Carriers of good will’: Vt. Peace Corps family recalls a Christmas past
By Kevin O’Connor
STAFF WRITER | December 23,2012
Photo provided by Frances Stone
The Stones — founders and operators of Stonewood Farm in Orwell — celebrate Christmas 1972 in the Philippines as one of the United States’ first Peace Corps volunteer families.
ORWELL — Vermonter Frances Stone remembers the Yuletide 40 years ago when she and her husband faced martial law in the Philippines with four young children and one troublesome question: Where on a hot, hungry island rife with political unrest could they find a Christmas tree?
For the mother of three boys and a girl concerned more with Santa Claus than with strongman Ferdinand Marcos, the answer “not here” wouldn’t cut it. Stone knew her children had sacrificed much for their parents’ desire to serve as one of the United States’ first Peace Corps volunteer families.
When the Stones flew to Southeast Asia in 1971, each could bring only two suitcases. As a result, their car, television, washer, dryer, bathtub and, worst of all, toys stayed home. Ask Mom for a sip of water and she had to boil it first. To help with laundry, you scrubbed cold, sopping clothes on a washboard. To clean the floors, you rubbed a coconut husk on the bare wood underfoot.
Their first Christmas in Bacolod City — teeming with heat, 500,000 inhabitants and seemingly even more firecrackers — felt and sounded like the Fourth of July.
“I just think it stinks that we won’t have a tree,” Daniel, 11, told his mother, as she recalls.
“We can’t bake Christmas cookies,” said Nancy, 8. “We don’t have an oven.”
“Santa probably won’t even find us here,” added Peter, 6.
“Who’s Santa?” asked Matthew, 3.
Parents Paul and Frances provided directions to the gift-giving globetrotter, who arrived halfway around the world Dec. 25, 1971, with three bicycles and a yellow Tonka truck. But the family didn’t have a tree — or, the next year, much prospect for any holiday at all.
The Stones enjoyed many aspects of their service. Paul encouraged farmers to stop dumping molasses (a byproduct of turning cane into sugar) into rivers and start adding the high-energy syrup into animal feed. Frances helped preschool workers improve their practices. And the children — charged with being “carriers of good will” — joined their parents in offering Filipinos a personal view of America.
“We were the neighborhood novelty, live reality TV,” Frances Stone laughs today.
But for every high — the family hiked along 2,000-year-old rice terraces and atop an 8,000-foot volcano — came a low: month-long monsoons. Countless men, women and children begging in the streets. And, in the fall of 1972, martial law.
Most Americans know Philippine President Marcos for his first lady, Imelda, and her more than 1,000 pairs of shoes. But Asians four decades ago focused instead on growing talk of government corruption, suppression and violence.
The Stones had moved from Bacolod City to the smaller, cooler urban center of Baguio so Paul could work at Mountain State Agricultural College while Frances set up a preschool for Good Shepherd Convent. That’s when Marcos, fearing civil unrest, prohibited most every form of public gathering and expression.
The Stone boys no longer could buy firecrackers. Their parents had to contend with curfews and surveillance. Neighbors whispered of police punishing men for having long hair, women for wearing short skirts, and landowners for having unruly lawns.
As Christmas approached, the crackdown meant no caroling, no public parties and, yet again, no tree. Or did it? Paul Stone couldn’t find a 6-foot-tall conifer. But he could locate a two-by-four and enough pine branches to tie around it.
Charlie Brown couldn’t have done better.
It was just the start of a miraculously happy season. The Stones, finally accustomed to rice, were invited to a rare turkey dinner at the nearby U.S. Air Force base. Six months later, their service complete, they relocated to Vermont, founded Stonewood Farm in Orwell in 1976, and grew the operation into the state’s largest turkey producer, shipping 30,000 birds to holiday tables this year.
Frances Stone leaves the business to her husband and middle son. Now 72, she instead has penned her first book, “Through the Eyes of My Children: The Adventures of a Peace Corps Volunteer Family.” The paperback (available online from Peace Corps Writers through amazon.com) offers a true story for young and old about the service’s fleeting experiment with assigning entire households overseas.
“People looked at us back then thinking, ‘Why in the world would you want to do something like that?’” Stone recalls in an interview.
In reply, she writes about the wonders of learning how to farm with water buffaloes; finding out firsthand that bird’s nest soup really is made from bird’s nests; and finally understanding why so many singers this time of year are dreaming of a white Christmas.
Then again, for every difference Stone and family discovered a similarity. Lacking air conditioning, most Philippine churches left their doors open, drawing people and birds alike each Dec. 25.
But the prayer the flock heard that day was the same as everywhere else: “… and on earth peace, good will toward men.”