November 15, 2001 - Worcester Telegram & Gazette: RPCV recall old times in Kabul

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: Peace Corps Headlines - 2001: 11 November 2001 Peace Corps Headlines: November 15, 2001 - Worcester Telegram & Gazette: RPCV recall old times in Kabul

By Admin1 (admin) on Monday, November 19, 2001 - 3:48 pm: Edit Post

Read this story from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette about RPCV Jay E. McCune about Afghanistan where he served in the early 1960's at:

Recalling old times in Kabul

Recalling old times in Kabul ; Leicester resident served in Peace Corps

Nov 15, 2001 - Telegram & Gazette Worcester, MA Author(s): Bradford L. Miner

LEICESTER -- Mohammed Zahir Shah, the deposed king of Afghanistan, could figure prominently in the creation of an interim government representing the country's several ethnic factions.

And if the 87-year-old monarch, living in exile in Rome since 1973, should return home, Jay E. McCune of 25 Redfield Road is likely to follow the news closely.

A 1960 graduate of Clark University, Mr. McCune served two years in the Peace Corps in Kabul, where he met the king.

"We had been there about six months, and apparently the royal family had gotten reports about us ... people riding bicycles and doing all sorts of crazy things, and they wanted to meet us. We got an invitation to visit, but they didn't invite anyone from the American Embassy," Mr. McCune said.

"Before our meeting, we had all killed ourselves practicing our Farsi, only to have the king speak to us in perfect English. Looking back, my impression of King Zahir Shah was that he was very dignified and very gentle," he added.

Mr. McCune said he had read that the king had been invited to return to Afghanistan.

"If he does, I'm sure he'll be taking his life in his hands. Afghanistan is one country where political instability is endemic. The king's grandfather was killed in a `hunting accident,' which everyone knows was no accident," he said.

Mr. McCune said that while he thoroughly enjoyed his two-year stay in Afghanistan 37 years ago and would return "in a heartbeat," continued fighting would preclude opportunities for civilian volunteers for some time to come.

Mr. McCune, who majored in history, said when he was about to go overseas he was amazed at how few people knew where Afghanistan was or what the country was like.

"Most people thought it was somewhere in Africa and thought I was crazy for giving up a career," he said.

As for the topography and climate, he likened it to the American Southwest and said, "visualize a camel caravan crossing Arizona and you have Afghanistan."

The country is sparsely populated because most Afghans rarely have enough to eat, Mr. McCune said.

"They grow some wheat, but they import most of the wheat they make into bread. They grow a lot of fruit, and they import a lot of rice from India and Pakistan.

"The principal diet of most of the residents of Kabul was a lot of rice and some fruit. They had very little meat. The one meal we ate most often was a combination of rice, carrots and raisins," he said.

While living in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, Mr. McCune taught English in a vocational-agricultural high school.

"The students I taught were going on to Kabul University, and it was our job to get them up to speed in English. Some of them still needed some tutoring help once they got there, so we kept fairly busy," he said.

Mr. McCune said that before his group of 30 were dispatched to Afghanistan, they had about four months of training at the Experiment in International Living in Brattleboro, Vt. "Most of that was in Farsi, the language spoken in Afghanistan," he said.

"In our group we had nurses, telephone operators, postal workers, teachers, and most of them were working in a related field. The nurses, for instance, were working as nurse midwives, and the telephone operators were helping to place international calls."

Commenting on the current military campaign, Mr. McCune said some people have jokingly talked about the United States "bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age."

"Actually, that would be pretty difficult to do. A 20-minute bicycle ride in any direction from Kabul and, literally, you found yourself in the most primitive of living conditions," he said.

"There was no electricity, no plumbing. There were some small villages where the people were using the same agricultural methods they had used for thousands of years. Then you had the nomadic people, mostly sheepherders, who were on the move."

When Mr. McCune returned from Afghanistan, he enrolled in the University of Missouri graduate school to pursue a master's degree in journalism. Before completing his degree, he was recruited by the Chicago Tribune, where he worked from 1968 to 1974. He returned to New England and worked for the Patriot in Webster for a number of years, in addition to some odd jobs in the newspaper business. He now works for a baker and caterer in Worcester. He continues a lifelong interest in volunteer work, especially in teaching English as a second language.

Mr. McCune said he has been surprised by the speed with which the Northern Alliance forces have routed the Taliban from key cities.

"If you had told me on Sept. 12 that we would be carrying on a heavy bombing campaign over Afghanistan, I think my first response would have been, `not so fast,' " Mr. McCune said.

"Anyone who's read any (Rudyard) Kipling knows two things -- that these people are nasty fighters, especially when they have their backs to the wall, and secondly, they are experts in the art of the ambush. I'm afraid we're going to lose some men before this is over, if we haven't already," he said.

Mr. McCune declined to comment on the Northern Alliance, saying, "I only know Afghans as they were more than three decades ago."

"When I was there, the royal government of Afghanistan paid the Pashtun tribes to control the Khyber Pass in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan so that people could travel through safely," he said.

Mr. McCune said he did not travel very far from Kabul.

"There was bus transportation, but it was basic transportation, and there weren't that many places to go. Besides that, there were no guarantees that once you got on a bus that you'd get back when you needed to, and I had responsibilities," he said.

Asked about memorable experiences, Mr. McCune said that when the Peace Corps volunteers first arrived in Kabul with their olive green canvas duffel bags, they had Frisbees tied to them for identification purposes.

"Trying to show Afghan kids how to play Frisbee was ... well at first they just stood around and laughed at us. After a while, they got the knack and enjoyed it, even though they had their own games," he said.

Mr. McCune said that on another occasion he was flying back to Afghanistan from Kashmir.

"They had oversold the flight, so I was sitting on an old drink cooler, handing out food and cold drinks. I looked up and there was a youngster, one of the children of the American Embassy staff running up and down the aisles of an old DC-3. That was the good news. The bad news was that the main cabin door was open and kept opening and closing," he said.

"I grabbed the kid and put him in a seat. The co-captain came back, and he was pretty cool. He rolled up his sleeves and said, `Hold onto my belt while I reach out and grab the door and shut it.' I'm terrified of heights, and I'm looking down and there's 4,000 feet of nothing until you hit the mountain tops. I held on, and he got the door closed," Mr. McCune said.

As successful as the Northern Alliance has been to date, Mr. McCune said it would be premature to count out the Taliban at this point. "I think what we'll see is the Taliban fighters retreating to the mountains and waging guerrilla warfare," he said.

Add a Message

This is a public posting area. Enter your username and password if you have an account. Otherwise, enter your full name as your username and leave the password blank. Your e-mail address is optional.