The Peace Corps and Me—No Longer Callow

Recently, I received an email from the Peace Corps Press Office in Washington inquiring if I would be interested in submitting a short commentary on my Peace Corps experience, to a relatively small circulation magazine whose request had been forwarded from the U.S. Department of State. I had been one of the 51 members of the first Peace Corps project in the field, to Ghana, West Africa, 1961-63, where I taught junior and senior high Math and Science, one year in a large town in the rainforest area and the second year at a teacher training school in the grassland region bordering the southern fringes of the Sahara.

I had been selected based on a previous contact with that office, having been asked last fall to be interviewed by a journalist from the one statewide newspaper in Wyoming regarding the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, and whose story appeared in both the Casper Star-Tribune and the Billings Gazette. I was a bit puzzled after accessing the magazine’s website, Equal Justice USA,  and reading about the organization’s Mission. The emphasis is on nationwide crusading to end the death penalty, and to provide support and help for those who are cloaked in poverty. I didn’t see how my Peace Corps experience fit into that Mission, unless it is an example of volunteerism to help in recruitment of volunteers to help their own cause.

The “project” remains moot, however, due to the fact that I have not as yet received the proposed contact from the magazine’s staff. At the same time, the initial information included questions that the organization wanted the writer to answer, and I actually had been exploring some of them myself prior to this contact. So, I decided to write this blog, and to answer the questions from my personal perceptions with an emphasis upon how I have changed beginning with the Peace Corps service. For my interests, this is a much better route to pursue; they had been suggesting “a 750 word” document, something I had not had to worry about since high school. A writing needs to be of a length to provide clarity to its purpose, not to sacrifice such content in order to meet some artificially-established standard. Be aware that my words will less answer the questions directly in favor of providing commentary regarding human factors and relationships. I will highlight my perspectives as I go through the drafting of these notes.

Naturally, these remarks are in the form of my own opinions, remembering that personal opinions are derived from an individual’s background of experience and should not be treated as facts. Unfortunately, in today’s world more and more decisions are based on opinions rather than facts; this is all right as long as those opinions have a sound basis in facts or at least in reasonable interpretations of facts and events. But I immediately am seized by caution whenever a “talking head” begins a comment with, “Well, I think……”, especially when “the head’s colleagues” express an equal and opposite viewpoint. And this is true throughout, from politics to sports predictions and analyses. I guess they just need something to fill up all the cable time.

Recent examples of this concern are seen in the arguing over gun safety, school safety, NCAA March Madness predictions, sequestering of national expenditures, and many others. I personally am for the major  components of proposed gun laws—universal background checks, restrictions on sales and magazine size, and automatic weapons. Why do I have this viewpoint? Well, in 1970 while working in the inner city of Gary, Indiana, I had a 7th grade student shot accidently in the leg, having brought a .22 pistol with him on a field trip and the gun fired when it was being passed around in the back of the van. Later in the school year, two young men accosted three of us when we were leaving the school; one of them struck a young teacher in the head with a pistol, the other pulled a sawed-off shotgun from his jeans and stuck it in my stomach. Fortunately, some other distractions caused them to leave, but the experience was “quite memorable”.

Two years later, in my first week as a middle school principal, one of our sixth grade girls was killed accidently when a pistol her brother was cleaning went off and shot her through the heart. You can see how “my experience” developed my perspective. As a further note, I realized that I was now living in the  state with the highest percentage of gun owners, Wyoming, and that such ownership and the hunting culture are foremost in many people’s values. In order to achieve in my own mind some level of reason, I initiated a nine-week required class for all fifth graders (the age at which kids can obtain a limited hunting license) which included Hunter and Gun Safety Certification along with other topics such as hypothermia, Winter survival, and safety around wild animals. Even if a child was not going to be a gun owner, he/she would be around guns frequently, and needed to know how to be safe. Ironically, as this was in the early 70’s, the materials that were used for instruction were provided free by the National Rifle Association which, in that era, emphasized gun safety as their primary mission.  How that has changed! I have recently suggested that the NRA offer, through its local chapters, inspection teams to advise persons on how to keep their weapons safely stored in their homes; in many of the recent unfortunate incidents the perpetrator has used weapons obtained in their own homes from unsecured storage areas. Such an activity might help recover some of the NRA’s diminished reputation.

