Tequila and Temblors
by John Krauskopf (Iran 1965–67)
PEACE CORPS TRAINING was intensive and stressful. Superficially, it seemed a lot like the college culture most of us had recently left. Walking around the University of Texas campus in Austin had a familiar feel since we lived in a dorm and attended classes much like any other students. However, the regimentation of fourteen-hour days was an unwelcome novelty. Back at the University of Michigan, when I put in a fourteen-hour day or pulled an all-nighter, I had arranged that torture for myself. In the Peace Corps training program, we surrendered complete control of our waking hours. Classes started at 7:00 am, and every minute was programmed until at least 9:00 pm. In the third week, there was a mini-revolt over the lack of time to go to the store or take care of personal business. The staff seemed to be taken by complete surprise that any of us would have needs that they hadn’t included in the rigorous schedule, and they responded by giving us “free time” on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 4:00 to 5:00 pm. I remember “tuning out” during a teaching methodology lecture and using my stolen moment to compile a list of what I needed at Walgreen’s so I could use my precious sixty minutes efficiently.
Beyond the intensity, the sense of always being watched was stress inducing. The director, various staff members, the language teachers and even the secretaries were continually observing us and almost impossible to elude. On top of this crew, we had two shrinks (psychologists) and a super-shrink (psychiatrist) involved in everything we did. Unlike college, our “grade” (being judged qualified to go in-country) didn’t depend on a final exam or a term paper but on a consensus decision by the training staff. We found ourselves second-guessing how our ordinary behavior would be perceived by the omnipresent watchers. There was no way to let one’s hair down because the shrinks and other staff members would always be around — checking.
An attractive woman in the training group and I began to eat together and sit together at lectures. Each of us was pleased to have the other’s moral support and an empathetic partner to deconstruct the day’s happenings. However, a little more than halfway through the summer, I began to sense some unspoken concern on the part of the staff about us being a couple. To avoid the perception that we might have become too dependent on each other, I decided to spend more of the group’s communal time and what little personal free time I had trying to develop my relations with a wider circle of fellow trainees. My erstwhile companion was somewhat less paranoid than I and quite annoyed with me about the lessening of our earlier close rapport. We both were selected for assignment to Iran, but I’ll never really know whether the deliberate cooling of our sociable relationship played any significant part in giving the watchers confidence in our emotional independence and readiness for a two-year cross-cultural plunge.
Several in the group were not intimidated by the scrutiny. Six or seven devil-may-care trainees used to wolf down their food and dash out to the sidewalk just in front of the cafeteria’s picture window. There they exuberantly engaged in the “oldest established, permanent, floating, hopscotch game” in Austin until it was time for the daily culture studies lecture. The childhood game was both an outlet for pent-up energy and a rebellious statement to the watchers: “Shrink this!”
Although the Peace Corps seems to have a comfortable respectability today, certain powerful politicians were suspicious of the concept in the early days. Senator Barry Goldwater and some other conservatives were worried that naive American youth would be swayed by Communists or other political radicals whom they might encounter in third-world countries. The skeptics projected that we would be defenseless in such confrontations because of our general ignorance of American values, institutions and history. In return for his influential support for the Peace Corps legislation, Goldwater insisted on a clause requiring 10% of the training time to be devoted to American Studies, World Affairs, and Communism (ASWAC). The trainees, however, rearranged the words in the title of the mandated 80-hour program of lectures and discussions and pronounced the revised acronym “whack-ass.”
One morning at breakfast, the director asked anyone with a political science, economics or American history major to report to a seminar room in the student center after the second hour of language class. Eager to escape the endless grind of Farsi lessons, twelve of us arrived and were introduced to Jim Wright, an influential Democratic congressman from Fort Worth and the House Majority Whip. Our group spent the rest of the day with him talking politics except for the hour right after lunch, when we rejoined the other trainees to hear Congressman Wright deliver the daily “whack-ass” lecture. Wright had specifically asked the training program officials to have this extended session with the prospective Peace Corps Volunteers, so it seemed that even more-liberal politicians were also trying to get a handle on the value of the Peace Corps program.
