Training for The Peace Corps

I had been in Brandeis University as a Junior when we stayed up all night in early November 1960 as John F. Kennedy, the Senator from Massachusetts, swept the National election.  We had thrilled earlier to his charismatic speaking style, cheered his very public speech confronting the convention of Religious leaders in Texas as to why it was high time that a Catholic could be elected in these United States; we had booed his opponent, Nixon; we had gone to the mock convention held in the Gymnasium at Brandeis, where long before the election Kennedy had been selected as the Democrats party candidate.   At the televised Inauguration in January of 1961, we watched Kennedy (with no topcoat at a freezing and smoking Lectern located on the steps of the Capitol)  rail against the military industrial complex that had tried to bedevil Eisenhower, heard him call for service to the Country, and we were inspired.  Right after inauguration, Kennedy’s brother in law, Mr. Sergeant Shriver, was told by the White House to create the Peace Corps post haste, spring-boarding off an idea which Hubert Humphrey had floated during the initial primaries.  Humphrey had called for an analogue to the “War Corps” (the army/navy/air force).  The new entity was to take “high minded” recent college graduates, to put them into positions in the poorest countries of the world, to give them a few survival supplies and perhaps a very few tools, and to let them work side-by-side with the people of that country to do some task, likely involving physical labor, the building of “improvements” like bridges or wells or arable fields.  The idea was that the volunteers would export democracy, be the antithesis of our  “ugly American” tourists, learn about the cultures and languages where they were, then come back and liven up a whole generation’s inward-turning myopic view of the world.  Before I left Brandeis for the summer of 1961, a friend who was one year ahead of me, and about to graduate, sat with me one night in the snack bar.  David Matz told me he would be going to West Africa, I think to Ghana, as one of the very first Peace Corps volunteers to go overseas.  He talked of the language training, the cultural training, the physical training, and the job training that he would be undergoing in just a month or so in Puerto Rico.   In 1961-62, I and many of my classmates read letters from Peace Corps Volunteers that were in Africa, the South Seas Islands, South America, and Central America.  The letters were passed hand to hand on campus and sometimes made the student newspapers and journals of the time.   I was heavily occupied in the Student Council Committee on Mississippi Civili Rights and in finishing my three years as Treasurer of the Student Union.  I read the information with interest but had little thought of going.  By October of 1961, I thought that I would apply (tardily) to Law School and, as I remember, applied to only one, Harvard Law School.  By late January – early February of 1962 I had been accepted to Harvard Law School, as had 5 others in my class of 260 at Brandeis. I knew what I was going to be doing for the next three years and I paid less attention to the Peace Corps news as I trundled off to Cambridge, just 15 miles down the Charles River from Brandeis.  David Matz did his 2 year stint in Africa and went on into the Peace Corps staff in Africa.

The Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion occurred and Kennedy’s star seemed to fall.  Civil Rights crises brought Kennedy to the TV stations one evening and then he backed giving the protection of Federal Marshals one day in November of 1962 for James Meredith in Oxford Mississippi and two died in the riots.  In segregation struggles in Atlanta and Selma, Kennedy reluctantly stepped forward to intervene and his star rose in the Eastern States.  In the fall of 1962, when I began my second year in Harvard Law School, the Cuban missile crisis kept us all home for a long week, watching Kennedy on the tube and preparing for the end of the world.  The People’s March on Washington occurred in the summer of 1963 and I went there in a lead bus in a cavalcade of some 50 busses from Boston.   CORE and ACLU and SNCC were the organizations who arranged the busses.  I was active in CORE and was a bus captain.  Then, one day late in November of 1963, my roommate and I attended our Constitutional Law Class at the Law School, a class which was taught by Paul Freund, the famous professor whom everyone knew would be Kennedy’s next appointment to the U. S. Supreme Court.  Class was to begin at 1pm.  At that hour, Freund stepped to the podium, fought back tears, and announced that there would be no class, as Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas in an open car.  We all went to our dorms and our apartments to watch with horror as the whole thing unfolded on black and white TV.  I was dating a girl who was the heir to the Burpee Seed Company fortune.  We sat all night and watched the waves at Nantasket Beach while she cried her eyes red.  The next day, she went home to her family in Chicago, simply destroyed by the events which unfolding.  The Peace Corps slipped from view.   Johnson became President.  The very bad summer in Mississippi in 1964 led to the 1964 civil rights act re transportation and employment.  That gave way to the voting rights act of 1965.   Malcolm X was riding high in New York and there was vicious talk about black power and armed revolution in the ghettos of the big cities.   In Boston, CORE (Congress on Racial Equality) met in a contentious meeting; the attending members voted to expel all “non-negroes” and there would be no white members of CORE any more.  Gretchen Pfuetze and I rode home to Cambridge on her motor scooter and knew that we were sidelined from 6 years of civil rights work as the civil rights movement imploded around us in Boston.  Vietnam and its war were sucking up every able bodied recent graduate of any educational institution (and thousands of non college guys to feed the army’s desire to hurl hundreds of thousands of men into the battle against the North Vietnamese.

