Having successfully completed Peace Corps Training, our next task was to fly to Liberia, Africa. The thought was both exciting and scary. We didn’t need was another major adventure on the way…
Our reward for completing Peace Corps training was one week at home.
We were supposed to complete whatever business we had before disappearing into the jungles of West Africa for two years. Since there wasn’t much to do, Jo and I relaxed and recovered from our tumultuous year that had begun with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.
We wrapped up our brief visit with a going away party in Jo Ann’s back yard.
Surrounded by friends and family we talked into the night. It was one of those perfect summer evenings that California is famous for, complete with a cool breeze tainted with a hint of honeysuckle flowers.
Jo Ann’s parents drove us down to the San Francisco Airport the next morning for our flight to JFK where we would meet up with our group. Her mom slipped us a hundred-dollar bill just before we climbed on the plane. “Just in case.”
Now we were disembarking at JFK, two country kids who had traveled a long way from Diamond Springs and Auburn, California. All we had to do was check in at the Pan Am desk, grab a bite to eat, and catch our trans-Atlantic flight to Africa.
Ah that life should be so simple. Oh we managed to find the Pan Am desk all right, but no one was there.
“Excuse me, could you tell me where the Peace Corps group is?” I asked a harried attendant.
“I don’t have any idea,” was the brusque reply.
Have you ever had the sinking feeling that you have blown something critically important in a very big way? It starts with the hair follicles on your head and works its way downward to your toes. Every part of your body jumps in to let you know you aren’t nearly as smart as you imagined you were.
It’s the stomach that serves as the real messenger, however, and mine was rolling like the Atlantic in a hurricane.
“Check the instructions again, Curt,” the voice of reason standing beside me directed. Good idea.
“Well, it says right here we are supposed to be at the Pan Am desk no later than 5 PM.” It was only 4. My stomach calmed down to a respectable jet engine rumble. “Let’s have a bite and check back.” I suggested, working hard to be the man
Five PM came and no one, nothing, nada. It was serious panic time. “Wait here Jo in case anyone comes. I’ll go check the instructions one more time.”
We had stuffed our bags in one of those drop-a-quarter-in-the-slot storage lockers while we ate. I freed my shoulder bag from captivity and reread the instructions. Yes, we were in the right place at the right time. Then there it was, the answer, staring at me in black and white. “You will fly to JFK on August 7th.”
It was the 8th.
Uttering swear words on each step, I slowly climbed back up the stairs.
“I’ve found them Jo Ann.” A look of relief and the beginning of a smile crossed her face.
“Where are they?”
“They’re in Liberia.” Waaaaaaaaaa!
Let me say this about the two of us; we were both stubborn as mules when we thought we were right. This could create problems when we disagreed but the potential for disaster was miniscule in comparison to when we both agreed we were right and we weren’t. Reality didn’t matter and certainly a little date on a piece of paper we had each read a dozen times wasn’t going to deter us.
The 7th was our going away party and that was that, period. While we were kicking up our heels in Auburn, our compatriots were crossing the Atlantic. Now we were stuck in New York City.
“What are we going to do?” Jo asked in a shaky voice. The only thing that came to my mind was a double vodka gimlet
It was probably a good thing United Airlines let us on the airplane in San Francisco without noticing our tickets were one day out of date. Had we called Washington from home, the Peace Corps may have been tempted to say, “Why don’t you just stay there.”
As it turned out, the Peace Corps representative sounded amused when we called the emergency number after our visit to the bar. “Did we have enough money to get through until tomorrow?” Yes, thanks to Jo Ann’s mom.
“OK, call this number in the morning.” We decided to sleep in the airport to save our scant resources. It was a resolution with a short lifespan. I had one extremely unhappy young wife on my hands and my sleeping habits were unwilling to accommodate a deserted airport lounge.
Somewhere around midnight I said, “Look, Jo, I am going to see if a cab driver will help us find a hotel we can afford.”
The first guy in line was a grizzled old character in a taxi of similar vintage. I told him our story. He studied me for a moment and then said, “Go get your wife and I’ll find somewhere for you.
A more cynical observer might note we were lambs waiting to be fleeced but what followed was one of those minor events that speak so loudly for the positive side of human nature. The taxi driver took care of us. He reached across the cab, turned off his meter and then drove to three different hotels. At each one he would get out, go inside and talk to the manager. At the third one he came out and announced he had found our lodging.
“This place isn’t fancy,” he reported, “but it is clean, safe and affordable.” Affordable turned out to be dirt-cheap. To this day I am sure the cab driver finessed a deal for us. Two very exhausted puppies fell into bed and deep sleep.
The Peace Corps representative we talked to the next morning wasn’t nearly as friendly as the one the night before but at least he didn’t tell us we had to go home. A commercial flight to Liberia would be leaving in three days. “Could we hang out in New York? Did they need to send us some money? Could we follow directions?”
Yes we could hang out; no, they didn’t need to send money, and yes we could probably find our way to the proper airline at the correct time on the right day.
Jo and I visited the World’s Fair, checked out the City and considered the three days as an extension of our all too short honeymoon. As the old saying goes, all’s well that ends well.
Next up: Warm coke and cookies for breakfast in Dakar, Senegal