Confessions of a Renegade (Part 1)
A Peace Corps Volunteer in India in the l960s
Confessions of a Renegade: A Peace Corps Volunteer in India in the 1960s
Eddie J. Girdner
When John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States in the l960 election, he proposed that a program called the Peace Corps be established. Mostly young, and mostly university graduates would be asked to volunteer to work in countries around the world, which would cooperate in inviting volunteers. They would receive only a living allowance as compensation. The program could be seen to follow, in part, from the famous line from the President’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”
It all sounded so idealistic. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves. Kennedy and his bright young Harvard Educated boys were hard-nosed anti-communists and the President had in mind preventing the further spread of communism in a revolutionary age. Nations were waking up, coming out from under colonialism, to rule themselves. The Kennedy boys were for freedom, but of a certain kind. They wanted to decide what kind. It was clear that the Peace Corps was part of that agenda. For some, what they could do for their country was to go off and shoot communists. For others, they would not be expected to shoot communists, but nevertheless, they would be laboring in the same vinyards.
India was to be a rich ground for sending Peace Corps groups, and as a fascination country, it was an exciting opportunity for American youths who wanted to learn something about the world. Programs began to get underway in the early l960s in agricultural food production, high school teaching, so-called community development, poultry production and so on. Whatever Americans thought they needed to civilize them.
By the time I joined the Peace Corps in l968, this was the height of the war in Vietnam. There were more than half a million American military forces in Vietnam at the time, and the Vietcong had just managed to attack and capture the American Embassy in Saigon for a time during the Vietnamese New Year in January 1968. This became known as the Tet Offensive. America, while not ready to admit it, had already met its Waterloo in Vietnam, but young men were still being drafted and sent. It would be another three or four years of Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic table tennis with the North Vietnamese before there would be a serious winding down of the American war in Southeast Asia. Nixon would start dropping bombs in Cambodia down the Ho Chi Minh trail.
The Peace Corps provided an opportunity to escape from the military draft and going to Vietnam. When I graduated from the University of Missouri, the military was hot on my heels to draft me. My local draft board, in the small town of Princeton, Missouri, wanted to draft me at once into the military and chances were that I would have been sent to Vietnam. And probably killed. They had me in the sights of their gun. Not only were the Vietnamese under fire. I too was a target. They thought I ought to go and shoot some commies, like any good red-blooded American youth. But there was one thing that I was sure of. There was no way that I was going to go to Vietnam and kill Vietnamese or anybody. I didn’t have any enemies that far away. I wouldn’t mind to go and make friends with them. It would be lovely to sit down and have a beer with them, but I would have no part of killing them. If they wanted to be communists it didn’t bother me at all. Why should I care? From Every Mountain Side, Let freedom ring. Wasn’t that the line we sang in the old song, “America the Beautiful?” To me it meant the mountain sides in Vietnam too.
If I was a coward, it was for a good, moral cause.
Ah, the beauty of rural life. Or more accurately, the idiocy of rural life, as Karl Marx had it.
So I sent in my application off to the Peace Corps in Washington and was accepted for a program in India. It was not quite that simple, however. I had to get an exemption from the military draft to go into the Peace Corps. I would have to do some dancing to dodge the bullets of the Pentagon, and the local draft board, if I wanted to stay out of their clutches. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, especially from those bastards in the military and the local yokals in my home town who wanted to see me marching off. “Johnny get your gun, get your gun, get your gun. Get those commies on the run, on the run, on the run. This will be a lot of fun, lot of fun, lot of... and so on.” Bullshit.
This would take some bureaucratic wrangling, but in the end I succeeded in avoiding the draft and going to India.
