Shared Stories: A Peace Corps Odyssey

Anthony Kingsley gave two years in service to the ideal of international brotherhood.  He received much in return.  It’s a timely story for this Thanksgiving season. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Anthony Kingsley

In 1994 I was getting bored and while reading the job advertisements in the LA Times I came across a notice for a presentation at the Long Beach Library being given by some Peace Corps Volunteers who had just returned from Central America.

I attended and thought - that’s neat. So I completed the application to be a Volunteer. I remember one question – Where would you like to serve?  I answered Barbados, Fiji and some other places with a nice warm ocean and swaying palm trees. 

I got accepted – for Poland. Later I got a letter from Medical – you cannot be cleared because your tests indicate that you have a serious heart problem. I went to a cardiologist who looked at the printout and said he knew what the problem was. He did another EKG and it was normal. The previous technician had hooked up the terminals wrong.

By this time the deadline for Poland had passed. So I was given a choice – Armenia, Bulgaria or Kyrgyzstan. I accepted Armenia. Now I did not know that these four countries had a warm ocean and swaying palm trees.

Just before Memorial Day 1995 I was on a plane to Washington DC for orientation and to meet the other thirty-one Volunteers. We were A3, meaning the third group to Armenia.
A few days later we were on a plane to Paris. But it was only for a five-hour layover.  Then it was on to Yerevan on Armenian Airlines. 

As we were coming in to land there were no lights. But just before we were about to touch down they turned on the runway lights. 

Peace Corps transported us to the Armenia Hotel on Republic Square.  That night we went out walking and the fountains were all lit up, couples walking around and children playing in the fountains. I said to some of my friends – “This is going to be a good two years.” 

We stayed with host families for three months of training. My host family consisted of George, my host father, and his daughter Armenie.  But we only had running water one hour a day, no heat and sporadic electricity because of the war with Azerbaijan.

We were given language lessons and one day we were told to go back to our host family and practice. 

So I said to George what I thought was “Hey George, let’s go for a walk on Abovian Street”.  Then Armenie said, “Tony, why do you want my father go find a streetwalker on Abovian? That was my last attempt at the Armenian language.

After three months I was assigned to an organization as a Small and Medium Enterprise Consultant. This organization was also responsible for my housing. I was given a house to share with Stefan, a German consultant. After a short time, Stefan moved out and Dick More, the head of the program from the Netherlands, said he was going to stay with me – he only came about once a month. And so the Kingsley Arms was founded, a stopping point for Volunteers from all over Armenia.  The full Irish breakfasts became legendary.

One day Dick said that I was living better than he was and that I should find a place of my own. He arrived at about 3:00 am and I always had cold beer and cold vodka ready for him.  On his next visit I told him I had found a place and I would be gone when he came the next time. He said, well wait a little while and we will talk about it on my next trip. I never did move.  Maybe I should have joined the diplomatic corps!

But the organization did not have enough work to keep me busy so I was free to take on secondary projects.

One day an A2 volunteer asked me to help her school children because they were always hungry.  I set up a school lunch program that eventually served 224,000 lunches in some other schools throughout Armenia.

I was visiting a Volunteer in Vanadzor and he introduced me to his translator.  She was quite pretty but her two front teeth were blackened. So I set out to research dental hygiene in Armenia. I found out that the belief was that if teeth were brushed too much it would wear away the enamel. So I set up a dental hygiene program that trained school nurses and gave 15,000 children tooth brushes and toothpaste, compliments of the Colgate-Palmolive Company.

I think we brought a lot of peace. Five male Volunteers and one female Volunteer married Armenians. But the winters were very cold – minus 15 degrees.  

After two years and three months it was time for us to say goodbye to Armenia.

The best job I ever had, receiving a living allowance of $5.00 a day.