Calvin: A Life in Stories: Part 3, Bolivia

Each Monday for the next several weeks, I will be publishing one section of the biography on my father I created in collaboration with over 30 contributing writers. Each story brings a unique perspective about my father. Last week I shared part 2 of the writing project that focused on my father’s life as an undergraduate student at Goshen College. This week in part 3, the focus is on my father’s life as a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) volunteer Bolivia, including a story that involves dancing (oh my!). Enjoy!


Introduction (here)
Part 1: Ohio (September 12, 1953 – September 1971) (here)
Part 2: Goshen College (September 1971 – June 1973) (here)
Part 3: Bolivia (September 1973 – September 1976) (below)
Part 4: Ohio State University (September 1976 – December 1979)
Part 5: Bolivia (January 1980 – July 1992)
Part 6: Pennsylvania (July 1992 – December 1997)
Part 7: Georgia (December 1997 – July 2004)
Part 8: Italy (July 2004 – December 2015)
Part 9: Virginia (December 2015 – Present)

PART 3: Bolivia
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Dynamite Cal
By Ron Diener (Co-MCC Volunteer/Colleague)

Cal Miller first arrived in Bolivia in July of 1973, and I arrived in September of that same year. We ended up living together in a little Camba town called San Jose, about 25 Kilometers outside of Santa Cruz. We, along with about a dozen other Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) volunteers who were scattered around in other small towns and villages, were the first MCC volunteers placed in that region. Our friend Wendell Amstutz lived up the road with a MCC teacher, and the three of us were given the task of starting an agriculture program in that area. We were to assess the needs and desires of the people in the area, and then figure out how MCC could partner with them in meeting those needs.

Right from the beginning, Cal had a good sense of how to talk with the community leaders in the area, gain their trust, and plan appropriate projects. To do this kind of work well, a person needs the gift of a keen sensitivity to what people are saying, along with the courage to step out with them and try new things. Cal did all of this very well from the beginning.

We soon discovered there was a very big need for water wells in some of the very rural communities back in off the main road. The farmers could not live on their land because there was no drinking water there. Our first major project was a well drilling effort, where MCC contracted a well driller from an area where MCC volunteers had worked with a local man, Hugo, in developing a simple set of equipment and had put in many water wells throughout that region. The equipment was basically an old-fashioned posthole-drilling bit that would fill with dirt when the handles above were turned by hand, and we would keep adding pipe as it would go down. The region where it was used successfully had sandy soil, but we soon discovered that in our area the soil was mostly hard clay with rocks mixed in.

The first well we drilled was located at a fork in the road, about 3 kilometers off the main road. That way it would serve the farmers from both directions away from the fork. Drilling that first hole went very slow through the clay. We also needed to start over a couple of times because we would hit a big rock that we could not get past. We invented some bits and rock breakers that would get us past smaller rocks, but could not get past big rocks.

After boring down over 20 meters, we finally hit a small a vein of water, which eventually increased to the point where we thought it was time to put in the 8 inch, concrete casing tubes. We lowered down over twenty tubes, each a meter long, and then with a crude mud pump, tried to sink them deeper into the vein of water. The clay down there was unforgiving, and we could not get the tubes to keep lowering deeper into the vein. Eventually the vein of water proved to be so weak, it was clear there was not sufficient water for the people there.

Our next step was to make a smaller bit that we could lower inside the tubes, and keep drilling deeper. We went down another 5 or 6 meters, would hit other weak veins of water, but the tubes would not lower on down very much more and we still did not have sufficient water.  As we kept working with the farmers there, we started talking about dropping dynamite down into the hole, to loosen up the clay, and hopefully open up the vein of water. Dynamite was readily available, because some of the people in that area were former miners. Cal and I bought two sticks of dynamite, along with firing caps and fuses. Cal had the firing caps in his pocket, and I put the dynamite in mine, to keep them separate while we rode the motorcycle. When we arrived at the well site, a small group of people had gathered to see if the dynamite would actually work in opening the well. One of the local farmers used a twig from a tree to open a hole in the dynamite to set the firing cap and used his teeth to crimp down the fuse. The fuse was only about three inches long, and he held it about 10 very long seconds after it was lit, to insure it was burning good enough to keep burning under the water at the bottom of the well. He dropped it down the tubes and we waited at least another 10 seconds before a powerful blast blew mud and water about 15 feet up out of the hole. We then used the mud pump to keep pulling water and mud out of the hole, but the amount of water did not significantly increase. We then decided to keep drilling deeper, through the tubes.

