Peace Corps Writers
Being First (page 3)
Being First
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Ghana I prepares to depart
After the discomfort of the selection process at UCal/Berkeley [early Trainees were subject to “deselection” while going through training on U.S. college campuses, usually by psychiatrists and psychologists hired by the Peace Corps or the college], we were glad that training had been shortened by one week, ending on August 21. Next, we were told to report to Washington on Monday, August 28 for a White House event and then to board our Pan Am charter to Accra.
     As early as July 23, I was writing home, “Good news—Our training program is being shortened by one week and we are being given leave from August 21 to August 28…. “We are being flown to Ghana by chartered plane from Washington and will be allowed up to 216 pounds of luggage [Why 216?]. We have to report to Washington by 11 AM on August 28. There are rumors of a White House reception.”
     I think Peace Corps/Washington was happy to give us a few days at home before flying to Ghana because at the time the Peace Corps legislation was working its way through Congress. Having us in our hometowns could and did generate local news stories such as: “Young Wilmette Man Leaves For Ghana; “Graduate To Teach with Peace Corps in Ghana”; “Miss Vellenga In Ghana, West Africa”; “Plainfield Teacher Chosen for Peace Corps in Ghana.”
     We scattered from Berkeley for the brief leave to say goodbye to family and friends (and to buy our weight allowance of 216 pounds of clothing and supplies, trying, for example, to figure out how many handkerchiefs would be needed for two years).
One of the more memorable farewells for Ghana I PCVs happened to Alice O’Grady. Alice had continued through training to perform in San Francisco on weekends with a musical troupe, the Lamplighters, which was presenting Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado”:

We did a show the night before I left for Chicago, and then onto Washington, D.C. and Ghana. The director, who was also in the cast, at the end of each performance would step forward and say, ‘Thank you for being such a good audience; we would like you to join the cast in the lobby for coffee.’
     But that night she said, ‘We’re not able to join you in the lobby because one of our members is going overseas with the Peace Corps and I stepped forward and had my first and only solo bow with that company. Got a nice round of applause.
     Then, because the plane was leaving soon, I changed but none of the cast did. They all went to the airport as Japanese school girls, etc. in their costumes.
     When they called the plane and I was about to leave, they all went down on one knee and sang ‘Hail Poetry’. It was just beautiful. It’s a lovely kind of hymn, but not from the Mikado. They also presented me with a hobby horse, a horse’s head on a stick, for me to travel to Ghana on. It was a very touching sendoff.

In the Rose Garden
At the same time, the road surveyors of Tanganyika I were completing Phase One of their training in El Paso, and were heading for more training in Puerto Rico. So, in transit between the two sites, they joined Ghana I in Washington to meet Kennedy.
     I remember envisioning a White House reception, based on earlier experiences at various Bar Mitzvah and wedding receptions. I expected a high class lawn party setting with gloved waiters in crisp white vests, circulating among us with canapes and drinks; we’d have an opportunity for casual “cocktail party” chatter with the President, Shriver, maybe even Jackie. I was not alone in such thinking.
     Ruth Whitney remembered that White House reception: “Georgianna McGuire and I wore our basic black dresses — now we kid about it all the time — and white gloves. She and I must have grown up with the same kind of mother who taught us what to wear for such occasions.”
     The White House setting, remarks by Kennedy, and approximately 75 bright young, newly-minted Peace Corps Volunteers attracted useful press coverage. The reception was a very crowded, stand-up affair on the hottest day of the year in the Rose Garden, with reporters and photographers outnumbering guests.
     It must have been a heartwarming sight to those lobbying for passage of the Peace Corps bill. Kennedy appeared with Shriver hovering near him and spoke to all of us. The line that most of us remember is when he said, “So I hope you realize — I know you do — that the future of the Peace Corps really rests with you.”
     We were okay with that, thanks to Professors Apter, Drake, and the others at Berkeley.
     That the “future of the Peace Corps” really depended on us had been stressed by Shriver earlier in the day when he spoke to us at a State Department “briefing” which seemed designed to reassure the briefers and not especially to inform us.
     Shriver told us, “The President is counting on you. It’s up to you to prove that the concepts and ideals of the American Revolution are still alive. Foreigners think we’re fat, dumb and happy over here. They don’t think we’ve got the stuff to make personal sacrifices for our way of life. You must show them. And if you don’t, you’ll be yanked out of the ball game.”
     We had faced eerie psychiatrists, seven varieties of psychological testing, chilling stories of boa constrictor attacks, and the perils of partying in Strawberry Canyon above the Berkeley campus (I never knew they made such large bottles of wine.). Shriver could not daunt us. We were ready — to teach, if not to sacrifice.
     I must have been mulling over Shriver’s exhortation in the Rose Garden when Tom Wicker of the New York Times interviewed me. In the Times the next day he wrote: “Robert Klein made it clear that he and his fellow corpsmen had not been trained as political missionaries or assigned to preach particular doctrines. He said that David Apter, a political science professor who headed the four-man faculty for the Ghana group’s two months of training at the University of California, had stressed that each volunteer was going abroad as an ‘individual with his own ideas.’”

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