Starting a new series, photos from our travels over the years….Egypt first…
The bright overhead lights, combined with Wolinski yelling in my ear, rudely woke me. “Get your lazy ass out of bed. This isn’t summer camp. Every swinging dick shit, shower, shave, and be outside in uniform in ten minutes.”
Ten minutes? I can’t get one eye open in ten minutes. “What the hell time is it?”
“Oh-six-hundred hours, college puke–practically mid-morning,” Sarge said. “Now get going!”
I rolled out of bed, narrowly missing getting my head crushed by Steve leaping from the top bunk at the same time. As the other recruits raced toward the bathroom with toilet kit and towel in hand, I started groping in my footlocker for my prescription lenses.
“What are you looking for?” Steve asked.
“Help me find my sunglasses.”
“Sunglasses? Are you crazy? It’s pitch black outside.”
“I can’t put my contacts in yet. My eyes are still bloodshot from yesterday.”
By the time I found my glasses and reached the head, the ten available sinks were already filled with recruits shaving, or spitting out toothpaste. The open shower area featured another dozen bare-ass boys scrubbing under streaming nozzles. The rest of the gang were taking a leak at the six-foot long open trough or making poo in the white porcelain stalls. Steve and I waited for an opening.
We didn’t make it in ten minutes. “Nice of you to join us,” yelled Wolinski. Then he spotted my sunglasses. “What are you…some kind of goddamn celebrity?”
“Yeah, I’m Greta Garbo. These are prescription.” I yawned and pulled out the eye doctor’s note. “Here’s an officer’s excuse.”
“You just look for ways to piss me off, don’t you? I’m going to make your life so miserable…”
“Shucks, Sarge, you don’t have to treat me special. I am already blessed by the mere warmth of your presence.”
“Shut up, Jones.”
The sun still hadn’t come up yet. I could barely make out all the soldiers standing around a parade ground where Sarge had called our platoon to a halt. A distant shadow in the center of the open area shouted “Battalion!”
A second, closer figure, hollered, “Company!”
Wolinski followed with “Platoon!”
Then the first shadow man yelled again, “Atten-hut.”
With that command, 180 soldiers snapped to attention. This required a leap of faith on our part because we had to assume that “Atten-hut” and “Attention” were the same word. We repeated the process, but this time, the commander said, “Hand Salute,” as they hoisted the American flag.
Each soldier raised his right hand to his baseball cap brim. After twenty seconds of silence, we heard a needle skip, at earsplitting volume, work its way across a record; and then repetitively thump, thump, thump when it reached the inside ring. “Damn it,” cursed our unseen disc jockey through the four bullhorn speakers mounted on poles surrounding the parade ground. He tried again. The needle hit the groove and a bugle blared out the strains of reveille amidst the pops and crackles of a well-worn recording.
At the conclusion of the music, shadow man yelled “Two.” Two what I wondered, but dropped my salute with the others. Wolinski told us “At Ease” and showed us how to stand with our feet shoulder width apart and our hands behind our backs–one hand holding the opposite wrist.
This is at ease? I reminisced. No, at ease is leaning back in my lifeguard chair with the warm sun on my body, checking out the babes, and watching a colorful butterfly flap his wings while perched on my big toe. Sarge’s voice brought me back to reality.
“Tomorrow you will receive your final platoon assignments, and begin basic infantry training. Some of you will stay with me. Others will be assigned to different barracks. You jokers have any questions?”
“I’m going to miss you, Sarge,” I said.
“Oh no, Jones…I made sure you were assigned to my platoon.”
Lucky me, I thought, as Wolinski escorted us once again to chow.
When everyone finished eating, Sarge marched us to a building that resembled a high school gymnasium. “At ease,” grumbled Wolinski, “Smoke ’em if you got ’em…and don’t forget to field strip your butts.”
“Oh, I like the sound of that,” said one soldier.
“Who is that guy?” Steve asked.
“Not sure, but I suggest not dropping the soap in the shower when he’s around.”