The start of our training program in the summer of 1965 coincided with the peak of academic enthusiasm for the audio-lingual method of language teaching. The framework for this method was developed on an ad-hoc basis at the Defense Language Institute during World War II. After the war, scholars such as Lado and Fries at the University of Michigan did considerable research on language acquisition based on the Army’s wartime experience and began to popularize their findings. One of their disciples, Mohammad Ali Jazayery, was in charge of the Peace Corps language instruction at the University of Texas. Professors in the “publish or perish” world of modern academia find it hard to resist the temptation to turn everything they do into a research project. Instead of designing a pragmatic program to teach Farsi, giving us maximum benefit from every minute of precious language learning opportunity, Dr. Jazayery treated our group as a set of free government-supplied guinea pigs enabling him to explore the outcome of the most extreme form of audio-lingual teaching.
Language experts today, while keeping some elements of this methodology, make fun of the rigid form of it we were subjected to. John Dennis, a wryly observant English professor at San Francisco State University, called what we did the “drill your ass off” school of language teaching. We had five or more hours of Farsi per day in an ideal-sized class of eight or fewer. However, neither students nor teachers were allowed to bring pencils or paper to class; Jazayery even removed all chalk from the classrooms. We had no books. Teachers were not supposed to speak even a word of English, nor translate any of the new vocabulary, nor answer any questions, in class or outside. The endless repetition and manipulation of model sentences or memorization and performance of dialogues allowed for no spontaneity or consideration of adult understanding of language structure. Unable to break down the utterances we practiced, we desperately grasped at the vocabulary of concrete nouns, clear in meaning because the teacher could point to an object and say the word. The frustration of having only the vaguest idea of the meaning of the babble we could fluently produce was intense, especially for the visual learners among us. This state of affairs went on for 220 hours (the equivalent of twelve to sixteen semester-units of normal class time) before we had any kind of explanation.
The language teachers, all Iranian graduate students glad for a summer job, mitigated some of our frustration precisely because they were Iranian and college students close to our age. Being from a culture with a long tradition of finding ways around artificially imposed barriers, and not being linguists who bought into the experiment, they cheated. Sadeq, an engineering student and former Iranian Air Force officer, surreptitiously used small scraps of paper to write vocabulary words in his own improvised phonetic script, and Khodayar, my suite-mate, would answer questions late at night in our dorm room when no watchers were around. Sadeq got so frustrated one morning that he threw away the carefully scripted lesson plan and taught my group a Farsi saying which he felt fit our mutual situation: Showd, showd, na showd, na showd, velesh kon.We repeated this mantra in unison. After hearing Sadeq’s loose translation, we marched across the University of Texas campus and into the cafeteria enthusiastically chanting, “Try once, try again, but if then you don’t succeed, to hell with it!”
Our shrinks, Thea and Ben, had us all take the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory). The results of this test were used to help decide whether we had strong and stable enough personalities to perform our jobs in Iran and to withstand the anticipated culture shock. Even as far back as 1965, the MMPI was a venerable instrument, and testing psychologists were confident in the validity of its results. However, each of the 500+ questions was presented without context and often appeared to be a one-line joke. Imagine a lecture hall full of 75 bright twenty-something trainees, a little stressed to begin with, obediently undertaking this task for their beloved shrinks and coming across a true/false item such as: “I frequently have black tarry stools,” or “Strange people follow me home.”
When I was only midway down the first column of questions, a hearty guffaw rang out somewhere behind me. A minute or so later, a woman in the front row cracked up. More laughter followed from my left and right. Being a slow reader, I hadn’t figured out what was triggering these reactions until I came upon one of the more ludicrous items and couldn’t keep from giggling. The laughter fed on itself throughout the two-hour test as each of us understood that the others also thought many of the questions were hilarious. By the end, many of the trainees were treating the whole exercise as a lark and making sotto-voce comments, which broke up those sitting nearby. (“Strange people follow me home . . . Do they want me to count my boyfriend?”)
