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Before You Were Born
Stories from our parents' surprisingly romantic youth.
By James Brady Ryan
When my father broke up with my mother by joining the Peace Corps in 1969, she thought she would never see him again. This is the story of how my parents almost never got married.
Where were you guys in 1969?
M: I was working as a social worker for a foster-care agency in New York City. It was really a dreadful job. And he would pick me up at work and we would go out to a place called Molly Maguire's. I was living at home, in the Bronx, and Dad was living —
D: In Inwood. At home. And I was working with the New York State Employment Division, which was also —
M: A terrible job.
D: And I had one eye over my shoulder looking for the draft board.
And how old were both of you?
M: I was twenty-three.
D: And I was twenty-five. Draft eligible.
How long had you been dating?
M: We had been dating at that point pretty seriously for about a year. It was really getting to the point where it was time to step up. And Dad... was having some issues. But part of those issues was also that it was a very crazy time. The Vietnam War was going on, and if you were of draft age, it was pretty frightening. We had friends who were drafted, friends who had been injured and killed.
Were you hippies?
M: I was more of a hippy than Dad was.
D: I was a civil servant.
M: But we were certainly very involved in those issues. I had the year before worked for Robert Kennedy's reelection campaign. I was working in his offices in New York City the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. It was a terrible day in New York City. There were riots. They were running the trains through Harlem without stopping, because they were worried about further riots.
D: That was '68.
M: It was right after that Dad and I met. I'd just had surgery on my leg, so I was in a cast that ran up my entire leg. We had kind of distantly known each other through friends, and then met down in the Jersey Shore at a bar. I was, of course, flirting with one of the bartenders.
Would you say you were more of a Snooki or a Jwoww?
M: I have no idea what that means. So I was flirting with this bartender, and Dad was there. And this bartender was a real player. You knew there were at least ten girls in that bar trying to get him. And Dad said to me, "You're too good for him." I was just so impressed that that was his opinion of me. Really, from then on, I was like, "This is the person for me." We went out all that summer and through the next year.
Dad, you had avoided the draft up to 1969, right?
D: Yes, I had a student deferment, and for a short period of time I had a physical deferment. And then I had a deferment because my father was dying of cancer.
But in '69 you were back to being eligible?
D: Yeah. And I had put in an application for the Peace Corps, God knows when, before that. And then one day in the mail came a big fat envelope from the Peace Corps saying, "You've been accepted, and we want to send you to Iran."
So when you accepted, was avoiding the draft your only motivation?
M: Well, it was a combination of the draft, and also having a sense that you wanted to do something. You wanted to do something different. You wanted to change the world.
Okay, but I'm wondering if there were motivations about which Mom would be less approving.
D: Well... I wasn't ready for a commitment! I was too young.
How old were you again?
D: Twenty-five. A young twenty-five.
So did you tell Mom you would go to Iran, and then when you got back you would still be together?
D: Um... no. No, that did not happen. I might have just disappeared into Peace Corps training.
M: Well, I knew he had gone to Vermont for the training. And I knew when he was leaving for Iran. I was overwhelmed with the fear that he would go and I wouldn't even have talked to him before he left. Even though I was obviously angry, I just had to at least talk to him. And so I called his house, and I was sitting with the phone and listening to it ring and ring and ring, and I knew I was too late.
D: I was in Tehran, walking around looking for the U.S. Embassy, where they were having a great big party.
How did you feel about having broken up with Mom?
M: He was having a very difficult time. His father had just died. His mother and sister were dependent on him. There was so much upheaval. I think it added to a hesitancy to commit, to say, "This is what I want to do." We had no contact when he was gone.