It was 1965 and I was faced with a dilemma. Uncle Sam was looking for warm bodies to ship off to the jungles of Southeast Asia to fight in a colonial war the French couldn’t win. Being a 22-year-old male about to graduate from college, I was a prime candidate.
If drafted, I would go. But fighting in a war I didn’t believe in, killing people I didn’t want to kill, and possibly being killed or crippled myself was at the very bottom of my list of things I was excited about doing.
A temporary solution presented itself. Peace Corps Recruiters were coming to campus.
Ever since Kennedy had created this idealistic organization three years earlier, I had been fascinated with the idea of joining. Two years of Peace Corps would not eliminate my military obligations but it might buy time for the war in Vietnam to work itself out.
Of more importance to me, it sounded like an incredible experience. My fiancé and I sat down and talked it out. She was willing to sign up with me and we would go together as a husband and wife team.
When the Peace Corps recruiters opened their booth in front of the UC Berkeley Student Union, we were there to greet them, all dewy eyed and innocent.
“Sign us up,” we urged.
Of course there were a few formalities; small things like filling out the umpteen page blue application and taking a language aptitude test, which featured Kurdish. We also needed letters of recommendation.
Apparently we looked good on paper. In a few weeks, Peace Corps informed us that we had been tentatively selected to serve as teachers in Liberia, West Africa. We were thrilled. That age old question of what do you do when you graduate from college and have to enter the real world had been answered for us, at least temporarily.
Uncle Sam with his growing hunger for bodies to ship to Vietnam would have wait.
There were still two hurdles, though, and both were tied to the illusive if. We could go if we could pass the background security check and if we could get through training. Training wasn’t a worry. We had enough confidence in ourselves to assume we would float through. How hard could it be after Berkeley?
The Security Check was something else. Jo Ann, of course, was squeaky clean. But Curt had been up to a little mischief at Berkeley, hung out with the wrong people, been seen in a few places where law abiding people weren’t supposed to be and had his name on a number of petitions.
“And where were you Mr. Mekemson the night the students took over the Administration Building?”
Maybe there was even a file somewhere…
Soon I started hearing from friends at home. The man with the badge had been by to see them. The background security check was underway. One day I came home to the apartment and my roommate Jerry was there, looking very nervous.
“I have to talk to you Curtis,” he blurted out. “The FBI was by today doing your Peace Corps background check and I told them you had been holding communist cell block meetings in our apartment.
Jerry was not kidding; Jerry was deadly serious; Jerry was dead.
“What in the hell are you talking about?” I had yelled, seeing all of my hopes dashed. I knew that Jerry disagreed with me over my involvement in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement and probably disagreed with me over the Vietnam War, but I hadn’t a clue on how deep that disagreement had gone. Or what he based his information on.
My degree in International Relations had included a close look at Communism. I found nothing attractive about the system.
The closest I had personally come to any truly radical students had been the Free Student Union. Yes I had held a committee meeting at our apartment but I had also severed my relationship with the organization as soon as I figured out the folks behind the Union were primarily interested in fomenting conflict.
It was not a happy time at the apartment that night or for many weeks. I assumed the Peace Corps option was out and begin thinking of alternatives. They were bleak.
As it turned out, a few weeks later we received final notification from the Peace Corps. We were accepted. The people who said good things about me must have outweighed the people who said bad things. Either that or Jo looked so good they didn’t want to throw the babe out with the bath water.
Or maybe most of the other students signing up for the Peace Corps from Berkeley in 1965 had rap sheets similar to mine. I suspect they did.
There was one final hitch. We had our Peace Corps physicals at the Army Induction Center in Oakland. That was an experience. I quickly recognized that the physical was designed as the first step in making soldiers, a part of the de-individualization process. Lining up with a bunch of other naked men to be poked and prodded isn’t my definition of fun.
“Turn your head and cough.”
I took it like a man and escaped as soon as the opportunity presented itself. A couple of days later I came back from class and there was a note from my other roommate, Cliff.
“The Induction Center called,” he wrote, “and there was a problem with the urinalysis.” I was to call them.
“Damn,” I thought. “Why is this so difficult?” So I called the Induction Center and resigned myself to having to pee in another jar. With really good luck I might avoid the naked-man-line but I wasn’t counting on it.
I got a very cooperative secretary who quickly bounced me to a very cooperative nurse who quickly bounced me to a very cooperative technician who quickly bounced me to a very cooperative doctor… none of whom could find any record of my errant urinalysis.
They didn’t see any problems and they didn’t know who had called. They suggested I call back later and be bounced around again. More than a little worried, I rushed off to my next class.
That evening I reported my lack of success to Cliff. He got this strange little smile on his face and asked me what day it was.
“April 1st,” I replied as recognition of having been seriously screwed dawned in my mind. “You little twerp!” I screamed, as Cliff shot for the door with me in fast pursuit. It took me four blocks to catch him. The damage wasn’t all that bad, considering.
Next up: What do Peace Corps training and a dead chicken’s dance have in common?