I was on the Big Island of Hawaii for a Peace Corps training program – four months of intensive language study before I and 150 other newly minted college grads shipped out to South Korea to teach English. It was the fall of 1968, and we were housed in a World War II-era Army hospital in Hilo, where we had classes from Monday morning until noon on Saturday. We’d been told that we could safely hitchhike around the island, but few of us had dared to try.
We’d been there only a couple of weeks when we were roused and assembled one Saturday morning for a surprising announcement: Pack what you’d need for two nights, board the yellow school buses, and don’t come back until Monday morning.
I dashed to my room and grabbed my backpack and a jar of peanut butter. I had maybe $3 in cash. As all of us tried to sort out what was happening, our assigned bus headed west.
Every five minutes the driver stopped, called out two names, and showed those bewildered trainees the door. I was dropped off with a woman who promptly turned around and headed back the way we’d come in order to meet up with her boyfriend, who was waiting 10 minutes behind us.
So there I stood, by myself, on the verge of Highway 11, on the southwest corner of the Kona Coast. I might as well have been dropped on the far side of the moon.
I started walking toward the ocean for want of a better plan – any plan. Turning off at the next mile marker, I was only minutes down a rutted dirt road when a vintage station wagon pulled up beside me. “You hitchhike?” the driver asked, then laughed. “Come to our house,” Joe Lorenz said, and off we rumbled, to Ho‘okena Beach Park.
“Joe, he’s always bringing people home,” his wife, Mabel, told me as she tossed my backpack onto a cot on the lanai that would be my bed. The Lorenz house was one of a dozen structures huddled by a black-sand beach where youngsters chased one another in the gentle surf.
As the wiry Filipino handyman and his formidable Hawaiian wife walked me around the settlement, I was welcomed like a long-lost relative. Although this clearly was a locals’ beach, Joe and Mabel were making sure that I was counted as family.
The circle widened as Lorenz teenagers arrived home at noon from jobs and were introduced to their new auntie. Supper that evening was rice served from a humongous pot and uku, or gray snapper, that Mabel and a handful of Ho‘okena women had speared on the reef the previous night.
On Sunday morning Mabel and Joe invited me to go to church with them. Soft trade winds blew through the open-air nave, and worshippers sang hymns in mellifluous Hawaiian. It was a beautiful start to the day.
At the end of the service I shook the pastor’s hand and thanked him for his words. “No,” he said. “We thank the Peace Corps.” With that, he gathered all the bills from the collection plate and put them in my hands.
It was a weekend distilled from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” right down to the DeLuxe-colored sunsets. Later, the kids and I built sand castles, and that evening we gathered for a luau, complete with roast pig, in honor of a neighbor’s son who was leaving to join the Job Corps.
I would later learn that many of my fellow Peace Corps trainees spent that weekend trying to sort out what had happened to them and why. As they made their way to resorts to sleep under royal palms and beg dinner rolls from waiters in beach-side restaurants, they considered their takeaways from the experience. Had this been an exercise in resourcefulness? In cross-cultural awareness? Was it about finding community or redefining family? Taking risks? There was no one answer for everyone.
My ultimate takeaway from an unforgettable weekend? Thirty-seven dollars and an incalculable expectation of adventures to come – in Korea, and beyond.