I didn’t start off as a likely candidate for the Peace Corps. My family had conservative values that suggested other priorities. Our Republican roots dated back to the foundation of the Party. My Great Grandfather, George Jr., claimed in his 1920 biography that every Marshall born since the Civil War had been Republican. His big issue in the 20s was immigration. Sound familiar? Too many Italians were crossing our borders and staying. A bit ironic, perhaps.
The Marshalls were still Republican when I came on the scene in 1943. My father’s credentials were tainted. He belonged to a union. But he still voted Republican. Abe Lincoln had been a family lawyer to distant cousins and Pop believed that the worst thing that had ever happened to America was Franklin Roosevelt.
How dedicated was I to the cause? Let me put it this way: My first political debate on behalf of the Grand Old Party put me in the hospital.
I was in the 4th grade at the time. My mom sent me off to school proudly wearing an “I Like Ike” button. It was the 1952 Presidential election and Dwight Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson. Another boy’s parents were equally dedicated to Stevenson. He was wearing an Adlai button. The two of us ended up in the boy’s restroom in a heated debate. I learned an important political lesson: Never argue politics with someone carrying a baseball bat. Lacking political sophistication, our discussion had quickly deteriorated into name-calling, the heart and soul of most political campaigns. I had a larger vocabulary of four letter words and was winning when the Stevenson devotee wound up and hit me across the thigh with his baseball bat. I ended up in the hospital with a knot on my leg the size of a softball. Like most martyrs, my devotion to the cause was only strengthened.
I graduated from high school Republican to the core and envisioned a future of wealth and power. It was not the type of future that would accommodate a detour to Africa and the Peace Corps. Had I been old enough to vote in 1960, I would have voted for Richard Nixon. He was running against Jack Kennedy, the founder of the Peace Corps.
I was about to make a left turn from the right lane, however. Old values would clash with new. College was looming. I spent my first two years at Sierra, a community college nestled in the rolling foothills east of Sacramento. I then transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, the flashpoint of worldwide student unrest in the 60s. Sierra would liberalize my view of the world; Berkeley radicalized it.
The process of liberalization started during the first hour on my first day at Sierra. The faculty had arranged for a speaker to kick off the school’s Howdy Day welcome. Dr. No Yong Park, a Chinese man with a Harvard education, stood up in front of a sea of white faces and smiled like he had access to secrets we didn’t.
“You think I look funny?” our speaker asked with a grin. His question was greeted by nervous laughter. As naive as we were, we still knew enough to be made uncomfortable by such a question.
“Well, I think you look funny,” he went on to much more laughter, “and there are a lot more of me who think you look funny than there are of you who think I look funny.”
It jolted my perspective. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum in the South in the early 60s and I was sympathetic with its objectives. Providing people with equal rights regardless of race, sex, religion or other arbitrary factors seemed like the right thing to do. But I had never perceived of myself as being a minority. Instead, I belonged to an exclusive club. In 1961 white males dominated the US and the US dominated the world. It was easy to assume that this was how things should be. The fact that it might be otherwise put a new spin on the issue. What if I, or my children, ended up in a situation where we were in the minority and lacked power? I added enlightened self-interest to my list of reasons for supporting civil and human rights.
More shocks were coming at Sierra. My “rock that was Peter” ended up on an active fault zone; I met an environmentalist before the word was created; and the Cuban missile crisis with its threat of nuclear annihilation forced me to rethink my views on international relations. But these are all subjects for next Wednesday.
Friday’s Travel Blog: It’s back to the beautiful Oregon Coast to visit another state park: Harris Beach near Brookings. I’ve been going through the photos since we got home a week ago. There’s enough material for five posts! I’ll start with an introduction to the park.
Monday’s Blog-a-Book… Another tale from “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me” : Held at gunpoint at Lake Tahoe, I go into training for both Berkeley and the Peace Corps!