A Sweet Romance

My son, Neil, was home from Africa after spending two years in the Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa, and another year or so working with some Italian Missionaries in Uganda. We were having lunch in this trippy restaurant just south of the old Cooey-Bentz. It was run by Vi McGan’s sister. At any rate, she fed the hungry whether we could pay or not and of course went out of business. The first time I was there, a nun in habit was playing the piano. Another was playing the violin. It was one of those places where everyone felt at home and if they had a talent it was offered and always appreciated.

We ran into Jean Galla, the mother of one of Neil’s grade school buddies and Neil tried to talk her into joining the Peace Corps. Jean was a highly trained nurse and I could understand that she would have lot to offer in a third world country.

We left the restaurant and on the sidewalk Neil said to me “Dad, you are the one who should join the Peace Corps.” I believe the reason he said this was because I had taken Andy, Neil’s younger brother, to Togo to visit Neil for two weeks and we had an adventure out of National Geographic. We rode two trail bikes, Neil and I on one and Andy on the other. I believe Andy was sixteen at that time. There are many stories about those two weeks, like taking Polaroid pictures.

We went to see the traditional chief in the village where Neil lived, which was a formal audience and an official call, requiring the wearing of long trousers, so I took the Polaroid.   After tendering a gift of Marsh Wheeling Stogies (the cellophane wrapper was a problem), Neil asked in Kabye, for permission to “take a photo”.   The chief granted me permission and I snapped one of him. He was very regal sitting in his armchair dressed in a white comple, holding his cane capped with the silver head of an elephant. He was beside himself trying to maintain his dignity and restrain from coming to see what was going on watching this absolute magic of the images coming out of a little box that made noise. They had no mirrors in this village, so it took a few moments to figure out that the person on the paper that came out of the little box was they. Then, their fear overcome by curiosity, everyone wanted a picture to see what they looked like.

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My big regret is that I didn’t bring a sign from the hotel room in Lome, the capital, which warned that all animals had to be out of the rooms by eleven o’clock. But this is a love story so I will get on with it.

My response to Neil’s statement was “What would an investment broker do in Togo?!” I had not seen any Peace Corps Volunteers who were not in their young twenties so I thought he was joking. He told me in all seriousness that they were looking for older volunteers. It was in that moment I knew I wanted to serve in the Peace Corps, that I had wanted to do it all my life, but it wasn’t until that very second that I realized it! I asked him how to apply. He gave me an 800 number to call and when I got back to my office, I called and asked if they would please send two applications.

Susan and I had been seeing each other for three years or so and were in love, at least I was. We had a problem. Susan was Executive Director of the Wheeling Symphony and she kept saying she had this feeling that she would be leaving Wheeling but didn’t know why. I was a good deal older than she and could not visualize starting over in a new town, so I believed that we may be at an impasse.

I called her and asked her to have dinner with me that evening. We drove to “Little Washington” to a dinner club to which I belonged. It was late winter, cold, damp, windy, really miserable weather. There were no violins, the food was less that ordinary and the service worse. I said to her “Guess what I did today?” She bit and I told her that I had requested two applications from the national Peace Corps office.

I knew I was going. There was a second of silence that lasted a million years, and then she replied, “I have wanted to go into the Peace Corps ever since I was in high school, but I always thought it would be after I retired, like Miss Lillian Carter.” I said that was great, but that we would have to get married. She replied “That is OK with me.”

I tell people, “I told Susan if she would marry me I would take her to exotic places.”  And I did. We spent three years in Cove, Benin, located in West Africa. That was thirty years ago.