So, now for those questions that the magazine proposed for me to answer.

  1. How did you hear about the Peace Corps, and what led you to sign up? Shortly after President Kennedy had been elected, I read a short article in the Kansas City Star indicating that JFK wanted to form “a corps of young  people to help out in Third World countries”, and there was an agency identified that would be involved with potentially implementing such a program. At the time I was in my first year of teaching, eighth grade Science, freshman basketball, and high school track, in a Kansas City high school. I wrote a letter to the agency, and received a reply that directed me to sign up for a certain Saturday date in May to take a test, at the main Post Office in Kansas City. I reported to the site, but upon finding out that the test would take six hours, had to postpone it to a later date as I had a track meet to do that same day. So I was quite surprised to receive a telegram in early June, saying I had been selected to attend training in Berkeley at the University of California, for a Peace Corps teaching project to “Chana”. My first thought was that the US Government was overly-ambitious, and that someone had spelled “China” incorrectly; however, there was a phone number to call and I found out that the mission was to the country of Ghana, formerly a British colony called “The  Gold Coast”, and located in an area of West Africa sometimes referred to as “The White Man’s Grave” due to the malaria-bearing  mosquitoes rampant throughout the region. Earlier, the only country that had been mentioned as a potential project had been the Philippines, so the selection of Ghana was a surprise.

As for my motivation, it was not for some altruistic concept that I was going to change the world, bring people out of poverty, etc. Those thoughts came later. From early childhood, I had dreamed of going to Africa, experiencing the jungle, seeing the animals, and sampling the many different landscapes seen in movies and described in books. I have a personal opinion that persons often are depicted or described by others as “self-sacrificing” when in fact (my fact!) they actually are the embodiment of a degree of selfishness or self-serving actions. They are deriving satisfaction from what they are doing, often in the face of many hardships, dangers, and other disturbing elements. This may be an over-generalization, especially in cases like Nelson Mandela in prison, Mother Teresa in the ghettoes of India, and other well-known examples. But in my own case, it was a taste for travel and adventure, just as it is today when I travel to foreign venues to evaluate schools on military bases or foreign capitals. Recently, I was praised for “my service to the Department of Defense and furthering the cause of America” when I was actually using my long years of successful professional experience to provide a vehicle for my own extensive travel while helping improve educational services within the international setting, and satisfying personal “needs”.

A note about satisfaction: often people receive praise for actions for which the individual doesn’t really think it’s deserved, while at the same time true satisfaction lies within the individual and may or may not be appreciated by outsiders. As a personal example, I perceived my role as a school administrator as “making things possible” so that creativity and ideas originating within the system, from individuals and collaborative groups, could be implemented. My career goal has been to be an agent of change; my Master’s level work was in Applied Anthropology so that I could treat Education as a sub-culture and thus could effectively be improved using the techniques and processes of applied anthropology. I was further fortunate to complete my doctoral level work in The School of Educational Change and Development at the University of Northern Colorado, and after submission of a proposal, was allowed to demonstrate my ability to effect change by obtaining a large grant and putting together an effective dropout prevention project in place of a dry dissertation. The “bottom line” is that I achieved personal satisfaction from knowing that many of the successes, within the various school settings in which I worked, would not have happened had I not been there.

  1. Did you, or have you, gotten to meet anyone our readers may have heard of as a result of your experience? Well, three of the four Presidents I’ve “met” were the result of my Peace Corps activities. After completing our training (actually, it was reduced from its scheduled eight weeks to seven weeks, so we could go to Washington, D.C.) we were allowed a week at home to pack, and then report to Washington where one of the special events was to meet JFK. We assembled in the Rose Garden along with volunteers from two other groups and then, realizing that more organization was needed, we were lined up and filed through the Oval Office where we shook hands with The President and probably said something stupid in our disconcerted mien. I know that I did. As a sidelight, in the film “Forrest Gump”, Tom Hanks was superimposed over the image of co-volunteer Alice O’Grady, in the scene where Gump meets Kennedy. Others of our group are seen in the background.

