Chapter 2: The FBI is Told I Run Communist Cell Meetings… Peace Corps Tales

Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story in book format.

When I have finished, I will publish the book digitally and in print.

The mid-60s were a time of turmoil at UC Berkeley when the University blocked on-campus support for the Civil Right’s Movement. Here, I am one of many protesters opposing Administration policy by picketing at Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue.

In the last post, my first wife, Jo Ann, and I applied for the Peace Corps when we were students at UC Berkeley in 1965. We were tentatively accepted as teachers in Liberia, West Africa.

There were still hurdles. They were tied to the illusive if. We could go if we could get through the background security check, if we weren’t deselected during training, and if we could pass the physical. 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 was squeaky clean but I had been up to 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 my 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; maybe it was labeled Radical. J. Edgar Hoover saw Red when he looked at Berkeley.

Soon I started hearing from friends. 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 found my roommate Jerry there. He was pale and agitated. His eyes bounced around the room.

“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 meetings in our apartment.”

Jerry was deadly serious; Jerry was dead.

“What in the hell are you talking about?” I yelled, seeing all of our hopes dashed and me rotting in jail. I knew that Jerry disagreed with me over my involvement in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement (FSM) and probably disagreed with me over the Vietnam War, but I hadn’t a clue on how deep that disagreement went. Or what he based his information on.

My degree in International Relations had included a close look at Communism. I found nothing attractive about repressive totalitarian states.

The closest I came to joining a leftist group had been the Free Student Union. Yes I had held committee meetings at our apartment but I had also severed my relationship with the organization. The folks behind the Union apparently believed that confrontation with authority was a good thing in and of itself. Getting bashed on the head with a nightstick made students angry. FSU wanted to radicalize the student body, not serve it.

I was not happy with Jerry that night or for some time after. I assumed the Peace Corps option was out and begin thinking of alternatives. They were bleak.

As it turned out, we received final notification from the Peace Corps a few weeks later. We were accepted. Jerry could live. 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 possibly the majority of other students who signed up for the Peace Corps from Berkeley in 1965 had rap sheets similar to mine.

There was one final hitch. I was to report to the Army Induction Center in Oakland for my physical. It was an experience not worth repeating. I lined up with a bunch of naked men to be poked and prodded.

“Turn your head and cough. Now, bend over.”

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 scribbled note from my other roommate, Cliff, who was also going into the Peace Corps.

“The Induction Center called,” he wrote, “and there is a problem with your urinalysis.” I was to call them.

“Damn,” I thought. “Why is this so difficult?” So I called the Center and resigned myself to peeing in another jar. With really good luck, I might avoid the naked-man line.

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… and none of them 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 ass!” I screamed, as Cliff shot for the door with me in fast pursuit. He made it to Telegraph Avenue before I caught him. The damage wasn’t all that bad, considering.

The FBI Hears I Run a Communist Cell Block…

Next on my to-do list for joining the Peace Corps was the dreaded FBI security check.

I had been up to 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 my 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; maybe it was labeled ‘Radical!’ J. Edgar Hoover saw Red whenever he looked at Berkeley.

Soon I started hearing from friends. 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 found my roommate Jerry 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 wasn’t joking; 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 didn’t have a clue on how deep the disagreement went. 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 come to joining a leftist group 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. The folks behind the Union were more interested in radicalizing the student body than serving it. That was not my interest.

I was not happy with Jerry that night or for some time after. 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 Ann looked so good they didn’t want to throw the babe out with the bath water.

Or possibly the majority of other students signing up for the Peace Corps from Berkeley in 1965 had rap sheets similar to mine. I suspect that was the case.

Next Blog: If this is the Peace Corps, what am I doing in the naked man line at the Army Induction Center?

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.

48 Years Later… The 1964 Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley

This is the original sign I carried in the Free Speech Movement during the December 1964 police occupation of UC Berkeley and arrest of 800 students participating in the Sproul Hall Sit-in.

I’ve been rooting thorough my old Free Speech Movement files, digging for treasure. Buried between aging, yellow copies of the Daily Cal and mimeographed handouts calling for action, I found the picket sign I carried when the police invaded UC Berkeley and arrested 800 students on December 3, 1964.

There are numerous sources covering FSM and its impact including an excellent book, “The Free Speech Movement,” edited by Robert Cohen and Reginald Zelnik. FSM even has its own website, fsm@a.org. I visited the site and found pictures of aging white-haired men and women looking remarkably like me. 1964 is now ancient history.

