MOROCCO X: PEACE CORPS TRAINING IN HEMET CALIFORNIA
Reed Erskine, author and photographer.
In the summer of 1967, gas was 33 cents a gallon. The average annual income was $7,300. A war was raging in Vietnam, its American death toll having mushroomed, for the first time that year, to nearly 1000 American lives a month. Race riots had broken out in Detroit, Newark, Tampa, Buffalo, and Memphis. I was negotiating, in my 20th year of life, the uncertain territory between being a boy and becoming a man.
Fellow baby boomers, including one of my college roommates, had flocked to San Francisco for the first and last “Summer of Love”; meanwhile I was working a summer job at Montreal’s Expo ’67, bussing tables at the India Pavilion restaurant.
At the end of my sophomore year in college, I had applied to the Peace Corps, stirred by the adventurous idealism of a national service founded only six years before, by a president who had captured our imaginations with the possibility of being, in some small way, an agent of peace and understanding.
I had nearly forgotten my Peace Corps application until I got back from Montreal, and heard that the government had been asking friends and neighbors for character references on my behalf. It took a moment to realize that my Peace Corps application was being digested in the bowels of officialdom.
A letter arrived, proposing Peace Corps service in Micronesia. Head filled with images of palm-fringed islands in the sun, I called in to accept, only to be told that the program had been filled. The next program offered a post in Andhra Pradesh, India, but that fell through as well. As I was beginning to reconsider the entire project, I was assigned to Morocco X, an agricultural program.
Looking back over the five decades gone by since that mid-October day in 1967, when our cohort of 43 men and boys came together in Hemet, California, for three months of training, I had come to think that memories of that brief time had been all but lost beneath the accretion of intervening years.
When I discovered David Brooks’, “The Morocco That Was” blog, I was moved to revisit my own Morocco X experience, and, in rummaging through my meager memorabilia , discovered a cache of correspondence and journal entries that offered a few vignettes of our time in Hemet. I am setting down this account in the hope that those who were part of our shared experience might add their own memories to this blog, and help fill the remaining gaps in my recollections.
Morocco X was conceived as an ambitious agricultural project, intended to aid and expedite a U.S.A.I.D. Program to introduce a new and improved strain of wheat, known generally as “Mexican Wheat” to Moroccan farmers.
We volunteers were to be stationed at the numerous centres de travaux, small agricultural extension offices scattered across rural Morocco. Often sited in remote locations, the “C.T” were staffed by extension agents who dispensed aid and information to small family farms. The agents distributed seed stock, introduced modern techniques, pesticides, fertilizers, and provided access to modern, labor-saving machinery, such as tractors, plows and combines to farm communities, who were still relying on methods little changed since the Middle Ages.
Our mission, as volunteers, would be to coordinate with our USAID and Moroccan counterparts to get the new Mexican Wheat to our centres, set up demonstration plots, and introduce an agricultural revolution that could dramatically increase yields by eliminating two devastating problems facing wheat growers.
Wheat “rust”, a parasitic fungal infection on the stem and leaves of the plant, weakens its host, reducing quality and yield. As if the threat of “rust” was not enough, “lodging”, the tendency of the ripe wheat to fall over before harvest, leaving large swaths of wheat fields flattened to the ground, could also jeopardize the success of an otherwise abundant crop.
An Iowa farmer and plant pathologist, Norman Borlaug, had begun, in 1944, to find a solution to wheat rust infestation. For the next decade, he and his colleagues cross bred thousands of wheat strains from around the world to create a rust-resistant wheat. The resulting hybrid was still vulnerable to toppling under the weight of its ripe heads, until Borlaug crossed it again with a Japanese dwarf strain to create a short-stemmed, semi-dwarf wheat, resistant to both lodging and rust.
Borlaug’s genius and dedication won him a Nobel prize in 1970, and should have provided Morocco X with a seminal role in the great endeavor of thwarting the dire Malthusian prediction of mass starvation, as population growth outstripped agricultural output. This heady prospect, that might have cast us as servants to the survival of the human race, was, like so many hopes and dreams, on a collision course with the ultimate reality of our mission in Morocco.
PEOPLE & PLACE:
On a warm mid-October afternoon in 1967, 43 prospective volunteers for the tenth Morocco Peace Corps program, having passed initial application and vetting processes, arrived in Hemet, California. Most of us came from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the Lower 48, with a few from the Midwest, and at least one, that I can think of, from the South. We ranged in age from 19 to 38. An overwhelming majority came armed with undergraduate degrees, a few having pursued or obtained post-graduate degrees. One or two of us had less than four years of college. No one had, as far as I could tell, any agricultural background. Without exception we were white Caucasians which, in 1967, was not surprising.
