Eight hours later, I landed in San Diego – blue skies and temperatures in the 70s.
Sitting on a bench in the Greyhound bus station waiting for the rest of Thai 27 to show up, I watched a parade of young Navy recruits and grim-faced Marines dragging duffel bags through the noisy crowd. Nobody was smiling. The PA system announced busses to Camp Pendleton and the Naval Air Station. The poor bastards were probably headed for Vietnam. I didn’t have to report for another two years – as long as I didn’t screw up.
I boarded a bus myself later that afternoon with 73 other trainees and headed up the hills to Escondido for three days of orientation. Roger, our Training Director, called us together in the mess hall that evening. “There's no swearing-in at this stage,” he announced. “You're not Peace Corps Volunteers until you’ve successfully completed your training.”
I found out I could be summarily terminated for any number of reasons. Thailand had health risks and exotic diseases not found in developed countries, so I had to pass multiple physicals. Thai culture was radically different from Western culture, so I also had to pass a series of psychological tests designed to weed out trainees prone to problems. A shrink would visit us during training, test us, and forward his recommendations to Peace Corps D.C. If he thought we would crack, we would be invited to leave the program.
“Some of you have played tourist in Europe, or spent a few weeks south of the border,” Roger warned. ”Feeling comfortable in Europe or Canada or Mexico is no big deal, and no indication that you can live and work successfully in Asia.”
Last but not least, we had to master a devilishly difficult language, and would be terminated for failing to reach a functional level of proficiency.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to give you a demonstration of what I mean,” he said, and invited Khun Wanida to step forward. Wanida, petite and willowy, flashed a mischievous, girlish smile that radiated what Thais call sanuk, fun. She was Roger's girlfriend. Spoken Thai matched Chinese in complexity, Wanida explained. Like Chinese, Thai was tonal. Change the tone of your voice, and you changed the meaning of the word.
“Listen very carefully,” she cautioned us. “I’m going to say four different words in Thai. Are you ready?” We dutifully nodded our heads.
“Cow, cow, cow, cow.”
They all sounded exactly the same to me. I looked at the guy next to me. He was equally bewildered.
“Listen again,” Wanida commanded. The whole room leaned forward together, ears cocked.
“Cow, cow, cow, cow."The second time around, I caught the sing-song. It was like when I told Joe at the gas station I was going to Thailand and he said, “Really?” and I replied “Really!”
Cow said in a falling tone meant “rice,” Wanida explained. The same cow spoken in a rising tone meant the color “white.” Cow spoken in a low tone meant “news or information.” The fourth cow, uttered in a quick falling tone, meant “to enter a room.” The Thai language also had a high tone and a mid tone, Wanida explained, but cows didn’t come in all five tones.
“Don't worry,” she giggled. “Thai is fun to learn and you are all chalaat – smart. I am sure you will all soon be speaking Thai very well.”
“Khun Wanida is right," repeated Roger.” There’s nothing to be afraid of. We have excellent language instructors, and you’ll be getting plenty of practice.” He gathered up his notes. “Welcome to the Peace Corps."
On the final day of orientation, Roger summoned me to his makeshift office, sending me into a near panic. Could Peace Corps terminate someone after just three days? I laughed at their jokes, I cleaned my plate, I sang Kumbaya. He shut the door and I sat nervously on the edge of my chair, wondering what I had done wrong.
“Teachers in Thailand are extremely well respected, Michael.” Roger explained. “They dress conservatively, in white shirts and dark ties, and....” he pointed to my chin “… they don’t wear beards. You can keep your moustache, but you’ll have to shave off your beard if you want to go to Thailand. Of course, it’s your decision.”
Of course. I cut it.
On February 15, 1969, seventy-three of us flew off to Hawaii, leaving behind one unlucky girl caught by the full field check the FBI ran on all Peace Corps applicants. She had a history of marijuana possession. The feds got one but missed a dozen other potheads in our group.
In a driving rain, we chugged through the growing darkness up to Pepeekeo, a little sugar plantation town outside Hilo, then down a narrow, dirt road bordered by high, green sugar cane before rolling to a stop in front of an L-shaped block of one-story, wooden buildings surrounding a sodden playing field.
