How-and why-the Peace Corps is getting tougher
At jungle boot
camp in Puerto Rico, recruits to the Peace Corps are learning how to live with fish heads for breakfast, bugs for bedmates, and bone-wearying labor day after day
MACLEANS WASHINGTON EDITOR
HIGH IN THE HILLS of the U. S. island possession of Puerto Rico, men and women are compelling themselves to do things they have never done before.
No matter how terrified, they scale rocky peaks and lower themselves down sheer cliffs. They swing from tree to tree on dangling ropes. Tarzan-style. They thread their way along narrow rough paths through semijungle, footsore, weary, burden-
ed by heavy packs, subsisting on strictly rationed food and water, sleeping in the open. And even those just learning to swim are bound hand and foot and thrown into a deep pool.
Such is life at the first overseas training camp of the Peace Corps. President John F. Kennedy hopes that members of this organization, several hundred of whom are already scattered through Africa.
Asia and Latin America, will win millions of converts for western democracy in the underdeveloped countries.
They'll do this, not by bossing the people on projects and surrounding themselves with the luxuries enjoyed by affluent tourists, but by working with the people, dressing like the people, spending no more money than the people, and living in similar housing on similar food. They’ll speak the language of the people, too, or enough of it to get by.
The imaginative and dramatic movement in which they are participating grew out of a painful realization by the United States that its enormous foreign aid program has fallen far short of expectations from the standpoint of creating good will. Through this program the U. S. has attempted for fifteen years, with earnestness and generosity, to spread democracy by helping less fortunate nations. Yet some of the most expensive and best-intentioned foreign-aid efforts have stirred more enmity than affection.
It was against this background that President Kennedy decided to
experiment with a new and different kind of representative abroad — the self-sacrificing Peace Corps volunteer who is supposed to be without racial, religious or class prejudices. Kennedy announced the formation of the Peace Corps in March, 1961, and appointed as its unpaid director one of his brothersin-law, Sargent Shriver, a handsome forty-six-year-old law graduate of Yale who was a submarine officer during the war and is now a Chicago department store executive.
“CHARACTER THROUGH ADVENTURE”
Congress — although it had misgivings about do-gooders — voted the Peace Corps $30,000,000 for its first year.
Soon, in response to appeals by Shriver and John Kennedy, the Peace Corps files bulged with the names of thousands of applicants. While a staff at Washington summoned the likeliest candidates for interviews. Shriver conferred with educators from leading universities, including Negro universities, and laid out training courses.
He recognized the need for a camp, preferably in the tropics, at which his volunteers would sample
conditions they’d encounter in the field. The Puerto Rican government offered a site that straddles a stream by a road that lurches up into palm-crested mountains, and Shriver accepted it. Then he heard that Captain Freddy Fuller of Britain’s famous Outward Bound Schools — “character training through adventure” — was in the U. S. as the guest of an educational foundation. He invited him to Washington for a conference.
Fuller is a stubby, soft-spoken, hard-muscled Welshman with twinkling blue eyes and a pleasant manner that is shy but self-assured. A skipper of the Blue Funnel Line, he was twice torpedoed early in the Second World War and once survived thirty-five days in a lifeboat on a diet of peanuts, raisins, malted milk tablets and six ounces of water every twenty-four hours.
When the Outward Bound Schools were established in 1941 to prepare British boys for the wartime hazards of the merchant marine, the Blue Funnel Line was one of the sponsors. It assigned Fuller to the OBS staff and he has been on it for two decades. At Washington, Fuller told Shriver how the Out-
ward Bound Schools, which are privately supported, operate on the theory that you can build character and courage by climbing mountains, sailing small boats through tossing seas, and enduring exposure to the elements. He told him how thousands of youths in British industry are sent for a month at a time to the Outward Bound Schools by employers who have marked them for advancement to executive rank and are anxious to have their talent for leadership sharpened.
As Shriver and Fuller talked, Shriver realized that Fuller was just the man he wanted to get the Puerto Rican camp started on the right foot, and that the OBS training was precisely the sort of training he had in mind for the Peace Corps. He wound up by persuading the Outward Bound Schools to lend him Freddy Fuller.
At the camp site there were only a couple of frame buildings, the remains of a forestry station, and a bulge in the stream where the foresters had dammed it for swimming. There was virtually no provision for the camp in the Peace Corps budget. A handful of Peace Corps staffers triumphed over financial
difficulties by scrounging discarded tents from the army and worn-out vehicles from the army and navy. Fuller converted a grove of trees into an outdoor gymnasium that would try both the nerves and muscles of the gymnasts. Then he scouted the hills for a peak that could be climbed on one side but dropped straight down for sixty or seventy feet on the other side.