In a fluke in 1964, I suddenly was hired as a Law Clerk to Justice Paul Reardon the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, a wonderful job for my future as a Lawyer, a job that guaranteed that some large law firm in Boston would hire me when the clerkship expired in June of 1965.   But, while clerkships usually meant the draft boards would give clerks a draft deferment, it was clear that the war in Vietnam would require that, immediately following the clerkship, I would need to be in some branch of the service – or I would be inducted as a rifleman in the army with rice paddies in my immediate future.  At that point, the draft frenzy was such that many guys getting out of law schools had applied to the JAG.  Having a Harvard Law Degree no longer guaranteed  a role in some armed service’s Judge Advocate General (Legal) office.  Working through this, I found that I had some connections that would permit me to go into the Coast Guard as an officer – but it had to be for five years – and there was only a fifty-fifty chance that I would be a lawyer.  If I served as a lawyer, it would be in a small and remote installation,  But there was a fifty-fifty chance that I would be instead running an eighty foot boat on the Mekong Delta, often under mortar attack from the opposition, with a rather limited life expectancy.  The Coast Guard operated those boats…  This is the way John Kerry (now our Secretary of State ) served in Vietnam.   I had looked at Peace Corps service as a possibility, but they only had bee-keeping in Swaziland and mussel-raking in Micronesia types of programs.  It just did not look very interesting to me and there was a significant chance that my draft board in Plymouth Massachusetts would deny a deferment of draft status and I would be yanked from a Peace Corps training program to a rifleman slot…  I did all the tests, passed the physical exam, and I was ready to swear into the Coast Guard and take my chances…

At the last possible moment, 3 days before I was to swear in, the mail at 29 Putnam Avenue in Cambridge brought an invite from the Peace Corps.  They were going to try something totally new. They were going to chance putting lawyers and city planners into positions in city government administration in Venezuela.  They would take 60 potential volunteers most of whom would be from Harvard and MIT, would likely keep 30+, and those 30+folks would each serve as a “spear-carrier” assistant for a Venezuelan young professional out of the Petroleum Industry.  Those 30+ Venezuelans were already in Covina California and were undergoing training.  There had never been anything like a city manager in any Venezuelan city.  These Venezuelan guys each needed an assistant to watch their backs and to help counsel them through god knows what sort of problems they would encounter as they “parachuted” into corrupt city administrations in Venezuela and remade them each into a clean and open democratic system.  Holy smokes!   I was already fluent in Spanish – and this sounded like a heck of a good time…  You get to travel.  You get to really learn a language.  You get paid (a little) to learn and live a culture for two years.  Did I mention that you get to travel?   I notified the Coast Guard that I was passing on my swear-in, hoping that Peace Corps would accept my application to the new program…  I signed on with the Peace Corps.   They then accepted my sign-on. So far so good – but this was sort of a gamble.  If I flunked out or if the draft board said no, I was going to Vietnam as a rifleman.  I began notification to my draft board and started the application for yet another deferment, crossing my fingers that they were not going to reject that idea.  I finished the clerkship and for a few months worked my hump off in the Elliot Richardson for Attorney General Campaign.  I spent two weeks on a bicycle saying good bye to Cape Cod places and Islands (Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard) which I loved.  I appeared before the draft board and they said NO to a deferment.  I appealed – and my Dad (a World War I Vet) agreed to appear at the Appeal Board for me…  In mid September of 1966, I took a plane to San Francisco to report for training.  It was to be at San Francisco State University (“SFSU”), which was a hippie sort of place with about 20,000 students  most of whom were passionately opposed to the war in Vietnam and ready to spend most of their Saturdays demonstrating on campus or at the Oakland depot from which Marines shipped out to Vietnam.  The University was run by President Hiakawa, later on the California Board of Regents, later a famous U. S. Senator.  Hiyakawa was “at war” with the student body.  We incoming volunteers assembled at a small church perched on a knoll looking right down onto the campus and some large parking lots and some park like areas where demonstrations mobilized.  The Peace Corps had rented an aging steel colored bus that sat 60 people at a time, like a huge Greyhound bus.  We were to lodge, sleep, eat at Fort Funston, supposedly a disused National Guard barracks right out on the edge of the Ocean some 3 miles from SFSU.  With our bags and raincoats in hand, we were bussed to the barracks.

