Morocco was, strangely, my first choice, among Peace Corps countries I could serve. I say “strangely” because as I dreamed about Pacific Islands or Guatemalan potholes to hell (my dear friend Maria really wanted me to go to Guatemala), Morocco was never a serious consideration. I mean, I certainly mentioned it in one of my application essays, but I just never got excited about the possibility of Morocco, because I knew early on, especially after I was nominated to the Caribbean, that it’s very difficult for the Peace Corps to send people to the country or even the region they request.
It’s also a strange first choice in my mind because it’s not a country that’s ever been noticeably on my radar, and as countries I would enjoy traveling to go, I guess I’d just never really been educated enough to even know what Morocco has to offer. I knew nothing before two weeks ago about the Atlas Mountains or that the size or exact location of the Sahara in relation to Morocco, etc.
So, Morocco would not have come to my mind at all, and it certainly would not have been a part of my application essay if it hadn’t been for my grandfather who died in March, Jewell Francis Jones. The picture above is actually from a book he received from the military about North Africa during World War II. He served the North Africa Air Transit Command in Casablanca, Morocco for nineteen months working as a mechanic on B-24 bombers until the end of the war. I’ve mentioned some of this briefly elsewhere, but I wanted to dedicate this blog entry and really my willingness to serve in Morocco to his example, his legacy of service to the United States. It’s largely what I’m about these days.
Of course, things in his day were a little bit different, and Morocco is much different now. During the 1940s, Morocco was still under French control, making the Kingdom a kind of melting pot for Berber, Arabic, French, and Spanish cultures all in one place. It’s said that Morocco is one of the more “Westernized” countries in the Arab world, and given its history of European and American culture clashes, that’s probably not all too surprising.
Having inherited all of my grandfathers war belongings, I gathered up several pictures and documents and scanned them this afternoon. I came across this page in a book printed on Cazes Air Base in Casablanca and found it to be kind of humorous. Surely no one still refers to Westerners or to the military as “Joe.” I’m still unclear, also, how the words “Business, Joe?” translate to “Danger! Dynamite!” Really makes you want to go to Morocco, eh?
So, there’s just a lot of “stuff,” most of which is just amazing that he held onto, that came from Morocco or Italy or Colorado or somewhere else he was posted during the war. In the wake of his death and in watching Mom sift through over ninety-three years of the things people collect and keep, it’s kind of a slap in the face that, once we die, we take none of it with us. We spend so much time, especially today, obsessed with these material possessions, but we leave it all behind for someone else to sift through, to decide what’s worth keeping and what’s not worth keeping. I look at my own things that I’ve hoarded here and there, a ticket to PETCO Park or a postcard from my friend in Maine, and those things are important to me, random though they are, but the treasure isn’t the item so much as the memory it evokes.
Since his death, I’ve really taken the time to explore more about his travels and his world and his generation. His war things are something that I have really come to cherish in a special way. But I’ve come to realize that I cherish them for a different reason than he did; I cherish them because they evoke in me the memory of his life and his service. Some of those things will go with me in September in some form of fashion.
Most of the war stuff came out of a large treasure trunk that had been inconspicuously sitting in his living room for years and years and rarely opened. I went with Mom in April and started perusing through the trunk and stopped dead in my tracks when I came across a fifty cent cigar box from Casablanca.
Inside of the box was even more to cherish, including love letters between he and my grandmother (who was then his girlfriend Stateside at MacDill Army Air Base near Tampa, Florida). Reading them is like stepping back in time or watching an episode of Band of Brothers or some other war movie Spielberg put his hands on. In fact, here are a few excerpts from my favorite letters from my grandmother —
Did you know that Sandlin transferred to Oklahoma City last week? It seems everyone is leaving. I would like to myself. I’m tired of working. I wish this war was over and I could quit. I would like to see you in that uniform and that G.I. haircut. […] How about sending me a picture with your uniform on? By the way, I had my picture made for mother at Bryan-Allen Studio the other day. It’s not so good, but what can you expect? […] Did you know that the blonde girl (Helen Kavakos) who used to work in the welding shop, married Lt. Pepper? They transferred to Alabama. A B-26 crashed about 100 yards from the runway Friday night. The four men in it were killed. We had gone back out to the field to work that night and it really made me sick. […] Do you have any idea where you’ll be sent next? […] It’s time for me to go to bed. Be good and write soon. Love, as ever – Kitty.
