MAKING MY WAY TO LA
The woman sitting on the aisle is a grandmother in her sixties, and the young man on my right in the window seat must be 17 or 18. I can’t see their faces clearly at this point, a little over 48 years later, but we’re having a great time gettingto know each other on the TWA flight from St. Louis to Los Angeles that June day in 1964. Not being experienced travelers, we haven’t yet learned, like Macon Leary in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, to open a book or feign napping to keep talkative seatmates at bay. We don’t want to be insulated from each other! We’ve got to talk about what an exhilarating experience it is to fly for the first time. We’re still all revved up from that monster machine miraculously getting off the ground in the first place. What makes our conversation so memorable isn’t what we said, which I can’t recall so many years later; it’s that you can’t hear a word we’re saying. You see, the young man on my right is deaf, so my sixty-something seatmate has pulled a pad and pencil out of her purse, which we’re passing back and forth, having a ball. Although I can’t remember anything we said – wrote – I dorecall that we had a lot to say since our conversation carried us most of the way to LA. What did the grandmother do with the pad we filled? Is it sitting in a box with other relics in an attic somewhere? Where is that young man now? Has he lived a happy, productive life? I find myself these days now and then wondering what’s happened to someone I’ve crossed paths with over the course my six decades. I guess it’s a function of age since I can’t recall such musings until fairly recently. Strange to say, I really would like to know how these stories have turned out, maybe because I’ve been thinking – and writing – lately about my own story.
Is it possible I was ever so young and naïve? As we taxi to our gate at LAX, I pull out the Peace Corps instruction sheet that’d arrived at 313 South First Street in Vandalia, Illinois the week before. It recommends that I arrange to take a “limousine” from the airport to my new summer home at UCLA in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, wherever that is. Yes, dear reader, there was a time – a long, long time – when you couldn’t just Google “westwood” to find out in a jiffy where and what it is. So I’m thinking to myself as we taxi down the runway, “Limousine?” That sounds really extravagant, so I’d better take a cab instead. What would Mom and Dad think if they found out I’d laid out hard-earned money for a limousine ride? The cabbie gave me a strange look when I got in and told him where I was going, but I didn’t understand why until I paid the $50 plus tab 45 minutes or so later. That’s 1964 dollars, by the way.
WE WHO GATHERED AT UCLA
We were 323 strong, the group that arrived at UCLA in June 1964, according to the “Training Program for Secondary School Teachers” directory that I’ve carried around from city to city over the decades since that memorable summer in LA. We came from all over the United States. Among us were Sandra Beherrell, 22, from Lynnfield, MA; David Levine, 20, Brooklyn, NY; Beryl Cochran, 21, New London, Connecticut; Mark Brecker, 21, West Orange, NJ; Michael Altman, 22, Providence, RI; David Karro, 22, Washington, D.C.; Sally Bushong, 25, Danville, VA; Randall Sword, 22, Springfield, PA; LaVerle Berry, 22, Perrysville, OH; Alice Gosak, 22, Argo, IL; Eula Persons, 22, Birmingham, AL; Thurman Ragar, 22, Pine Bluff, AR; Lawrence Gallatin, 22, St. Paul, MN; June Goodwin, 22, Tulsa, OK; John Cohen, 25, Denver, CO; Garber Davidson, 25, Long Beach, CA; and Judith Woods, 22, Darrington, WA. We were graduates of every size and shape of institution. Looking over the first couple of pages in the directory, I see Lowell Technical Institute, Brown University; Western Reserve University; Yale University; University of Minnesota; Bard College; University of Wyoming; Providence College; University of Detroit; and Dartmouth College. We were for the most part young and inexperienced; 281of the 323 of us were 25 years or younger, the great majority just out of college. The directory indicates that two of us were in our 40s, six in our 50s, two in our 60s, and, at 70, Pearl Ziegler of Duluth, MN, was our most senior volunteer.
THANK HEAVEN FOR ADRENALIN!