The two shrinks proctoring in the front of the hall appeared increasingly uncomfortable. After collecting the answer sheets, they were challenged more directly. One outspoken male test subject stood up and inquired pointedly, “What do you expect to learn from this test?” Thea tried to explain the purpose and a little of the methodology, but her explanation was greeted skeptically. Her interrogator asserted, “These questions won’t reveal a true psychological profile. About every fifth item is transparently checking paranoia, but test takers can easily see this and provide the non-paranoid response.” Thea’s reply that paranoiacs would assume the paranoid response to be normal did not carry any weight. “They may be paranoid,” declared the questioner, “but they’re not necessarily stupid.”
A small group of trainees crowded around the shrinks to register their skepticism and extend the discussion while the rest of us drifted outside and attempted smart-ass remarks about “black tarry stools” and other incongruous nuggets from our shared test experience. The thrust of the trainees’ unscientific criticism of the MMPI was that the instrument was invalid; it could not possibly give meaningful insights to our or anyone’s psychological stability.
Ironically, the federal government is now forbidden by law from forcing any employee (presumably Peace Corps Volunteers included) to take the MMPI, but the prohibition is not on the grounds that the test can’t measure psychosis. This kind of testing was successfully challenged on the grounds that asking people to answer true/false items such as “God frequently talks to me and tells me what to do” intrudes on an employee’s right to privacy.
All of us in this training group were going to be English Teachers when we got to Iran, and being highly motivated, we immersed ourselves enthusiastically in our studies. We were well educated and academically accomplished, but few of us had any teaching experience. The Peace Corps classified us as “BAGs” (BA generalists) and felt that we could be made into effective teachers after participation in the twelve-week technical studies component of our training. The principal weakness of this condensed teacher preparation program was the lack of practice teaching, especially in some approximation of the difficult language, cross-cultural and school conditions we expected to find in Iran.
The University of Texas decided to remedy the problem by sending us all to Mexico City for two weeks. The education office of the Federal District in Mexico agreed to assign each of us to a junior high school English teacher for this period. After a couple of days observing classes, the Mexican teacher was to watch and critique us as we taught his or her full schedule. It was an imaginative plan, but it involved some tricky political issues. Most notably, Mexico considered itself at a higher level of development than the countries where the United States was sending Peace Corps Volunteers. Unlike Honduras, Peru or Chile, Mexico had not asked for Peace Corps help and was sensitive to any implication that it should have. Our staff warned us repeatedly not to mention the words “Peace Corps” while we were in Mexico. If asked, we were to conceal our true status by saying to government officials and everyone else that we were “graduate students in education at the University of Texas.” The teacher training coordinator implied that any break in the charade could jeopardize the whole operation.
To get to the border at Nuevo Laredo, we traveled in two buses, and after a four-hour wait for the completion of customs formalities (which would have been a lot shorter if we had been culturally sensitive enough to provide a small bribe, or “mordida”), we entered Mexico. For many of us, it was the first time outside the United States. We experienced the excitement of foreign travel and the fascination of interacting in a new culture, but for us, it was the “wrong” country. 200 hours of language lessons and I couldn’t even say Buenos dias!Two months of lectures on the Achaemenid Empire and ancient Persian archeological sites and I knew nothing about Aztecs and the Temple of the Sun. However important the student teaching was going to be for us, the cultural context of Mexico was something of a distraction.
The buses let us off at the dated but still elegant Hotel Regis in the center of Mexico City, convenient since we would scatter every morning to schools in all areas of the sprawling metropolis. Summoned to the ballroom, we were welcomed by various Mexican education officials. Sra. Lopez, the energetic woman in charge of language education for the Federal District, got us quite excited about our upcoming assignments. During a break, she asked for volunteers who had political science, United States history or economics majors, and who perhaps had some debate experience, to meet with her at the side table. Several of us from the Jim Wright seminar responded.
“What do you know about U.S. foreign policy?” she wanted to know. “Can you hold your own in a discussion about the merits of Socialism and Capitalism?”
