I’m not surprised that Peace Corps produces writers. It’s a sure-fire recipe for encouraging close observation and self-reflection, the essence of writing. Take a middle-class, idealistic young American, toss him or her into a radically different culture, add mental discomfort and oddball adventure, let simmer for two years, and the literary pot inevitably boils over -- one, ten or thirty years later. It starts with confusion and emotion poured into humorous letters home, graduates to existential diaries and unpolished short stories and – given persistence and enough talent – ends in Theroux (as in Paul, Peace Corps Volunteer, Malawi, Africa 1963-1965).
A lot of us returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) writers gather online at www.peacecorpswriters.org Founder and webmaster John Coyne was the one who first alerted me to this new community of writers, Red Room. John has penned half a dozen books, his latest being The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007). Almost 1,000 RPCVs and Peace Corps staff members have published books since JFK launched the Peace Corps in 1961. In 2011, Peace Corps celebrates its 50th anniversary with a set of four books filled with our penned stories. Collecting the tales are four RPCVs who created www.peacecorpsat50.org. It makes sense that three of them served in the Peace Corps during the Vietnam War, like I did -- Jane Albritten (India 1967-69), Pat Alter (Paraguay 1970-72), and Dennis Cordell (Chad 1968-70). The Vietnam War and the Sixties defined us, providing high-drama, moral, social and cultural experiences and adventures denied to the Eisenhower generation which preceded us. If you lived through the Sixties, how could you not write?
I joined the Peace Corps in 1969 to avoid the draft. I didn’t want to die in a war I considered immoral, stupid and unwinnable. I ended up in Thailand, right on the doorstep of South Vietnam, teaching English in the capital city, Bangkok, at a famous Buddhist monastery school where the current King of Thailand served his brief monkhood. I spent three years in the “Land of Smiles,” made a small difference in the lives of a few Thai kids, learned a whole lot about myself, and had experiences that today I still struggle to understand and put into words.
While still a Volunteer, I secretly started free-lancing under a pen name for the local English-language newspaper, the Bangkok World. I fancied myself the next Hemingway. Sterling Seagrave was my editor at the paper’s Sunday magazine. Sterling’s knowledge and contacts in the region were mind-boggling. His family had lived in the Orient for five generations. His Christian missionary-physician father, Lt. Col. Dr. Gordon Seagrave was the famous “Burma Surgeon” of World War II featured in Time magazine. Dr. Seagrave served as the chief medical officer for General Joseph Stillwell, commander of allied troops in China, Burma and India, and worked with the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA. He remained in Burma after the war to run a hospital up where the jungled borders of China, Laos and Thailand bumped together in the Golden Triangle. Sterling grew up there.
Sterling was a freelance journalist hoping to pen a novel, just like me. But the similarities ended there. Only six years older than me, Sterling had already logged a lifetime of Tin-Tin adventures and boasted a sheaf of clippings that left me sick with envy. In 1958, Sterling spent nine months with Fidel Castro during the Cuban revolution, was arrested by Batista’s secret police and jailed for three days in Havana’s notorious El Principe prison. He spent the next six years writing for a dozen Stateside newspapers and magazines, including four years with the Washington Post, ending up as assistant foreign news editor. He returned to Burma in 1965 to visit his dying father and stayed on in Indochina. The Vietnam War was a magnet for freelancers and saleable stories were everywhere. His byline appeared in Life, Esquire and the Far Eastern Economic Review, and finally the Bangkok World snapped him up.
He became my mentor – and he almost got me kicked out of Peace Corps. More on that later, but I can’t close this one without disclosing what happened to Sterling in the years since we worked together, and why I list him first under “Influences” on my Author Page.
Today he’s living in the South of France, an internationally famous author of a dozen books about Asia, and still chasing adventure. When Harper published his book The Soong Dynasty in 1985, he received death threats from unhappy Taiwanese connected to the ruling Chiang Kai-Shek family and went into hiding for a year with his family. Wise move. A year before, another journalist had written a negative book on the family and was shot to death. In his 1988 book The Marcos Dynasty, he chronicled the rapacious rule of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos who fled the impoverished country with a billion dollars in Swiss banks after being overthrown in 1986. His wife fled the country with him, leaving behind a closet filled with 2,500 pairs of shoes. Sterling’s literary tour of Asia continued with Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China, published in 1992; and Lords of the Rim: The Invisible Empire of the Overseas Chinese, issued in 1995 and a perennial best-seller. He divorced Wendy Law-Yone and married his second wife Peggy who co-authored with him The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan's Imperial Family (2000), and Gold Warriors: America's Secret Recovery of Yamashita's Gold (2003). In an interview for Contemporary Authors, he explained: “"Writing books about Asia helps me to sort out the past, to separate the truth from the fiction, the fact from the propaganda, and to see it all a bit more clearly. It keeps me involved with things that have always meant a lot to me.”
For reasons I’ll get to later, I had always wondered if Sterling was CIA. The truth turns out to be stranger than fiction. I recently found out Sterling had two brothers who worked for the CIA. One brother worked for the Agency as a "plumber" (planting bugs, opening people's mail, etc.). His other brother, recruited out of MIT where he studied engineering, actually designed the “black box” unit I mentioned in a Ho Chi Minh Trail story I wrote for the Bangkok World (his brother received an “Intelligence Star” award from the Agency for his invention.) Sterling himself insists he never worked for the CIA. “I was the black sheep in the family and was always blacklisted by the Agency and the Justice Department and nearly everyone else for spats I had with various ambassadors and CIA station chiefs. But I met a lot of Agency guys – some of whom assumed I was my brother and told me things they never should have.”
Sterling is my gold standard for a writer.