Chapter 1: The Peace Corps Is Told I Run a Communist Cell Block

Welcome to my new blog, “Peace Corps Tales from Africa.” Each week I will post a new ‘chapter’ in a book format describing my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa from 1965-1967.

Peace Corps recently celebrated its 50th Anniversary. This book travels back in time to the beginnings of the organization.When I have completed “Peace Corps Tales from Africa” on this blog, I will publish the book digitally and in print.

Please feel free to comment. I would love to hear from other Volunteers from Liberia and around the world about their experiences. Enjoy. Thanks for stopping by.

Curt Mekemson

This is the main street of Gbarnga, Liberia in 1965 where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1965-1967.

Tears tracked across Jo Ann’s cheeks and I struggled to be sympathetic. It wasn’t easy.

We had just left her parents in San Francisco and boarded a United Airlines jet bound for New York City. Except for the time I surrendered five hard earned dollars for a helicopter ride at the El Dorado County Fair, it was my first flight ever.

The jet taxied out on to the runway, climbed above the bay, and banked toward the east. We were leaving family, friends and life in the US behind. While Jo wrestled with the past, my thoughts were on the future.

Africa, teaching and adventure beckoned.

For seven hours we would be winging across America and gazing down on cotton clouds, mountain ranges, deserts, plains, cities, towns, farms and forests.

We waved goodbye to California as the plane flew over the Sierra-Nevada Mountains. The towering granite of the Crystal Range gave way to the deep blue of Lake Tahoe. My mind turned to our new status as Peace Corps Volunteers. Six months earlier we had serious doubts this day would arrive.

It was the spring of 1965 and Uncle Sam was looking for recruits. He’d bought a used colonial war from the French and needed soldiers to fight. Being a 22-year-old male about to graduate from college, I was a prime but reluctant candidate.

The conflict in Vietnam dated back to 1946. It was born ugly. France had lost her colonial empire in Indochina to the Japanese during World War II and Charles de Gaulle wanted it back. The Vietnamese Marxist Ho Chi Minh wanted independence. War was the result. Russia sided with the North Vietnamese in hopes of expanding her influence. NATO and the US jumped in to thwart Russia and support France in her colonial ambitions.

By 1955 France abandoned the fight as a costly, no-win disaster that had sucked up more and more of the nation’s human and financial resources. Uncle Sam moved to fill the gap. We would provide ‘military advisors’ and financial aid to the politically corrupt but anti-communist regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. Over the next ten years our support continued to grow. By the time I was ready to graduate, the US was ready to send in the troops.

The Cold War was raging. America’s leaders saw Vietnam as a critical step in stopping the spread of communism and communism was seen as an anti-capitalist, anti-Christian, and anti-democratic evil extending its cancerous tentacles throughout the world. Lose Vietnam, the Domino Theory argued, and all of Southeast Asia would follow.

My political science professors in International Relations at UC Berkeley had a different perspective. Communism was changing. It was no longer monolithic in nature but had taken on a nationalist flavor. Communism in Russia was different from communism in China. The Russians were as fearful of Chinese massing on their border as they were of the US’s nuclear weapons.

One day I arrived at my class on Comparative Communism and learned my professor had been invited to Washington to provide advice on Vietnam. The message he carried was that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist first and a Marxist second. He was seeking independence for his nation. He was no more interested in being dominated by Russia than he had been in being dominated by France.

Becoming involved in a full-scale war was not in the best interest of the US and might prove to be a costly mistake.

Washington refused to listen. America’s leaders had grown up on a steady diet of Cold War rhetoric. Not even the insanity of McCarthyism had shaken their faith. Being ‘soft on communism’ was political suicide. When Khrushchev banged his shoe on his desk at the United Nations and said he would bury us, we banged back.

But I was convinced there was more to the fight in Vietnam than a communist grab for power. My International Relations major was focused on Africa and the news out of Africa in 1965 was on the struggle for independence from colonial powers.  I felt Ho Chi Minh was involved in a similar fight.

I decided Vietnam was not for me. Fighting in a war I didn’t believe in and killing people I didn’t want to kill was at the very bottom of my want-to list. And there was more. I am allergic to taking orders and can’t stand being yelled at. I’d make a lousy soldier.

I saw a court martial in my future.

If drafted, I would go, however. I couldn’t imagine burning my draft card, running off to Canada or hiding out in the National Guard. I actually believe we owe our country service. Luckily, a temporary solution popped up. Peace Corps Recruiters were coming to Berkeley.

John Kennedy proposed this idealistic organization to a crowd of 5,000 students during a campaign speech at he University of Michigan on October 14, 1960. He was running four hours late and it was two in the morning. The response was overwhelming. One of his first acts as President was to create the agency.

