Peace Corps Writers
Young, Scared and Gay in 1969
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Young, Scared and Gay in 1969
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     But the draft, of course, was still hanging over all of these idealistic notions. Then, as now, it could take close to a year to get into the Peace Corps after you applied. I had submitted my application in plenty of time. My college major was French, and I saw a future in Africa as an English teacher in the French-speaking west of the continent. But my college graduation was in December, 1968, and those Peace Corps francophone Africa programs didn’t leave until June at the earliest, giving Uncle Sam a good six months to have his way with me. I had dutifully informed my draft board of my application to the Peace Corps and that I was awaiting an assignment. They didn’t respond, but they also didn’t sweep me up right away. Of course I also made it my business to let the Peace Corps know, on just about a daily basis, that I was ready to go and that I’d take almost anything in the way of an assignment. Peace Corps Placement Officers at the time were proactively snatching qualified male applicants from the jaws of the draft, and they came through for me. This complete generalist, steeped in Edith Piaf and vin de table, was invited to go to Panama to work in a co-ops program. The extent of my knowledge of Spanish was “Ricky Ricardo.” I knew even less of co-ops. But my total ignorance didn’t seem to matter to the Peace Corps, so why should it to me? In February, 1969 I flew to Puerto Rico to train to be a “community development” Volunteer selling the idea of financial co-ops to Panamanian campesinos. My life was beginning, coveted deferment in hand.
     I loved the Peace Corps from the moment I got off the plane in San Juan. I had never experienced such nurturing, supportive people on this massive scale. “Gay” was still something you didn’t talk about, but it also didn’t seem to matter. I burned up the training program, learning Spanish — basically French with a different accent, I discovered — so quickly that I scared my instructors. I was riding ecstatically high except one small problem: this nagging doubt about being dropped without introduction into a rural Panamanian village and somehow selling the people on the value of co-ops.
     Of course, I needed preparation for such a thing, so I kept an open mind. I realized preparation was why I was in Puerto Rico in the first place. On a Friday afternoon a short time after arriving, I was dropped off at the entrance to a poor rural village and told to go find some place to stay for the weekend. What to do? The idea of a church sprang to mind — I figured people in a church would probably be nice to me. So I walked up the road, found the village church, and walked into the enclosure of the house next to it. The goats and chickens, stock cast members in these scenes, were welcoming. It turned out the people in the house had nothing to do with the church, but they welcomed me, too, even if they were a bit perplexed to have this skinny 6’4” gringo asking if he could stay with them for a couple of days. The words “cuerpo de paz,” seemed to explain everything.
     I got through that weekend but was very glad to get back to the training camp. I knew we’d be required to go back to the same villages at the end of the training program, for a whole week. As much as I was loving this training experience, my doubts kept growing. I knew at my core that I didn’t want to go back to the village, and, worse, I really couldn’t imagine myself living for two years in rural Panama. But always, the draft was there. I saw no alternative but to push down the doubts and forge ahead. I made it right up to the eve of the departure for the second village stay, and then just couldn’t go on. Dropping all pretenses, I went to the psychologist (all Peace Corps training programs at that time had resident shrinks) and told him I wanted to go home.
     When word filtered out it was a shock to my fellow trainees and to my instructors. (If such a seemingly successful trainee could fold, what about the rest of them?) The Peace Corps was required to notify my draft board of my decision to leave, which meant that I’d be on the call-up list virtually as soon as I got back home. My instructors, my fellow trainees and I all knew this, and none of us could imagine me in the military. As a possible solution to what I was about to get myself into, they urged me to apply for conscientious objector status with the draft — to declare my opposition to war on moral or religious grounds. If that was granted, I could still be drafted, but I’d be guaranteed a non-combat assignment. The idea didn’t sit well with me, however. I knew I was not fundamentally against all war. I never marched in anti-war rallies; indeed I suspected that the young men in the “peace movement” were mostly guys like me, all of us just scared and basically trying to save our skins. I perceived that the difference between them and me was that they were dressing their fears up in high-sounding blather about peace and love. Like going to Panama, that was something else I couldn’t make myself do.
     So in May of 1969 I found myself back home. Unwilling to just sit back and wait, I went to my draft board to try to plead my case. My original plan was to explain that I was working to find another Peace Corps program more appropriate to my skills, and to request a month or two of grace for something to materialize. But, as I sat at that draft board lady’s desk, the words just slipped out: “I’d like to apply for conscientious objector status.” Saying nothing, she opened a drawer and gave me the CO application, and then opened another drawer and, with a single swipe, erased my name from the next month’s draft call. A bullet dodged.
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