Before there were Returned Peace Corps Volunteers there were books about them. In the very early days of the agency everyone was caught up with enthusiasm for these young Idealists going off on their own to do good in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
To the best of my knowledge, the first book–paperback, of course, and selling for .50$ (those were the days)–was published by Paperback Library and done with the ‘full’ cooperation of the agency. It is entitled simply, The Peace Corps.
Sargent Shriver wrote the Introduction and the photographs were taken by Rowland Sherman and Paul Conklin, the first two great photographers of the Peace Corps. There is one photo in particular that I remember. It was taken of my roommate, Ernie Fox (Ethiopia 1962-64). He is with children of whose parents who were in the leprosarium outside of Addis Ababa. We would go out of town on Saturday mornings to play games with the kids. They loved baseball.
The strength of the book lies in those early black-and-white photographs. There is Shriver leading that first group of PCV (Ghana, I believe) across the White House lawn to meet Kennedy. The men are clean shaved, wearing suits; the women are in flowered dresses.
There is a photograph of the young Harry Belafonte and the President of Morehouse College, Benjamin Mays, discussing the agency with Shriver. A photo of Mitzi Mallina, the first employee hired by the Peace Corps, backed up against a HQ office wall and displaying a 28 foot list of NYU students requesting information about the agency.
There are two photos of Peter Lefcourt (Togo 1962-64), who was made a honorary chief of his village, and then came home to LA where today he writes very funny novels and was recently the co-executive producer of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” In one he is playing Iwari with a local champ, and in the second, he is chatting with little girls carrying water on their heads. In both he has a cigarette dangling from his fingers. Ah, those were the days.
One of my favorite photos is of Janet Hanneman of Junction City, Kansas, who went to West Pakistan as a nurse. In the photo she is repelling down a dam during Training in Puerto Rico. The fear on her face is fascinating.
The book came out in 1963. And the narrative with the photographs was done by Glenn D. Kittler. Kittler wrote a lot, and published a lot. He finished 35 books before his death in 1986 at the age of 66.
Born in Chicago, he had studied for the priesthood before becoming a journalist. His best known book was called The White Fathers and was published in 1957. The New York Times called it ”a magnificently comprehensive historical introduction to the last hundred years of Christian Africa.” He also co-authored My Friend Ike, an informal biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and The Lord Is My Counsel with Marion E. Wade. In fact, most of his books had a religious theme. His last book was Edgar Cayce on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Perhaps Kittler was interested in the Peace Corps because everyone, in those early days, thought we were saints, until, of course, they learned better!
Kittler’s narrative begins with one of the first and funniest and typical Peace Corps screw ups (see those screws up by the agency didn’t begin with you).
Kittler’s opening paragraph reads: “All 51 copies of the telegram read: ‘YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED FOR A PEACE CORPS TEACHING PROJECT IN CHINA.’ In 51 homes across the country 51 startled Volunteers gasped an incredulous: “China!” Having heeded the famous admonition to “ask not what your country can do for you,” the Volunteers wondered if it was now all right to ask what their country was about to do to them. China? Then the mistake was detected at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington: a telegrapher had erred. It wasn’t China; it was Ghana. Well, that was much better.”
While the small paperback (only 127 pages) mostly recounts famous and familiar anecdotal stories of the first PCVs, there are some interesting tidbits about the agency in the Q&A section.
For example, early Trainees got $2 per diem and there was ten days of leave between Training and going overseas. Also, the book says, “Volunteer receive one month’s leave annually and may seek approval to travel in nearby countries. Volunteers cannot return to the United States…”
Well, that restriction, like many others, has gone the way of history, but at least, we have a few books that are still around to remind us of the way it was.