Thank heaven for esprit de corps and adrenalin! We needed both, believe me. Whoever designed the UCLA Ethiopia training program followed a simple rule: More is better, so cram it in! Twelve-hour days were the norm. In a letter to Mom and Dad dated July 20, 1964, I write: “Today was one of those exhausting days, with twelve hours in class (8 a.m. to 10 p.m.), which leave us in little condition to study, since the next day will come all too soon.” We sat for hours in large auditoriums, listening to lectures on African and Ethiopian history, culture, and politics, the Amharic language (which we practiced speaking in small group sessions), and – what I remember as our least favorite course: “Cultural, Psychological and Curricular Foundations of Effective Instruction.” How do I happen to remember the title? Going through my files last week, I came across my “University of California Extension Credit Certificate,” documenting that I earned an “A” that summer in “Educ. X 330.03,” so I must have stayed awake at least some of the time in that excruciatingly boring class. I haven’t saved my lecture notes from that summer, and much of the content has faded from my mind, but I do remember learning something about the kind of super-serious students who studied at Oberlin College. In my memory, I’m sitting in class right before lunch – stomach rumbling and attention turning to the buffet waiting for us (We were fed well at UCLA), when just before the bell ends the lecture, a distinguished Oberlin graduate asks his inevitable long, convoluted question that hunger makes it hard for me to follow. Again, for the umpteenth time, we’ll be late for lunch. Well, in Dave Karro’s defense, he did Oberlin proud: in the classroom at Tafari Makonnen School in Addis Ababa, followed by a distinguished legal career. And David and I even became good friends and eventually housemates, despite the minor league suffering he inflicted at lunch time.
FINDING MY PASSION IN THE CLASSROOM
At the serious end of the spectrum that summer, the highlight, to me anyway, was student teaching. I was in the group that was bussed to Alexander Hamilton High School for three or four weeks to get some practical classroom experience before our trial by fire in the Ethiopian educational system. I remember finding my passion in the classroom that summer in LA, and my letters home indicate that was, indeed, the case. By the way, keep in mind that our students that summer were forced to be in the classroom to make up classes they’d failed during the prior academic year so they weren’t what you’d call avid consumers of whatever wisdom we had to offer! Here’s what I wrote to Mom and Dad on August 1:
The big thing happening around here is the student teaching. For a week now, I’ve been teaching world history and English in a nearby high school. The English is not very interesting, but I’m enjoying history. My supervisor has turned the African and Chinese units over to me completely, to prepare the lectures and give the tests. I’ll take the liberty to tell you of a minor success which seemed to break through in my history class. I was finishing the lecture on Chinese Communist government and politics Friday morning. . . .I told the students that I was a Chinese Communist leader, holding the real Truth, and that they would be shot if they couldn’t explain in clear, rational terms why I, who know more facts than they do, should not force my truth on them. In other words, that they had to defend democratic gov’t, without using terms like “good” and “God-given.” This woke them up, and for the next hour the kids had their hands in the air, getting excited and even irritated as I attacked every vague argument that they offered. . . I felt pretty good when the kids broke out in applause after I ended the discussion. With work, I think I can be a pretty good teacher.
PLEASE TELL ME I’M NORMAL!
Whoever designed our training program definitely believed that we should be a well-rounded crew – physically fit as well as knowledgeable. I think it was a core element of Peace Corps philosophy then; I’m not certain about now. Anyway, silly as it now seems, we had to pass a swimming test and learn to play soccer (then, as now, the most played sport in the world, including in Ethiopia), and we were even required to do a one-mile run. I’m proud to report that, despite the two packs a day of unfiltered Camels I was then smoking, I was the winner of the one-mile run in my PE group. Thinking back, I wonder if I’d been put in some kind of remedial group because of my nasty habit, which accounts for my improbable victory. We were relieved that, at least, we weren’t forced to swing on vines from tree to tree to uphold the Peace Corps image. The powers that be were also tremendously concerned that that those of us heading to Ethiopia be “normal” representatives of our country, whatever that means, so we were subjected to a battery of psychological tests to weed out the emotionally unhealthy among us. Since I wasn’t at all sure what normal was, I worried quite a bit about choosing the “right” multiple choice answers (suspecting that it might be discovered I was less normal than I thought). We also had one-on-one conferences with a staff psychologist during training, and several of us agreed that our counselor was one of the strangest people we’d ever met – a deeply troubled, clearly neurotic fellow who sorely needed help himself. One of the darkest memories from that summer at UCLA was an incident that occurred one day when we were in a large auditorium, suffering through one of our psychological tests. Midway through the test, a piercing scream sent chills down my spine. It turned out that the test had triggered a seizure, ending the Peace Corps career of a very likeable trainee and her husband.