Hemet was, in those days, a nondescript sprawl of a town, set in a semi-desert valley just beginning its evolution from a patchwork of irrigated alfalfa fields and orchards, into America’s first planned retirement community, which offered mobile home sites in a subdivision zoned for residents over the age of 55.
Sierra Dawn Estates, promoted by Art Linkletter, had preceded our arrival in Hemet by only a few years. Its wide, straight streets, bordered by tidy, double wide mobile homes, fronted by startlingly green Sta-Rock “lawns”, had just begun to transform the “Grapes of Wrath” desolation of Hemet into a working-class, suburban Valhalla.
Hemet’s role in the American dream went unnoticed by us new arrivals. We were billeted at a desolate migrant labor camp in an abandoned pecan grove on the ragged edge of town. We remained largely unaware of the Hemet or its inhabitants, whose population would not exceed 10,000 souls until the 1970 census.
Our initial concern was adjusting to our spartan accommodations, a one-story line of dormitory rooms on a concrete slab, separated by a dirt courtyard from an identical set of rooms, which served as classrooms and mess hall. Both residential and classroom wings were bridged at one end by a shared bath facility. We were four to room, in each corner of which we found a steel frame cot and thin mattress. A door and two windows completed the decor.
Our other concern was the punishing curriculum, 28 hours a week of immersion language classes, 15 hours a week of basic agronomy, and 12 ½ hours a week of something called “Area Studies”, which consisted of instruction in the essential aspects of Moroccan customs and etiquette. Beyond the classroom, there were field trips to olive groves, date plantations, and the irrigated, industrial-scale agriculture sites of the Imperial Valley.
Behind our barracks were a few acres of open field, where we were assigned individual irrigated plots to plant and cultivate. Our education included instruction in the production of adobe bricks, and rammed earth wall construction. Our six-day weeks, with morning, afternoon and evening classes, made for a grueling schedule, but we were left to our own devices on Sundays and holidays, which included, in our case, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the arrival of the New Year.
The days got shorter. Our struggles with an incomprehensible language, trying to find warmth enough for slumber under thin blankets through bone-chilling nights, as roommates snored and mumbled in their dreams, plus the seemingly random attrition of our numbers, all conspired to sap morale. We were becoming a brotherhood of shared hardship, but our camaraderie was, by necessity, tentative, as we were soon to be dispersed either by dreaded “de-selection” from the program, or when we were to be dispatched to solitary assignments across rural Morocco.
A palpable sense of shock went through our ranks when one of us was drafted out of training. While education was an acceptable grounds for draft deferment, Peace Corps deferments were up to individual draft boards, who didn’t always view trainee status as entitled to deferment. A few trainees left the program early for personal reasons, and a case of pneumonia sent at least one trainee home for medical reasons. By the end of training, our original 43 trainees had become a contingent of 30 volunteers, who, having endured the rigors of training, might succeed the ultimate test of surviving, and hopefully thriving, on their own in Morocco.
PAINS & PLEASURES:
Our 12 weeks of training in Hemet have left a few memorable impressions intact to this day, basic sustenance being one of them. The food provided by the training organization, the anonymously titled “Development & Resources Corp.”, was so bad that two months into training, it nearly provoked a mutiny. In one of my letters home, I described it as 40% fat and 50% carbohydrates. The cost of our upkeep, per head, was rumored to be $3.50 per day. After all, the more D&R spent on us, the less would be left for the company. On the bright side was the mid-morning visit by the Taco Truck, whose coffee and crunchy fare were often the high points of our day.
Language training, all 336 hours of it, was brutal, but our Moroccan teachers were tireless, effective, and patient. In retrospect, it must have been much harder for them than it was for us. We spent hours on the pronunciation of sounds that don’t exist in English: glottal stops, unfamiliar consonants, tricky vowel sounds, and extravagantly rolled R’s.
Our lazy, middle-of-the mouth, American English was no match for a language that demanded agility from the tip to the root of the tongue, lips and deepest recesses of the throat. We learned just enough darija, as Moroccan dialect is called, to learn some more. Our crash course in the language endowed us with the gift of comprehending, if only a little, the complexities of life in a culture very different and distant from our own.
In spite of our six-day work weeks, Sundays and holidays provided free time for all kinds of recreation, as long as it didn’t involve spending money. I’m not sure when our $75 a month salary kicked in, but our circumstances were, at the time, necessarily miserly and monastic. After weeks of admiring Mt. San Jacinto, rising to nearly 11,000 feet above the Hemet Valley, a small group of us decided to make the ascent. We were mostly naive easterners, and set out traveling light, without much food or water. It didn’t take long to figure out the error of our ways.
