If you watch Mad Men you know all about the office atmosphere and the thick layer of smoke that filled the offices. It was no better in the Peace Corps during those early years in 1960s. Flipping though pages of old Peace Corps publications, I see half a dozen people who I knew, all with cigarettes in their hands. Al Meisel in the Training Division; Charlie Peters, head of Evaluation; Jim Gibson, head of Agricultural Affairs. He liked cigars and smoked them in the building! The wonderful Jules Pagano. Another heavy smoker. Howard Greenberg in Management; Jack Vaughn, the second director, and Frank Mankiewicz; evaluator Dick Elwell, (as I recall, everyone in evaluation smoked and drank and wrote great prose). Doug Kiker and his crew in Public Affairs knew how to light up. And so did Betty Harris. With her cigarette holder.
When the Mad Men weren’t smoking, they were drinkings. Warren Wiggins told me that during his years at the Peace Corps he was a three-martinis-at-lunch guy. I knew him best after his Peace Corps years when he had quit drinking all together.
And, of course, besides the cigarettes and the booze, there were plenty of office affairs, trysts, and assignations, as well as some wonderful romances and marriages.
But what made those days fun for me were when the RPCVs came marching home. If you were a former PCV in ’63 and ’64, and could find 806 Connecticut Avenue, you were hired. The agency was desperate for ‘real live living examples’ of Peace Corps Volunteers. It helped if you were good looking or pretty and didn’t have any noticable tics developed overseas, but really that didn’t matter either. A lot of us had tics.
There was this early RPCV recruiter who when he was on campus and was asked that familiar questions all of have endured. “So, you were in the Peace Corps? What was it like?” would crumble at the asking. He would shake his head, lean forward, put his face in his hands, and begin to mumble.
Then there was the woman who had served, I believe, in Paklistan, and who wore her host country dress to work everyday for months after she returned to the U.S., as if she couldn’t let go of the experience, or wanted to prove that she was ‘the real thing,’ an RPCV, until Bill Moyers, then the Deputy Director, took her aside and had a friendly chat, saying that perhaps it was time for her to come all the way home.
But mostly, as fresh RPCVs, we were brash and arrogent and smart asses and thought we knew how to really run the Peace Corps. It is a wonder we weren’t all sent on our merry way. Or maybe I was the only one who thought I had all the answers.
You could always tell the RPCVs in the building. They never waited for any elevator. They took the stairs two at a time. They came in early. They worked late. They drank beer from the bottle in an outside cafe around the corner from 806. They lived in studio and one bedroom apartments downtown in D.C. and walked to work; they were mostly single, mostly still suffering from reverse cultural shock, and they believed in the Peace Corps with the same sort of religious fervor that the Mayflower Hotel Gang had when planning the new agency.
And to this day, ask any of us what was the best thing we ever did in life, or the best job we ever had, and we’ll all say, the Peace Corps. It is rather amazing that one job, one building, one moment in time, could matter that much or linger with us over the years, but it does. And come to think of it, in those offices in that old Maiatico Building, we were all Mad Men (and Mad Women), and we were better than anything that’s on television today.