On a future date, the members of many groups were invited to the White House during the Clinton administration, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Peace Corps. Originally, the occasion was to be a reception, but at that time there occurred a number of church bombings that need Federal attention, so our visit was “down-sized” to a few speeches from President Clinton, Sargeant Shriver, and the Director of the Peace Corps. I shook hands with the President, and had a few comments with Sarge and Eunice.

My third President was perhaps one of the most momentus events in my life, not necessarily because of whom I met, but the effect it has had on my perceptions of the whole tapestry of America. In 1965, a volunteer from Ghana II and I planned a trip “out West” and as he came through Kansas City, I had called the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, to see if the President would be interested in meeting us; I having been Kansas City’s first Peace Corps Volunteer (Note: When I was updating my Selective Service status, I was initially taken aback when Beverly Gilmore, director of the local office, said “Oh, you’re our Mr. Krisko”. She explained she meant our first Peace Corps volunteer, not a candidate for an immediate draft).

The interview did not go well. Mr. Truman was in his early 80’s, and recovering from a fall in the bath, so he was using a cane in order to move about. We met alongside a replica of his desk from the Oval Office, complete with the famous “The Buck Stops Here” sign on the desktop. After the greetings and introductions, his first question was “Well, what did you learn over there in Africa?” I replied, “I got a different perspective of America, and could see some things that our wrong with our country.” Knowing what you do about Mr. Truman, you probably can accurately guess at his reply to my answer: “You’re in a helluva shape if you think there’s anything wrong with this country!” Unfortunately, I have a well-deserved reputation for sometimes not following “protocols” (Later in life, my future mother-in-law correctly warned my wife-to-be that I’m “a maverick”), so I followed his comment with one of my own, “I don’t want to argue with you Mr. President, but it’s not the country, it’s some of the people in it.” After a few more bits of chatting about our service, he said “Well, Africa’s the Black Continent and always will be.” (I think he meant “The Dark Continent” but I refrained from correcting him).

So, what was the significance of this event? In the first place, during our Peace Corps training, the Director of the training (the late Dr. David Apter, author of many books and articles about Africa , and including The Gold Coast in Transition documenting the emergence of Ghana as the first independent country from the colonial era, and the rise of Kwame Nkrumah as its first President) and our designated Project Director, Dr. George Carter, referred to us as “callow youth”. Most of us were in our early 20’s, some fresh out of college, but there were a few older volunteers at the ripe age of 30-32, hardly “callow”. The youngest was 19, but already a college graduate; I was 22.  A significant number were from private schools such as Yale, Harvard, Brown, Rice, and others; many of the rest were from Midwestern institutions spread throughout the plains. But for the  most part, “callow” was accurate; I had to look it up and it means “inexperienced”. That was certainly true in my case and I think probably for most of us. I had never considered political issues, interracial concerns, economics, etc. My world was fairly well limited to interests in sports and sports cars (I bought a new Jaguar in Coventry, England, on my way home from Ghana), astronomy, and anthropology. Very few of our group had much of an interest in athletics, although one of them had been a player on Marquette’s final football team. Most members of the group were highly intelligent, task oriented individuals, and many were “shining stars” in the world of academics; others of us were more “typical Midwestern” in our approach to Life. There was one individual who had had major experience in the area of human relationships, and about that fact I only learned in the past few years. Her father (Rev. J.A.Delaine) was an early leader in the desegregation protest movement and a colleague of Dr. King; the daughter was an active participant in her father’s activities and his efforts are widely- recognized, including a special display at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