We ran out of water well before arriving at the summit, where the lone occupant of the Forestry Service fire lookout station studiously ignored our parched entreaties for water. Not all of our number succeeded in making the descent unaided, and our group had to separate, hoping to summon aid when one of us got to the town of Idyllwild at the foot of the mountain. Fortunately, another group of visitors, descending single file on a bunch of sturdy saddle mules, happened on our exhausted comrade and delivered him to the trail head. It was a sobering reminder, that despite our youthful energy, there were limits.
The program included, inexplicably, two horses, corralled in a small enclosure behind our barracks. They seemed to share the boredom of our long days off, and I found that the old gelding, Bub, enjoyed excursions in the sandy dry river bed that ran along the San Jacinto foot hills. It became a solitary source of joy to bridle up Bub, straddle his wide warm back, and set out for nowhere in particular. He was capable of a sweet rolling canter, but had an alarming tendency to stumble. Riding bareback, thin winter sunshine casting our long shadows on the valley floor in the cool waning days of 1967, was a singular pleasure.
On a less pleasant note, were the visits to the local doctor’s office, where we lined up to be injected with an endless variety of immunizations and vaccinations, each with” its own level of discomfort. The last of these puncture parties featured the dreaded Gamma globulin shot, 5 cubic centimeters of thick amber liquid with the consistency of motor oil, delivered to the gluteus maximus. This slug of extra antibodies rendered us temporarily impervious to all manner of pathogens.
“Deselection” was the official euphemism for being rejected from training, which could happen at any point if the staff determined that a trainee was lacking in either the aptitude or attitude for two years of service in Morocco. The most dreaded kind of deselection could occur at the very end of training, leaving the rejected volunteer to pack up his hard-won education and move on.
For some reason we trainees were asked to assess our peers, as if we could judge each others’ chances of success going forward, but ours was not to reason why. On the last day, one of our more flamboyant and likable trainees, a California dude, was sent home, which left us in a state of sadness mixed with relief at having gotten through the ordeal, anticipating a return to the comforts of home and family for three days before convening at JFK, at last, Morocco bound.
Arriving in Morocco, we had two more weeks of training and orientation before heading out to our assigned posts. One of our assignments involved trying out the most basic of Moroccan agricultural practices, guiding a traditional wooden plow behind a mule. It was a humbling experience. The only metal part of this ungainly tool was a flat iron blade that scratched a shallow furrow into the earth. We had brought with us a brand new iron moldboard plow. Its curved blade, first designed by Thomas Jefferson, and later patented at the turn of the 19th century, not only cut a furrow, but turned the soil over like a breaking wave.
The traditional Moroccan plow was about two centuries behind the times, and the improvement, in our eyes, was striking. We proudly presented the new plow to the farmer who had participated in the demonstration. He seemed mildly appreciative, but somewhat nonplussed by this newfangled gadget, just as his American counterparts had greeted the introduction of the same newfangled moldboard plow with equal skepticism 167 years earlier.
Morocco X, was never to realize its potential. The Mexican Wheat, and the USAID Program to introduce it was delayed. Our volunteers in the field became redundant onlookers in a bureaucratic system that was barely functional to begin with. Our language skills, while appreciated, were inadequate in an administrative environment that relied heavily on the French language, as Morocco had only gained independence from the French protectorate in 1956, eleven years before our arrival.
A kindly Belgian agronomist in the Taza Provincial office offered me a place as his assistant in a UN Funded program to introduce modern techniques of bee-keeping to farmers in the Rif mountains. Honey was a popular commodity, and valuable cash crop. Apiculture was a good option for farmers who lacked enough arable land to provide for their families. After a month of training with an old Belgian pied noir, who bellowed “praise God” every time I was stung by the ferociously aggressive African bees, I finally had a mission whose only drawback was its seasonality. To fill in the winter off-season, I became an English language teacher at the local Taza Lycée.
Morocco X was officially disbanded at the mid-service conference. Some volunteers who had found work at the more active provincial agricultural centers, or other more specialized areas of endeavor, would stay on to finish their two year term of service, or even extend for a third year. The rest were offered a plane ticket back to the States or transfer to other programs.
An “Evaluator”, sent from Washington to ascertain the nature of Morocco X’s thwarted ambitions, observed, in a moment of candor, that he had never seen such a promising group of volunteers so poorly tasked or deployed.
As the philosopher Kierkegaard observed, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” The Morocco X experience may have been an exercise in blind optimism, and the futility of good intentions, but for many of us the struggle to start life from scratch in a foreign culture demanded an intensity of self-examination and self-realization that gave us the will and the way to a larger sphere of life, “lived forwards”.
For some of us the experience was a gateway to careers in education and international development, for others the experience opened the door to experiencing a world we could not otherwise have imagined. Morocco X, whatever its faults, changed each of us in profound and simple ways that have resonated throughout life that “can only be understood backwards”.
Authored by Reed Erskine, Morocco X Volunteer