Where it began? For me? At a lonely Peace Corps recruiter’s table in the BYU student center ballroom. For the Peace Corps, we may as well give credit to John F. Kennedy for getting the ball rolling, and even before him Dr. Maurice Albertson’s shadow looms large over the history of the Peace Corps, and looms larger over the Colorado State University campus, where I attended a little Peace Corps reception on Monday evening. We will get to Dr. Albertson, JFK, and the beginnings of Peace Corps in due time. 50 years ago they helped start a program typical in the wide-eyed audacity of its time, and yet unique and trailblazing and enduring. Over 200,000 people have volunteered with the Peace Corps in the intervening half-century, and I of course am one of them. And this month the Peace Corps looks back at what it all meant, and I do the same.
Monday night CSU piled on to the 50th anniversary celebrations with a nice reception after work, which meant among other things free samosas and chai tea up at the second floor of the CSU Morgan library for yours truly. The Morgan library is right on my way home from work so it was an easy commute to the reception. I didn’t really know anyone there and I didn’t register for the reception ahead of time, so I didn’t get a cool name tag and I wandered around anonymously. Without a nametag I was viewed with suspicion! Ooh, I like playing the bad guy. Or the CIA mole.
Rumor has it that every annual Peace Corps group in every country has within it one or more CIA agents who are responsible for looking and acting like Peace Corps volunteers, but are actually there to keep tabs on the rest of the volunteers. You know; someone who could report back to Langely in coded messages via the diplomatic pouch on the un-American activities of their fellow citizens out in the bush. Someone friendly, someone nice, someone you could talk to, you know, maybe me!
We liked to play the “who is the CIA mole?” game over beers whenever us volunteers got together in the capital. My name never came up as a potential mole. At least not while I was playing. I suppose that makes sense; if someone thought you were the CIA mole, they wouldn’t implicate you in your presence, right? Unless they wanted to put you off your guard, in which case they might implicate you to your face just to make you think they didn’t suspect you, even though they did. So I can clearly not choose the CIA Mole in front of me. And even though I wasn’t the mole (I promise!!), I was just a tiny bit put out that no one seemed to think I could make a good mole. But now that I think about it, drawing attention to myself at the CSU reception by not wearing a name tag is not very good CIA-mole-like behavior. A CIA Mole would have a name tag with a fake name like Curtis I. Anderson or Ima Mole or something. Not having a name tag at all is more like wedding-crasher behavior.
So I smiled a lot and tried not to make too much eye-contact, and helped myself to a second plate of samosas, while awesomely not wearing a name tag. Ha! But in mid-samosa-wolf I was approached by one of the organizers, who asked where I served (Ghana) and how I heard about the reception (Email? I think?). Even though I gave real answers, I felt like I was still crashing a wedding for some reason. Probably because I wanted to tuck into a third plate of samosas, and respectable, invited guests would clearly have stopped at one plate.
But invited or not, I’m not a respectable, well-behaved guest. I am a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV). There’s a difference. You’ll wonder why I’m so focused on the free food, perhaps. If you are a RPCV, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. I’m surprised there was any food left by the time I got to the reception, and I was only 20 minutes late (or as any Peace Corps volunteer will tell you, right on time, baby). This is – I thought – a room full of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, is it not? Let’s act the part, people! You have never witnessed such raping and pillaging of a free buffet table as in the presence of a few dozen Peace Corps Volunteers. In fact this was one of the very first lessons I was taught in Ghana when I arrived in July of 1993. Never refuse free food. Especially free Western food.
My group of Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Accra, Ghana, on July 11th, 1993. I think. I looked up the date in my journal but I’m not totally sure if the date is correct. It may have been July 10th. Whatever. My Peace Corps journal sucks, it’s a colossal disappointment in many respects. But more on that later in the month. One of the few details my journal does provide is the date of our initial reception at the U.S. ambassador’s residence, on July 12th. I spent most of my journal entry describing the Ghanaian drumming and dancing to which we were treated, which was pretty spectacular, but what I failed to mention in the journal but stands out quite clearly now is that this was the first time us new volunteers met the older volunteers.
Peace Corps Volunteers serve for two years. But a new group of volunteers gets sent to each country on a yearly basis. At least that’s how it worked in Ghana. So that when we arrived, all jet-lagged, hung-over, and completely freaked out, we were quickly met with the spectacle of all the volunteers that had already been there a year, and even those who were finishing up their second year and getting close to completing their service, but had not yet left. While serving in the Peace Corps, volunteers are stationed all over the country in far-flung villages, and generally have minimal contact with each other. But there are a few occasions when they all get back together for training and conferences, and yes, to meet the new volunteers. From our perspective, it was really neat to see the volunteers who had survived a year. It was supposed to give us confidence. You can do this! These people did! From their perspective it was a chance to scare the holy living hell out of us. Like I needed any additional reasons to be freaked out, since the dominant thought in my head for my first week in Ghana can be neatly summed up as: I'm in Africa and I'm going to die!
But it was fun to meet everyone, my low-level panic notwithstanding. And the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana was kind enough to host all of us for a party at his residence. And I can tell you that the older volunteers waged a spectacularly barbaric campaign of utter annihilation on the free food and booze. It was breathtaking. It was mesmerizing. It was downright scary. Crap, these guys are seriously hungry. Crap, that’s going to be me in a year (try a week…). Crap, there’s almost no beer left. I must point out here that not only did they have free beer, it was American beer. Budweiser and what not. Having just arrived in Ghana the awesomeness of that fact was lost on me. In retrospect I clearly understand why there was such a mad-rush to the free food and beer. Peace Corps practical lesson #1. Do not turn down free food. Why it’s downright disrespectful to not inhale any and every edible thing within reach, right?