My quest for freedom had to be approched in a three step process. First an appeal to the local draft board for an exemption. Princeton turned me down, flat. No surprise. No matter. Local small businessmen and farmers. Then an appeal to the great state of Missouri. They too turned me down. Of course they were hard-nosed bastards down there next to the state penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri. No matter. The final hope was to the man himself, the Presidential appeals board and Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was by now President. I would be saved by the great state of Texas. That took time and the answer was not to come until October when I was already in India, having signed an agreement that I would be shipped back and be drafted if the Presidental Board turned me down. They were keeping track of me. Just another warm body to be chewed up in the machine.
At the end of March, I proceeded to Hemet, California for two months of Peace Corps training. It was a migrant labor camp, the training program contracted out to a company called D and R Corporation. They taught us some things about India, life and culture, how to grow some vegetables, and some rudimentary Punjabi language. This was India 53, agricultural food production. Out of the candidates, some 23 of us were graduated and certified sane and fit enough by the Washington shrinks to go to India. We had to prove to them that we had no objection to killing commies, of course not, but we thought maybe it would be ok to make a little peace before going in for war. That would make us more sturdy patriots and some other such another nonsense to prove that our heads were in the right place. The disappointed others that didn’t measure up were sent back home.
We would be assigned to villages in Jalandhar and Kapurthala districts of Punjab. Eighteen of us would stay the full two years and at least one stayed longer.
While I was in Hemet, I was ordered to go with another volunteer up to Los Angeles for a military physical exam, just in case. An ancient bus, from maybe the 1940s, picked us up and dumped us in a rat-infested and rancid hotel in downtown LA. In the evening we were free to enjoy the city. Very early the morning we had to go down to the Armed Forces examining station for the physical examination. A large crowd of rather timid looking young guys had gathered in front of the doors. Sheep for the slaughter, it struck me. Poor guys. Some would not make it back from Vietnam. When the doors opened, an officer barked at us: “Move, you goddam motherfuckers! You are on your way to a new way of life!” Sure enough. I knew he was right, Fuck’n A, but I was hoping and praying that it was not what he had in mind for me.” I would stay a free man one way or another and not be bossed around like in a herd of cattle. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. I would see them in the rear view mirror.
We were still young and stupid enough to enjoy Disneyland in Anaheim, on a weekend diversion. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. One has to be versed in those central mouse and duck tenets of American culture, in spite of the corporate capitalist downsides.
The first week of June, we were given a week off to enjoy the beach in Santa Monica, chug a little beer, meditate, and watch the girls, and then we were off to Los Angeles International Airport for the trip to India. The flight was on the old Pan Am One, round the world flight, a big Boeing 707 going west. Those were the days when people put on ties to fly, before the airlines began to look more like Punjab Roadways. Los Angeles to Delhi, with stops in Honolulu, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok and finally Delhi. That took some thirty hours in those days. Each stop, where we were herded into the airport and then back to the plane, was just a little more exotic and exciting. And sometimes boring. We bought a lot of transister radios and cameras in Tokyo. I remember the hills and lights in Hong Kong, and the heat and smells. We had reached the real Asia. I, at least, wondered what the hell I was doing, off on a wild goose chase, but it was too late. We were flying on off the edge of the earth. And it would be a long time before we would be back. What the hell. What an adventure. I loved it. Some guys on the plane thought they could see bombs going off when we flew over Vietnam. I am not sure about that.
We then flew across India, in the clear June night, all those small villages dotting the countryside in dim lights in the early morning darkness. An awesome sight, and then we landed at Palam Airport at four in the morning. The airport was under construction, as it has been, I guess, for the last some fifty years. A very strange place for most of us who had never been outside the United States. Some Peace Corps officials and a couple of volunteers came out to meet us. It was hot, hot, in the coolest part of the day, just before the sun came up. The volunteers looked thin and run down to us. Thats the way we will look, after two years, we thought. We looked flush, beefy, and healthy to them, having just embarked from hamburger, french fry fast-food America.
The bus looked shabby and the road from Palam appeared dim and deserted in the early morning as if passing through a stretch of desert. The dry shrubs along the road, dust and rough surface. We bounced along to the city.