After an expenditure of less than a thousand dollars the Peace Corps overseas training camp was ready for business and groups destined for different countries began arriving for four weeks at a time.
Photo Editor Don Newlands of Maclean's and 1 stayed at this camp in the late fall to watch Fuller and forty-nine trainees in action. These particular trainees, thirty-five men and fourteen women, are earmarked for Sierra Leone, the new republic on the west coast of Africa.
What are they like? Why have they joined the Peace Corps and undertaken to live on a bare subsistence allowance for two years in primitive African communities in a steam-bath climate?
I suspected that they might be immature youngsters in search of
kicks. They aren’t. Instead, they have a sense of mission and an awareness that, in underdeveloped countries, these are critical years.
Harrison Bresee, of Orange, Virginia, is thirty, broad-shouldered, nice-looking, and a bachelor of science in forestry from the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee. He was a U. S. army instructor for two years, had a summer in Oregon as a forest ranger, raised beef cattle on his father's farm, then drew his savings from the bank and put them in his pocket and took off to see the world. He had a year in the Far East, a year in Europe, then two years in Africa hiking from village to village, eating and sleeping among the natives.
“I CAN DO MORE IN AFRICA”
“I saw their problems,” he told me. “They were kind to me and I think perhaps I can help them. I’m sure that I can be more useful in Africa right now than I can in America.” We talked by a forest trail fringed with bamboo thickets, coconut palms and brilliant scarlet poinsettias. It was spitting rain. As I left Bresee he stooped to shield with his rubber rain cape a bonfire of twigs on which he was boiling coffee for himself and other hikers who were halfway through a fourday seventy-five-mile trek.
Like Bresee, Dr. Elizabeth Roseberry feels she can do more for humanity in the infant African republics than she can in the United States. Dr. Roseberry is fifty-three and a former dean of the College of Home Economics at the University of Cincinnati. She gave up a successful professional career to join the Peace Corps.
Charles Dirkes, a twenty-twoyear-old graduate of Occidental College in Los Angeles, is a biologist. In 1960 he visited Africa for three and a half months as a pho-
tographer for Operation Crossroads — 190 students, among them ten Canadians, who erected privately financed libraries, schools, churches and youth centres in West African countries. "When you see what they need,” he told me, “you almost have to go back. The next generation will be the first large generation of educated Africans and it will produce either Washingtons, Jeffersons and Lincolns, or Lenins and Stalins, depending on who helps them fill their needs.”
Lillian Hollander, of Detroit, is fifty-one and for thirty years taught junior high school and high school. She’s a small dark woman with a pleasant face, who enlisted in the Peace Corps “because 1 wanted to be of service and this is one way of bringing about better understanding among the peoples of the world.” When I talked with her she was on the shore of a lake near the camp, waiting for a paddling lesson from Fuller. She had never been in a canoe before. Indeed, she had always been afraid of water, but had mastered this fear under the coaching of Fred Lanoue, professor of physical training at Georgia Technical Institute, who spent the summer and fall with Peace Corps trainees on Puerto Rico. He taught them all “drownproofing,” his own method of floating and breathing. With this method you can stay alive in the water for hours, even when you are injured or have been seized by a cramp. It's so they’ll be as helpless physically as they would with injuries or a cramp that Lanoue insists that Peace Corps members be thrown into a pool bound hand and foot. His drown-proofing keeps them afloat until they are fished out.
“I did drown-proofing two hundred times last Sunday,” Lillian Hollander told me proudly, meaning that she inhaled and expelled
breath two hundred times while floating in deep water.
On one of her training assignments she had lived for five days with a Puerto Rican family in a hill village. There were no conveniences, all drinking water had to be boiled, and the food was so different from what she was accustomed to that the Detroit teacher ate sparingly — mostly rice, beans, cooked bananas and fresh fruit. There were language difficulties — Miss Hollander speaks no Spanish. “But,” she said, “I managed and I really liked the people I was with.”