A day or two later, we got down to just over 30 meters, when the dirt down there caved in, probably where the dynamite blast had loosened things up. With the cave in, the well drilling equipment was trapped down at the bottom of the well. We ended up leaving the well drilling equipment, along with most of the concrete tubes down in a well that was in ruins. Many hundreds of working man-hours that had gone into that project were also a total loss.

You would think that would have gotten us off to a very bad start in working with MCC projects in that area. But God works in mysterious ways. When we met with the communities about a week later, to discuss next steps, the only focus was on trying again. They had seen that there were veins of water down there, and they were desperate enough for water that there was no question about trying again. Another positive thing that happened in that project was that nearly every day for well over a month, we had worked all day with teams of five people from the communities there. Working hard shoulder to shoulder with them was an excellent way to get to know the people in that area, building good strong relationships. It was those good relationships that gave us the foundation we needed to begin talking about other possible projects. It was in that context that we learned more about their struggles as well as their dreams for the future.

Well drilling in that area with our MCC equipment never did give the excellent results that it had in some areas, but we did eventually get some wells that gave some much needed water. Cal would later build a house and move into that area to live, while I was given an assignment in a different region. My being matched up with Cal during that first year of our doing MCC agriculture and development work was a big blessing for me. That intense time together gave both of us a good start in learning how to relate to and work with the Bolivian farmers who had settled in that region. Cal and I, even though we seldom see each other, will always be lifelong friends.

There was a little Baptist church in San Jose, and Cal and I attended their worship services each Sunday when we did not have a conflicting event. Our dog would go to church with us and lay against the one wall along with the other dogs that came with their families. Cal and I preached our first sermons in Spanish in that little church. One Sunday morning when Cal and I had a meeting in another community, another MCC volunteer went to our church because there was no church in his village. When we saw him later he said he noticed we missed church that morning, but our dog was there, in her usual spot. We didn’t know that she made her way over to the church the Sundays we were gone. When we told this to Wendell he said, “Parece que su perro es muy religiosa (It seems your dog is very religious).” It always sounds funnier in Spanish.

Use Animal Traction in Bolivia
Article from a local newspaper publication in Fayette, OH

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The Posthole Trot
By Wendell Amstutz (Co-MCC Volunteer/Colleague)

We were digging water wells. It was 1974 and our assignment as MCC volunteers was finding water for the peasant communities in the hills of El Torno, Bolivia. Our tools were a manual posthole digger and a rope with a percussion mud bailer to clear the water. It was round and round with two persons turning the digger until it filled with dirt, then heaving the pipes and bit out of the ground to empty the dirt before repeating the process again- a dizzying, exhausting routine, often lasting several days at a time only to come up with a dry hole. “Back to MCCs most BORING work“, Cal quipped at least once a day as we trudged round and round.

But our evenings were boring too, three single gringos in a rural village carefully steering clear of trouble and not getting the time of day from the timid peasant girls who were all under mama’s careful eye. Except for Zuli. She was a high school student from a landed family in nearby Tarumá, and VERY interested in getting to know the Americano volunteers. I lived right next to the highway, and she did the walk-by to check us out daily, either when getting off the bus or getting back on in the afternoon, or both if her brother Antonio wasn´t watching. When Cal trotted up on our bay mare one afternoon, she went into rhapsodies over his “gold hair bouncing in the wind.

Zuli and Antonio became regular visitors and soon pestered us with invitations to their frequent house parties, which we could rarely attend because of work. At the first party we actually attended, as soon as we walked in the door the games began to get us “special invitees” onto the dance floor. This was not exactly Cal’s specialty in terms of social activity, and he was pretty inventive in presenting excuses, alibis and distractions calculated to postpone the moment of truth–he had never learned to dance, a situation that tested the limits of credibility for our Latin hosts, party animals all.

I’m running out of ideas“, he confided to me from the sidelines as Zuli upped the ante, trying to pull him personally into the dance. I was a little distracted with some other bouncy invitations, and I lost track of Cal and his dilemma for a good while. To my surprise I caught sight of him trotting by me in the arms of a partner and sporting a silly grin on his face. He continued to circle past for the next several dances until his partner finally let her prize go.

That was a pretty good starter!” I enthused. “How did you figure out the steps to stay with her?” He shot me his cock-eyed grin which means anything might be coming next: “I was stepping all over her feet until I realized it’s just like drilling wells: You push the crossbar with your left hand and hold the pipe still with your right and just keep turning right for 3 minutes!

PART 4: Ohio State (September 1976 – December 1979)

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