We were taken to the elegant International Center on Lodhi Road, where we were given a little orientation and some pocket change in rupees to spend in the city. After a good day’sleep, some us headed down to Connaught place in the evening. I remember it quite well. We met some Americans around Gaylords Restaurant who were living there but more interesting, some young Indians, who took us to old Delhi and to their home. Here was chaos. Here was heaven. Here was hell. It was most fascinting to us.
It was our first acquaintance with the old-fashioned Hindustan Ambassador taxis, Morris Minor automobiles. Great cars. The streets looked dim and dusty and hot. We moved through them as if in the Twilight Zone. Orientation would take some time, until Delhi would appear bright and sparkling and inviting after months up in a village in the Punjab.
On a Sunday, some of us caught a bus and headed down to old Delhi and walked around. The streets were terribly crowded and full of things to sell. Full of everything that we had not seen before. We were not used to such a cornucopia of chaos. Poignant strange smells. John Kenneth Galbriath, when the American Ambassador to India, called India a functioning anarchy. It seemed crazy at the time, but the hell of it is that Americans, and many Europeans, who stay around long enough come to love it and keep coming back. India gets into their blood. Perhaps the natural human love of anarchy. Or they have an old soul, reincarnated from a former Indian life.
But not all was bright, of course. Vast numbers of people, markets, street sellers, foods, chappels, drinks, and beggars, and everyone going on and doing their thing, as normal as could be, but very confusing to us at the time. Some things seemed truly wierd, and it would take some time to get used to the country. Our language training was not of much use at that stage, but better than nothing. Fortunately India was an English speaking country, as well as all the other languages. It was all a little overwhelming those first days. But we young and adaptable. I remember looking out from the lobby of the International Center at the constant stream of bicycles in each direction and white-clad riders. Galbriath thought that the greater number of bicycles was a measure of rising affluence in the l960s.
In the next week, we were taken by bus to Punjab, our first time in rural India. Along the GT Road, we stopped for lunch in Green’s Restaurant in a district town along the way in Harayana. I remember the streets just full of people, rickshaws, bullock carts pulled by lumbering oxen, tongas, vegetable and fruit sellers, peasants with beards and turbans, young students, all in motion. Heat, terrible burning heat, as most of us had never felt before. It was incredibly fascinating. It was wonderful but what the hell were we doing here? I still don’t know, but I think every young American should be sent straight to some village in India to learn something about the world outside America. It would be good for their minds and souls. To get their head screwed on straight. And it might keep them out of the military.
We proceeded on to the agricultural training center in Batala in Punjab. The Peace Corps officials had arranged a dinner on the lawn for the invited Block Development Officers (BDOs) and other officials from the development blocks where we would be stationed.
We found at once that first the food was great and delicious and secondly, that Punjabis had great appetites, enormous appetites, as most of the food was gone by the time we had a chance to get something to eat. We were given mungies to sleep on in a big room in a dormitory. It would be our home for another month of training at Batala. Mostly, lectures and language training, with some instruction in how fields were ploughed and rice was planted and so on. Planting rice was a back-breaking task.
Early the next day, we were given bicycles and told to ride out following the leader, for a tour of the area. It was a harsh initiation for me. I think there was one other guy in my shoes. We were in a world of shit because we had not learned how to ride a bicycle. I don’t know how many times I fell into the ditch that day, but I certainly suffered some bruises. I brought up the rear, along with my friend, but we got there. I learned it, but the hard way. Had no choice.
I am sorry to say that I have to blame the bicycle debacle partly on my dear mother. She would never let me have a bicycle and learn to ride it, as most children do, and so when I needed that skill later in life, I was up shit creek without a paddle. So I had to learn it the hard way. I guess she never thought of that.
I have to say that she made the mistake when it came to swimming. I didn’t learn to swim as a child and so had to learn to float on my back in a week when I joined the Navy. I didn’t really learn to swim until later, but it would have been much easier if I had learned as a child.