No one told the National Guard that we had arrived.  The place was full of cots, not all assembled; folded mattresses; lockers; trash, not all in buckets; and musty odors.  At 5am the next morning, as we slept on our hastily assembled cots and mattresses, a squad of National Guard with rifles at full port raced through the barracks calling out cadence as they commenced an early morning training exercise.  Classes for us began that day, with the volunteers separating into three language instruction groups.  I was in the third with 3 other folks, the advanced Spanish class.  I had had years of speaking the language with a girlfriend from Chile, after I had had some advanced classes in Spanish.  There were 13 hours spent every day in formal classes or special activities: geography, history, anthropology, surveying, construction, “cadastre” (a kind of a properties registration system used in a few South American Countries, but not in Venezuela), and language for many hours a day.  Josefina Rigg was a 24 year old Venezuelan who arrived at the church on the edge of campus and she became the teacher for our advanced language class.  We four students saw movies, we read poetry, we read newspapers and novels, we played out discussions of current events, we did scenarios for our expected work in a Concejo Municipal (Municipal Council), we drilled grammar and vocabulary, we discussed everything else taught to us in other classrooms.  It was intense.   There were physical exercise sessions and long walks.  There were field trips in the aging silver bus to weird places with small groups being dropped off in odd places and told to solve some problem together, how to bridge a stream, dismantle a barn, construct a fence.  Returned volunteers were the staff.  They were charged with weeding out ‘weak sisters” who would not last 2 years of pretty much isolation from other Americans.  On Saturday nights we got liberty, no class til Sunday noon – so we would all bus into San Francisco and frenetically see the sights, especially chinatown where enormous meals and much drink could be had very cheaply.  Every 2 weeks during 3 months a few volunteers, men and married couples (no single women in the group) were sent home.   We formed a choir and sang a cappella old English songs because one of our number had a guitar and specialized in that music.  We had a memorable trip where we were taken to the bad parts of Tiajuana, given 80 pesos, were told we might be there in that barrio for 3-5 days on our own, that we were find a place to sleep and something to do.  I repaired a damaged abandoned house, borrowed a bed and blankets, ate sparingly and waited to be picked up.  One of our guys went across the border, got a plane, and went home.  A few days before Christmas we were told that we were the ones going to Venezuela, were given plane tickets home, told to pack a trunk with short sleeve white shirts, an electric frying pan, a few kitchen utensils. and enough underwear to last 2+ years, plus a list of other essentials.  We were all to meet in Miami for a plane to Venezuela in a few days.  I went home to say good bye to a girlfriend I was breaking up with and to cram as much as I could into my 4X2.5X1 trunk.   It wasn’t that you could not get clothing or pans in Venezuela – but that sort of stuff could be expensive and we were going to be paid very little to live on…

The plane to Venezuela resulted in a 6-7 hour flight, landing in Maiquetia, the airport on the Coast 9 miles from Caracas, all straight up!  when we came off the plane, there was a circle of army guys with drawn revolvers surrounding the gangway which was wheeled up against the plane.  The eight year old democracy which had been created when dictator Perez Jimenez was deposed in 1956 (and the triumvirate of army generals and an admiral turned the country over to democracy two+ years later) was a fragile young government.  The ADECOs had had a 5 year term and were 3 years into a second term. There were 21 quarrelsome electoral parties… The army guys knew that some student radical communist organizer was coming in on the plane and they lifted him right there from the gangway.   We bussed up to Caracas, passing through two Alcabalas (checkpoints manned by 19 year orld army cadets with automatic weapons at the ready).  We lodged at the Los Pinos hotel where we stayed for almost a week, until it was the day before Christmas.  In Venezuela, there is a total paralysis of the community from about 12/20 to 1/15 every year.  Family takes over then and, as at Easter, no one does much work and all systems go on stand-down.   We were about to “parachute” into our respective work sites, some 30+ cities of all different sizes all over the country, there to lay low and quiet until the 30+ Venezuelan newly minted city managers would “sneak” into our city sites.  Then we would join the guy for whom we were to become spear carriers and he would go the City Council to announce he had arrived and was ready to throw the bums out.  The crooked tamany hall style administrations would be swept from their roles – and “us good guys” would take over their desks, bar the doors, and commence clean government from that day forward…  So you know now what is going to happen…     NOTHING is going to go according to plan and each of us 30+ volunteers is going to be helping his city manager guy wade through a lot of deep doodoo, while seeing just how well we could speak the language and follow the culture as it played out around us.

On about 12/23/66, I found myself in a small office building in Barquisimeto, State of Lara, Venezuela, meeting the volunteer at whose house I would be hiding out for about 2 weeks, one Ed Kaufman, a year or so in country, living quite a ways out on the edge of Barquisimeto in a barrio called Pueblo Nuevo, at the end of a bus line.  On my second night in Ed’s house, the Diegepol (Federal Secret Political Police) showed up around midnight to arrest Pedro, who lived across the street from Ed’s house.  Pedro was accused of being a supporter of the band of Cuban guerrillas hiding in the hills outside of town to the East.  They took Pedro away, a whole squad of them traveling in in two black vans.  There was no trial, of course.   He never returned.  I reported for work 2 weeks later – and then it got interesting.



One thought on “Training for The Peace Corps

  1. […] is what makes my Dad, my Dad. He’s the guy who risked his life in the 60’s smuggling voter training materials to would-be black voters in Mississippi to […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.