We entered the gym and joined a lengthy green military conga line that terminated at a gauntlet of medical corpsmen, three on a side, each holding a pneumatic needle gun with a small glass vial of medicine sitting on top. The corpsmen looked really bored doing 200 guys without a break, one right after another. I prayed they were changing the needle often, or it would be very dull by our turn.
Thirty minutes later, we were told to take off our fatigue shirt and roll up our T-shirt sleeves on both sides–like the hoods used to do in high school. I watched one man jerk when he felt the gun, causing the needle to punch a series of holes across his arm and leave a trail of blood in its wake. Ugh!
I have been never too keen on getting shots. Once as a kid, during a free polio vaccination, a nurse hit a muscle and broke the needle off in my arm. It happened at the Clark County health clinic in 110-degree heat with no air conditioning. I’m standing there in pain while the staff frantically looked for something to pull it out. A janitor finally produced a pair of pliers and removed the three-inch sliver of metal, followed by a spurt of blood. I made it to the top of the stairs before fainting dead away.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one appearing woozy today. A dozen cots had been set up on the far side of the gym and a lovely group of Army nurses attended several prone soldiers.
A loud, tall, skinny drink of water just ahead of me in line temporarily distracted my attention from the nurses. “This ain’t nothing to worry ’bout. Why my grandfather fought at the Alamo. Now there was a good fight. I’ve had wildcats scratch me worst then this while inspecting our oil wells. No little bitty shot can scare any Texan worth his salt. Bring it on. Hook ’em horns.” He extended his arms and fingers in a University of Texas pose.
One glance at old Tex’s round baby face and I could tell he was scared shitless, but to his credit, he never dropped his bravado. “Everything is going to be just fine. Trust me, boys.” Tex turned to the first medic and held a single bill aloft. “One hundred dollars for whoever does the best job.”
“Yes sir,” the corpsmen responded in unison and proceeded to ease him through the line, using regular needles instead of the guns. Of course, they switched right back after Tex went through. One guy almost shot me twice in the side of the head. You can’t blame them. A hundred bucks is nearly a whole month’s salary for a lot of soldiers.
Tex said, “See, not so bad.” Then his eyes rolled back and he fainted dead away. Fortunately, we caught him, before he dashed out his brains on the gym floor.
A nurse came over, knelt down, and felt Tex’s pulse. “Please pick him up and put him on that empty cot over there.”
“Where’s my hundred?” One of the corpsmen cried out.
“You’ll have to wait until he’s conscious,” I yelled back.
The nurse laughed. I asked her, “So, what’s your name?”
“Lieutenant Clark,” she said, “and thanks for helping.”
Lieutenant Clark was blond, about five-foot-five, with very shapely legs and dressed in a white nurse’s uniform and cap. She had small features, but full lips and a slightly upturned nose. I could easily be in love and couldn’t help staring as she applied a cold compress to Tex’s forehead.
“Why don’t you take a picture, it’ll last longer,” she smiled.
“I would if I had a camera, and then keep it next to my heart always,” I replied.
“Aren’t you the smooth talker? It couldn’t have been that long since you’ve been with a woman.”
“No, it hasn’t, but all others pale in comparison. Do you think I could visit you sometime and maybe share an ice cream cone, or a shower?”
She laughed again. “Maybe…after your hair grows back, cue ball.” She patted me where my hair used to be. Embarrassed, I started to respond but got interrupted when Tex opened his eyes and sat up.
“What happened?” Tex asked. “Everything went black.”
“You bit the dust, but this pretty little filly brought you back to life,” I said.
“How are you, soldier?” Sara asked.
“I’m just fine, ma’am,” Tex replied. “Let me give you a hundred for taking such exquisite care of me.”
“Not necessary…besides, these two gentlemen are the ones who kept you from cracking your skull open.”
Tex reached into his pocket and pulled out the biggest roll of hundred-dollar bills I had ever seen. “Well then, here’s a hundred for each of you too.”
“Why not,” said Steve, taking the bill offered. I did the same.
“There’s plenty more where that came from.” He extended his hand to me. “Howdy, I’m Pat Riley from Midlands, Texas, and the richest, orneriest, best lookin’, son-of-a-gun west of the Mississippi. You two guys are my new best friends.”