Peace Corps service would not eliminate my military obligation but it might buy time for the Vietnam War to end. Of more importance, I felt the Peace Corps provided a unique opportunity to travel, represent the US in a positive way, and hopefully, do some good.

I talked the idea over with my fiancé. “Let’s do it!” Jo Ann responded. She and I would go together as a husband and wife team. When the Peace Corps recruiters opened their booth in front of the Student Union, we were there to greet them.

“Sign us up,” we urged.

“Fill these out,” the recruiter responded, handing us two umpteen page blue applications. “You will also have to pass a language aptitude test in Kurdish and provide letters of recommendation.” I had my doubts about the Kurdish.

Apparently we looked good on paper. In a few weeks the Peace Corps informed us that we had been tentatively selected to serve as teachers in Liberia, West Africa. My brain did a jig. The age-old question of what you do when you graduate from school and enter the real world had been answered, or at least postponed.

Uncle Sam with his growing hunger for bodies to fight the Vietnam War would have to wait.

There were still hurdles. They were tied to the illusive if. We could go if we could get through the background security check, if we weren’t deselected during training, and if we could pass the physical. Training wasn’t a worry. We had enough confidence in ourselves to assume we would float through. How hard could it be after Berkeley?

The Security Check was something else. Jo Ann was squeaky clean but I had been up to mischief at Berkeley, hung out with the wrong people, been seen in a few places where law abiding people weren’t supposed to be, and had my name on a number of petitions.

“And where were you Mr. Mekemson the night the students took over the Administration Building?”

Maybe there was even a file somewhere; maybe it was labeled Radical. J. Edgar Hoover saw Red when he looked at Berkeley.

Soon I started hearing from friends. The man with the badge had been by to see them. The background security check was underway. One day I came home to the apartment and found my roommate Jerry there. He was pale and agitated. His eyes bounced around the room.

“I have to talk to you Curtis,” he blurted out. “The FBI was by today doing your Peace Corps background check and I told them you had been holding communist cell block meetings in our apartment.”

Jerry was deadly serious; Jerry was dead.

“What in the hell are you talking about?” I yelled, seeing all of our hopes dashed and me sitting in a jail cell. I knew that Jerry disagreed with me over my involvement in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement (FSM) and probably disagreed with me over the Vietnam War, but I hadn’t a clue on how deep that disagreement went. Or what he based his information on.

My degree in International Relations had included a close look at Communism. I found nothing attractive about repressive totalitarian states.

The closest I came to joining a leftist group had been the Free Student Union. Yes I had held committee meetings at our apartment but I had also severed my relationship with the organization. The folks behind the Union apparently believed that confrontation with authority in and of itself was a good thing. Getting banged on the head with a nightstick made students angry. FSU wanted to radicalize the student body, not serve it.

I was not happy with Jerry that night or for some time after. I assumed the Peace Corps option was out and begin thinking of alternatives. They were bleak.

As it turned out, we received final notification from the Peace Corps a few weeks later. We were accepted. Jerry could live. The people who said good things about me must have outweighed the people who said bad things. Either that or Jo looked so good they didn’t want to throw the babe out with the bath water.

Or possibly the majority of other students who signed up for the Peace Corps from Berkeley in 1965 had rap sheets similar to mine.

There was one final hitch. I was to report to the Army Induction Center in Oakland for my physical. It was an experience not worth repeating. I lined up with a bunch of naked men to be poked and prodded.

“Turn your head and cough. Now, bend over.”

I took it like a man and escaped as soon as the opportunity presented itself. A couple of days later I came back from class and there was a scribbled note from my other roommate, Cliff, who was also going into the Peace Corps.

“The Induction Center called,” he wrote, “and there is a problem with your urinalysis.” I was to call them.

“Damn,” I thought. “Why is this so difficult?” So I called the Center and resigned myself to peeing in another jar. With really good luck I might avoid the naked-man line.

I got a very cooperative secretary who quickly bounced me to a very cooperative nurse who quickly bounced me to a very cooperative technician who quickly bounced me to a very cooperative doctor… none of them could find any record of my errant urinalysis.

They didn’t see any problems and they didn’t know who had called. They suggested I call back later and be bounced around again. More than a little worried, I rushed off to my next class.

That evening I reported my lack of success to Cliff. He got this strange little smile on his face and asked me what day it was.

“April 1st,” I replied as recognition of having been seriously screwed dawned in my mind. “You little ass!” I screamed, as Cliff shot for the door with me in fast pursuit. He made it to Telegraph Avenue before I caught him. The damage wasn’t all that bad, considering.


One Comment on “Chapter 1: The Peace Corps Is Told I Run a Communist Cell Block”

  1. Name June 24, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    This is certainly another side of the story for Peace Corps recruitment! Hard to top that April Fool prank…….

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