Peace Corps Training and the Dead Chicken Dance

In my last blog I relayed how I was accepted into the Peace Corps even though my roommate at UC Berkeley told a FBI Agent I was running a communist cell block out of our apartment. In this blog, I report on how chopping the head off a chicken was central to Peace Corps training.

Jo Ann was crying and I was struggling to be sympathetic.

It wasn’t easy. We had just left her parents in San Francisco and boarded a United Airlines jet bound for New York City. Other than the time I had surrendered five hard-earned dollars for a helicopter ride at the El Dorado County Fair, it was my first flight ever.

The jet taxied out on to the runway, climbed above the bay and banked toward the east. We were leaving family, friends and life in the US behind. While Jo struggled with the past, my thoughts were on the future. Africa, teaching and adventure beckoned. It was August 1965.

As the plane flew over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and we waved goodbye to California, my mind turned to our new role as Peace Corps Volunteers. Two months earlier we were wondering whether this day would ever arrive. Graduation, marriage, honeymoon and reporting for Liberia VI Peace Corps at San Francisco State College training had all transpired in one whirlwind week.

Upon arrival at SF State, the married couples were crammed into one wing of Merced Hall, a student dormitory. Tiny rooms, paper-thin walls and a communal bathroom became our new home. We soon knew a lot about each other.

Peace Corps staff wanted to know even more; Beebo the psychologist was assigned to follow us around and take notes. First, however, they pumped us full of gamma globulin and explained deselection. Our job was to decide whether Peace Corps was something we really wanted to do. Staff’s job was to provide stress to help make the decision

Initially this came in the form of SF State football coaches hired to shape us up.

“Okay you guys, let’s see how fast you can run up and down the stadium steps five times!”

I hadn’t liked that particular sport during my brief football career in high school and still didn’t. Beyond mini-boot camp, our time was filled with attending classes designed to teach us about Liberia and elementary school education. We were even given a stint at practice teaching in South San Francisco. There wasn’t much for Beebo to write about.

The true stress test was supposed to be a camping trip up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This may have been true for the kids straight out of the Bronx who had rarely seen stars much less slept out in the woods but Jo and I considered it a vacation. We had been raised in the foothills of the Sierras and were going home.

The ante on our stress level was upped considerably when the camp leader arrived the first night.

“Here’s dinner,” he casually announced as he unloaded a crate of live chickens from the back of his pickup.

Fortunately, I had chopped off a few chicken heads in my youth and knew about such things as chicken plucking and gutting. I couldn’t appear too eager in the chopping department, though. Beebo might write something like “displays obvious psychopathic tendencies.”

“Close the door, lock and latch it, here comes Curt with a brand new hatchet!”

My chicken spurted blood from its neck and performed a jerky little death dance, turning the city boys and girls a chalky white. Their appetites made a quick exit in pursuit of their color when I reached inside Henny Penny to yank out her innards. It seemed that my fellow trainees were lacking in intestinal fortitude. If so, it was fine with me; I got more chicken.

Beebo’s biggest day came when we faced the wilderness obstacle course. Our first challenge was to cross a bouncy rope bridge over a twenty-foot gorge. Beebo stood nearby scratching away on his pad. We then rappelled down a rock… scratch, scratch, scratch. Our every move was to be scrutinized and subjected to psychological analysis.

We rebelled.

“Beebo, you’ve been following us around and taking notes for two months. Now it’s your turn. See that rock. Climb down it.”

“Uh, no.”

“Beebo, you don’t understand,” we were laughing, “you have to take your turn.

Reluctantly, very reluctantly, Beebo agreed. About half way down he froze and became glued to rock with all of the tenacity of a tick on a hound. We tried to talk him down and we tried to talk him up. We even tried talking him sideways. Nothing worked. Finally we climbed up and hauled him down. Note taking was finished.

We wrapped up our wilderness week and our training was complete. Jo Ann and I took the oath and became official Peace Corps Volunteers.

In my next blog, I describe how we are left stranded in New York City while all of the other Peace Corps Volunteers fly on to Liberia.

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