Peace Corps At Day One, # 9
The only RPCV book that focuses exclusively on Peace Corps Training–that I know about– is Alan Weiss’ (Nigeria 1963-64) High Risk/High Gain published in 1968 by St. Martin’s Press. It is Alan’s account of training at Columbia University in the summer of 1963. It is a funny, outrageous, and a sad book.
In his book, Alan focuses on the elaborate system ‘someone’ at the Peace Corps had created, a series of rating from High Risk/Low Gain to Low Risk/High Gain. All of the PCVs in those early years was so graded in our Peace Corps Training report card. A year after my tour in Ethiopia I returned to Addis Ababa as an APCD. In the office files, in the old Point Four building, I discovered in a bottom file cabinet drawer a copy of how the psychologists back in Georgetown Training had evaluated all of us, the first PCVs to Ethiopia. I went down the long list of some 275 PCVs and found my name and my rating. It surprised me. I hadn’t thought the shrinks were watching me that closely.
Alan Weiss was classified as High Risk/High Gain. He didn’t have a happy time in Training, or really much of a happy time in Africa. On the last page, he writes, “The sick circus of training behind us, we would go to Africa.”
Weiss was a troubled soul who had as many enemies as he had friends and he lasted about a year in Nigeria, then ETed so that he could marry the girl he left behind in Chicago. He never published another book besides his tale of Peace Corps Training, though he tried to be a writer and published a few short piece. He also started work on a book about Nigeria.
Years after the Peace Corps, years after he was married, he was a writer-in-residence at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. While there he read a piece he had written about attending a lecture by Malcolm X while he was in Nigeria. He wrote later, “about 100 people listened to my reading and it got an electrified response. Rocking response.”
Late one night while at Breadloaf he drove into town and had an accident. He smashed his van into a bridge abutment. The van was totaled and he went into a coma. He recovered, seemed normal, but after a few months he became manic. He then became depressed. Nine months later on March 10, 1971 he shot a bullet through his heart. He was 33.
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May Alan Weiss he rest in Peace…
I was an original High Risk/High Gain “selectee”.. In fact, I had to write an essay during the final days of training on what I wanted achieve as a 20 year old , college drop during Peace Corps service.
I was acknowledge for my superfluity witha job offer from the PC on finishing service.
I’ve always wonder who composed this Peace Corps training blues songs that was passed on to me in my training program:
Anon Ethiopia IV, Salt Lake City 1964
Adapted by Charlie Ipcar, Ethiopia VI
Tune: probably one of Bob Dylan’s
Peace Corps Training Talking Blues
I signed the application and I took the placement test,
I was very idealistic, wanted what was best;
“The best of what?” you ask. Well, I’m sure I don’t know,
But my folks was ‘gonna throw me out and I had no place to go.
Now old Jack Vaugh he wrote me and he said “I want your bod’;
We need you in the Peace Corps, son, so please give us the nod;
Right here on this dotted line your name you must sign,
And don’t ask me where you’re going, I just know your luck is fine.”
Well, I filled out all them Peace Corps forms, nearly blew my mind:
Dental, mental, passport, info, every other kind;
I quit my job, broke the lease, even sold the car,
And I came to Salt Lake City – a town without a bar.
“Welcome to the Peace Corps,” said Okley with a grin;
“Here’s the staff, there’s the shrinks, to help you fit right in;
With your group of peers, by whom you’ll be assessed,
They’ll be watching you at meals and class and while you’re getting dressed.”
“Here are your instructors, they’ll teach you how to speak,
Amharic, that’s a language, it’s even worse than Greek,
That was spoken many years ago by men of circumstance,
Who’ve all moved to Manhattan where they’ve opened restaurants.”
Now down in Salt Lake City, I nearly blew my cool,
It was “Tenasteling!” and TESL-Tech and three laps ‘round the pool;
Fingerprints and typhus shots and greedy dentists too,
But best of all, that friendly shrink, my midnight interview.
“Sit right down,” that doctor said, “Tell me all the news;
Do you love your mammie? Did you ever have the blues?
Tell me all about yourself, how you live your life,
Did you ever wet the bed, and why don’t you have a wife.”
Now listen, Doc, I had a dream just the other day,
I dreamed that I was a spy for the CIA,
Our President, he says to me, “You’re gonna need both fists,
For you’re goin’ to Asmara to look for Communists!”
I walked into a tej-bet there, and stepped up to the bar,
My steel-trap mind could tell that there was trouble not too far,
Then the whole place exploded, there was Commies everywhere,
I said, “I’m from the CIA!” They didn’t seem to care.
Just then this group of PCV’s came in from the street,
Ed Lynch was their leader, he had a sign-up sheet,
For a trip to Dire Dawa but I said I couldn’t go,
(?)…whose name was Dick Monroe.
“Get your pad, nurse,” the doctor said, “I think this boy’s insane;
Evil spirits have infused the soft spots in his brain;
He’s obviously insecure, I bet he sucks his thumb;
He’s an unpatriotic, no-good, bearded, rotten bum.”
Bearing this in mind, I decided to go,
And pack my bags for Shiprock, in the land of Navaho;
Where it’s hot and dry and dusty and the roaches are fun,
And the water is delicious; it’ll keep you on the run.
In the summer of 1968 after graduating from High School in Asmara, Eritrea I was s elected to teach Amharic at the Peace Corps Training Program in the Virgin Islands. During my interview for the position, no one asked me if I spoke Amharic. The assumption was everyone spoke the language that the Ethiopian government was trying to impose on the Eritreans.
My guess is that the people who interviewed were more impressed by my English and my association of PCVs. It never occurred to them, if I spoke Amharic. I have actually failed the subject every year, sometimes intentionally and very few times unintentionally.
I arrived in St. Thomas at the training program facility. It was clear to the administrators that Tigrinya was my language and not Amharic. I knew baby Amharic. They decided to assigned volunteers who were struggling with the language as my students. We were all in together, deaf listing to a deaf.
I kept reminding the trainers that teaching Amharic to the volunteers who were going to Eritrea was waste of time. I was ignored. It was clear Peace Corps wanted to be “politically correct” and refused to teach Tigrinya. Now we have an independent Eritrea that does not even teach Amharic in the classrooms.