Training for PCVs going to Ethiopia in the summer of ’62 at Georgetown University [and, I guess, at colleges and universities across the country] began with calisthenics at 6 a.m. six days a week. We were out of our dorm beds by 5:45 and walking sleepy-eyed across the still-wet grass of the Georgetown campus to the athletic fields. This was the start of our 14-hour day of training for Ethiopia.
The famous training camp in Arecibo, Puerto Rico [which is always recalled with a photo of Barbara Wiggins (mother of Warren Wiggins) at age 65 rappelling down a wall in Puerto Rico]. And it was Arecibo where Margery Michelmore was spirited off to after arriving back from Nigeria. It was an Outward Bound extension program for Trainees run by the late Reverend William Sloane Coffin. No one really knew ‘how’ to prepare so many soft Americans for the Third World so Shriver was trying everything.
In July ’62 at the start of our Peace Corps Ethiopia training program there were a total of 340 of us at Georgetown, of which, 110 were women. The women gathered on the grass alongside the old MacDonough Gym. [Today this field is gone, filled with a new gym for the GTown powerhouse basketball team.]
A woman named Milado Lejkova ran the women’s physical training program. She was a refugee from one of the Eastern European countries if my memory hasn’t failed me. The men worked out on the old Kehoe Field, then behind the medical school. That field is now consumed by the every expanding Georgetown University medical school. There were 230 of us, and Coach Steve Benedek ran the morning program of push-ups, jogging, and stretching exercises. We were on the fields for about 40 minutes, wearing an odd assortment of shorts, slacks, college sweat shirts and jeans, then we stumbled back to the dorms perspiration-soaked and muddy-kneed, but awake and ready for breakfast.
We weren’t much in the way of athletes, though there were, as I recall, a couple of high school and college runners,( a good friend and roommate in Ethiopia, Ernie Fox, was one, for he ran track in high school), and a few female jocks, but the majority of the Trainees at Georgetown were newly minted college graduates from across the U.S. It was the largest group of Trainees at the time to head overseas. I’m not sure it was ever topped.
We had something like 11-14 hours of classes in everything from Amharic to American history and world affairs. Since 99% of the 340 of us were college graduates all of these classes were just massive doses of undergraduate survey courses. Nights were lectures at Georgetown’s Walsh Hall where there was a large lecture hall. The Peace Corps pulled in a wide range of well known administrators to lecture about the world and Africa and Addis Ababa. I remember Chester Bowles speaking to us one evening. These lectures ran late and the task of one of my clic was to slip away before the speaker’s summing up to get out of Walsh Hall, cross the Georgetown cobblestone street, and grab a booth in the college bar. The bar no longer exists but I believe it was called Tehans (sp) [I’m sure there is more than one Ethie 1 who will remember the correct name.]
But more about working out at 5:45 in the a.m. One has to remember that this was years (decades) before jogging at dawn became a suburban thing for Soccer Moms. Unless you were on the track team or played basketball in college, you didn’t run, you didn’t work out, while you might play tennis or golf or swim at the local pool you let it go at that. For the most part, we were all out of shape. And we looked it.
On campus that summer sharing the dining hall with us was the Redskins football team. They thought we are pretty pathetic and they said so to the press. There was a story in one of the Washington newspapers about how the Peace Corps was sending a bunch of ‘losers’ to Africa. They, of course, were right. We couldn’t match them in size or skill, but at least we were going; they weren’t.
Steve Benedek, our trainer, wanted us to challenge them to a physical contest, and suggested rope climbing. I’m not sure why he thought we might have a competitive chance with that skill. Nothing came of it. We were too busy studying Amharic.
On the last day of our morning workout I remember coming back into the quadrangle as the women were returning from their morning exercises. They were all in tears. What happened I asked a few friends. They couldn’t talk and kept shaking their heads as they brushed by me and headed for their dorm. Later at breakfast when we had all calmed down they told us that Milado Lejkova had spoken to them at the end of their last workout and told of her own life escaping from Eastern Europe and praised them for what they were about to embark upon. It was one of those Peace Corps moments that has slipped away in the unwritten history of the agency, into the fog of memory, and to tell you the truth I don’t know why I remember it now.
About then, in those last days of our Training, we went to the White House and see JFK. Here is an account of that, in a shorter version, I have published it before, as some of you might recall.
We gathered in our suits and best summer dresses on the quadrangle and climbed onto a whole caravan of buses to head downtown.
There were other Peace Corps Trainees meeting the President that afternoon. Peace Corps Trainees at Howard, American, Catholic, George Washington universities, and the University of Maryland, over 600 in all, gathered in the August heat and humidity on the great lawn below the Truman Balcony.
I thought, how lean Kennedy looked standing at a raised podium with his one hand caught in the pocket of his dark suit jacket as he said, “From Georgetown University, 307 secondary school teachers for Ethiopia.” He looked up from the pages and asked, “Perhaps those of you going to Ethiopia could hold up your hands.”
Kennedy then said, “I hope that you will regard this Peace Corps tour as the first installment in a long life of service, as the most exciting career in the most exciting time, and that is serving this country in the sixties and the seventies.”
Looking again at the old photographs taken that afternoon you see the President smiling down at the group of young women in bright flowery dresses, and young men with short haircuts, white shirts, narrow ties, and serious dark suits.
“The White House,” Kennedy said, summing up, “belongs to all the people–but I think it particularly belongs to you.”
Kennedy ended his remarks and walked down the slope and along the line of Trainees to shake our hands. He asked us where we were going in the Peace Corps and wished us good luck. Finally he stopped and said, “Well, I guess I better get back to work.” He brushed back his hair in that famous gesture we all came to cherish and nodding goodbye walked a few yards towards the Oval Office, but stopped once more and glancing around raised his voice and told us to write, to tell him how it was going. He nodded goodbye, slipped his hand into the jacket pocket, and then, almost as an afterthought, he grinned and added, “But no postcards.”