From deep inside the Polar Vortex – the Dark Ice of the Moon, Winter 2018-2019 issue.
I was present at the creation when the bright flame of conviction took hold in the imagination of the country and the Peace Corps became a promise fulfilled.—Bill Moyers
Into the Backlands, a Peace Corps Memoir, by Kenneth E. Dugan Fliés, reminded me of reading Eric Sevareid’s classic coming-of-age book, Canoeing with the Creed. While Sevareid paddled a canoe 2,250 miles from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay in 1930, Fliés followed President Kennedy’s challenge and joined the Peace Corps in 1962. His anecdote-ladened account of a dairy farm kid’s journey to Brazil resonates as a wide-eyed adventure during climatic times.
From training in the Deep South as racial tensions began to explode, to venturing to South America just as the Cuban Missile Crisis ratcheted up, there’s a Forrest Gump-esque feeling of witnessing history first hand. I can’t help shrugging when I think of today’s youth, glued to their screens, Twitter and text messages. Writers like Sevareid and Fliés rekindle the spirit of adventure I hope still percolates in our youth.
“Lived to its fullest, the hero’s journey results in the ascent or flight of an individual from unconsciousness to illumination and to a newfound freedom of understanding,” Fliés writes. “The flying white dove on the Peace Corps emblem fittingly symbolizes this ascent. In this way, my work and adventures in Brazil as a Volunteer expanded both my world-consciousness and self-consciousness, leading to a deeper understanding of life. Brazil became my portal of transformation. I crossed a great divide and came back with a new perspective on life.” Ken’s account will widen and broaden the reader’s perspective as well.—Curt Brown
Bill says: Great well written book. The story line flowed very nicely and the book is well written. Background information was provided throughout to bring a sense of the moment and give it context. I truly enjoyed the adventures that the Author endured. I Highly recommend this book.
Bob Flaco: “Peace Corps brings an idealist down to earth!” Sargent Shriver. Want to know what Peace Corps was like then and now? Into The Backlands, a Peace Corps Memoir takes you by the hand into the early years of JFK’s Peace Corps and the spirit and challenges of the times…1962-1964. Ken Flies was 19 years old when he reported to Training at the University of Oklahoma as part of Brazil II, one of the first. I doubt if Ken knew what he was getting himself into, and Brazil…where’s that?
Ken’s Memoir shares the beauty and innocence of Kennedy’s “kiddie corps” as the press portrayed the first Volunteers. The isolated community of Correntina would be his home, and his adopted Brazilian family…something he never considered prior to his arrival to Brazil, and speaking Portuguese! Ken paints his new home with words and emotions that are new to this 19 year old. And Ken will never be the same, and Brazil will always be his second home! He found himself, faced the challenges of being a Volunteer, and added new friends and adventures beyond his expectations…and the two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer would be the foundation of who Kenneth Flies is.The beauty and charm of the early years of Peace Corps, with Giants such as Shriver, Jack Vaughn, Warren Wiggins and Frank Mankiewicz laid the ground work for what we have now, some 50 plus years later. The fears, frustrations, happy moments, love of our neighbors, and meeting people that will be our “families” is what Peace Corps is all about. Ken and Dave, a fellow Volunteer…made a path that we followed…and still do. Meeting new Volunteers in 2018, is like talking to the newbies of 1962…the current Volunteers seem a bit smarter than us…but they have that flame of pride and warmth of friendship they want to share. That flame is still within us, I can feel the warmth and strength. Be proud of what you and Brazil II brought with you Ken. Padre Andre saw that in you, and so did Millie.
As you read Ken’s awesome Memoir, remember what Mankiewicz believed in…”Volunteer’s first job is to get to know the people and the setting of their lives; the Volunteer starts building a community.” It isn’t the monuments you leave behind, but the communities that are now a part of you. I recommend Into the Backlands to RPCV’s, Trainees, PCV’s, and Peace Corps staff. Jody Olsen, I am sending you a copy! Ken gave us a message…The Peace Corps community is as strong now as it was in 1961! Don’t let anyone tell you differently. I encourage you to read and learn from this Memoir, share your thoughts!
As Ken would say, bate papo, chew the fat. Thank you Ken for sharing your life in Brazil and the person you became. I read your Memoir twice, had to relive my memories. My family is very Peace Corps, my brother Ron went to Peru 1963-1965 and I went to Colombia 1964-1966…I believe we were one of the first brothers to serve at the same time. Changed my life
the former Rochester Post Bulletin columnist’s best ever
John Weiss was the best-known name and face of the Post Bulletin outside the city limits of Rochester. Need to know someone in Plainview? If John didn’t know the person, he’d know the person who’d know the person you needed. Need to know which roads were in danger of flooding that spring? John knew—and could tell you which roads had flooded last and who lived on them.
John was also a one-man band: he could report a hard news story, do a feature, file away a possible story angle for weeks or months later, AND take pictures to go with all of it. And you’d get all of this with his statement “I’m heading to the river” as he walked to the exit. Whenever John left the building, it was always “to the river.” Which river, you could never be sure. And how close to a river he actually got was up for debate.
I was reluctant to assign John to Back Roads at first. Who in the world is interested in the run-of-the-mill junked-up shop? What makes that woman so special? Finally, I started to see things John’s way. That junked-up shop is a treasure trove of stories. That woman’s story is unique, all the while being so typical.
All right, I finally said. Let’s give it a try. BUT, no going out of the way. It has to be something you find on your way to a legit story assignment.
Soon enough, Back Roads columns and pictures started to fill our files. Stories with hopes and dreams, and joys and sorrows. John put the folks and places that we see every day but somehow overlook into focus. John broadened our definition of neighbor and friend. —Randi Kallas, former City Editor and Newspaper in Education Coordinator, Rochester Post-Bulletin.
“I love to ride into Whitewater Park from Olmsted County Road 9. I love to feel the rush of oxygen into my lungs, and I love to sing a song like You are My Sunshine. In spring and summer, the green trees and brush climb up both sides of State Highway 74 to make canyon walls. As you descend the bluff, you catch glimpses of the bedrock, millions of years old. In the fall and winter, after the leaves disappear, the color changes to black. Only the bedrock is yellow.
“No matter the weather, I roll the car windows down and breathe deep before taking off. I give myself permission to speed a little. Fifty years ago I did it. Twenty years ago I did it. And I still do it. I hurry to return to Whitewater year after year because it’s my Backyard Canyon.
“As you level out on Route 74 into the Whitewater State Park, there’s a mile marker and an open field. Once this field was a golf course. Long ago it was a powwow site.
“Don, my ninety-five-year-old friend, recalled an Indian powwow.
“‘The Indians came dressed in war paint and feathers. Scared the hell out of me,’ he’d chuckled. ‘They came for days and danced, sang what I heard as war hoops, and howled while they pounded their drums. They were probably Sioux, Sioux the Snakes the French called them. There were plenty of snakes in Whitewater.’
“Today the Timber Snakes in the Whitewater Park are in trouble. Endangered.” —Peg Bauernfeind 2017
Publication of Return to Backyard Canyon was made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.