Local author offers reflection on a time well spent.
By Tyler BIDDLE
“How did a California boy like me end up in this crazy, topsy-turvy, upside-down world of Indonesia?” writes Paul Burghdorf in his new memoir, “Good Morning, Mr. Paul.” The story is a look inside the most defining years in his life serving as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1963-65 in Indonesia.
The book details all the ups and downs of teaching at the University of Sriwidjaja and coaching Indonesian athletes to compete in the 1964 Olympics – all while living in a world very different from anything he had seen before.
Burghdorf served as a teacher for over 50 years in many different schools, but his classroom in Indonesia provided the most unique challenges – and stories. He described the time period of the book as “building up to a crescendo” with communist influence growing stronger during his stay and even threatening his life in many instances. He said his story is a microcosm of “what the 60’s were all about, all this turmoil.”
It started with inspiration: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Those immortal words challenged the nation during one of the most tumultuous time periods in American history. Freshly graduated from college, Burghdorf had a host of opportunities available to him. However, teaching at Pasadena Academy, working as the athletic director, and pursuing his master’s degree were all to be put on hold in favor of a much more exotic opportunity. Burghdorf took JFK’s challenge to heart and decided to leave the world of western safety and opportunity behind in favor of the road less traveled.
He would later be sent off to Indonesia, but not before shaking the hand of JFK himself in the White House Rose Garden, being thanked for what he was about to do for his country. The journey that followed provided all the adventure, inspiration, danger, comedy and near misses contained within, “Good Morning, Mr. Paul.”
What made this time in his life so uniquely challenging, said Burghdorf, was largely the threat of communist takeover in Indonesia.
“I was unsure of my environment,” he recalled. The Communists branded western thought as divisive and dangerous. He remembered the day he was present at a huge bonfire for book burning. The crowd gathered in a circle around the flames chanting, “Down with America! Down with Western ideas!” It was one of the most terrifying ordeals of his life.
His students, however, proved to be solid allies during these rough patches. He recalls them warning him at times, “Mr. Paul, stay in. There is going to be a demonstration today.”
The memoir has been long overdue. Burghdorf has always had many fascinating stories to tell from his time working with Peace Corps but he never wrote them down. Over 40 years later, at the age of 73 and after a lifetime of students, friends, and family encouraging him to do so, he finally sat down in 2008 to make it happen. Burghdorf is no stranger to writing, though. He has been a published poet for decades, writing about war, family and life.
Over the years, Burghdorf has taught at Pasadena Academy, University of Serwidjaja in Indonesia, First Avenue Junior High, Rift Valley Academy in Kenya, St. Francis, Clark Magnet, Hoover and Glendale high schools. Most recently he returned to Indonesia in 2011 and 2013 to teach English at the Badung Alliance International School.
“The greatest environment in the world is a classroom,” he said. Now that he is done with his book, he is back yet again to look for more work as a teacher.
The book was launched recently at a gathering of peers, colleagues and friends at the English department of Glendale High School. Following the book’s launch, he spoke at an author’s night event at the Indonesian Consolate in West L.A.
“Good Morning, Mr. Paul” comes in at 150 pages and can be purchased at
Amazon.com, Barnes and Nobel, and downloaded as an e-book. The pages glow with the incredible personality of the man who wrote them.