And from another one (dated May of 1943) —
Dearest Francis, I received your picture this afternoon and I was tickled to death over it. I think it’s grand. It really looks natural. That uniform looks like a million bucks. Today was payday, and we had the usual mad scramble. I don’t like payday anymore. We had a pay-roll all made up but we had some new War Department instructions and had to do it all over again. Thyra and I worked Sunday and every night this week in order to get the pay-roll out on time. Now I feel like sleeping for a week. […] You said they were converting the hotels there into casualty centers. There are quite a few casualties in the hospitals here. […] Did you hear the one about the moron who was lying in the ditch and put his head up on the curb so he could keep his mind out of the gutter? We had a little excitement up town this afternoon. A negro escaped from the city jail but before he could get more than a block or two the police shot him in the arm and took him back to jail. It’s time I was in bed so goodnight and thanks so much for the good-looking picture. Love, Kitty.
A different time, for sure. The letters are something that I mention not just because I cherish them but because, in the next few years, I expect to write my own letters to friends and family back home (what I’ve called the “penpalorama”), especially if I don’t have any kind of regular internet access. I’ve noticed in reading them that our forms of communication today are much less central to what’s actually happening in our lives. The quick pace of our society means sending a text that says, “Yeah. Be right there,” or a brief phone conversation like, “Hey, I just landed and the plane is about to be at the gate. Okay. Bye.” Our modes of communication today are without substance. We spend our time (especially me) behind a computer or behind our phones. But in their day, without the privilege of regular and easy communication, a letter was something to cherish, and for me, I suspect it will become that again.
Digging deeper into the box, I came across two more items that delighted me. The first was a War Ration Booklet in pristine condition. I doubt I’ll take it to Morocco. It needs to be preserved in some sort of special case or something. I attached a few pictures of it below, because I definitely wanted to show it off.
Then, I saw something even more odd – Egyptian Hieroglyphics on a brown leather picture wallet. I opened it up to find pictures of my young grandmother in a swimsuit giggling. Wow! Talk about scandalous for that day! The wallet, of course, was purchased in Morocco, and I suspect I’ll carry it back with me when I go east, though I may put more pictures in it, some of my own to cherish as I’m walking around in this sandy, desert world.
I’m also intending to sew my grandfather’s North Africa Air Transit Command patch to one of my backpacks. I guess it’s a bit blatantly obvious that I idolized the man, that this trip wouldn’t have been on my radar if he hadn’t died and I hadn’t been jolted into wanting to make some kind of tiny impact on this planet. I look back at his generation, and I see a people who were mobilized to make a difference, and I want badly for my generation to be as eager and as willing to do that as our ancestors. I want us to look on that people who’ve been called “the Greatest Generation,” and live into that calling, to be great and to do something that genuinely is helpful and good in this world. I don’t know what kind of dent I can really make in teaching Moroccan youth to write English or even in just loving people the way I’ve always believed we should. The last thing I want is to come away from this experience and be arrogant about the fact that I gave two years of my life to help people. I don’t want this to become some yuppy white boy experience to add to my resume. I just want to love people and love my grandfather and do something for once that’s not all about me. Or maybe to let what aspect of it is about me to be about me blatantly.
At any rate, I just wanted to say that Morocco has, in so many ways, become more to me than simply a country I’ve never been to before. They say it’s the “cold country with the hot sun,” as evidence by the picture here. In a matter of days, I’ll find out.