In preparation for this series of posts I also returned to UC Berkeley. Sitting on the edge of Ludwig’s fountain under a fine mist, I stared at the steps of Sproul Hall while searching my memory for ghostly reminders of past demonstrations.

I actually found one. A long-haired African American was distributing protest arm bands. His effort would have been illegal in the fall of 1964.

A stroll down Telegraph Avenue brought me to the Café Med, one of my favorite student hangouts. I stopped for an obligatory cup of cappuccino. I wrote notes in my journal and listened in on conversations. It seemed that neither the coffee house nor my behavior had changed much.

Back on campus I visited the Free Speech Café in the Moffitt Undergraduate Library. Every seat was full so I wandered around and looked at photos. Mario Savio, who died in 1996, was there in spirit. A picture captured him in a characteristic pose, haranguing a sea of upturned faces. It was a fitting memorial.

In hindsight, the Free Speech Movement has become an important part of Berkeley’s history, honored even by an Administration that once characterized it as a Communist inspired plot. And what about my hindsight; have the years blurred or substantially modified my vision of what took place?

I tried, in writing this series on UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, to be faithful to what I felt and experienced at the time. I feel now, as I did then, that it didn’t have to happen. The attitude the Administration demonstrated in the 1963 student leadership meeting I attended and described in an earlier post went beyond naïve to dangerous.

If the more radical students found ground for ‘revolution,’ it was a ground fertilized and plowed by the Administration. The desire to protect the campus from outside influence became a willingness to limit the rights of students to participate in the critical issues of the day and, in so doing, take the side of powerful elites whose vested interest was in maintaining the status quo on civil and other human rights issues.

What changed as a result of the Free Speech Movement?

Certainly the concept of in locus parentis took a major hit. Students at Berkeley and other colleges across America would have much greater freedom in the future, on both a personal and political level. We had graduated from being older teenagers needing guidance to young adults capable of and responsible for our own decisions.

While we were still a part of the future so popular with Commencement speakers, we were also a part of the now, helping to shape that future. Human rights and equality including women and gay rights, the anti-Vietnam campaign, and the environmental movement would all benefit. Berkeley students had participated in one of America’s great transformations.

The New Left considers the Free Speech Movement as an important source of origin. A similar claim might be made for the New Right, the so-called Neo Cons.

The outer fringes of liberal and conservative politics are two cats of the same color, feeding off of the same plate and necessary to each other’s success. Each functions with the tunnel vision of being right and with the belief that the ends of their particular vision justify whatever means necessary to get there. Not surprisingly, both the Left and the Right saw the unrest on the Berkeley Campus as an opportunity waiting to happen.

The message was not lost on Ronald Reagan. Following the Free Speech Movement, he would exploit the student protests at Berkeley and other California colleges as a launching pad for his career in politics. One of his first moves as Governor was to fire Clark Kerr for being too soft on the students. There is a picture from the early 70s of Reagan turning around and flipping off student protestors at a U.C. Regent’s meeting. It was a clear message of intent.

It may be somewhat instructive that his future Attorney General, Edwin Meese, was the Deputy District Attorney in Oakland at the time of the Free Speech Movement. Meese’s role had been to oversee the Sproul Hall arrests and serve as liaison with the FBI.

There is a story, which may be apocryphal, that it was Meese who persuaded Governor Pat Brown to send in the troops on the night of the Sproul Hall sit-in by claiming students were tearing up the Dean’s office. If so, it was a deliberate lie or at least an exaggeration. The worst vandalism I witnessed was my standing on the Dean’s desk in my socks so I wouldn’t scratch the surface.

My speculation is that the forces on the right, like the forces on the left, wanted a confrontation. Kerr was planning to address the sit-in the next day in an effort to persuade the students to leave the building. A peaceful solution would not have served the agenda of Meese, Knowland, Hoover, etc. Serious head bashing leading to a full-scaled riot was called for. If it took lies to bring it about, so be it.

Or am I just being paranoid?

Later, when I chaired a committee for the Free Student Union, I witnessed a similar attitude on the part of the Left. A confrontation with students getting their heads bashed was good. It would radicalize moderates and lead to further violent confrontations.

While both the Left and Right worked to subvert what happened at Berkeley for their own objectives, I believe that the Free Speech Movement was what it claimed to be: a fight for free speech, the right to assemble, and the right to participate in the critical issues of the day. It was a fight that still rings true today.

I sign up for the Peace Corps, but there’s this problem…

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?