After listening to our answers and asking a few more probing questions, she chose four of us and briefed us on our assignment. Her colleague, Sr. Figueroa, the principal of Escuela Secundaria 22 in Ixtapalapa, a working-class district near the National University, was a Communist. A cheerful intellectual sort with a U.S. university education, he loved to talk about politics; in fact, one of the reasons he had asked to have some of the norteamericano teacher trainees sent to his school was to have fresh verbal sparring partners. Sra. Lopez wanted to be sure she sent Sr. Figueroa worthy adversaries, and apparently she felt that whomever she sent would need more than 80 hours of “whack-ass” lectures to be able to defend themselves. (Maybe Senator Goldwater didn’t go far enough; perhaps the Peace Corps should consist only of political scientists, economists and American Studies majors).
On Sunday, I went through a dry run of my commute out to Ixtapalapa. Monday morning, I passed my first cross-cultural test by negotiating public transportation by bus, tram and taxi and showing up at Secondary School #22 on time. In the office, I met Sr. Figueroa, a fiftyish man with salt-and-pepper gray hair, a thin mustache and a slight paunch. At first sight, he walked over to me and said, “You must be one of the North American Peace Corps Volunteers.” After welcoming me to Mexico and his school, we went into his office, and he wanted to know what the Peace Corps was like. So much for our diplomatic charade! It was hard to answer him because I was still trying to qualify to be in the Peace Corps, and I thought I wasn’t supposed to talk about it. Then Figueroa asked me what Iran was like. I told him what we had studied in books and said that I would send him a postcard from Iran when I found out how accurate our information was. He seemed pleased at this answer. At the first break, he took me to meet Sr. Diaz, my critic teacher. After a brief greeting, Sr. Diaz said, “Tell me about the Peace Corps.”
Sr. Figueroa was most gracious to all four of us who were assigned to his school. The critic teachers were helpful and glad to have a break in their routine. Students too were excited to interact with the North American student teachers as very few foreigners ever wandered into Ixtapalapa. Warren George and I worked mornings in the double-shift schedule at Secondary School #22, and our students went home by 12:15pm. After that, I usually went back downtown to the Regis Hotel to prepare the next day’s lesson.
Are you feeling that?
However, one day toward the end of our two weeks, Sr. Figueroa offered to drive Warren and me downtown after class and invited us to accompany him for lunch at a Spanish restaurant. A survivor from the 1890s, the restaurant’s decor included black and white mosaic tile edged with well-worn marble on the floor, a high ceiling with slowly rotating wooden-bladed fans, scuffed, dark-stained wooden booths, and an enormous mirrored mahogany bar flanked with antique steel wire stools. Many of the colorful, proletariat-type men in cowboy boots lined up at the bar were regulars, and some appeared at least as antique as the furniture. Figueroa, obviously a regular himself, was greeted warmly from all sides when he walked in. In fact, he referred to this place as his “club.”
Figueroa indicated a booth by the window. Warren and I sat on one bench while our host slid onto the bench opposite us. We had some delicious soup and a variety of tapas to go with a lively discussion venturing into the political areas Figueroa favored. However, toward the end of lunch, our conversation gradually shifted to questions and observations about cultural differences. Listening with interest to his comments, even though for us we were talking about the “wrong” country, we were startled when Figueroa interrupted himself and asked, “Have you had a chance to try tequila since you have been here?”
Warren said apologetically, “No, we have been pretty busy with our preparations and classes.”
“It is very important that you taste tequila before you leave. Let me get some for you.”
After Sr. Figueroa signaled his friend at the bar, a bottle of tequila, a set of small glasses, a dish full of mini limes and a saucer of salt appeared. As recent successful college students, we understood the general principles of drinking alcoholic beverages, but Figueroa felt that the ritual of tequila was as important as the taste. We worked on getting the rhythm of the salt, the mini lime, and the small glass. The tequila tasted good, and learning the cultural ritual was fun. After a couple of rounds, Warren and I got the procedure down.
Suddenly our host exclaimed, “You have now tasted clear tequila. You must also try amber tequila. It is Mexico’s best!”
He ordered another bottle, and we poured the honey-colored liquid into our little glasses. Again, the salt, the lime, and the cactus-flavored tequila slid over our taste buds and encouraged a warm feeling in us toward all things Mexican. I would have stopped at that point, but Figueroa insisted on filling our glasses one more time. Warren and I downed the drink, and right away, I felt dizzy and a little queasy. I glanced at Warren, and he looked bilious.