Like Lillian Hollander, each of the trainees at the Peace Corps camp spends a few days as the guest of a rural Puerto Rican family. This is part of their conditioning for overseas. But Sandra Barnes, twenty-six, and her husband Greg, twenty-seven, conditioned themselves before joining the Peace Corps. Both are graduates of the University of Denver. She majored in English and Greg Barnes has a master’s degree in labor relations. A couple of years ago, with $150 each and “ a big bottle of kaopectate” — a dysentery remedy — they
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“Where I come from we save the delicacies for the women. Please, madam, you eat the fish heads“
traveled for five weeks in the Middle East, visiting Egypt. Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
“We were not pleased with what we saw of the living standards,” Sandra Barnes told me. This was what impelled them to quit their jobs — Greg was with an electrical manufacturer and Sandra was a reporter with the UPI wire service — to join the Peace Corps.
At the Peace Corps camp, where the day starts at 6.15 a.m. with a mile-and-ahalf run for men and a half-mile run for women and continues until an evening study period ends at 10 p.m.. the trainees are given a few dollars a week for pocket money and clothes; $75 a month is banked for them, not to be touched until they have completed their term of enlistment. In Africa they'll be paid just enough to rent shelter comparable to the shelter of their “indigenous counterparts” — natives who do the same work — and to clothe themselves, feed themselves and have a little pocket money.
At their study sessions, instructors stress the importance of living no better than natives with similar jobs. A lot of these sessions revolve around Working Effectively Overseas, a thick book compiled for the Peace Corps by the American Institute of Research. Hundreds of Americans who are, or have been, stationed in foreign countries. supplied data about experiences that
either won them friends or made them enemies.
Sample: “While in a small village I accepted an invitation to cat with the people. When served something I feared to eat (because it was raw and they used night soil as fertilizer) I accepted it. Then I tried surreptitiously to push the food through holes in the floor. I was observed. I should have declined the food, explaining that it would make me ill. They would have understood, since they know that westerners become ill on unaccustomed food.”
Second sample: “One of the most difficult things the worker had to do was to eat with the villagers when he went to their homes. One time he was offered fish heads as a special honor. He said that in America special delicacies were reserved for the women and he would appreciate it if his hostess would oblige him by having the fish heads herself.”
Conclusion of the American Institute of Research: “If the danger of a major health hazard such as amoebic dysentery or infectious hepatitis is present, one can explain one’s position to one’s host, and then consume only such portions of the food offered as are considered safe. On the other hand, if the dangers are minor, it may be worthwhile making the sacrifice of a day or so of diarrhetic discomfort in order to gain good will and co-operation.”
In one paragraph of the book a woman describes how she won the trust and friendship of residents of a small Latin American town by learning the words of a Spanish song and joining them in singing it in the town plaza. The first Peace Corps contingent to go abroad cashed in on this tip. Fifty strong, they arrived at Accra, Ghana, in August. They’d been criticized in advance by, among others, the education officer of the Ghana government. But when they landed at the airport they lined up and sang, in Twi, the native language, a hymn of praise to Ghana. The education officer led natives in a spontaneous cheer for the Americans and the Ghana Times was so moved that it endorsed the Peace Corps and withdrew an earlier charge that the corps was “an instrument for subversion of the less developed countries into puppets of American imperialism.”
There is nothing in the book about dropping a postcard, as twenty-three-yearold Margery Jane Michelmore did to her great embarrassment at Ibadan, Nigeria. As every newspaper reader knows, she lost a card on which she had written to a friend in Massachussets: “With all the training we had we really were not prepared for the squalor and absolutely primitive living conditions rampant both in the city and the bush. We had no idea what ‘underdeveloped’ meant. It really is a revelation and once we got over the
initial shock a rewarding experience.” Her message fell into the hands of an antiAmerican agitator, the Peace Corps blushed deep crimson, and Margery, penitent and distraught, and, as she told me, “very tense,” was flown back to the United States. She was sent temporarily to the Puerto Rican training camp, and the day she got there wise amiable Freddy Fuller tied a rope around her middle and lowered her over his biggest character-building cliff.
Margery, who is now attached to headquarters staff of the Peace Corps at Washington. stopped worrying about the postcard, because you can't worry about a postcard in mid-air. And. as it turned out, the tempest over the postcard was just what the Peace Corps needed. Up until then, in the view of a vast number of Americans, the Corps had been a political gesture. Margery Michelmore’s misfortune suddenly put it into focus. It was no longer an impersonal organization or a political plank. It was Americans, most of them youngsters, devoting two or more years oflife to trying to help underdeveloped lands.
The Puerto Rican training camp is where they train, like commandos, to do the job ahead. And when you see them there, you’re willing to make at least a small bet that they’ll take to their mission what Working Effectively Overseas calls “genuine good will or intellectual and spiritual sympathy.” ★