around world to Kisatchie job
Catahoula District Ranger met future wife while serving in Africa Peace Corp
Jack M. Willis
When you first walk into the Losatchie National Forest Catahoula District Ranger's Office near Bentley, Louisiana and 'howdy and shake' with the tall, lanky resident Ranger Bobby J. Sebastian, you're immediately reminded of the late film star Gary Cooper, except for the glasses. To accent this assessment, one only has to look to the office hat rack where two magnificent John B. Stetson 3XXX's are hanging, verifying that Sebastian does indeed have a Western background.
Bobby J. Sebastian was born in Flat River, Missouri, which is about 60 miles east of St. Louis, but when he was only a year-and-a-half old the Sebastian family relocated to Houston, Texas. And according to Bobby' father the move was for a good reason. He had been in military service and was stationed in the Aleutian Islands chain southwest of Alaska while helping repel a Japanese invasion orchestrated by Admiral Orsoku Yamamoto. The actual defense and fighting for the strategic islands lasted from June 1942 until August of 1943 when the Japanese were forced to withdraw. Mr. Sebastian ended up having to stay on the Aleutians assignment for an extra year after the war ended. He got so cold, and stayed so cold, the whole time he was in Alaska, he swore he'd move immediately, upon discharge to a warmer clime, and he was good at his word by relocating the Sebastian family to Houston, Texas.
After high school graduation, Bobby enrolled at Stephen F. Austin University, graduating in 1974 with a degree in Forestry. Upon graduation, to their dismay, he and his classmates noted that the forestry industry was mired in a huge financial slump, with only 10% of the class obtaining forestry-related employment.
Tremendously dissatisfied with his job prospects, Bobby consulted with a buddy who had been in the Peace Corps in India, and with him helping to obtain an application, he filled it out with his geographical assignment choices being Colombia and Peru in South America, and Tibet in Central Asia.
As usual, and apropos to negotiating with a governmental agency, Bobby was offered an African assignment in Liberia, which wasn't even located on a continent he had chosen. He was about to embark upon a series of adventures he'd never forget.
The Peace Corps pre-trained Bobby in Philadelphia, including a host of inoculations to supposedly ward off the diseases prevalent in Darkest Africa. After boarding the plane for the intercontinental flight they landed in Dakar, Senegal, sick and hung over. Braniff Airlines wouldn't allow the serving of hard liquor in-flight but they had a truckload of beer iced down waiting to be served. Bobby and his co-volunteers drank beer and played cards all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.
Landing in Senegal was Bobby's first encounter with armed guards all over the airlines terminal, and though English was supposedly the predominate language, the cultures represented were totally alien. While they were refueling, a French Concorde SST noisily landed on one of its regular flight stops, before the French government retired them recently.
After refueling, Sebastian's plane took off and flew across an expanse of the Sahara desert enroute to the Liberian capitol of Monrovia. The airport was actually an old U.S. World War II military base in a sad state of disrepair. The only transport from the airport was on a for-hire conveyance called a "money bus", with the title suggesting there was definitely a toll to ride. As he found out, Monrovia could be only classified as a large town where the inhabitants were very poor and destitute. And about this time Bobby Sebastian was beginning to wonder, "What am I doing here?"
He checked into a seedy hotel and being bone-tired from the rigors of the flights, he immediately fell asleep. When he awoke it was dusk dark and becoming black as pitch, and he noted that outside there were hundreds of people milling about in the streets. Being hungry he made up his mind he was going to have to go somewhere and find food, which he was able to do with little difficulty.
He settled into a daily routine of a week's worth of cultural orientation, finding out that the Liberians were a very friendly people, and that there were 17 major tribal dialects, with English supposedly being the principal language, as in Senegal. Ex-slaves, who had returned to their native Africa from the U.S, set up the government, with the capitol city of Monrovia being named after President James Monroe. The Liberian Regional Forestry Service Office was headquartered in Sannque, and at first, in order to get to the office Bobby was forced to ride the money buses.
The regional forester was a gentleman by the name of Alexander Peal, and his job was to look after logging operations in the area, so Bobby Sebastian became Peal's "eyes and ears", traveling the region on a Suzuki 125 dirt bike, with this being his mode of transport the last year-and-a-half he was stationed there.
Some characteristics of the people and the climate that Bobby noted were that there was practically no tillable land to support an agrarian society, and the average yearly income rarely exceeds $100. The soil is hardpan clay, with a thin covering of mulched leaves and humus furnished by the rain forest, which is nurtured by a rainfall total of a 120 to 140 inches annually. The natives would girdle huge teak and mahogany trees which were hundreds of years old, then fell them and burn the wood thus freeing up a farm plot. They could rear one crop the first year, a marginal crop the second year and then repeat the process all over again. It was a simple choice to the natives; grow food or have nice forests that provided little or no sustenance.
In the latter days of his assignment Bobby Sebastian formed an 8-man survey party, and under his guidance they ran out tribal property lines and boundaries thus bringing peace in tribal land disputes. He also found some French textbooks pertaining to tropical forests and translated them into English as a guide for his Liberian friends. He re-upped for an extra three months to train some personnel and in doing so met his future wife Abigail Moore, who was also in the Peace Corps and was an Education volunteer. They were immediately attracted to each other and she extended for a year and relocated her skills to the Ministry of Health.
On the way home Bobby and Abigail visited various ports of interest like the Canary Islands, and when they got back to the United States, immediately began planning for their wedding. Bobby chuckled as he related that Abigail happened to be a Quaker and he mused that the wedding ceremony was not exactly your run-of-the mill nuptials as practiced, say in Las Vegas.
In December of 1977, Clyde Todd, of the U.S. Forestry Service, hired Bobby assigning him to Natchitoches in early 1978 with duty in the Kisatchie National Forestry Office, where he remained until 1982 when he relocated to Sumter National Forest in South Carolina. In 1988 he got a chance to return to Kisatchie and become District Ranger at the Catahoula Ranger District where he remains happily until this day.
In reflecting upon his Peace Corps venture Bobby said, "Even though I endured a lot of physical hardships, almost mildewed from the almost incessant rainfall, suffered economic deprivation while earning only $150 a month for two years, I left the Darkest Continent with a tremendous personal sense of well-doing."