In summer 1962, six hundred Peace Corps volunteer trainees were in Washington, DC, preparing for assignments around the world. A visit to the White House was a highlight of our training time.
When our Ethiopia group returned from lunch that day, several buses were waiting in front of the dorms. We boarded the buses and waited about an hour until motorcycle policemen arrived to lead us to the White House. They started their thundering motorcycles and turned on their sirens and led us out onto quiet Georgetown streets. Other police were at every intersection, and we zoomed through traffic lights at highway speeds. We were, after all, going to see the President.
At the White House, staff members arranged the Peace Corps people into a semicircle on the south lawn, facing the White House. We chattered quietly out of respect for where we were. (My roommate Danny Langdon was on the front row, four ranks in front of me.)
Four young men stepped out onto a balcony above the White House entrance. They wore green cotton suits and I assumed they had machine guns under their suit coats. They looked over the crowd, and one spoke into a walkie-talkie.
Suddenly President Kennedy walked briskly from a ground-level door below the armed agents to a podium at the center of the semicircle of Peace Corps people. Kennedy must have said something inspiring that day, but all I remember is that he invited us to return to Washington and work for the government after our time in the Peace Corps. The invitation wasn’t inspiring, at least not to me. I was in the Peace Corps for travel and adventure, not for a government job.
Kennedy stepped down from the podium and walked to the Peace Corps people nearest him. He worked his way around the semi-circle, shaking hands and talking briefly with volunteers as he went. He was headed toward where my roommate Danny Landon stood on the front row, four ranks ahead of me. At close range, I could see that Kennedy was tanned, and his hair was honey-colored, almost red. He was taller than I expected, and he was even better looking than I expected. Just before he reached Danny, Kennedy stopped and began to turn back. Danny panicked. He really wanted to speak with Kennedy.
“Mr. President! Mr. President!” Danny yelled.
Those of us around Danny were embarrassed when he yelled to the president, but Kennedy stopped and turned back to see who had called to him. He turned toward Danny, who was shocked that he had shouted to the President. He had to say something.
“Mr. President, ah, Mr. President, ah, what about Ethiopia?” Danny stammered.
“Is that where you are going? To Ethiopia?” Kennedy asked, extending his hand.
Danny must have said yes, and they shook hands and Kennedy said something I didn’t hear, and Danny doesn’t remember. The moment of embarrassment was over, covered by Kennedy’s gracious pause. Kennedy turned again and made his way back along the line.
As he began to leave, Kennedy glanced between the heads of the people in front of me. For an instant, Kennedy made eye contact directly with me. His eyes were bright blue, and in that instant, I could understand Kennedy’s effect on people. I could see why he had been elected president.
I felt, “He knows me. He appreciates what I am doing. I’m glad I’m working for him,”
Danny Langdon told another volunteer that he didn’t wash his hands for a week after shaking hands with Kennedy.
Nyle Kardatzke lives in Indianapolis and has a Ph.D. from UCLA. He taught economics at Marquette University before becoming a headmaster of three private schools. He is now writing a book about his Peace Corps tour in Adi Ugri, Eritrea, Ethiopia.