“Are you feeling that last glass?” I asked Warren.
He nodded his head and started to say something, but Figueroa interrupted.
“Oh, Senores, do not worry. It is not the tequila. We are just having an earthquake!”
I looked at the ceiling, and the forged iron chandeliers were swaying in a wide arc. The little dish with the salt slid across the wooden table top and then back. Over at the bar, glasses were clinking on the shelves, but none of the men moved or put down their drink. We felt like we were on a boat as it rocked in the ocean swells. Although the swaying went on for at least a minute, Figueroa assured both of us, who were from seismically stable parts of the United States, that we would be OK. When the rocking stopped, Warren and I seemed to be the only ones in the restaurant who had been affected. Conversations around us continued nonchalantly. No one at the bar had even looked up, quakes of this type on the filled-in lake that is Mexico City being so frequent that the denizens of Figueroa’s “club” barely noticed.
When we left the restaurant, we saw signs that this temblor was a bit fiercer than usual. A huge neon-lit advertising sign had been shaken from the top of a twelve-story building across the park from the Palacio de Bellas Artes and had crashed onto the street, blocking traffic. Across from the Hotel Regis, there were two eight-story buildings. After the quake, the tops of these buildings had moved apart, creating a space between their previously adjacent walls that now looked like a narrow “V.” The quake made the evening news in the States, and it was a couple of days before the families of the Volunteers could get calls through the jammed phone lines to check on our welfare. After the excitement of that afternoon died down, we still had to finish up our practice teaching and couldn’t really begin to process the whole experience until the long bus trip back to Austin.
The tall Texan in black
Because of Senor Figueroa’s Mexican culture lessons, I had purchased one bottle of clear tequila and one of amber to take home as souvenirs. A number of other trainees also brought back a fifth or two of distilled spirits because prices were very inexpensive in Mexico, and we had discovered before the Mexican adventure that Texas (at that time) did not allow the sale of liquor by the drink. Cocktail lounges and bars sold “set-ups” (ice, mixers, glasses and nachos) but expected the patrons to bring in a bottle purchased at a package store. Peggy, one of the trainees, had acquired a number of 1 & 1/2 oz. bottles of scotch, Irish whiskey and other types of hard liquor while in Mexico City. Her father collected these miniature bottles and displayed them in a case on the wall of his den. Since Mexico imported various kinds of European whiskey not distributed in the States, Peggy had found a dozen or more bottles her father couldn’t get at home in Illinois.
The immigration and customs formalities at Laredo for our two busloads proceeded more quickly and efficiently than when we had transited southward into Mexico. However, the U.S. has its own peculiar procedures, which can be just as frustrating as any alien culture. I dutifully declared my two fifths of tequila, which were within the Federal tax-free import allowance for returning tourists. I was about to re-pack the bottles when the customs agent indicated that I had to go to the next table to talk to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Control officer. The tall man in the crisp black uniform and Smoky the Bear hat informed me that I had to buy two 44-cent Texas alcohol tax stamps. This state duty came as a surprise to me, but 88 cents for my souvenirs was within my means. I had started to walk back to the bus when I heard Peggy arguing loudly with the Texas liquor officer.
“These are legal in the United States. They are not even for consumption,” she protested. “They won’t remain in Texas. They’re a gift for my father in Illinois.”
“Ah’m sorry, ma’am,” the tall Texan drawled, “but in this state, bottles like these are considered drinks. and Ah’m going to have to confiscate them.”
Peggy fumed and sputtered, but her Irish-American indignation was unable to shake the resolve of the Texas officer. Several of her Peace Corps companions had drifted back to see what the fuss was about.
“What happens to the stuff you confiscate?” I interjected.
The officer gestured toward a battered 55-gallon barrel off to his right. He took one of the bottles, broke the seal, and unceremoniously poured its contents into the barrel. Peggy watched crestfallen as 12-year-old single-malt scotch became part of a mongrel alcoholic soup. While each precious bottle was drained, the assembled group of Peace Corps companions let out a theatrical groan. When the last one no longer contained the prohibited “drink,” Peggy asked the officer if she could at least keep the empty bottles.