“Where’s the bellboy?” a voice said. Everyone laughed, including the staff.
Our home for the next three months was an abandoned school that had served as an army barracks in World War II. Deep wooden porches, protected from the rain by overhanging roofs, ran across the front of each building. We grabbed our bags and sprinted through the downpour into the barracks. Naked light bulbs hung down from high ceilings over a large, open wooden-floored room filled with rows of iron beds. Wires strung between walls served as clothes closets. Boys in one dorm, girls in the other, we settled into our new home. The shower that evening was freezing cold. Training didn’t come with hot water.
“Welcome to the Peace Corps!” muttered a grouchy voice from the next stall.
The next day we lined up for a TB test and seemingly every shot known to medicine – small pox, yellow fever, typhoid, cholera, gamma globulin, rabies – a painful reminder that we were headed for a Third World country.
America had changed radically in the eight years since John Kennedy launched the Corps. Twenty-six PCV groups had preceded us to Thailand. Thai 1 – which fanned out through the kingdom in 1962 to teach and work – were the children of Eisenhower, Ozzie and Harriet and Happy Days. We were the children of Martin Luther King, gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis; of Bobby Kennedy, lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen pantry floor of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles; of Medgar Evers and Selma and race riots in Watts and Detroit and Newark; of napalm and body bags on the evening news. We didn’t trust anyone over thirty, we questioned authority.
Thai 28, another Volunteer group, shared the Big Island with us, prepping for assignments as agricultural advisers.
“They’re raising three pigs,” I wrote home, “which they’ve named ‘Fascist’, ‘Spiro’ and ‘Hershey’.”
I knew mom would get a kick out of that. General Hershey ran the hated draft and Vice-President Spiro Agnew baited anti-war protestors – “impudent snobs” he called them – with clever invective written by professional speechwriters to energize Nixon’s Babbitt voter base. “I would swap the whole damn zoo of yippies, hippies, yahoos and Black Panthers for the kind of young Americans I saw in Vietnam,” he declared. Fuck you, we replied. The Peace Corps was the creation of a Democratic president, and Republicans remained suspicious.
Spiro’s boss Nixon viewed the Peace Corps as a form of draft evasion, which it was for some of us; Eisenhower called it a “juvenile experiment”; the Daughters of the American Revolution objected to the deployment of America’s "brains and brawn...for the benefit of backward, underdeveloped countries."
Five and a half days a week, for three months, we stumbled out of bed at 5:00 AM, endured an hour of Thai language training before breakfast, then returned to the classroom for four more hours of Thai drills and two hours of TEFL training – teaching English as a foreign language – with lunch sandwiched in between. From 4:30 to 6:00 we played football or basketball, usually in the rain. After supper, we endured an hour of cultural studies to prepare us for culture shock. The school day didn’t end until 8:00 PM. which left us two hours to do laundry, write letters home, or play cards or music before lights out. Our free time was limited to Saturday afternoon and Sunday.
I felt right at home. It was a cross between my old boarding school and seminary.
The monotony of the language training was matched by the monotony of the rain. The spring we spent in Pepeekeo was the rainiest in 20 years. It poured nearly every day for three straight months. Our beds were perpetually damp and clammy; I felt like I was sleeping in a tuna fish sandwich. Mildew began to appear on leather shoes, which everyone abandoned for rubber zori. The rain drummed on the corrugated metal roof so hard you had to shout in class to be heard above the din.
Shortly before training finished, the staff finally realized the rain was driving us crazy. They surprised us with a whole Saturday off and encouraged us to head for Hapuna Beach on the sunny side of the Big Island. How we got there was up to us.
“We’ll hitchhike,” I told Kathy and Hugh.
Hugh Leong was a cheerful, cocky, Chinese-American from New York City who had never ventured outside Manhattan. I knew his old neighborhood, Canal Street, from my NYU film summer and we struck up a friendship. He had a great operatic voice but wanted to be a rock singer.
