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.