|Young, Scared and Gay in 1969
At that time, my father and I were alone in the house, my mother having traveled to New York State to help my older sister have a baby. It wasnt a very congenial time. For many reasons, not least my having to hide the essential, gay self I had grown comfortable with since living in Kentucky, my parents and I were estranged emotionally and walked on eggs around each other under the best of circumstances.
When I returned home from the draft board visit, I absently left the CO forms on a table with a stack of other papers and went to my room. When my father came home from work, he saw the forms and the roof fell in. In my 24 years of life I had never seen such anguish in my usually quiet father. He called my mother in New York. He called my Aunt Grace, his sister. He called just about everybody he knew, it seemed, to tell them his son was trying to be a conscientious objector. This man, who himself had been permanently deferred during WWII because his journalist profession was deemed necessary to the defense of the country, was ashamed. I wasnt being a man. My cousins, who had done their duty during The War and Korea, were tossed in my face as examples. How could I do this to the family? What was wrong with me? He knew, of course, but the word queer never passed his lips, thank God.
I had no life in DC outside of my family, so there was no choice but to continue breathing the deadly air in my parents house. With no like-minded friends nearby, I of course had no support whatsoever in my quest to have some control over my life and, incidentally, keep my young body intact. Given my parents hysterical reaction to the CO forms, I gave up on that idea. There was no way I could spring from that demoralizing atmosphere and present myself to the entire draft board to make a case. Still, I refused to be drafted. I went to an Air Force recruiter and let him talk me into an appointment for an aptitude test. Maybe I could use my language skills in some way.
I still have a hard time believing what happened next. Enter my old mentor, Joe Kimmins, who was by now the press liaison with the Peace Corps recruiting office in Atlanta. He called one morning in early June and told me to sit down. The director of the Peace Corps in Ghana, Ira Okun, had been in Atlanta the day before and Joe had gone out to lunch with him. Joe happened to mention my situation to Ira, and Ira responded that he saw no reason I why I couldnt join a class he had leaving at the end of that month. (The fact that invitations for this training class had long been completed and that all logistical arrangements for pre-departure formalities had been made didnt seem to matter to Ira.) Some calls were made to the Peace Corps in Washington, and the next day I had a hand-delivered invitation to Ghana. It was Africa, and, though English-speaking, at least surrounded by francophone countries. Close enough. These things just werent supposed to happen, so I was asking no questions. Within three weeks, on June 29, 1969, I was on a chartered jet to Africa in the company of 150 of Americas finest.
Ghana was all the things I had hoped for and some that I hadnt. The Peace Corps does things to you that you cannot expect. It was the journey of intense self-discovery that any returned Peace Corps Volunteer will talk about if you ask. I loved it.
And, oh yes, the draft. It still wasnt done with me.
The general practice of the draft boards was to call up men only through the age of 25, meaning if you got to 26 with no call you could consider yourself home free. You will not be surprised to learn that my situation was complicated in this regard. My birthday is in November and my service in Ghana was to end in September of 1971, when I was 25 years and 10 months old. In 1969, in an attempt to address at least some of the inequities of the system, the draft had instituted a lottery based on birth dates. Three hundred sixty-five balls representing each date of the year were drawn at random and you were then assigned a number, based on the order in which your birthday was drawn. The guys with the lowest numbers, say 1 to 100, were all but assured of being called to service. The next group, up to about 175, were less likely to be called but still couldnt feel free to make any personal plans. Only those with the highest numbers could breathe easy. My number was 156, right in the unknowable middle.
When my service in Ghana was scheduled to end in September, I received notification that my draft status had been changed to 1-A, meaning I was now regarded as prime meat. I asked the Peace Corps office in Accra if I could have a partial extension of my service to take me past my 26th birthday. They agreed, if I could find something to still make myself useful. While the school where I had taught liked me, they understandably didnt want to be saddled with finding a rare French teacher to replace me in the middle of a term. But Fred Bampoe, my Ghanaian landlord and good friend, told me hed be happy to use my services for as long as I needed to stay, translating technical French scientific papers into English for the agricultural research station where he worked. My ducks were in a row.