“Thanks, Tex,” I said. “Hope you don’t faint the first time Charlie takes a shot at you. He might miss and hit me.”
“Hell, I’m not going to Vietnam, boy. Senator Lucas got me in the Texas National Guard. I do my eight weeks here, one meeting a month, two weeks at camp each summer, and in five years, I’m a free man.”
“Son-of-a-bitch, why didn’t I think of that?” I related to Tex and Sarah my draft board story of woe.
“Look, partner,” proposed Tex, “If you keep me out of trouble for the rest of basic training, I’ll see what Senator Lucas can do for you.”
“Why would a Texas Senator help me?” I asked.
“If my daddy said so, Senator Lucas would run naked through the streets of Dallas crying, Save the Alamo.”
“Pat, I believe you’re right. We are going to be best friends.”
I said goodbye to Sara, with a promise to see her later, and then we went outside to wait for the others to finish. I suggested Tex use some of his cash to make sure he got assigned to Sergeant Wolinski so I could keep an eye on him. Tex said he’d make the arrangements with the Professor.
“Who’s that?” Steve asked.
Tex explained, “He’s our company clerk. He got the nickname because he holds a Ph.D. in English.”
“What the heck is he doing in the Army?” I asked.
Tex said, “That’s the good part of the story. The Professor had always been a mama’s boy–you know, thirty years old, a virgin, and still living at home. One day, his mom kicks him out and tells him, time to become a man. So, instead of moving into an apartment and getting laid, he has a brain fart and joins the Army. After he failed basic training three times straight, the Army assigned him permanently to Fort Dix as a clerk.”
“Unbelievable,” said Steve.
Wolinski had begun gathering his flock, so we bid Tex adios, and rejoined our platoon. After chow, we got fitted for our class “A” dress uniforms and issued our combat web harness complete with canteen, ammo pouch, compass, and rain poncho. Sarge next marched us to the Post Exchange (PX) to pick up a few personal supplies.
Later after lights out, Steve said, “You know, Eli, so far the Army isn’t so bad. We’re paid a salary, given three square meals a day, free housing, clothing and laundry service, and all we have to do is sit around or stand in line.”
“Yeah, just like prison. And someday soon, somebody, somewhere, will order you to kill another human being, before they kill you.”
Steve sighed, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that part.”
The hissing of air brakes woke me. My wristwatch said five in the morning and my grumbling stomach yelled for food. I shook Steve, still racked out in the seat beside me.
“Come on sweetheart,” he said, with his eyes still closed. “Let’s cuddle a few minutes longer.”
I wanted to put my arm around him to see what he would do but decided instead to shake him again. Disoriented, Steve cracked opened one eye; very disappointed to see me instead of his girlfriend.
I said, “Good morning, Sunshine. According to the entry sign, this is beautiful Fort Dix, United States Combat Training Center and Home of the Ultimate Weapon. Wait, we can’t be at the right place–I’m a bleeder.”
We didn’t have long to ponder our fate because a scowling, darkly-tanned soldier, closely resembling a giant sequoia, with limbs and trunk as thick and strong, climbed on the bus. Our welcoming committee of one, wearing fatigues, a Smoky the Bear hat, and carrying a bullet-tipped swagger stick, stood at the front and loudly announced. “Ladies, this is basic infantry training and my name is Sergeant Wolinski. My job during the next eight weeks is to turn you pansy, out-of-shape, knock-kneed, pigeon-toed, brain-dead civilians into a finely tuned, physically fit, fighting machine. Now I’m sure the last few hours have been rough and you’re confused, tired and hungry–am I right?”
We nodded–what an understanding man.
“I DON”T CARE!” Wolinski’s voice blew us back into our seats. “You’ve got two minutes to hustle your sorry butts off this bus, grab your gear, and fall into formation in front of that welcome sign. “NOW MOVE!”
A slight hesitation, then thirty guys tried to cram into the aisle and out the door at the same time. Wolinski stood at the exit, encouraging each man as he stepped off the bus, by screaming, “MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!”
Sarge would alternate his supportive words. “HAUL TAIL, YOU MAGGOT!” Or my personal favorite. “GET GOING, OR I’LL STICK MY BOOT SO FAR UP YOUR ASS IT WILL COME OUT YOUR NOSE!”
