Chapter One: The Invitation
When James was called down to the desk in late morning, he wondered what it could be about. After living in the new dorm for two years, it had never happened to him before.
He came out of the elevator and approached the desk near the rows of mailboxes. He saw a fat packet marked special delivery lying on the counter. The attractive student behind the counter, a young coed, asked if he was James Weldon. He showed her his ID card and signed for the packet.
James knew immediately what it was when he saw the address in the corner. “Peace Corps, Washington, DC.” He took the bulky packet excited to hold it in his hands. He took it up to his room on the eighth floor and opened it. On top was a cover letter stating that he had been selected for a Peace Corps training program. It was for a food production project in India. The training would be conducted in California beginning in April.
There was a form to fill out and return if he was willing to accept the program.
It was the best thing that happened to him since he had left home and entered the university more than four years ago. Now he was about to graduate in January, the middle of the academic year. Another two weeks and he would take his last set of final exams and if successful would graduate with his bachelor’s degree. It was all a little frightening. He would be out into the cold world from the warm bosom of the university where he had spent the last four and a half years. That had been a sort of home to him. His main responsibility was studying and passing the exams. But now a major turning point was eminent.
Out of one institution and into another, in fact. So much for American individualism. Now there was a new star to reach for, a new goal to aim for. And surely it would keep him out of Vietnam. It would take the benevolence of the American state to save him from the destructive power of the American state, which was the only immanent threat.
Indeed, when he had filled out the lengthy application for the Peace Corps some nine months ago, it had been a primary motivation. Not the only one, to be sure, but he knew that short of fleeing the country for Canada or Europe, there were only two possibilities. The military and Vietnam or the Peace Corps. He had been on a student deferment for several years. That had kept him out of the military while several of his friends who did not go to a university had been drafted. He even knew of one that had been killed. Now things were getting hotter.
He had watched the whole thing unfold over the last three years from 1964. Each morning he would open his door in the dorm and find the St. Louis Post Dispatch outside his door. He watched the war slowly unfold. The US was gradually getting deeper and deeper into the quagmire. First the American “advisors” had been sent. Then the first troops. After President Diem had been assassinated with the secret nod of the US President, John F. Kennedy, things began to disintegrate.
Then began the bullshit sessions in the dorm. Sometimes they would go until late at night, past midnight. He listened to other students’ opinions but played it by the gut. He generally spent his time studying, not taking part in the debates. Indeed, he was as ignorant about the actual situation as the average student, just knowing what the newspapers, the corporate press said. This information arrived each morning. There were those who were gung-ho about “stopping communism,” to strangle it in the cradle before it took over another country. Then there was the fat kid who seemed to be the intellectual one who knew more than others. He said that the Geneva Accords had called for elections but the US would never have them because they knew that Ho Chi Minh would win. What was the truth, James did not know, but that sounded plausible enough to him.
What he did know was that he wanted no part of the war. It was all wrong in his view. Probably all war was wrong, in his view. What was the US doing there anyway? If the Vietnamese wanted to be communists, then let them be communists. It was none of his business and none of the business of the US Government.
He listened, but mostly stayed out of the debates. His area was science and math, physics, to be exact, and he had not studied a lot of history and social science. Nevertheless, he had made better marks in these subjects. Now he had a new hope, a way to avoid going to a far off country and killing people. If they wanted to be communists, it was no skin off his ass. What was this dying for one’s country? How could getting killed in Vietnam be dying for one’s country anyway? Rather, it would be dying because of the stupidity of one’s country in invading someone else’s country. He would just be a pawn sent to keep the country from going communist so that American companies could go there and exploit the people and make their profits. He just could not go along with this World War II stuff.
Johnny get your gun, get your gun, get your gun,
Get those commies on the run, on the run, on the run.
That was bullshit. It would just get himself killed, like it had done to his distant cousin.
Excited about the Peace Corps invitation, he went down and had a quick lunch. Visions of what it would be like to actually be in India began to flood into his young imagination.
Back in his room, he filled out the form carefully and signed it. He put a stamp on the envelope provided and dropped it into the letter box down in the lobby. He would waste no time in getting it back to Washington.
He did not let his parents know about his decision at once. He would tell them when he wrote a letter in a couple of days, breaking the news to them gently. Not making a big deal about it.
Coming into the last week of class, he had some assignments to wrap up. There was a term paper to write for the education class and the write-up of his laboratory work in a physics class. He must study, making another attempt to decipher and understand the complex equations in quantum mechanics. Surely, it had reached the point that those spinning, shooting particles were way above his head. He had come to the conclusion that trying to be Einstein had its limits and surely he had reached it. Just a C in the class was all he prayed for. It would get him by and on out of the university into the world or real events. This new opportunity would gave him the energy he needed for the final push.
In the coming days, he began to realize that he was on the threshold of something new, completely unknown. A sharp turn away from his pursuits in the last three years since he had gone into physics. Understanding the nature of the universe was grand. It has opened him up to learning. It was fascinating to understand the nature of things around him, the physical world. But somehow, it was necessary to understand society too. That had been the weakest link in his education.
Academic physics was beautiful, enlightening, often elegant, but beyond academia, what was it? What could he do with it?
He had extended his education another half-year to complete the education classes for a teaching certificate. There in Hill Hall, that bland boring sanitized building, up on the bulletin boards, were all those notices of teacher vacancies in high schools in Los Angeles and the surrounding communities. That looked inviting in terms of getting him out of Missouri and to the West Coast. But it would not keep him out of Vietnam. That was for sure.
In the summer, while doing his student teaching in St. Louis, he had gone over to McDonald Douglass in suburban St. Louis. He filled out an application for employment, but could not get excited about applied physics. He was not excited about helping the company develop new weapons for the military and war. After all, that was where most of the research and development money came from, straight from Pentagon contracts for new technology for war.
If he went into the Peace Corps, not only would there be adventure but travel and a chance to learn something about the world and a different society. It would get him out into the wider world, not only out of Missouri but out of the country.
He thought back to those summer weeks when he had worked at the canning plant in Trenton. There he had worked with the local red-necks, farmers mostly, and dreamed of going west, going farther west than he had ever been before, all the way to the coast. This time, he would see California, as soon as he had the opportunity. Now he had worked himself into a position to do so. He was itching for that freedom. Now there were just some grueling nights left when he would have to burn the midnight oil and on, into the morning, to nail down his last courses and get the degree under his belt.
He was on his way to embarking upon a great adventure.