During our training it was constantly emphasized that in addition to this being the first project scheduled to “go into the field”, it was also considered highly critical to our government’s influence on the  African continent due to the fact that Nkrumah and Ghana were strongly “left-leaning” and well within the sphere of influence of the USSR. As such, great care was being taken in selecting the 51 volunteers from the initial group of 60 that came to the Berkeley training. One interesting research study that started during our training was a search for a method to use in selecting volunteers who would have a good chance of being successful, and to be applied in future Peace Corps projects. The study was under the direction of Dr. Brewster Smith, Director of the Institute for Human Behavior in Santa Cruz, California, and President of the American Psychological Association. He and his assistant, Rafael Ezekiel, taped interviews with each of us periodically during the training, the two years of service, and even in a time period following our return to the U.S. And the result? There apparently was no single profile, and that was demonstrated in an unpublished manuscript prepared by Dr. Smith; in it, he had chosen six different personality types exemplified by demonstrably successful volunteers. Smith and Ezekiel have kept in touch with the Ghana I group over the 50 years since the project, and have attended many of the reunions held periodically.

So, how does this fit with my Truman interview? As much as possible, the major presenters in our training had covered most aspects of Ghanaian History, culture, politics, language, health, and government. All of them were leaders in their fields—Robert Lystad- Anthropology, David Apter-Economics and Political Science, St. Clair Drake-Afro-American History and Race Relations, Gray Cowan-Columbia U. Teachers for West Africa—But little to help me provide a satisfactory answer to Ghanaian student questions like  “Why do you allow police dogs to attack Negros in some parts of your country?” The local newspapers quite regularly featured stories and photos depicting bigotry and violence against Afro-Americans, and my “callowness” forced me to rely on my abilities to relate to other people and to emphasize that “not everyone is like that” and that “there are big changes taking place in our country”, and other vanilla responses. This is where I departed from Mr. Truman, I suddenly realized that “you’re in a helluva shape if you DON’T think there are some things wrong with this country!” At the same time, I was struck by a thought, “Are our leaders blind? Here’s a President and, while he gets credit for having integrated the military, doesn’t he see the underlying nastiness and unjustified hatred?” I guess I was lucky to have been raised in a “racially neutral” household where swear words and racial slurs were taboo, and became reflected in my attitude toward acceptance of others. And that same acceptance I saw throughout all the members of our Ghana I group, be it race, religion, or ethnicity.

The second disagreement I had with the President was his comment about “Africa being the Black (Dark) Continent, implying that “there’s no hope that it will ever emerge into the modern world”.  For someone with such an attitude, it may have been correct, but fortunately more-reasoned individuals had become the decision-makers, and we can see multiple examples of various nations having overcome many of the obstacles to their development. One unfortunate “leftover” is the conflict between tribalism and nationalism, a bit of collateral damage created from the Age of Colonialism during which ethnic populations were divided by artificially-established borders which still remain in place. Many of the wars and tragedies raising their ugly heads periodically throughout the Continent are the outflow from those misguided actions.

  1. Do I have any memories of humorous comments or anecdotes from my service year? Well, I always enjoyed reading the mottoes painted on the various “mammy wagons” (small vans used for transport) and lorries, and pondering their significance. “Nyame Bekyere” is “God Will Provide” in Twi, the dominant local language. “Sweet Are the Uses of Adversity” from Shakespeare I often use in trying to “make lemonade out of lemons”.

During our training, we often came up with semi-witty comments. “He was only an Ashanti, in old Ashanti Town” was based on an American song; “Here today, Ghana tomorrow” was used just prior to our departure from Washington. “Kwame, Kwame, How I Love You” was a variant of Al Jolson’s “Swanee”. “It’s a hard road to Ho” describing the route to an Eastern Ghanaian town.

But perhaps my favorite was coined by my best friend from those years, the late John Buchanan, who passed away just before Christmas, 2012. As he and I awaited our plane to take us on our way home, John said, “Well, it’s about time to ask my country what it can  do for me again.” After completion of his two years as a volunteer, John became a regional director for the Peace Corps in Nigeria, and had to get a large number of volunteers safely out of the Midwest Region when the Biafran War broke out. With a combination of dugout canoes, barges, clandestine short wave radio, and ocean-going tugboats, he successfully got all of his volunteers to Lagos, and to safety. He later was transferred to Kenya, where he completed his administrative service before returning to the U.S.

