James Frederick Gage (Ethiopia 1963–65)

November 22, 1988

TIME HAS NOT DULLED THE SENSE OF LOSS,  nor blurred the timid, sympathetic faces asking if my family would be safe — since my President had been killed. Time has not obscured the events of that November evening so long ago or erased the pride I felt at being an American and a Peace Corps Volunteer. In retrospect, few of us realized how profoundly the events of the summer and fall of 1963 would affect us.

Life magazine, in their June 21 editorial characterized the class of 1963 as “probably the best prepared, stablest, and most promising class in U.S. history . . . combining high morale, seriousness of purpose, commitment to a life of the mind and a careful balance between idealism and realism.” When faced with the choice between excellence for its own sake and the sake of humanity, between the good life and the useful life, many of us chose the latter.

June was also marred by two deaths whose repercussions would mark us forever. The week before our group began training at UCLA, a series of shots shattered the Mississippi night and Medgar Evers lay mortally wounded on the walk in front of his home. The civil rights movement had taken an ominous turn. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, 73-year-old Quang Duc sat patiently as saffron robed priests doused him with gasoline. With a purposeful match in  a Saigon street, he ignited a revolution which would eventually inflame passions as great as those created by the drive for civil rights. Two disparate forces were gathering momentum; forces which would lead not to simple ideological differences but protracted battles of conscience.

Our training for the peace Corps ended the day of the March on Washington, and we sat spellbound at our television set 3,000 miles away as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. At our graduation dinner that evening we stood, linked arms and sang “We shall Overcome.” It was indeed, a season of hope; an era of rising expectations both at home and abroad temperred by the prospect of power without purpose, of means without ends.

spurred on by President Kennedy’s example Volunteers had scattered to the corners of the earth. Our group dispersed throughout the breadth of the Ethiopian Empire. We meant to change the order of  things; we knew we could. We were forceful, inconsiderate, intemperate and boisterous and they were patient. We were inexperienced, and they accepted us. We taught their children, healed their sick, built their schools and they were grateful. And I have never doubted tor even a fleeting moment that we got the better of the deal.

Because those of us who volunteered share a rich legacy of service to our nation and commitment to others less fortunate than ourselves; pride in doing a good job and a touch of saddness, perhaps, in not being all that we could be. I deeply believe that there is within each of us a strong sense of justice — and with resolve and love — we shall prevail.

Perhas the spirit of this occasion can best be summarized with a excerpt from the speech  that President Kennedy was to deliver in Dallas the day he was shot.It was true then; it is true today.

We in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”

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