War & Peace Corps

Young, Scared and Gay in 1969
How The Draft And The Peace Corps Conspired To Give Me A Life

    by Ralph Cherry (Ghana 1969–1971)

    AS I’M SURE IT DID FOR MOST of my 50-something-age mates, the controversy during the 2004 presidential campaign over how George W. Bush served the country during the Vietnam War (and over John Kerry’s heroic service during the war and his equally heroic opposition to it afterwards) brought back memories I’d just as soon have left unremembered.
         The military draft was a central reality of life for male baby boomers, of which succeeding generations, bless them, have been granted blissful ignorance. For most of us men of a certain age, the draft hung in the background from the day we were born, waiting for us to turn 18, when we were required to register for it.
         As the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam grew, the draft became something much more than a mere civic duty; indeed, it attained distinct life-or-death consequences. Many young men simply renounced their citizenship and headed for Canada. For those of us unwilling to take such a drastic step, the inevitable could be put off for a little while via draft eligibility deferments granted at the discretion of local draft boards. Virtually all undergrad college students got deferments until graduation, and, for college graduates, Peace Corps service was among the deferment options granted by some boards. (How common Peace Corps deferments were is attested to by the fact that the number of volunteers serving during the Vietnam years was at its historical highest. It also had more men than women serving, in contrast to today’s female-to-male ratio of about 60% to 40%.) The inherent inequalities of these deferments have been discussed at length over the years, and I acknowledge right here that I took enthusiastic advantage of them. But that’s not what I’m writing about.
         I certainly didn’t want to go to Vietnam, but in my particular case it wasn’t because I was unwilling to serve my country. I wanted no part of the military, period. I was a “sensitive” boy, you see. (OK. I was gay.) The idea of having to serve in the military had always scared the bejesus out of me. I wasn’t “man” enough and didn’t want to be — in fact, the very idea filled me with dread. I had spent enough time suffering the cruel attentions of males of the “real” variety in high school gym. I can’t speak for every young gay man in 1969, but contrary to what the self-flattering straight men who run the military believe today, this particular gay boy had no desire to be among the real men of the military 24 hours a day. I doubted I could survive any more unwanted attention, much less the carnage of war.
         The idea of the Peace Corps had resonated with me from the time President Kennedy announced its formation in 1961. I was 15 years old at the time. I had no idea what I wanted to “be” as an adult, but the Peace Corps felt like a fit. As I progressed along with the 1960s, and the African-American civil rights movement took on steam, the idea of spending some time in Africa became increasingly attractive. I became resentful of the Jim Crow racial attitudes my DC-native family had instilled in me, and I felt I owed it to myself and my black American friends to experience life in a racially un-charged environment where skin color was a non-issue. And I actually did have a strong desire to serve my country in some way. I took it for granted that you probably couldn’t be gay in the Peace Corps, but what the heck — you couldn’t be gay anywhere. Not fitting in with the Peace Corps seemed infinitely more doable than not fitting in with the military.
         This Peace Corps idea grew as I left my parents’ home in the Washington, DC suburbs for college in Kentucky. The growth of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam certainly helped my interest along, but the real deal maker was my getting to know a guy named Joe Kimmins, the older brother of a dorm friend, who took me on as a sort trainee in intellectual matters and confided to me his intention to join the Peace Corps. This was in 1966, he was past college, and a medical disqualification had eliminated the draft as an issue for him. Joe joined the Peace Corps purely for reasons of self-fulfillment — to see the world, to have an adventure, to “give back.” The intrinsic value of the Peace Corps spoke for itself through these motivating factors and it became real to me, not just a way to dodge the draft. In fact, I couldn’t think of a better way to represent the United States overseas, especially at a time when, much like now, Americans were being vilified by most of the rest of the world.
         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.
         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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 weren’t 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 America’s finest.
         Ghana was all the things I had hoped for and some that I hadn’t. 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 he’d 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.
         Meantime, back home in DC, my mother had gone to work — unbeknownst to me. Even she thought it was unfair that I should still be subject to the draft after I had already served the country for 27 months. She phoned the draft board and by sheer grace happened to speak to the same sainted lady who had erased my name from the June, 1969 call. She advised my mother that I should appeal my 1-A classification. The appeal had to be done in person, but if I returned to Ghana afterwards, I would be regarded as an overseas resident. It took 60 days to process an overseas appeal, during which time I would reach the magic age of 26.
         I went back to the office in Accra and explained this new wrinkle. The Peace Corps had granted my extension and allowed me to use leave for the trip home, but refused to finance the trip for this purpose. Like all Volunteers, I had a few hundred dollars saved up in my Peace Corps readjustment allowance ($75 a month in 1971). Volunteers could be given one-third of those accrued funds while still in-country at the end of their service so they could add it to the value of their Peace Corps-purchased return ticket to the States and take a slow trip home if they wanted. Much as I would have loved to meander when the time came, I used my one-third to go home and present my appeal.
         I landed at Dulles airport on a rainy September evening. It was my first experience of the States in over two years, and, like all Peace Corps Volunteers fresh from their service, I was agog, my closest points of emotional reference still a continent away. As soon as my parents and I were settled in the car, my mother turned to me and said, “You must have been really glad to get that letter.” I was overwhelmed and jet-lagged, but I was sure I didn’t know what she was talking about. “What letter?” I asked. “The letter from the draft board,” my mother said. “Didn’t you get it?”      The board had decided to honor the extension of my Peace Corps service and continue my deferment. A letter to this effect arrived in my mailbox at my work site in Kumasi while I was in Accra waiting for my flight home. I had geared myself up for a harrowing personal appearance before my draft board, and spent the precious one-third of my readjustment allowance, for nothing. I sat there in the back seat of the car, sensing relief, incredulity, and total dislocation. “Anticlimax” hardly does justice. I ended up staying home for a few weeks “vacationing,” and then returning to Ghana to stay until my 26th birthday. That means, essentially, that I read the letter, finished up my job with Fred Bampoe, and then left that sweet country for good.
         A year or so passed. I had all this freedom to do as I pleased and no draft board to weigh in. I moved to Boston to try my hand at the professional singing career I had promised myself was the next thing. That didn’t click, though, and soon I found myself at very loose ends, full of the experience of the previous two years but always thinking there must be something else for me to do, even though Ghana and the Peace Corps were practically all I talked about. People kept telling me I should be recruiting new people for it. I resisted.
         In April 1973, I escaped a dreary, still wintry Boston for a few days to visit Dick Kimmins, my old dorm buddy and Joe’s brother, in Kentucky. Spring there was in full bloom, and nothing is more delicious than a Kentucky springtime. Dick and I drove to Churchill Downs in Louisville, the first time I had ever been there. We made our way to the infield on that fragrant morning and lay on our backs, catching up, luxuriating in the brilliant sky above us and the bluegrass carpet beneath. Totally at peace, I finally allowed myself the question: “Why aren’t you recruiting for the Peace Corps?”

    I retired from the Peace Corps in August 2003, after more than 28 years of service. By yet another quirk of fate I was one of about 45 people in the Peace Corps’ history who were not forced to leave after five years of employment, as is normally required by the famous “in, up and out” rule insisted upon by Sarge Shriver, and written into the Peace Corps’ enabling legislation. Life after the Peace Corps? I needn’t have worried. Luck? Design? Who knows? I’m still asking no questions.

    Ralph Cherry is currently spending his well-earned retirement with Steve Hopkins, his partner of 26 years, in Arlington, Virginia and Delaware.