As a laggard along the bicycle route to industrial training centers, factories, and other points in the town, through the bullock carts, cars, trucks and so on, I sometimes fell to walking and so met up with groups of young students from local colleges. They started asking me questions about US foreign policy toward India and Pakistan, asking why the US supported Pakistan with so much military assistance and so on, and not India. At the time, I was very much unaware of all these things they were discussing and could not explain why. I simply didn’t even know about these policies, but my inclination in those days was to doubt what they said until I knew more about the situation. Later, I discovered that what they said was largely true. They were starting to educate me about my own country.
The training at Batala lasted a month and then the BDOs came from the development blocks where we were to be posted and there was a final program on the last day. I was to be posted in Banga Block of Jalandhar District.
While we were at Batala one of our volunteers, an older guy around thirty, fell in love with one of the young language instructors from Delhi. Russ was a rather strange guy who had already spent long years in the US military, the Army and Marine Corps. He had travelled more than most of us, but not immune from affairs of the heart. His love affair with Rani was doomed from the start and could never work out, although he did his best to court her. Poor guy. I don’t know if she had any interest in him, but when she left for Delhi at the end of the training, Russ was broken hearted and he did not stay in India long after that. He was one of the earliest to return to America just after a couple of months.
The next day, the group split up, and I made my way to Banga with the BDO of Banga Block. We had to shift buses at Jalandhar along the GT road. While we were waiting for the bus, some guys came running down the side of the road carrying a mungie with a guy on it. The person they were carrying had just died in the tremendous heat and they were saying “kuttem, hoigaa.” He is finished. They set the body down not far from us. That sad scene made an impression on me.
We came on to Banga arriving a little after noon. We walked to the BDOs house in Banga which was just on the edge of the town near some green fields and had lunch. The courtyard of the house was pleasant although there is no escape from the heat in Punjab in June. The meal was rice and dal and vegetables which was quite delicious. His small daughter of about three years old was playing around and I made some pictures of her to give to the BDO later. In those days, not many people had cameras and everybody always wanted their pictures made and asked for copies. After lunch, the BDO asked me to take rest during the hottest part of the day.
Later in the day, Mr. Sharma, took me to the Block Development Office to meet some members of the agricultural staff. They were friendly young guys and we would become friends and travel around to the local villages. They taught me what was going on with the peasants in the villages. The main constraint, of course, was a lack of resources, but Punjab was dynanic and moving forward in agriculture. They mostly knew what to do, but needed capital and resources which the Government could not provide.
That night, we slept on the roof. This was my first experience of sleeping on a roof in Punjab, but I found it to be very pleasant sleeping under the stars and feeling the cool night air. The sky was so clear and the stars so bright that one seemed to be peering into the infinite. It is an experience that one does not have in the West. Sleep comes and is pleasant.
During the night, a rain came up, as the monsoon had started. We had to get up and carry our mungies downstairs in the veranda.
Mr. Sharma rose very early in the morning, just after daylight, and took me to the fields. There was already a constant stream of people coming from the surrounding houses for their nature call. Not being accustomed to an Indian life style, it was impossible to quickly train my bowells to move in the early morning. I remember going to the fields but with a quite disappointing result. Later in the day, it was more difficult as there was practically no cover in the fields, except for hiding in the patches of sugar cane. This did not present a very bright prospect for me, at the time, but I would do what I had to do. It was a new way of life. And I would not be killing any commies.
I had arrived and it was truly another dimension. We were cut off with only the mail for any communication with the outside world. Telephones were primitive and out of the question, except from a hotel in the city. When the skies clouded, lovely cool drops of rain came down, as a refreshing gift from the Gods. And all the scents, the wonderful scents of India, came alive to fill the air.
As E.M. Forrester wrote: “The sky settles everything.”
(End of Part One)
September 12, 2012