A Writer Writes: Peace Corps Training, 1968

Peace Corps Training, 1968

By Jerr Boschee (India 1968-70)

January, 2011 . . .

I’m listening to a series of Donovan songs from my iTunes archive and it’s carrying me back to my room in an Indian village long ago. I had a three-inch reel-to-reel tape of his music that I played over and over again on a clunky, battery-operated, table-top recorder, along with a dozen or so other tapes I’d inherited from a Peace Corps Volunteer who’d finished his term of service long before. The quality wasn’t great, but the music sure was: Richie Havens, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Simon & Garfunkel, Ray Charles, Mamas & Papas, Peter Paul & Mary . . . and of course The Doors.


June, 1968 . . .

A cluster of huts and small buildings in a campground in Temescal Canyon, nothing but craggy hillsides between the compound and the Pacific half a mile away.

The huts are gathered around a grass and dirt courtyard, temporary homes for a group of Peace Corps trainees, most in their early to mid-20s. There’s a loudspeaker on the roof of one of the huts that periodically blares announcements across the campground.

After nearly three months, we’re all emotional wrecks. Martin Luther King has been murdered. Robert Kennedy has been murdered.  We’ve been thrown against the walls in Watts and screamed at for hours by black activists. The Vietnam War consumes us.  And India awaits, just a few days away . . .

More than 30 of us. And every night, as music blasts over the loudspeaker, we rage against the assassinations and the war and feverishly prepare for departure, wondering what we’ll discover about ourselves when we’re dropped into a village in the middle of nowhere, alone.

Then, at some point each evening, it’s time for The Doors album Strange Days, and the music becomes something more than background noise. The title of one song, “People are Strange,” has been a mantra for our group for weeks — but that isn’t the song we’re waiting for each night. We love it as Jim Morrison and the rest of The Doors take us through the first nine songs on the album . . .

. . . but when we hear the irresistible opening notes of the last song . . . and Morrison’s invitation to “Yeah, come on” . . . there we go, all of us, our feet tapping and our bodies beginning to sway as we emerge from our huts into the courtyard . . .

When the music’s over

When the music’s over

When the music’s over
Turn out the lights
Turn out the lights
Turn out the lights

For the music is your special friend
Dance on fire as it intends
Music is your only friend

Until the end
Until the end
Until the ennnnnnnddddd

The song lasts for nearly eleven minutes and little else matters to the people in the courtyard.  The simple beat mesmerizes as we sing and sway and dance . . . dahdah ditdit dee, dahdah ditdit deedeedee . . . over and over and over again . . .

Before I sink
Into the big sleep
I want to hear
I want to hear
The scream of the butterfly

And then, at about the six-minute mark, we fall silent and stop moving, every other sound in the campground erased, and two minutes pass as we wait for the magic one-word question that electrifies us every night . . .

We’re gettin’ tired
Of hangin’ around

Waitin’ around
With our heads to the ground
I hear a very gentle sound

Very near yet very far
Very soft, yeah, very clear
Come today, come today

What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn
And tied her with fences and dragged her down


I hear a very gentle sound

With your ear down to the ground

We want the world and we want it . . .
We want the world and we want it . . .




Then the pause. That miniscule but incredible pause.


We hold our breaths.





And the scream blasting from the loudspeaker unleashes all the pent-up frenzy in our lives    . . . and we scream with the Doors . . . night after night after night . . .


Until we leave for India. . .

The recording the trainees listened to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkp8fNODegU&feature=related

A video of the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LM9LMvJ_vw

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