Before Bush and Iraq, there was Nixon and Vietnam.
I ended up in Peace Corps, but sometimes wonder who I would be today had I ended up carrying an M-16, slogging through the Mekong delta. The road not taken, as Frost put it.
In the Fall of ’68, as the government worked to restock our demoralized, floundering army in Vietnam, I was reading Cotton Mather in graduate classes at Fairfield University, waiting for the axe to fall. And one chilly October morning, it finally did. I opened my mail and there it was: the dreaded notice from Selective Service Local Board 13.
You are hereby directed to present yourself for Armed Forces Physical Examination…
I knew it was coming, but it was still a shock. I walked upstairs to my bedroom, shut the door, sat on my bed and started cycling through the same tired, familiar options. Only this time I had to choose. My sister Jody drove over that evening to console me after she finished her nursing shift at the hospital.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” I stared at my coffee. “I thought of heading for Canada. Mom and dad said they would understand if I did.” Dad was no hawk. He advocated Senator Aiken’s solution to the war – just declare victory and go home. Mom wanted to impeach Johnson.
“But I can’t do that. I’d never be able to return to the U.S. and see them without getting arrested.”
“I’m glad,” she said. “I honestly believe things will get better after the election. There’s no way America will choose Nixon over Humphrey.”
“Yeah, but Humphrey can’t do anything about the war until next year, and I’ll be drafted by then.”
“Well, you could always file for Conscientious Objector status,” she suggested.
“I thought about that. They’d probably grant it.” I pushed my cup away. “I mean, I once studied for the priesthood. I’ve been in anti-war protests; I’ve passed our flyers and been at sit-ins.”
“You’re sincere. You’re not just faking it.”
“But I can’t do that either.”
“Why not?” She was surprised.
“Because they’ll send me off to empty bedpans at some mental hospital, and I’ll spend the rest of my life wondering if I was just chicken.”
“But you’re not,” she protested.
“How do I know?”
“Oh.” She refilled my cup and we sat in silence.
“Well, you could file for conscientious objector available for medical duty,” she finally said. “A guy at the hospital did that. Medics take more risks than anybody.”
“I don’t know. I’d still be part of the war machine.”
“But you wouldn’t be killing people.”
“Look,” I said, exasperated. “Nine out of ten soldiers just cook potatoes, or type memos, or stock the PX. But they make it possible for the tenth guy to kill people.” I threw up my hands in frustration. “Don’t you understand? If you’re an Army medic, you save the guy’s life and the Army sends him right back into the jungle to kill more gooks.”
“I’m just trying to be helpful,” Jody said.
“I know. I know. Sorry.”
Round and round I went. Mom and Dad went to bed. The coffee got cold. I started recycling scenarios. Jody finally walked the cups over to the sink.
“You think too much,” she told me. “Go to bed.”
The Friday before my scheduled physical, I dropped off a letter for mom at the Danbury Post Office and noticed a sign for an Army Recruiting Office down in the basement. Jody was right. I thought too much. Get in, but get a specialty that kept me from killing people. I took a deep breath and followed the arrow downstairs. Sergeant Rock was hunched over his desk reading Sports Illustrated. He jumped up when he saw me, hurried around the desk, gave me a meaty handshake and steered me to a chair. A college grad? Yes sir! He tossed the magazine in the trash basket and smoothed his crisply-ironed uniform. They had immediate openings for college graduates interested in officer's candidate school. A four year commitment, but hey, the Army would guarantee you a specialty, in advance, if you qualified.
“What did you get your degree in, son?” my new buddy inquired eagerly. “Whatever skills you have, the U.S. Army can offer you a great career.”
“Philosophy,” I said.
“Philosophy? Jeez, we don't really have a lot of demand for philosophers….” Disappointment clouded his face. But he recovered quickly. He had a quota to meet, and wasn't about to let me go. It was 1968, the Tet offensive had made a fool of Lyndon Johnson and his promise of “a light at the end of the tunnel,” and nobody was volunteering.
“Study anything else in school?”
I told him I took a lot of language courses. Latin, Greek, French, Spanish. That perked him right up again.