LOVING LA – ON A BUDGET
It wasn’t all work and no play that summer, of course. It’s fashionable these days, especially if you live east of the Mississippi River, to speak ill of the City of Angels, what with that pall of smog hanging over the city so much of the time, the 24/7 rush hour traffic that’s all too often moving at a snail’s pace along an incredibly confusing network of freeways, and the absence of a city center to help you orient yourself in this sprawling metropolis that just seems to ooze into the suburbs without any apparent rhyme or reason. But to me, Los Angeles was a great place to be that summer of ‘64. I just plain loved everything about the city: the lushly landscaped UCLA campus – situated in the lovely Westwood neighborhood and blessed with so many architecturally interesting buildings, the exotic palm trees lining the boulevards, the wonderfully cool evenings (so unlike summer in Southern Illinois), the fragrant eucalyptus trees, which I’d never seen before, the beautiful drives through the Palos Verdes hills and along the Pacific coast. I loved the Hollywood Bowl, where one evening we enjoyed the LA Philharmonic playing Gershwin. I even loved Disneyland, although, now a much more sophisticated man, I might be tempted to deny it. Here’s what I wrote to Mom and Dad after my first trip there. “Yesterday several of us went to Disneyland. It’s really an amazing amusement park. I had lots of fun taking the African cruise, riding on real mules through hills and a very realistic desert, etc. I wish you all could see this fantastic place – both kids and parents love it.” In my defense, I was pretty un-traveled at that point in life. And the occasional touch of Hollywood was the cherry on the sundae. I’m positive I remember Jimmy Stewart shooting a film on the UCLA campus while we were there. Fortunately, our extracurricular recreation didn’t come at a steep price. Here’s what I wrote to Mom and Dad on July 4 about my financial condition: “By the way, my money situation is excellent. I’m worth $60 in cash (now) – with two P.C. checks having been received. So think not a moment about this. There is really not much to spend money on other than normal incidentals. We get $14 every week – plenty!” If I recall correctly, my Camels cost 30 cents a pack then.
LBJ VS BARRY GOLDWATER
We might have been up to our eyeballs the summer of 64 listening to lectures, practicing our Amharic, student teaching and seeing the LA sights on weekends, but we couldn’t help but pay pretty close attention to the national political scene. That was an exciting time that got our political antennae really quivering. President Lyndon Johnson, despite a Southern drawl and occasional lapse into Texas braggadocio that irritated so many of us, especially by comparison with his far more eloquent and elegant predecessor, was turning out to be a highly effective, and at times inspiring, Chief Executive and a worthy successor to JFK. The monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not only passed on his watch – on July 2 – it was also the direct, tangible product of his aggressive leadership. That summer also saw the GOP convention nominate a presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who appeared to be a right-wing radical more than willing to get us involved in a hot war against the Soviets, so we’d have a clear choice when we voted – many of us for the first time, by absentee ballot in Ethiopia – that coming November. The US was involved in Viet Nam that summer, but we looked to Lyndon Johnson to keep us from all-out war, which in retrospect is more than a trifle ironic.
THE TIES THAT BIND
Finally, it really hit me at the Peace Corps Fiftieth Anniversary festivities in Washington this past September that what above all else made that summer of 1964 in Los Angeles so magical were the gals and guys I’d spent virtually every waking hour with for three months. I’d never before, and never have since, felt so at home with any group of people. As I marched with old “Ethi III” friends (we were the third Ethiopian Peace Corps contingent) from the amphitheater at Arlington Cemetery behind the Ethiopian flag, across the Arlington Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial that Sunday in September 2011, I realized that the ties binding us together – the practical, can-do idealism, the respect for public service, and, yes, the sense of adventure – weren’t all that frayed despite the wear and tear of nearly a half-century. And I thought to myself what a fortunate fellow I am to have shared that magical summer so long ago with such a wonderful group of people. I was blessed, and I am forever grateful.
©Douglas C. Eadie All Rights Reserved