Mrs. Pearl, the lady at whose desk I recevied this potential death sentence, did not seem unsympathetic to my plight, but at the same time was professionally constrained from helping me out of it.  She had slots to fill, just like Peace Corps placement officers.

The idea of conscientious objection had never sat well with me.  I couldn’t, and still can’t, say with any conviction that I am philosophically or morally against all war, and it was of just such a stance that I would have to convince my draft board, in a personal, oral presentation, for any appeal of my new 1-A status to succeed.   But such nuanced thinking abandoned me as I sat there with Mrs. Pearl.  All I heard in my head was the counsel of my friends in Puerto Rico.  This was my only way to gain some time.  The words escaped my lips before my brain even processed them:  “Can you please give me the forms I need for CO status?”  In a seamless series of moves, Mrs. Pearl opened a drawer, handed me the papers, and erased my name from the June call.  At the time it seemed to be happening in slow motion.  A bullet dodged for thirty days.

My father and I were alone in the house at the time, my mother being out of town helping my sister with a newborn.  For reasons both real and imagined, he and I were at unspoken loggerheads over my stance about the Peace Corps and of course the fact that one more time I was back under the home roof having made another “rash” decision to leave a situation.  Supportive he was not; nor understanding.  I also harbored the notion that I was a disappointment to him because I was gay, even nothing at all on that subject had ever been spoken.  I carried a great deal of guilt about all of this, my decisions, my being gay…which I internalized to depressing effect.  During that time, my father and I were able to be civil with each other if we spoke only about the weather, and that was only when we had to acknowledge each others’ presence at all.  Luckily, the house was big enough for us to avoid each other most of the time.

So to say that I made a mistake by leaving the CO forms out on a table with the mail is a gross understatement.  I had no intention of my parents even knowing I was contemplating such a step, because I really wasn’t.  I knew that under the best of circumstances I could never convince a draft board of any over-arching pacifism on my part, and my present circumstances, with only a quietly hostile father and no friends to call on, were anything but what I needed to launch a successful appeal.  No, the purpose of those  papers was solely to buy the time the Peace Corps needed to find me another assignment.

But my father did come home from work, he did go through the mail, he did find the CO forms, and the roof did come down.  I had never seen this normally quiet man in such distress.  He called, it seemed, everyone he knew to tell them that his son was dishonoring the family by filing as a Conscientious Objector.  It seemed I could have told him anything else-that I was a serial, cannibalistic murderer–and he would not have been so mortified.  The examples of cousins who had “done their duty” in WW 2 and Korea were trotted before me as preferred role models.  I was supposed to be like them, I wasn’t, and therefore I was a crashing disappointment.  All because I was trying to save my own skin from a war that made no sense.

I have never felt so alone.  It did no good to explain that the forms represented a mere purchase of time for the Peace Corps, because my parents weren’t all that happy about the Peace Corps, either.  I retreated to my basement cave  and tobaccoed myself into oblivion.  My mother eventually came home and calmly tried to talk sense into me, again using my “patriotic” cousins as examples of the actions I was supposed to be taking.  I appreciated the parental olive branch but couldn’t ignore the absurdity of the notion she was pitching me.  She was telling me that for the purpose of  keeping up appearances, really, she would actually prefer that I risk my life for a cause that had no bearing on the security of our country.  To avoid sounding overly dramatic or worse, breaking down in frustration, I said as little as possible in response.  Once again, that old discipline came in handy.  I wasn’t very warm and fuzzy with my mother, but I also didn’t express the anger and frustration I was actually feeling, which would have made this sorry situation even worse.

The days passed.  I continued to call the Peace Corps regularly for status updates, only to be told that I was too late for June and July departures and at best another realistic opportunity may not present itself until late summer.  The future was as opaquely black as my state of mind.  Facing reality, I determined that I should at least try to exert some control over how the military would use me and that I would not allow myself to be drafted.  The Air Force seemed like a fit.  A cousin had been taught Russian and spent four years in Alaska and Greenland intercepting radio messages.  I was good at languages, and I might get a couple of trips out of an assignment like that.  I took myself to the local Air Force recruiting office and made an appointment for a formal interview and skills inventory.

And then the phone rang.  It was Jim Knowles, by then working public affairs with the Peace Corps recruiting office in Atlanta.  He told me the Peace Corps Director from Ghana, Ira Okun, had been through Atlanta and they had been out to lunch.  Jim had told Ira of my situation, and Ira had said, “there’s no reason he can’t go with us.”  Actually, there was a host of big reasons why I couldn’t.  The Ghana education program for 1969  had long been filled, hotel and plane reservations had been made, visas stamped–it was due to depart in three weeks.  But I had no notion of such troublesome bureaucratic realities at the time, and apparently, Ira Okun didn’t, either.  With a friendly lunchtime conversation and bureaucratic sleight-of-hand I still don’t understand, Jim Knowles and Ira Okun saved my life.  These deus ex machina miracles were common if unbelievable devices in works of fiction,  but this one actually happened,  in real life, my life.  By sheer grace, I was in Ghana before the end of June, 1969.