Doing the Blitz
||Chicken every Sunday
Recruiting had its lighter moments. To the tune of the jingle See the USA in Your Chevrolet we saw the USA in our GSA, the gray official cars from the government services motor pools of the day. I recall coming back to Washington from LA on an infamous Red Eye Special with three of our most charismatic recruiters whom passengers assumed on that run must have had something to do with the movie industry. Always working, we managed to get ourselves upgraded to business class at no extra cost, and also obtained dutifully completed and signed applications from three of the six stewardesses on that flight. At one West Coast university, a fast talking recruiter got the entire graduating class of forestry majors to apply and take the foreign language aptitude test as well, describing to them a ground-breaking reforestation project in Greenland. The Peace Corps never had a program in Greenland.
Most graduating college seniors were not that specific about where they wanted to serve overseas since they had little knowledge about most countries in Asia, Africa or the Americas. Almost all, however, in ordering their priorities asked about the food. To address these concerns about basic needs, we produced several taped interviews with our recruiters for distribution on campus radio. In one such interview which I conducted, a petite, attractive Afro-American woman who had been a business skills teacher in Belize described her diet as provided by her host family:
On Mondays we had white beans and rice.
On Tuesdays, it was red beans and rice,
And on Wednesday they served black beans,
And of course rice.
Then on Thursday it repeated with white beans and rice.
Friday again the red beans and rice
Saturday supper was black bean and rice.
Then the former teacher of typing and accounting paused, her eyes moistened and she became more animated. But on Sundays we had chicken!
Greatest Recruitment Year
In the spring of 1968, despite problems with morale, changing messages and turbulent college campuses, we were on course to chalk up the most successful recruiting year in Peace Corps history, success being defined as the number of prime applicants available for summer and fall training programs. From well over 100,000 completed applications we were able to draw from an actively interested and available pool of 36,000. In the 32 years since, this record has not been surpassed. By now, however, my sights were increasingly focused on French language training and the Ivory Coast, or Cote dIvoire to which I had been nominated to become Country Director.
In, Up, and Out
At the end of March 1968, I made my last big swing through our regions.
In Atlanta, T.M. Alexander, Jr., a graduate school friend who was financial adviser to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, invited me to a midnight supper on the occasion of Dr. Kings return from a desegregation march in Alabama. In the dimly lit church basement, I recall how tired and ashen King and his lieutenants appeared as they walked slowly to their tables. Andrew Young, whom I would get to know in the mid-70s when he was a U.S. Congressman, and Ralph Abernathy were among the solemn band. There was no opportunity for introductions or discussion as the exhausted ministers ate quickly and in silence, and left the room as quietly as they had entered. The scene I witnessed in that bare dimly lit church basement at midnight was profoundly inspiring for I had participated in the March on Washington and was raised by a family active in Civil Rights. At that moment, however, I had no intimations that I had been present at a last supper.
I left Atlanta for Chicago and then went on to San Francisco where the entire 40 strong, revitalized West Coast team would be together for the last time in the Bay area. Consequently, much planning had gone into holding a retreat near Carmel. I finished my recruiting chores at Berkeley early on that April 4th and was programmed to go into the city to give a talk to a two-hundred-strong group of Trainees being sent to Hilo, Hawaii for three months training before being assigned to programs in the Asia/Pacific region. I was then to go on to the retreat. It was a beautiful West Coast day as several of us drove across the Bay Bridge with the radio blaring out The Mamas and the Papas on California Dreamin, in our sedate GSA issue car. With the ambiance, my attractive escorts and the music, I had a hard time concentrating on my notes for the talk, but all my fantasies of the mellow West Coast were cruelly interrupted by a news bulletin informing us that Dr. King had been shot at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. We were stunned, I doubly so, for I had sat with the man only ten days before at that silent midnight dinner.
We headed to the Peace Corps office on Market Street to cancel my talk to the Hilo-bound Trainees and to call Washington for instructions. Headquarters, confused and disbelieving, spoke of rioting in parts of the city and elsewhere in the United States. The National Guard had been called out and offices were sending workers home. Stay out there until further notice, I was told. Keep the office and the team together.
Feeling helpless, we decided to continue on with the retreat since we would be out of the city, and hopefully out of harms way. One of our recruiters father was on the Carmel Town Council which controlled twelve thousand acres of woods and park land of Big Sur near the famous Esalen Institute. It was to these acres that some sixty of us, including secretaries and significant others, gathered. Instead of heading to the rustic cabin on the property, we drove up the dirt tracks to the bluffs overlooking the Pacific. Cars went as far as possible and then we all hiked up to a grassy knoll. Startled wild boar crashed about us in the brush, but we all sat silently, not greeting one another, deep in our thoughts about the days events. Was this the end of the Civil Rights movement? Would there be an all out civil war? Sixty young adults, and I at 34 the old man sifted this tragedy over and over to ourselves as we watched the spectacular sun set below us, a large orange disc dropping slowly into an unruffled, flat sea. Little else is so ingrained in my Peace Corps memories as the profiles of these bright, exceptional Americans against the backdrop of that sunset. They in their mid-twenties had experience more of the world than most people ever would in their lifetimes. They symbolized the nations idealism and humanitarian concern for peoples of all races and creeds. Now with yet another assassination of an American hero, could we possibly sustain what they had worked for? Shaking us from our private thoughts, two US Navy jets streaked low over the flat Pacific, the vanishing sun reflecting off their sleek, dark blue aluminum skins.