Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Al Merkel, June 22, 2021

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Year before joining Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: Today is June 22, 2021.

Segment Synopsis: Merkel, then 35 years old, completed an undergraduate degree in forestry before joining Peace Corps.

Keywords: 35 years old; Forestry

Subjects: College students.; Universities and colleges.

00:01:03 - Peace Corps application process

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Partial Transcript: W-what was the application process like?

Segment Synopsis: Merkel had forms to complete, followed by a phone interview. There was a security background check and a physical exam, too.

Keywords: Background checks; Components of the application; Forms; Physical examinations; Telephone interviews

Subjects: Peace Corps (U.S.); Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:01:55 - Reactions of friends and family to his decision to join / Reasons for joining

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Partial Transcript: Um, w-what did your friends and family think about your joining the Peace Corps?

Segment Synopsis: Merkel talks about his friends and family's reactions to his joining Peace Corps. Most didn't know what Peace Corps did. People thought he was a federal employee. Merkel had been in the Air Force and had met some Peace Corps volunteers. He decided to major in forestry so that he could work overseas. He used Peace Corps as a stepping stone for future work abroad. Merkel didn't want to work an entry-level job in the United States.

Keywords: Air Force; Federal employees; Future overseas work; Reactions of friends and family; Reasons for joining

Subjects: Careers.; Occupations.; Peace Corps (U.S.); Professions.; Vocation.; Voluntarism; Volunteers; Work.

00:06:12 - Pre-service training

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Partial Transcript: Um, so you finish college, you're 35 years old, you're joining the Peace Corps. What was training like?

Segment Synopsis: Merkel and another volunteer went to the Dominican Republic (DR) for his first assignment; then DR withdrew from Peace Corps, so they went to Honduras. In Honduras, they completed their training with an existing cohort, about a month into their training. Most volunteers lived with a host family; Merkel lived in a 3-bedroom apartment with a member of the training staff. He studied Spanish during training, along with technical and cultural training.

Keywords: Dominican Republic; Honduras; Host family; Living and learning during pre-service training; Spanish

Subjects: Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Dominican Republic; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Honduras; Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:09:44 - Merkel's work in the forests of Honduras

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Partial Transcript: What, what, um, what kind of work did you end up doing? What were your projects like?

Segment Synopsis: Forestry had been nationalized just before Merkel's arrival in Honduras, which meant that the government would manage all of the forests, breaking the country into 8 forestry districts much like the national forests in the U.S. Merkel worked in La Mosquitia near Nicaragua, the most remote region of Honduras, with no roads leading to it. He worked with 2 Honduran forest workers to survey the area to assess the problems there. That area, then, was under martial law. The people who lived there were Mosquitia Indians who spoke the Mosquito language. Merkel walked the area as he and his colleagues explored the area. Based on the report that he wrote for the government, he created a survey for a management plan for the region which was accepted by the government and, then, allocated money to improve that region. Fires were an issue as the area was plains and grasslands that had been burned continuously over the centuries. Establishing a pine grove was difficult because fires would kill the saplings. Creating nurseries to grow trees was another project of his. The trees had no ownership as they grew on national land. He organized forestry crews and fire-containing crews.

Keywords: Fire containment; Forestry management plan; Forestry management strategies; Funding; La Mosquitia, Honduras; Martial law; Nationalized forests; Nurseries; Pine trees; Resin; Survey the region

Subjects: Careers.; Occupations.; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Honduras; Professions.; Vocation.; Voluntarism; Volunteers; Work.

00:22:06 - Merkel's work projects

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Partial Transcript: Um, if we can just loop back to, uh--for food you said you were--hunted and gathered your food.

Segment Synopsis: Merkel lived in the capital city of La Mosquitia, Puerto Lempira, with a population of about 850 people, the administrative center of the region. The government provided housing for volunteers. He lived in an elevated house on stilts with bamboo walls, with a water faucet outside with potable water, and an outhouse. Merkel was a part of the forestry team. Once his report was funded, Merkel hired people to help him implement it. As a part of his work, he interacted with the city mayor, the church leaders, the medical officers, and the military commander because they wanted to know what he was doing. In so doing, he gained the support of many of them. Trained doctors were assigned to do clinical work and some of them were also influential to Merkel, as well as the military officer. Merkel saw fellow volunteers rarely because of his remote location. He went to the Peace Corps office in Tegucigalpa only for regular language training and for proscribed medical visits. Merkel met with the American ambassador to Honduras, invited her to visit, and she did, along with the officers from the Peace Corps office.

Keywords: American ambassadors; Elevated house; Forestry team; Housing; La Mosquitia, Honduras; Mayors; Military commanders; Religious leaders; Tegucigalpa, Honduras; Working

Subjects: Careers.; Interpersonal relations; Occupations.; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Honduras; Professions.; Vocation.; Voluntarism; Volunteers; Work.

00:35:41 - Challenges encountered

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Partial Transcript: Were there any particular challenges you'd like to describe for, um, future viewers?

Segment Synopsis: Merkel says that being separated from other volunteers was difficult, as was communicating with people. Three major challenges were food, clothing, and medicine, to a lesser extent. He lived in a poor area where a disease hit the chickens. Rice and beans, then, were staples. The area would run out of beer.

Keywords: Beer; Chickens; Clothing; Food; Rice and beans

Subjects: Acculturation; Culture; Intercultural communication; Interpersonal relations; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Honduras; Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:37:46 - What brought Merkel joy

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Partial Transcript: What about, on the other hand, is there anything you'd like to share that kind of made you filled with joy or extremely happy, um, during your service?

Segment Synopsis: Merkel was pleased that the government liked his work. The president of Honduras told the ambassador how happy he was about his work. Merkel says that Honduras was a wonderful place to be and that 99% of it is untouched by humans. He saw many types of animals and birds.

Keywords: Ambassadors; Animals; Birds; Government; President of Honduras; Untouched

Subjects: Acculturation; Culture; Intercultural communication; Lifestyles; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Honduras; Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:38:58 - Reflections on Peace Corps service

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Partial Transcript: Um, so just shifting gears a little bit, have you--so you mentioned your desire to, um, to live overseas when you finished the Peace Corps and I see that you were also a Crisis Corps volunteer.

Segment Synopsis: Merkel tracks Peace Corps activities on LinkedIn. He worked for United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Honduras after his Peace Corps service, as well as for the government of Honduras. He also worked for USAID in Afghanistan in an effort to ascertain whether to bring volunteers there. In 1997, he was in Botswana when Peace Corps left the country because volunteers were no longer needed. Merkel would tell future researchers that if they only do Peace Corps work they are missing the impact of the Peace Corps. Volunteers always find out something about themselves. The people who interact with volunteers always remember them. When volunteers return to the United States, they "were much better people than when they left." In his estimation, volunteers have more impact in the United States than any other group.

Keywords: Afghanistan; Botswana; Impact of Peace Corps; LinkedIn; Reflections on service; United States Agency for International Development (USAID); Work abroad after service

Subjects: Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Honduras; Voluntarism; Volunteers