“Of course, ma’am,” he replied in his maddeningly courteous Texas public-servant manner.
“If I had known what you were going to do, we could have enjoyed drinking this liquor on the bus coming up here!”
Peggy declared resentfully in a parting shot delivered while she was glumly gathering up the shells of her intended filial gift.
I walked over to get a peek inside the barrel. The fumes were powerfully pungent when I got close. A little more than half full, that barrel contained the damnedest cocktail I had ever seen.
The last shot
After the return from Mexico, we finished a summer-long series of 28 immunizations. We were more or less accepting of the pain, indignity and occasional side effects of this weekly ritual, since we wanted to be protected against flu, cholera, polio, typhoid, smallpox and other diseases. However, the last shot, gamma globulin (to provide some protection against hepatitis) was a doozy. Given posteriorly, with the volume based on the trainee’s weight, this injection caused considerable anguish to a majority of the recipients.
Following the visit to the nurse, we all went to a theater-style hall for Dr. Jazayery’s comparative linguistics lecture. Normally, there was great interest in his analysis of Farsi grammar because we had been deprived of any clues to the language’s structure for nine weeks. However, this day there was considerable restlessness in the audience. As Jazayery droned on, Mike, the star language student in the group, slowly stood up. As straight as the needles the nurses used, Mike was the least likely among us to foment a rebellion, but from a seat down in front, another trainee rose, then another and another. Unable to ignore the seemingly disrespectful behavior, Professor Jazayery stopped his lecture and confronted the apparent leader. For the first time that summer, Mike was at a loss for something to say. He finally stammered out that sitting was very uncomfortable for him at that moment. Dr. J. looked around, and recognizing the collective agony, gave leave for anyone in pain to stand. More than half did.
Selected out? or in?
Our original group of 80 shrank to 60 over the course of the summer. Some resigned because the training program revealed enough about the job and the country to give them second thoughts about their original decision to volunteer. One woman who left early told me that she was not sorry she had made the effort and felt that she had learned a lot about herself from just the training experience. Others were “de-selected,” (an awkward bureaucratic term meaning cut from the program), at either the mid-point or end of the twelve weeks. A few of the “de-selectees” may have sensed the ax falling and been somewhat prepared for the blow, but several were devastated by the judgment that they were not qualified. We had little chance to gauge their true feelings, as the staff informed the de-selectees of the decision after breakfast and had shipped them out of Austin by the time the rest of us got back from language classes.
Learning I had been selected to go to Iran gave me about the same feeling as receiving a good grade in a difficult college course. However, being selected didn’t give me confidence that I was adequately equipped for the assignment because success in the selection process often worked at cross-purposes to the objectives of training and preparation. For example, the trainees’ doubts and weaknesses, which could otherwise have been addressed during the program, were often concealed because of concern that complete honesty in these areas might jeopardize selection.
Despite my misgivings, I took some comfort from the presence on the staff of two returned Volunteers who had apparently been successful. I calmed my nervousness with the faith that, if these two had been able to succeed (and neither of them seemed like a super-hero), I could, too. Boarding the plane for Tehran, we training-program survivors faced the two-year teaching assignment and cultural immersion in Iran with many lingering doubts but also with an underlying feeling of anticipation and optimism.
Twenty-three years later, another earthquake struck Mexico City. Somewhat stronger than the one which had shaken up the American teachers on their way to Iran, this one was destructive enough so that even the regulars at Figueroa’s “club” were probably affected. Watching the news reports, I was forced to reflect on the caprice of fate when the TV camera showed rescue dogs sniffing at a pile of pancaked masonry, and the voice-over of the reporter indicated that more than forty guests and staff had been killed in the collapse of the Hotel Regis.
John Krauskopf served as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two year in Ahwaz, the provincial capital of the province of Khuzistan, part of the Mesopotamian Delta. He taught English in a boy’s high school, ran a language enrichment program, and organized English instruction for more than 400 teachers and staff of the provincial office of education. Later he worked as a Peace Corps Trainer for two Iran TEFL programs, in the U.S. and Iran.
In 2013 John published Iran – Stories from the Peace Corps