Shelton:Foundation to Bring Potato-Gun Project to Nepal | View to the West
by Peter Shelton
Aug 13, 2007 | 486 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print

It was one of those perfect Ridgway summer evenings. Chicken sizzled on the grill, a light breeze rustled the cottonwoods, while we sat around an old wooden table in Bill Liske’s back yard. Over us, an Indian Army parachute billowed gently, like a white cotton cloud.

Bill had brought it home from one of his 75 trips to Asia. “It’s a one-time use parachute – twenty bucks in Katmandu. You’d never jump out of a plane with it. It was used – if this one was used at all – to drop supplies to troops in the field.” Possibly on the Siachen Glacier, where Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been lobbing artillery shells at each other for years in the low-wattage war over Kashmir.

Yes, everything was perfect – and then the subject of potato guns came up.

In addition to Ellen and me, the table included Garry and Monica Schalla, Wisconsinites who run a successful jewelry business in Ouray. Garry is also associate director of the Ridgway-based dZi Foundation, and Monica is one of its most dedicated volunteers, helping out with dZi’s vision clinics and other humanitarian projects in the Himalayas.

Beth Jones, a business consultant, ardent cyclist and cat lover (also Bill’s paramour), has helped dZi with nonprofit fund-raising strategies. 

And there was Mr. Liske himself, Denver native, Outward Bound trip leader, climbing and trekking guide, and, thanks to his travels, an in-demand expert on Tibetan antiques. (The house smells of incense and tea, and at surprising moments you may find yourself eye-to-navel with a Buddha on a shelf.) Bill is also a founding board member of dZi.

So you’d think tomfoolery like potato guns would be beneath him. And you’d be wrong.

Garry Schalla knew what they were, as did Chris Haaland, local alpinist and engineer, who was also there. Ellen and I had to ask. Bill described their manufacture: lengths of PVC pipe, hairspray and a match. Plus potatoes, of course. Ellen asked what kind of potatoes – red? Idaho bakers? – and the high-tone of the evening began to veer off course.

A dZi is an etched stone bead, much prized by Sherpas, Tibetans and Ladakhis as a talisman of good luck. They’re worn around the neck and handed down from generation to generation. Some are a thousand years old. “We wanted to name [the foundation] something that the locals would understand,” Bill explained. “Something that wasn’t religious but was traditional and positive. A dZi [the “d” is silent] is seen as protective and helpful.”

The operation got its start 10 years ago when Ridgway climbers Jim Nowak and Kim Reynolds discovered a financially struggling safe house for girls in Katmandu. Nepalese girls are all too often sold into prostitution, and Kim and Jim decided to “give back” to the mountain communities they had come to love by helping the Friendship House survive and thrive.

Back in the States, they proved to be convincing fundraisers, and dZi was born. They got a bunch of their climbing buddies on board – some of whom also happen to be doctors and optometrists – and now the foundation supports vision and dental clinics, a nutritional rehabilitation house for severely malnourished children (and their parents), and various school construction projects in Nepal, Sikkim and Ladakh. Their latest efforts, in a part of eastern Nepal that is a four-day walk from the nearest road, have been experiments in community-building as well: getting villagers to participate in all aspects of decision-making and construction.

“We were there this spring for the opening of a school,” Bill said. “The project cost half of what a government job would have (thanks to corruption and disinterest). We provided the things that they couldn’t, the milled lumber, the tin roofing, cement for mortar. They decided what they wanted to do and provided most of the labor, broke rocks, portered the lumber in from the road – because it was their kids’ school. They were not on a gravy train. When it was finished, they said, Thanks, we did it ourselves.”

Bill Liske, voracious reader of history, known to friends as “The Human Encyclopedia,” has led student groups from the Telluride Mountain School and the Vail Mountain School on “life-changing,” dZi-sponsored work-study projects.

So why was he talking about the time somebody ignited the hairspray before he, Bill, was ready, and the kickback from the potato gun knocked out several of his front teeth? He and a friend were launching spuds from the friend’s house in Denver’s Country Club neighborhood onto the grounds of a neighboring mansion. “Two hundred yards, easy!” Bill recalled, fingering his wine glass.

“So,” Beth Jones asked, “you are doing this at what – about age 12?”

“No. Our forties.” And at that point all pretense to sophistication evaporated.

“I have an idea,” Garry Schalla said through his laughter. “How ’bout we bring potato guns to our next board meeting? Loosen things up.”

“Maybe offer them to the Indians and the Pakistanis up on the glacier. KABOOM!”

“Does cheap hairspray, like Breck, produce less boost than say, Redken?”

“Take them to the Nepali villages!”

“Yeah. The Safe House Project. The Vision Project. The Potato-gun Project!”

“‘We’ll build a school tomorrow!’”

The whole table was in hysterics. Laughter rang into the dark. (What must the neighbors think?) It didn’t make sense, really. Laughing fits rarely do. But there we were – adults, accomplished, adventurous, serial do-gooders who will do good again – tears streaming down our faces, cheeks aching with the smiles. Out there, half way around the world, some have got it rough. Here, in the sweet Ridgway night, for the moment, life was very good indeed.

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