Incidentally this may have been the moment I stopped being a vegetarian, at least in my heart. I made it all the way through college without eating meat. I probably made it two or three entire days in Ghana without eating meat. At least I think it was meat. Yes, it was meat, I’m just not sure what species of meat. Oh there’s much more to talk about in the ways of Ghanaian cuisine, just you wait. And it’s not all bad, I promise. But we are discussing Peace Corps Volunteer Free Buffet Ettiquete, which is not unlike that of a pirate. Take all you can. Give nothing back. For tomorrow there may not be free buffet, or any sort of buffet, or food, even, so get it now!
Which is why I was feeling a little out of place at the CSU reception. I seemed to be the only one still playing the part, salivating over the abundance of samosas piled high in a greasy, glistening pile of fried goodness, calculating in my head how many I could stuff in the pockets of my jacket for later. I never did get that third plate as I was directed away from the buffet by my inquisitor towards an older gentleman who served in Ghana back in 1966. The Peace Corps only started in 1961 so this gentleman, Martin, was truly an old school volunteer! Pretty cool. We bandied about our experiences: he was a teacher in Tema, a big city on the coast. I was a teacher in Boso, a small village in the hills. We got to play the “whose conditions were worse” game a bit. He conceded early; he had electricity. In 1966, he had electricity. In 1993 I had none. Victory (of a sort) was mine! Which is rare, because my conditions really were not that bad compared to most of the volunteers in Ghana.
So I won the battle, but lost the campaign, because just then Martin leaned in real close and started speaking Twi to me. Oh my God he’s speaking Twi. And he’s close-talking. What the hell is he saying? And why is he talking so close? Just smile and pretend you understand him... If I only had a plate of samosas with me I could use it as a close-talk buffer. Mmmmm, samosas... Seriously what is he saying? I don’t understand him. Oh please stop with the close-talk-Twi, please? You win, I am such a fraud! I was thoroughly routed. Twi is the dominant language in the Southern part of Ghana, other than English, of course, which is the lingua franca of Ghana, and which I thankfully do speak. When I was in Ghana I seemed to pick up Twi pretty well. I just never used it, and I taught school in English, and I simply forgot it all when I came back. Maybe when Martin was there in 1966 fewer people spoke English so he had to speak Twi more. But Martin has been back from the Peace Corps for over 40 years, longer than I’ve been alive, and he can still rattle off Twi like he is at the market buying fried plantain and chili sauce. Quite frankly I never really made a serious effort to learn Twi. My village spoke Guan, which was a dialect of Twi, but I never really bothered to learn that, either. Time to beat a hasty retreat to the samosas!
But then it was time for the official proclamations, so I sat down on the floor and listened to some nice speeches. First up was Dr. Pat Burns, who was one of my old advisers at CSU. Dr. Burns stressed the importance of Colorado State University to the Peace Corps. First and foremost, of course, he mentioned the late great Dr. Maurice Albertson and the work he did in writing the original Peace Corps feasibility study in 1960. Dr. Burns also mentioned that Colorado State continues to send many graduates to the Peace Corps, and ranked 10th overall last year among universities. The University of Colorado, it should be noted, ranked 1st in the country last year, making Colorado on the whole on par with California and Michigan as stalwarts of Peace Corps Volunteer recruits. Dr. Tony Frank, president of CSU, was next, and he sported a splendid Todd Helton-inspired beard while saying nice things about CSU and the Peace Corps. Next up was the mayor of Fort Collins, Mayor Hutchinson, who looks like he’s lost some weight since we last met (see here), so maybe he has been riding his bike to work after all. Then my State Representative John Kefalas had some interesting things to say about his experiences in the Peace Corps in El Salvador in the late 70s, you know, right when things really got bad in that country. One too many CIA moles in that country, one would suspect. Finally a recently-returned RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) Maggie gave a spirited and ever-so-slightly manic talk about serving in Madagascar. Manic in a good way, I assure you. Maggie is helping coordinate my Peace Corps booth visit on campus later this week so I will also mention that she is a very nice, energetic, intelligent young woman. And I sat comfortably cross-legged on the floor for all the speeches, and thought that the yoga is treating me well, as I am pretty much the only person sitting cross-legged on the floor here.
After that all the RPCVs in attendance were instructed to stand on a staircase for a big group photo. We were all pretty well mashed together on the stairs, which is another rather Peace Corps-ian experience (now we’re all close-talking!), although usually in a death-trap nee bus with benches for seats and wooden splints for struts, not on a staircase. And I was able to contribute to the authenticity of the experience via the distinctive and pungent odor of my stinky feet, which I am certain was delightful and nostalgic for all involved. Seriously, my feet smelled nasty. It certainly heightened the sense of claustrophobia and dull panic. Note to self, don’t wear your trail-running shoes to the Peace Corps party tomorrow night.
The reception was capped off for me by a chat with my old history professor, Dr. Griswold. He is now since retired, but is a RPCV himself and it was nice to see him again. He’s looking good and energetic, but I’m not sure if he remembered me, and when I asked how he was doing he replied “still alive,” to which I had no witty retort. Me too, I thought. There were times in the Peace Corps when I wasn’t so sure how much longer I would be alive, that’s for sure, but again, more on that later.
On the way out of the library I spent a few minutes in the lobby looking for the small sandstone plaque purchased by my family for the library expansion in honor of my late step-father Tom, who attended CSU for a couple of years in the late 60s where he was pursuing a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science. Smart guy. I couldn’t remember where his plaque was though. I think it may have been behind the little coffee bar in the library lobby where I couldn’t see it, but I was a little embarrassed that I couldn’t remember its exact location all the same, mixed in with all the other plaques in the lobby. I gave up the hunt and as I left the library I wondered what he might have thought about me going to the Peace Corps. Probably would have thought it pretty cool. I know I do.