“Hey, good with languages, huh? How would you like to go to language school on Uncle Sam’s nickel for two years? Study Vietnamese. Be a piece of cake for someone like you. Vietnamese speakers are in great demand.”
Sounds interesting, I thought. The war might be over by the time I got through school.
“Yes sir. You’ll be trained as an interrogator…” he said cheerfully, reaching back for an enlistment form.
I jumped up and headed for the door, the recruiter right behind me.
“Great occupational specialty,” he pleaded. “You move up pay grade fast.” I bounded up the stairs, visions of myself sticking burning cigarettes into captured Viet Cong – “Talk, you yellow bastard, talk!” I heard him shouting up the stairs as I hit the lobby. “Talk it over with your folks – give me a call if you change your mind.”
I poked morosely at the pile of dead leaves at my feet. I thought a walk in Huntington Park would cheer me up, but the trees were bare, the wind was brisk, and the bench I sat on was damn cold. It was a dumb idea. Everybody had an angle but me. Terry at the newspaper got his doctor to diagnose a phantom back problem that disqualified him from call-up. “No way I’m going to Viet-Nam,” he told me. “Fuck that shit.” I was too ashamed to try that on old Doc Trimpert, our family physician since we were kids. He wouldn’t have done it anyway; he had a son at West Point. Ed down the street taught high school physics; his principal convinced the local draft board the school couldn’t find a replacement for him. Another friend weaseled his way into the Connecticut National Guard because their military band needed a trombone. Nobody needed a Gregorian chanter.
Two days before Halloween, I showed up for my physical in New Haven with one hope – my terrible eyesight would disqualify me from service. I was eight diopters without glasses. I started wearing them in second grade, and replaced them with contact lenses in college to play ice hockey, but without either I couldn’t see a damn thing.
We shuffled chain-gang from station to station through the dreary, dimly-lit armory. Anthony, a skinny, long-haired kid ahead of me, started reciting Arlo Guthrie’s monologue from Alice’s Restaurant. We were all gonna be “injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected.” A soldier yelled at Tony to shut up.
The army knew all the tricks. They read the same Quaker anti-war manuals we read to beat the draft. How to temporarily blind yourself by staring at a welder's torch, or shoot your blood pressure sky high; how to doctor a urine test; how to play psycho, or homo, or drug addict; how to fake a felony record. The Army even played some of its own. “Follow the red line!” soldiers shouted at us as we marched around. “Follow the blue line!” If we followed their instructions, Tony warned, we couldn’t claim color blindness.
“But they won’t get me,” Tony whispered. “I only got one.”
He pointed to his crotch. “One ball. That gives you a deferment.”
Sure enough, during the general strip-down for the medical exam he was short one and made sure the doctor noticed, but they passed him anyway. I wondered if he cut it off himself or was born that way. I finally arrived at the eyesight testing station, having passed every other test. It was my last shot at a medical deferment.
“Do you wear glasses?" the doctor demanded. I told him I wore contact lenses.
“I‘m blind without them....” I said, prepared to launch my spiel about how I would be a mortal danger to my battlefield buddies if I lost a contact or my glasses broke.
“Got a driver's license?”
And it was over. I took the 3:30 train back home. When the train pulled into the station, I was struck by how beautiful my home town was. It was late afternoon, sunny but cool. The leaves had turned, Halloween pumpkins dotted the porches of the Victorians lining Greenwood Avenue, and school kids pedaled by on bicycles headed to Parloa Park for a pickup football game. I took my melodramatic time walking home, trailing a long shadow, scuffling my feet through leaf piles, past Mullaney’s where I once picked up papers for my paper route; past Agway where my mom bought fertilizer for her forsythia each Spring; past St. Mary’s Church where I played altar boy in another life; and finally up Farnam Hill to our back door.
“How did it go?” Mom asked.
“I think I’m in trouble,” I replied. I didn’t want to talk to her, or dad, or anybody. I spent the evening in my room with the door shut, listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” and feeling sorry for myself.
It got worse. The next week, Nixon won, beating Humphrey in a nail biter.
And worse. Three weeks later, I got the dreaded letter from my Selective Service Board. Happy Thanksgiving. You’re now 1-A.
(Out of time. More next blog…)