“Jeez, Hugh! Stop enunciating your words,” I scolded him one evening as we goofed around with the guitar. “We’re singing the Stones, not Man of La Mancha.”
“Hey, I’m from New York, OK? Ever hear of Broadway? Frank Sinatra?”
Kathy Fukao was sansei, third-generation Japanese-American, an island girl born and raised in Hawaii. She earned her B.A. in anthropology from the University of Hawaii and already spoke some Thai.
We tossed swim suits into a knapsack, hiked up the road to Queen Ka’ahumanu highway, planted our sign – “Peace Corps. Hapuna Beach?” – and stuck out our thumbs. Pretty soon a pickup truck passed by, reversed, and we climbed into the bed, rain dripping from our ponchos. It took us three rides to make the 60 mile trip.
Just outside Waimea we picked up our final ride. Rabbit, the driver of the van, was a thirtyish hippy with a tie-dye shirt, faded jeans, a scraggly, grey beard and an unusually cheerful disposition for someone who expected the world to end soon.
“Did you know the Big One is gonna hit California in April? Earthquake’s gonna destroy San Francisco and Los Angeles and half the state is gonna fall into the sea,” he said with a grin.
We admitted we hadn't heard about the impending catastrophe.
“Man, it's gonna create a huge tidal wave. And when it reaches Hawaii, it's going to wipe out everything. Won't be nothing left." That was bad news, we all agreed. "That's why we left California," he grinned. He and a commune of twenty other refugees from California had relocated to the Big Island, awaiting the Big One. We looked at each other, puzzled.
“If the tidal wave is going to destroy Hawaii, why did you come here?” I asked Rabbit.
“Because Mauna Kea is 14,000 feet high, man. Safest place in the world. We already got a little camp up there on the mountain. Flood can't reach us up there. And when the tidal wave's gone, we're gonna come back down and live on the beach. We'll have the whole island to ourselves. Grow some dope, live with Mother Nature, no government, no police, no hassles. Gonna be great,” he gushed. “How about you, brother? Where are you gonna be when the Big One hits?”
We told him we were on our way to Thailand.“Far fuckin' out, man,” Rabbit replied. “Got some great ganja there! Send me some when you get there. But make sure you're up in the hills when the Big One hits. Gonna wipe out Japan too.”
He braked his van at the Hapuna Beach Park entrance and we hopped out. “Peace, bro!” he said.
We thanked him for the ride and promised to keep an eye out for the tidal wave. The clouds were gone and a blindingly bright sun filled a cloudless blue sky. We stripped off our rain gear and stood immobile, like flowers in sunshine, for a long moment, our upturned faces soaking in the warm rays, before whipping out our sunglasses.
Kathy insisted we splurge on the classic American buffet brunch at the nearby, ritzy Mauna Kea Beach hotel, built by Lawrence Rockefeller, before hitting the beach. “We’re going to be eating rice and noodles for two years,” she reminded us. So we gorged ourselves before waddling down to Hapuna Beach where I worked on my tan too long and ended up with the worst sunburn of my life. When I got back to Pepeekeo that night, I had to sleep sitting upright in a chair.
Two weeks later, we all swore our Peace Corps oath in Honolulu.
We didn’t promise to defend the Nixon administration or the Vietnam war. Wearing yellow plumeria leis, we raised our right hand and promised to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, which enshrined the right to free speech and non-violent protest; and to faithfully discharge our duties in the Peace Corps by working with the people of Thailand as partners and friends in peace. I was proud to take it.
Most of us had survived. Six trainees had voluntarily quit; four others were invited by the Peace Corps shrink to “deselect” themselves. Hugh, Kathy and I celebrated at a little pizza parlor near the University of Hawaii. They both knew my draft status.
“We made it,” Hugh said, raising his beer stein in a toast. He pointed a wedge of pizza at me, “And you get two years before Uncle Sam gets you,” he laughed.
“It’s more than that,” I told them. “I get to do something good for the world instead of blowing it up.”
“To the nak rian of Thailand!” cried Kathy.
We clinked our glasses to the lucky students we were heading to Thailand to help.
(Out of time...More to come)