I got back to Tampa Bay last night after a memorable three-day weekend in Washington, DC. I’ve always been an ever onward and upward kind of guy with little inclination to celebrate or commemorate things in my past. So I wasn’t really sure I wanted to head to Washington for the Peace Corps’ 50th birthday party, but I’m sure glad I overcame my reluctance. It was a wonderful, emotionally powerful weekend. Some impressions:
- It seemed kind of surreal examining faces at the reception at the Ethiopian Embassy Friday night and at lunch on Saturday, trying to place guys and gals I’d trained with in my Ethiopia III Peace Corps group a little over 47 years ago at UCLA. Except for five or six friends from my “Ethi III” group whom I’d stayed in touch with since returning to the States in 1967, the pictures in my mind were of the 21-22 year olds I’d trained with. What a relief to be able to place everyone without much scrutiny and to find that the years hadn’t taken such a drastic toll. As my former Peace Corps house-mate in Ethiopia, Randy Sword, observed in a recent email, “Today’s 69 is what 49 was not too many years ago.” I like the way that sounds!
- Sitting with a couple of thousand Returned Peace Corps Volunteers in the amphitheater at Arlington Cemetery Sunday morning for a commemorative program, I could feel the strong ties that continue to bind us together, even – in the case of us Ethi IIIs – nearly 50 years after training at UCLA. This was no cynical government bashing group sitting together last Sunday at the amphitheater at Arlington. President Kennedy’s clarion call to serve America by devoting time and talent to helping the less fortunate around the globe seemed as fresh and compelling on Sunday as it did back in 1961 when he created the Peace Corps. But it wasn’t just the idea of service that bound – and binds – us; it’s also the exhilarating spirit of adventure. Many PCVs in my Ethi III group, including me, flew in an airplane for the first time when we set out for UCLA that summer of 1964, and the great majority of us hadn’t traveled beyond the borders of North America. Imagine: just three months after arriving at UCLA, there we were, living and teaching in the exotic and ancient kingdom of Ethiopia some 8,000 miles away. What an adventure for someone just out of college!
- After the program at Arlington, we brought the memorable weekend to a dramatic close by marching en masse across the Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial, following our respective countries’ flags. Walking over the bridge with my Ethi III friends, I thought back to November 1963, when I was standing with friends not far from the bridge watching President Kennedy’s funeral cortege moving slowly to Arlington Cemetery. We’d driven all night from the University of Illinois to be there. One of my vivid memories of that day was seeing Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, King of Kings, the Lion of Judah – probably not much taller than 5’5” – walking beside France’s President de Gaulle, who must have been at least 6’4.” Little did I know that less than a year later I’d be standing by the gates of Jubilee Palace in Addis Ababa, watching the Emperor leave the palace in his Rolls.
Photos by Gretel Von Pischke