The ‘back story’ the Puerto Rico camp(s) comes mostly from Coates Redmon’s 1984 book, Come As You Are: The Peace Corps Story. Her author’s note at the opening of her history begins with a line that sums up Redmon’s personality and lifestyle as I knew it back in the early ’60s: “I decided to write this book over poached salmon and a glass of white win at the Jean-Pierre restaurant on K Street in Washington, D.C., April 1975.”
Coates was feature editor of Glamour magazine in the late 1950s. (In full disclosure, my wife, a Non-Peace Corps Volunteer (NPCV), was the Executive Editor of Glamour for over a decade, in years after Coates tenure.)
At the Peace Corps, Coates lists herself a ’senior writer’ but my recollection was that she was attached to Charlie Peters Evaluation Division and in the early Sixties, as I recall, she spent a lot of time riding up and down in the building’s elevators and hang out in other people’s offices.
Later she was the Fellowship Chairman of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, a writer/producer at the Children’s Television Workshop, speech writer to Rosalynn Carter, and director of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards.
Besides that, she was a piece of work and someone I always liked.
Her book, Come As You Are, is a good read and should be read by anyone who is interested, even casually, in the early days of the agency. Coates takes a humorous look at the Mad Men and Women who established the Peace Corps, and in doing she fills in some holes of the early history, including how the Puerto Rico camps came to be.
The site at Arecibo was originally called the Puerto Rican Field Training Center. It was set up by British Frederick Fuller, of Outward Bound, who stayed six months in Puerto Rico to get that job done. Rafael Sancho-Bonet, in the Governors’ office, “begged, borrowed, and stole” as Coates puts it, everything that was needed in ways of equipment. Later, Sancho-Bonet became the CD in Chili.
Shriver hired what Redmon called, “the magnetic young Yale chaplain,” William Sloane Coffin, as camp director. Some RPCVs who trained there said Coffin spent most of his time hustling the women Trainees at the camp.
Frank Mankiewicz, the first CD in Peru, disliked the macho and risk aspects, and balked at the more draconian exercises of the camp.
Mankiewicz would tell Redmon about his experiences at Arecibo:
“It was bad form to criticize the place but I have to say that I didn’t like it at all. It was ultra-tough guy, let’s-see-if-you-can-take-it. I wanted people who cared about the social structure and language of Peru; I didn’t give a damn whether they could rappel down a wall or not. But they were doing it, males and females of all ages, and it was expected that visiting Peace Corps staff would do it, too. Well, I wasn’t going to do it. And I didn’t. I jogged, and I went over the goddamn obstacle course, but I wouldn’t go into that goddamn grubby pool where you were required to float with your hands and legs tied. I think it was called “drownproofing.” I mean, I was not going to risk my life. To hell with it.
“The Reverend William Sloane Coffin was running the place, and he was a terrific guy, but there were plenty of rigid jocks down there, too. I got one of them fired-this Georgia redneck swimming coach-because he insulted some of the black trainees by tell them, “You colored boys will have trouble doing it because colored boys don’t float good.” Jesus. I told Sarge about that, and shortly thereafter the guy was gone.
“But as it turned out, the kids came out of that experience pretty well trained in the language and anthropology. Most of them had liked the super-summer-camp aspects of it and they were all fired up and ready to go.”
According to Redmon’s book, and quoting Charlie Peters, it was Bill Haddad who came up with the idea for a training post at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Not Shriver.
Haddad, before his time at the Peace Corps was a prize-winning investigative reporter for the New York Post, in 1956 he had been Senator Estes Kefauver’s floor manager at the Democratic National Convention, and had had other political backroom positions inside the Democratic party. And Haddad hated the State Department. Redmon quotes Bill in her book:
“The State Department actually told us not to send Catholics to Latin America, blacks to Africa, Jews to North Africa. Those people managed to combine so many lousy things in that one directive: coyness, obsessive caution, ignorance, and bigotry. That we weren’t going to operate that way was a policy decision that Sarge made early.”
Haddad would bring to the Peace Corps some of the best of the early men of the agency: Evaluator David Gelman, a fabulous writer who he worked with at the New York Post; he also recruited Ben Schiff from what was called the “Poet’s Corner” at the Post.: Haddad, Gelman and Schiff.
Haddad told Sarge about the British Voluntary Service Overseas program (VSO), relating an article that he had read. These volunteers had been trained at Outward Bound Schools, with training developed during World War II by British psychologists trying to figure out why some people survived life-threatening situations and other didn’t. “A majority of the Peace Corps staff had seen combat in World War II and we’d survived, and I think that’s what bound us together. That connection clicked with Sarge. He said, ‘Fabulous! Find out more!” And Haddad did.
The schools stressed a devotion to an ideal of community and service. They exposed their students to unexpected challenges. The training was meant to generate self-confidence and erase unreasonable fears of the unknown.
Britain’s Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) was a private venture financed by a small grant from Parliament as well as by private contributions. It began sending young British men and women, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, overseas in 1958. Bu 1960, there were only eight-five workers overseas.
British psychologists, Haddad also discovered, had devised tests to spot survival qualities during WWII. Haddad was overjoyed. This was the full package to get young Americans for the Third World! Training plus tests!
Haddad got Summers and Fuller from the VSO to come to Washington to meet Sarge and help him set up the first camp. He selected Puerto Rico as the site because he knew the governor, Munoz Marin. Also Puerto Rico had the tropical climate, plus the cultural and linguistic similarities to Latin American countries where Volunteers would be going.
Quickly two camps were established, and while the first one was initially nicknamed ‘Camp Haddad,’ the names changed when tragically struck the Peace Corps. Two new PCVs, David Crozier and Lawrence Radley, were killed in a 1962 plane crash.
A jack-of-all trades staff member at the first camp, Victor Crichton, who was born in Grenada, graduated from Columbia University, was a construction crew chief on Okinawa just after WWII, was an assistant to Haddad, and he conceived of the idea of renaming the campus after the first two PCVs to die overseas. Haddad rushed the idea down the hall to Shriver who rushed it into reality.
Camp Radley and Camp Crozier were part of the early days of the agency, as were camps in Hawaii, St. Croix and St. Thomas. The majority of Volunteers going to Africa had eight to ten weeks at a college or university in the United States, then one to two weeks in-country.
For most PCVs who trained in those early years, it wasn’t whether you were at a college or a university, or in one of the camps, training was bad. It was only after the PCVS got overseas, that they told tales of how bad training was. Charles Peters and the other Evaluators consistently complained that PCVs were not being given the realistic preparation necessary for going overseas. As Robert Textor, an early consultant wrote, “The quality of training ranged from very good to very bad.”
As one PCV in Sierra Leone told Evaluator David Gelmen in 1962, “They just don’t tell it to you the right way in training. It’s not romantic. It’s hot, sweaty and tedious. It’s not the challenge of the mud hut and all that-that would be too easy. It’s the challenge of the principal changing schedules on you every day and sending two teachers to the same class. It’s the unruliness of the students, the indifference of the other teachers…That’s what they ought to tell you in training.”
In other words: What this PCV found in Africa was a lot like what teaching was in America! Say, didn’t we know how to train teachers for our classrooms?