Monday, October 15, 2007

How I got into the Peace Corps

And by "I," I mean my dad...

In the Beginning

This goes pretty far back, folks. When I was a junior in college the Democratic primary included JFK and Hubert Humphrey. I was a born again HH supporter because of his progressive record going all the way back to municipal office in Minnesota and the great tradition of LaFollette and others he was following. I still have my “It’s Humphrey in ‘60” button. It was during the primaries that Humphrey started talking about the idea which became the Peace Corps. I loved the idea.

Well, he got defeated in the West Virginia primary, dropped out, and JFK went on to the Presidency. Meanwhile I was a scholarship kid at a school for the sons of rich parents. Many of my classmates had been traveling abroad all their lives. I’d been to Canada once on vacation with my parents. When my roommate turned 18 his parents gave him an air travel card; with it he could travel anywhere in the world. He used to go to Switzerland to ski over Christmas, and the Canary Islands for our short Spring Break.

By senior year I had nearly terminal Travel Envy. I figured the only way I could go abroad was through a job and began applying for positions (there was no Peace Corps yet). I ended up with three offers: one with the Quakers for teaching in Tanganyika (now Tanzania, I know); one with another international organization somewhere in Southeast Asia (where is the national currency the bhat?); and one for a small island in the Caribbean, Montserrat. I liked the Africa gig but couldn’t in honesty take the non-violence pledge required – it was so absolute. I couldn’t figure out if the compensation in bhat was enough to live on. The Caribbean job offered air fare and $1800/year, which they assured me was plenty (it was).

So I went as head of the English Department at the island’s secondary school (British system of overseas exams, 11-plus entrance exam, uniforms). It was a great experience. Also taught French and music, did lots of stuff, matured a little. Had two great kids.

(ok, ok, I’m getting there)

While I was there the Cuba crisis came up. Our island was directly on one of the shipping channels. When the blockade was instituted, we could see US warships patrolling not far from us. People were pretty scared of what might happen.

Then Russia blinked, the threat was over. All over the Caribbean there was an outpouring of relief (one of the calypsos out of Trinidad was “He turned dem ships in de opposite direction/Kennedy is de mon for dem”). I was the only American living on Montserrat. I can’t tell you how many people came to me to thank the US.

I had already extended my original one year contract to over two. There was a local guy finishing his degree in England who would be coming back soon and could do the job. I wrote to Washington, basically saying, “take me, do with me what you will.” I do remember asking for a tough assignment.

I got a letter telling me I was accepted pending checking my background and was going to Afghanistan. Sounded fine to me.

I resigned (very emotional leavetaking at the school, at a final Prize Night. My Glee Club sang). I went back to my folks’ house and started to get ready. FBI guys (I guess) interviewed our neighbors. Then came a second letter – Nepal, of course.


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