in town, reached by a 15-minute walk or a casual bicycle ride, the more I understood the culture. I was feeling safer by the day. I loved orchestrating trips into town with Gabriel and Michael, fellow Nigerian teachers who had become fast friends. One sunny afternoon while laughing, talking and strolling around town, Gabriel slipped his hand into mine. A common practice among men in Nigeria, I was comfortable enough not to flinch. In fact, I was happy. I remember it as a moment of safe surprise.

Michael was the one who grabbed my arm in a crowded market to prevent my stepping over a seated woman’s legs. Without Michael’s intervention, I would, in Nigerian eyes, have committed an act of rape. Michael’s family was from the Eastern section of Nigeria, an area about the size of Vermont that was at odds with the Northern part of the country. I won’t go into the specifics of the dispute, but like most conflicts it had begun quite innocently, not unlike the bickering of Groton roommates or of fellow classmates. But the situation had gotten to the point where neither side was willing to communicate with the other. Rumor and gossip were dividing the country, swallowing up any hope of negotiation. Battle lines had been drawn, and each side was stubbornly entrenched. People were funneled into different camps, forced to take sides. The events that followed are part of a familiar tale.

The Hausa tribe of the North and the Ibo tribe of the East had a long history of conflict. At this moment in time the Hausa became so enraged that they slaughtered thousands of Ibos living in what they considered to be Hausa territory, loaded their decapitated bodies on to trains, and sent them back to the Eastern Region where they thought they belonged. My friend Michael, an Ibo from the East, was obviously on edge. But we were safe and sound, tucked away in the neutral Midwest region of the country. Having endured the rainy season, I was excited about planning my spring break. I knew Michael would have good ideas for an adventure, and I went looking for him. “He’s gone to visit friends. He’ll be back any day,” I was told. But Michael never came back; he disappeared without a trace.

A few days later I was winding down my second term of teaching math, science AND English at the St. Kevin’s School. My exams were printed, the sun was shining, and I was having a relaxed chat on the front porch with James, our house boy. A Land Rover, only the second vehicle I had seen since arriving in my village nine months earlier, screeched to a halt directly in front of us. The frazzled driver, an employee of a British oil company, delivered the news that a military coup had occurred overnight. The Eastern oil-rich region had declared its independence from Nigeria, and had become a separate state that called itself Biafra. Furthermore Biafra had immediately doubled its size because it had seized my region, the Midwest.

We had touched upon the subject of war during our training, and the Peace Corps had a very clear crisis plan: Stay put. Make no moves until you are contacted directly by a Peace Corps representative. And now an oil man was telling me that I must evacuate immediately. In 24 hours the Nigerian army planned to invade and re-capture the region. If I didn’t make a run for it, I’d be stuck in enemy territory. In fact the other ex-pats in the area had already taken off. If I chose to remain, I would have to fend for myself. The nearest phone, TV, or radio was at least 20 miles away. The regional Peace Corps office was a good three-hour drive. My options were clear - wait for the Peace Corp to issue official instructions or climb aboard my motorcycle and head west. As I considered my options, I no longer felt like Steve McQueen.

An hour later, wearing a backpack that I’d stuffed to the brim, I was traveling down a narrow road in search of a safe haven. Things seemed peaceful until suddenly two figures in army fatigues, their helmets covered with branches, jumped out of the bushes. Pointing their machine guns directly at me, they moved into the middle of the road and signaled me to stop. Naturally I did. A closer look told me that these soldiers were just like my students, Third or Fourth Form boys, assigned to guard the road. They began shouting at me in a language I had never heard. The Eastern tribes, who now called themselves Biafrans, were hunting down anyone who was a Northerner or British because the UK had sided against them during the secession. Following orders, these soldiers had only one concern – who was I…a Brit? I mumbled something about the Peace Corps, and fortunately one of the soldiers broke into a smile saying “ Peazze Core.” He lowered his machine gun and mumbled something about Sapele. Later that afternoon in Sapele, I located a house filled with Peace Corps volunteers, trading stories of narrow escape. We were informed that the next morning we would be transported by a German logging boat down the Niger River to the capital city of Lagos. That night we huddled together in the basement listening to the gunfire of Biafrans taking revenge on any Hausas who remained in the Midwestern region. In the morning we boarded the logging boat that would deliver us to safety in Lagos. Once on board, we discovered that the boat was divided in half - “white people” in the front and thousands of Hausa fleeing the area crammed into the back. As we made our way down the river, desperate Hausa in dugout canoes paddled to the sides of our boat, hoping for a means of escape.

From temporary quarters in Lagos, the Nigerian government assured us that we could return to our schools in no time at all. But time dragged on, and the Peace Corps eventually assigned us to other African countries. It turned out to be a wise decision. For the next four years Biafra was riddled with terror. Images of starving children haunted the rest of the world. Brought to its knees because all trading routes had been blocked, Biafra finally capitulated and rejoined Nigeria in 1971.

Perhaps I will tell you more stories from the second half of my Peace Corps adventures in Ethiopia in another chapel talk. Meanwhile, you’ll find yourself in lots of situations where you must weigh the risks, and decide whether or not to move forward. Often you’ll be tempted to join those Peace Corps volunteers who chose to opt out of the program. But before you ask the cabbie to return you to Logan Airport, consider stepping out of the taxi. Otherwise you’ll never know what’s waiting for you on Blue Hill Avenue and beyond.

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