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The Night a Bridge Game Saved My Life – Literally!

A crowd of bystanders said, “No, no they’re okay. They’re not gringos, they’re Peace Corps Volunteers.”
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Randy Adams
Dominican Republic 1966-1969

Upon my entry into Peace Corps service in 1966 in the Dominican Republic, there also was the U.S. 82nd Airborne military unit intervention in the on-going, yet paused civil war.  

Peace Corps never left during the civil unrest.  It should be noted that the Peace Corps was the only international agency allowed to cross into rebel territory during the unrest.  Peace Corps nurses administered to the wounded on both sides while other Volunteers distributed food.  And the Peace Corps Volunteer hotel was in the rebel zone.  At one point, I have been told, the rebel leader, Coronel Franciso Caamaño Deñó, came on national radio and said that Volunteers should be left alone, that they were neutral in this crisis.

On another occasion, I was in a corner out of sight at an outdoor cafe with my Dominican co-workers when other Dominicans standing outside saw some Americans coming down the main street and started yelling, “Yankee Go Home!”  Others in the crowd of bystanders said, “No, no they’re okay. They’re not gringos, they’re Peace Corps Volunteers.” However, reputations are fragile and can change very quickly, especially when false rumors cloud reality.  This is one of those stories.

In my third year as a Volunteer Leader, I had both my Volunteer duties as a consultant to the Education Department of the Agrarian Reform Institute as well as duties assisting an American staff member in supporting other Volunteers.  One night I had some work to do at the Peace Corps office and was walking down the street towards it when the Peace Corps doctor happened to be driving by.  He called out the window that he was on his way home to play bridge, but they were missing a 4th player for the game.  “Was I interested?”  I pondered a moment and said yes. I went to play bridge.

As we were playing, we heard a bomb go off up towards where the U.S. Embassy, USAID, and the Peace Corps offices were.  Someone probably attacked the Embassy or USAID – a not uncommon occurrence. Certainly, I never expected anything amiss at the Peace Corps office.  Turns out, however, that is what happened.

The day before, an article in the Washington Post by columnist Drew Pearson claimed that the current Peace Corps Director in Washington, D.C. had been running a non-profit organization that was a front for the CIA.  By law, no one associated with Peace Corps can have any background in intelligence.  The local Dominican newspaper headline accused the Peace Corps Agency Director of, in fact, being a part of the CIA. Later that night a small group of angry youth (tigres) came to the Peace Corps office looking for an American to kill.  Luckily, no American was in the office.  There was a Dominican guard/caretaker who was locked in a bathroom while bombs were being placed. He was told to run when the group left the building.  

That same night two Volunteers in the Capital had bombs placed in the windows of their homes. Fortunately, when the bombs went off, they were sleeping in cots that were lower than their windowsills, so the glass went over their heads.  They lost their hearing for a few days but ultimately, no one was seriously hurt.

The next day, Mr. Pearson withdrew his accusation, admitting his confusion and mistake over a different organization’s name,  and the Washington Post printed a retraction.  The local newspaper, Listin Diario, in larger headlines than the original, corrected the information alerting people that Peace Corps was still Peace Corps – neutral and supportive of assisting the country in its development efforts.

I still think of that night and how that game of bridge saved my life.  I fully understand when people are criticized for threatening to burn the Koran, for example, or some other action or words that may have dire repercussions for those in the military, public service or simply tourists representing “the American” overseas.  We are linked, especially more so now than then when I was a Volunteer, to the greater world.  They are watching and listening to us.  We need to do the same!