An Offer to Teach in Africa: From Free Speech to Peace Corps

In the spring of 1965 Uncle Sam pointed his finger at me. He wanted warm bodies to fight a colonial war in Southeast Asia the French had already lost. Being a 22-year-old male about to graduate from college, I was a prime candidate.

If drafted, I would go.

I couldn’t imagine burning my draft card, running off to Canada or joining the Texas Air National Guard. I actually believe some type of mandatory two-year national service ranging from the military to the Peace Corps would be good for young men and women and good for America.

But fighting in a war I didn’t believe in and killing people I didn’t want to kill was at the very bottom of my bucket list. And there’s more. I am allergic to taking orders and can’t stand being yelled at. I’d make a lousy soldier. I saw a court martial in my future.

Luckily, a temporary solution popped up. Peace Corps Recruiters were coming to UC Berkeley.

John Kennedy had first proposed this idealistic organization to a crowd of 5,000 students during a campaign speech at he University of Michigan on October 14, 1960. He was running four hours late and it was two in the morning but the response was overwhelming. One of his first acts as President was to create the agency.

Peace Corps service would not eliminate my military obligation but it might buy time for the Vietnam War to sort itself out. Of more importance, I felt the Peace Corps provided a unique opportunity to travel and possibly do some good. I also believed I would be serving my country.

My fiancé and I sat down and talked it out. Jo Ann was excited. We would go together as a husband and wife team. When the Peace Corps recruiters opened their booth in front of the Student Union at Berkeley, 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, in Kurdish. We also needed letters of recommendation.

Apparently we looked good on paper. In a few weeks, the Peace Corps informed us that we had been tentatively selected to serve as teachers in Liberia, West Africa. We were thrilled. The age-old question of what you do when you graduate from school and enter the real world had been answered, or at least postponed.

Uncle Sam with his growing hunger for bodies to fight the Vietnam War would have wait.

Next Blog: My roommate tells the FBI I am running a Communist Cell Block.