Some Personal Notes

Politically, I’m registered as an Independent, probably in keeping with that earlier mention of “maverickity”. But I think that even Mr. Truman might agree that “we’re in helluva shape” as we look at our Congress and the way it’s not working. I wish all of its members would revisit the preamble of the Constitution, which lays out simply and in brief the purpose and mission of our government, and from which they are massively departing. In the majority of my politics, I generally lean leftward, which is not surprising if you refer back to my earlier comments about how opinions are formed based on one’s experience. Mine have been collected through working directly with people,  not with things or finances. At heart, I would probably be a socialist, at least as it relates to providing services to improve our lot. In my travels throughout the Middle East, Africa, and to some extent to the Far East, it appears to me that most people are like us,  wanting adequate shelter, health, food, security, and good relationships. We in America are more fortunate, having the resources to go beyond those things, but we still have almost half our population either below or at least flirting with the poverty level.

I periodically hear, particularly during political campaigns, “You should be proud to be an American!” when in fact I think there is a misunderstanding of what constitutes Real Pride. To me, I can only have pride if I had a hand in creating or contributing to whatever is being discussed. Otherwise, I can only have an appreciation or profess admiration for whatever has been accomplished. I have thought, at least from my perspective, it would be more accurate to say “I’m Lucky to be an American”. I can admire many things that have come from our country, things like the Marshall Plan after WWII, the Bush initiative to eradicate malaria, the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, the Apollo Space successes, etc. But in all of these, I have been just a bystander. At the same time, sadly, my own efforts to confront bigotry, equal rights, and other social issues have been minimal and to a large extent, merely words, and these were the things to which I was referring during my Truman session.

Until recently, it seemed that regardless of whatever has been identified as a concern or a problem, we had the mechanism through our Constitution to make the necessary changes, certainly unique in governmental structures throughout the world. But now I’m beginning to question even that—I see our supposedly neutral Supreme Court making political decisions to favor corporate greed; one of our political parties has deteriorated from its once-effective prominence to be merely an obstructive, non-productive entity and one which is undercutting our social needs in favor of a small minority’s benefit; the other party is so split that it is often difficult to see what its mission really is. My own state’s Congressional representatives only parrot their party’s line, they do no independent thinking. Even our President, whom I continue to support but with increasing reservations, has not stood up sufficiently to oppositional platforms in order to accomplish his goals, most of which are reasoned, well-thought out programs to benefit the great majority of our population.

The Peace Corps experience was the starting block in “making me aware”, and starting me on a career path in which I could successfully use the “people skills” I first began to develop and understand as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was not alone in this Coming of Age; many of our group have gone on to a variety of high profile positions including medical research, Presidential campaign leadership, state political party leadership, philanthropic foundation grants, college and university research and instruction, public school teaching and administration, educational film and materials production, National Public Radio production, international journalism and major news organization Far East representation, concert series production, and other endeavors. Certainly a major component in our growth was the excellence of the staff responsible for our training, and the administrative leadership that nursed us effectively through our two year commitment. It was interesting to me to note that a number of our colleagues entered into administrative positions in the Peace Corps, some of them continuing into long-term careers in governmental agencies involved with having major positive impacts in The Third World countries. At the root of these successes was the self-confidence each of us developed as our assigned volunteer tasks unfolded.

We have left our callowness behind.

And so, I think I’ve answered all those unasked questions. I can go back to enjoying the fact that I live in a beautiful place where Nature is not only close by, but even occasionally intrudes such as when a 7-point buck deer, or a doe with two fawns, decided that our back porch was a good place to shelter from the winter’s wind. I recently read a beautifully-written blog essay written by a Chicago suburb resident, decrying the sometimes difficult task of “getting out into nature”, particularly during the long winter months. In it, “It’s a Halal Life”, she looked forward to the Spring and the resumption of outdoor activities once more signifying a sense of freedom. She didn’t mention having to mow the lawn, clean the gutters, or pick up after the dog.

Always Be Happy!         To Our Youth!

One Response to “The Peace Corps and Me—No Longer Callow”

  1. Robt Says:

    A motivating discussion is worth comment. I believe that you need to
    write more on this topic, it may not be a taboo subject
    but generally people don’t talk about these issues. To the next! All the best!!

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