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.
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.