A Half World Away, A Half Century Gone: Afghanistan and President Kennedy

(As we honor the passing of President Kennedy, memories of that time become crystalline sharp.  We thought you might find touching reminiscences of one of the earliest members of the Peace Corps in Afghanistan. )

By John Borel

No Mountain Too High...Uncle John and Aunt Phyllis at Machu Picchu

No Mountain Too High…Uncle John and Aunt Phyllis at Machu Picchu

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan 1963-65,  remaining another two years as director of the bi-national Fulbright Program in Afghanistan.   I had seen President Kennedy in a car caravan in San Diego.  (I was editor of a weekly newspaper, the Arcata Union, in Northern California). I was impressed with his call for a national volunteer service.  I had always wanted to experience other lands and cultures.

I happened to interview a girl going to Columbia with the first group of volunteers. She assured me that the volunteers did not have to know the language, they would be given instruction. That was enough for me.

I applied and was accepted for Afghanistan, training in Washington, D.C. During training I met Senator Hubert Humphrey and Bill Moyers. Our physical trainer, a refugee, had been the coach of the Hungarian Olympic team.

I arrived in Kabul in June 1963. I was assigned to teach ESL at Habibia college, actually the premier high school, where my students included the King Zahir Shah’s two sons, an eighth grader and eleventh grader.  I also coached basketball there, and was a member of a five-man team that marched in a parade and played the University of Kabul during their national independence celebration.

On November 22, 1963 I was walking to school when one of my students ran down the street to meet me and called out, “Your  President Kennedy has been shot!”  I was shocked. At the time Afghanistan seemed to be at the other end of the world.  It amazed me that the world had become a village already, and news had traveled so fast.

Later on, I was hiking in Nuristan, a remote part of Afghanistan and some shepherds sitting around a campfire pointed up at a satellite.  They told me it was America’s astronaut, Neil Armstrong.  They had heard it on shortwave radio.  That blew
my mind.

Another time I was working in Kandahar for the winter and was taken to Kabul by Sargent Schriver, the Peace Corps Director, who whizzed through to visit the Afghan program.  At the time, it was directed by Robert Steiner, who became one of the top administrators in Washington, and with whom I am still friends. I was a member of the second group to go to Afghanistan. We were a group of 26. The first group had nine members. When Schriver flew into Kandahar to pick us three volunteers up to bring to Kabul, he had not slept in 20 hours, and I don’t know when he did ever sleep.

(Addendum:  Uncle John along with Phyllis, his wife,  continues as a world traveler fascinated by other cultures.  I have on my shelf a beautiful indigo blue hand blown glass.  With great sadness, Uncle John told me that it is an example of a technology that disappeared in Afghanistan after the Taliban rule.  I hope it has been reclaimed.  C. Hedge)

About Catherine Hedge

I am a writer and teacher mentor.
This entry was posted in Family, History, Nostalgia, Slice of life, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A Half World Away, A Half Century Gone: Afghanistan and President Kennedy

  1. Celeste says:

    What an amazing story. I remember how heart-broken Uncle Johnny was when war broke out in Afghanistan.

  2. Brandi says:

    What amazingly loaded/rich nuggets in each sentence!

    The Afghani brass oil lamps Uncle Johnny gifted me are only hints of a history.

    I hope that he continues to write about his experiences there.

  3. Pingback: A Half World Away, A Half Century Gone: Afghanistan…Part 2 | Pen In Hand

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