[Attachment(s) from Rand Wise included below]
Some reminiscing about Jon:
I served with Jon in the Peace Corps in Malawi, Africa in the mid 1990s.
Jon was a good friend.
Anyone who knew Jon at all knew that he had a relentless sense of humor. He was playful, but he also had an almost predatory comic instinct--when he knew his ironic claws had sunk in, he would not let go. I had brunch once with Jon and his mother at the Lilongwe Hotel, and I at once perceived that Jon's sense of humor was genetic. Someone at the table was raving about the food, and with no change of expression at all his mother remarked that we were Peace Corps volunteers, on the point of starvation, that you don't pay attention to food reviews from people who drool over the free basket of bread. Jon and his mother had just returned to Lilongwe from a monkey-show of a trip north (as in Malawi rent-a-car flat tires, a broken axle, etc., I don't remember the exact details but I'm sure it involved standing on the side of the road in the sun for hours, finding a make shift place to spend the night, then standing in the sun on the side of the road some more) and he was trying to talk her into going to Zimbabwe with him. Deb says, "It's not like Malawi in Zimbabwe--they have youth hostels." Jon's mom replies, "Do I look like a youth to you?" Being funny was not something Jon had to work at, it was in his blood.
Jon was also one of the most fearless people I have ever known. Jon was not one to step back from the edge of anything. And sometimes his sense of humor and his fearlessness could combine to get him into trouble. The first time I spent significant time with him was when Deb and I went to his site in Salima at the invitation of his roommate and fellow PCV Pat (I miss you Pat, we have fallen out of contact). We had had been there hardly an hour, relaxing on their porch with a beverage when a Peace Corps vehicle arrived with a summons for Jon and Pat to go to Lilongwe. Jon had circulated a newsletter with a cartoon satirizing a popular Malawian political figure. I think this may have been his first attempt at producing the "Peace Corpse" (this was how most Malawians pronounced the name of our beloved institution, and also others probably know better the literary history of the Peace Corpse). When Jane Bonin brought Jon and Pat back to Salima the next day, we learned that they were escorted into Vyrle's office where their completed early COS (end of service) papers had been left out in plain sight. (By the way, I would love to hear Vyrle's perspective on this story...) Had I been chastised this way, I can only imagine how much I'd be cowering, but Jon, being Jon, pushed himself to new heights of bravado. If I remember correctly, the lesson he drew from it was that being funny got him a free ride to the capital, where after listening to a speech by Vyrle, he was able to participate in Lilongwe's night life which was light years beyond anything Salima had to offer.
I'm not sure why, but in Malawi, for Peace Corps volunteers, killing chickens was something like a rite of passage. The way we elevated it and used it as a yardstick, who would do it and who wouldn't, was almost a fetish. And poor John, the vegetarian, vegetarian for many years. Jon, the vegetarian who loved to sleep in. And how he loved to tell the story of how he gave up being a vegetarian because of his neighbor's rooster that would wander near his bedroom window and crow every morning at 5 AM. It took several offers before his neighbor finally accepted 50 kwacha for the rooster. And Jon killed the rooster right in front of him and took it home. And cooked it and ate it. And became an instant carnivore.
Jon is also a figure in one of my favorite PC stories. Many PC stories you hear have a point that is amusing, or maybe shocking, insofar as they show contrast between our American culture and Malawian culture (e.g. eating termites, or a hilarious turn of Malawian English, "you are almost welcome"). It is a rare one that carries a life lesson, and here is one such: some time after our visit to Salima, Jon and Pat showed up unannounced on our doorstep in Bembeke on a Thursday afternoon. I think it was Pat who had a relative in the states getting married and wanted to go to the Dedza Pottery to pick out a wedding gift to send back. We lived it up in Bembeke that night to the maximum extent possible, which is to say not much at all (not even chibuku was available in Bembeke) and resolved to set out for Dedza in the morning. And what an adventure it was, hiking along in the sun, alternating with hitch-hiking on the most absurd and perilous lorries, and finally being picked up on the way south (we were resolved to try to find some of the prehistoric cave paintings south of Dedza) by a middle-aged former WUSC (Canadian version of PC) volunteer. He was headed to Mua, and so we too became headed for Mua. He was convinced, based on being in Malawi 20 years before, that there was a road that led over the edge of the escarpment, and down a drop of hundreds of meters into the Great Rift Valley and leading eventually to the Catholic mission of Mua, renowned for its wood carvers. Absent such a road, it would be a long journey down to the bottom of the valley at Liwonde before we could find the highway that led back north along the lake to Mua. At every left, we stopped, left the road, pushed as far as we could offroad, only to find the path blocked, and to return to main road and push on further south. In our quest for the road down the mountain, we felt like ocean explorers looking for a secret passage to the East Indies, always thwarted until finally we made a left turn that kept going and going, through the remotest villages I ever saw in Malawi, where children would mass the car and slow us to a stop. The Canadian was keen to milk every drop from every experience, would buy almost anything any child was trying to sell. I think he sensed our impatience at his stopping to investigate every little nook and cranny of the road. "When I was here all those years ago, I saw a handmade toy I wanted to buy for a nephew, but I passed at the opportunity the first time, and then never saw one like it again." "Young people", he addressed us, "live life so as to have no regrets. When an opportunity arises, do not fool yourself that you can wait, that it will present itself again, because it might not." Even now, it is laughable to apply such notions to a quest for a material object, but generalized to bigger things in life, I think all four of us saw what he was saying as something of a revelation, words to live by. We were moved in that moment. For me, the Canadian's words were revolutionary, I had up to that moment taken far too many things in my life for granted, unthinking. But I think Jon was moved in a different way than I was. I think it was not a new thing at all for Jon, but rather that he was feeling a joy at connecting the Canadian's actions and words with something he already felt and knew intimately-- the Canadian put words to Jon's outlook on life. We eventually made it to Mua on that road and met the French priest and had a lovely visit there, and after the Canadian left us, we had further adventures on the side of the road in the baking sun, but I can't remember how this one ends, and anyhow I'm sure the ending pales in comparison to the middle.
There are more stories, but I'll stop and let others offer theirs. I am sure I will be corrected in some of the details of these stories, but not in their spirit and truth. I am eager to hear others. Jon was a special person. He had an amazing gift to make us laugh and smile, and he also had a gift for living a genuine life, courageous. He was an example to emulate, and I wish I had known him more outside of Peace Corps.
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