The second half of 1968 is a time I would rather forget but cannot because of its desolation.  I returned to Kentucky after a good summer at home and settled into a single room in the house on Maxwell Street to complete my degree requirements.  All of my friends were either gone or had spun into other orbits; I filled my spare time drinking wine and listening to music–whenever I hear Judy Collins sing “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” I am transported to that room and that time.

My only thought was of the immediate future.  Would the Peace Corps come through? Should I go to a military recruiting office so that I could at least have a say in how I may be used in that effort, rather than simply waiting to be drafted?  True to form, the main reason I was even in Kentucky, to attend classes and complete my degree requirements, was the least of my concerns. College graduation came and went literally unremarked.  My degree was mailed to me and promptly packed away.

I returned to Falls Church in December of 1968 and spent the Christmas holiday facing an unknown and frightening future.  In spite of my incessant status checks, the friendly voice from the Peace Corps’ applicant liaison office had no news for me.  Finally, at the very beginning of 1969, the coveted letter arrived.  This French major, with no aptitude for nor stated interest in business, received a Peace Corps invitation.  To a co-ops program.  In Panama.  I would depart for training in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in February, a month hence.

It turned out that my daily status checks with the Peace Corps were mere drops in a veritable flood of similar calls from thousands of young men just like me, facing what we imagined to be (and in too many cases actually were)  life-or-death decisions being made for us by the U.S. government. Meanwhile, Peace Corps placement officials were making it their jobs not only to fill programs, but to snatch us young men from the clutches of the draft when they could.  Skill matches were not given highest priority.  The programs sending English teachers to French West Africa, which would have been my ideal fit, didn’t depart until June, giving Uncle Sam the luxury of six months to have his way with me.  The Peace Corps had no intention of giving him that opportunity, however, so they snatched me  into a program completely foreign to anything I’d ever imagined for myself.  In my application I said I would be open to anything, and that’s what I got.

(It goes without saying but it is certainly worth a reminder to younger readers that the issue of sexuality simply never came up in any of my dealings with the Peace Corps.  Even though I was completely comfortable with my identity in Kentucky–had even named gay friends as references for the FBI full-field interviews still being done at that time for all Peace Corps applicants–I knew that the conventional conspiracy of silence on the topic would protect me from being found out, but, as an active co-conspirator in that silence, I would also be forced back into the closet.  Relatively fresh from those safe confines anyway and accustomed to hiding that part of myself, I forged ahead, giving the question very little thought. As it happened, tempting opportunities presented themselves during my entire Peace Corps experience, and I turned my back on each one of them.  Such was my paranoia about being found out, forced to leave the Peace Corps, and then being faced either with the draft or declaring myself homosexual to evade it.  It was a choice I was not ready to make.  This ironclad, fear-induced discipline did, of course, extract a heavy price eventually.)

With very little time to prepare, I did what I needed to do to muster myself into the Peace Corps.  The joy I experienced as I went through these motions is impossible to describe.  I was living the fantasy that had been fed by years of letters and stories from Jim Knowles in Morocco.  (For his part, Jim was ecstatic that I would be replicating his adventure and looked forward to my reports.)  I flew to Puerto Rico, felt my first warm February day, saw my first palm tree, and quickly fell into the loving arms of the Peace Corps.  Worries about being accepted vanished with the first welcoming smile; I had never felt so cossetted and warmly received in my life.  As far as I was concerned I was among an American elite and it was embracing me.

I loved everything about the training program (though I found some aspects of it, such as peer evaluations–a trend at the time–uncomfortable and unnecessary).  As a French major, I discovered that Spanish is basically the same language as French but with a different accent, and was virtually inventing the language for myself, way ahead of the training curriculum.  We were a small and cohesive group and I made many friends.  There were still a few flies in this otherwise ambrosial ointment, however, and they were big ones:  Panama? Co-ops?  Spanish?  The co-ops program was on the quintessential “drop-’em-in-a-village-and-see-what-happens”  Peace Corps community development model.  I knew I needed routine and was temperamentally unsuited to that open-ended approach–I had already experienced one weekend live-in on which I was left to my own devices at the entrance to a rural village to find a place to live.  I succeeded, but it was a long 48 hours.  This had taken place during the first days of training, and we had been told that the culminating event of the program was another, week-long visit to the same village.  When I got back to the training camp after that first live-in, I continued to revel in the day-to-day learning activities but in the back of my mind I was starting to realize that it just wasn’t in me to do another live-in, much less repeat the exercise for real in a Panamanian village.  Again I found myself functioning on two starkly different levels, loving the moment while at the same time grappling with one of the most consequential life decisions I would ever make.  But decide I did.  On the eve of the second live-in, after a night of parties and singing, I presented myself to the resident psychiatrist attached to the training program and told him I wanted to quit.  I knew I was putting my future in jeopardy one more time and that I would have to face my draft board, but I couldn’t escape the hard reality that my actually going to Panama would be disaster.  I could either cut my losses at that moment or create much greater sorrow and worry by continuing with the charade into Panama and leaving a village that was conditioned to need me in some way.  After all that explanantion from me,  the doctor simply nodded wordlessly and gave me papers to fill out.

Word of my pending departure passed through the training group like lightning.  I had told no one of my doubts;  not only to my friends in the group but to the entire training staf as well, it looked like I was making an irrational–and, given my draft situation, potentially suicidal– decision.  How could such a popular and seemingly strong  trainee just up and leave, especially under those circumstances?

Amid all the tearful farewells there was one strain of advice, constantly repeated:  don’t let the draft get you, Ralph!  Declare yourself a conscientious objector if you have to!

I flew back to Washington in May, 1969, no longer protected from the draft by a Peace Corps deferment.  I made a personal visit to my draft board to plead for a little time: the Peace Corps was trying to find me another assignment.

And, the Peace Corps be damned, there was my name, big as life, on the draft call for June.  Less than a month away.