We scrambled off the bus, claimed our baggage from the civilian driver (who seemed very amused by all this), and somehow made it into a ragged-looking bunch–our best collective guess as to what constituted a formation. Wolinski continued his tirade. “Straighten up those lines. Stand at attention when I’m talking to you, eyes forward shoulders back and heels together. Count off by fours, starting with the front row, the first man on the left.”
When we finished, Wolinski went eyeball-to-eyeball with a tall, gangly recruit. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Not now it isn’t. Anybody with more than 13 letters in their last name gets called Alphabet. Is that okay with you–Private Alphabet?”
Wolinski worked his way down the line, yelling insults at each guy. He reached Steve. “What are you staring at boy? You find me attractive? You want to ask me out?”
“No,” said Steve.
“NO WHAT?” screamed Wolinski.
“NO WAY!” Steve screamed back.
“NO, Drill Sergeant,” corrected Wolinski.
“NO WAY, Drill Sergeant,” mimicked Steve.
“From now on every time I tell you clowns something, I want you to respond with either, yes, drill sergeant, or no, drill sergeant. Is that clear?”
I raised my hand. “So, which is it, Sarge?”
“Which is what?”
“Yes or no?”
“Yes or no…what?” He demanded.
“Yes or no, drill sergeant,” he repeated.
“That’s what I’m trying to find out.”
“Are you stupid?” Wolinski’s eyes bulged from the pressure.
“I’m not the one having trouble answering the question.”
“What question, drill sergeant–remember what you just told us.”
“I’m the drill sergeant, you idiot. I don’t have to say drill sergeant!”
“Well, that doesn’t seem fair.”
Wolinski grabbed me under my arms and lifted me until my feet no longer touched the ground. He hissed in my ear, “Look shit for brains, I hate a smartass. If you ever make fun of me again, I will bury you where they can’t find the body.” Sarge returned me to earth and barked out, “Pick up your gear. And thanks to Private…”
“Jones,” I volunteered.
“Thanks to Private Dickhead, you are going to run the final half mile to the barracks. Platoon left face. DOUBLE-TIME, MARCH!”
I managed to pick up my suitcase, tennis racquet, guitar, and golf clubs just as all the guys faced the same direction at the same time. Sarge called cadence, shouting out a number each time our left foot hit the ground. We arrived shortly without losing anything or anybody, which I’ll bet disappointed Wolinski. Nobody threw up, but all the guys were wheezing, coughing, and bent over from the effort. “Single file, on my command, enter the building, pick out a bunk and locker and then remain standing next to it at attention. MOVE OUT!”
We scrambled up the steps and through a screen door into a two-level, wooden barracks painted white with a dark roof. The building measured about sixty-by-thirty feet with several windows on both sides. There were rows of steel bunk beds perpendicular to the walls with accompanying green wall and foot lockers. A six-foot wide aisle ran down the middle and lead to a large bathroom/shower unit at the end. Steve and I grabbed the first open bunks, just past a wooden post, and threw our gear down. Wolinski strutted in last, acting like the cock of the walk. “Everyone find a spot?”
“YES, DRILL SERGEANT!” We shouted with glee.
“Secure your gear in your locker, and then fall back outside for chow.”
I raised my hand. “My stuff won’t fit in this little footlocker…uh, drill sergeant.”
Wolinski glanced at my guitar, golf clubs, and tennis racquet. “Where in the hell do you think you are–a resort hotel?”
I scratched my head. “Why do people keep asking me that?”
“GET YOUR ASS OUTSIDE!” Wolinski bellowed.
I threw everything on the lower bunk and sprinted out the door.
Once assembled, we headed out, marching past several barracks identical to ours, until we arrived at the mess hall. The cook seemed nicer than the one at the induction center, and he even smiled at us once–out of pity, I’m sure. Our gourmet breakfast consisted of runny, clear, uncooked eggs, sunny side up, burnt toast, mostly raw, chewy bacon, and a warm glass of orange-tinted water flavored with powdered Tang. I picked up my plate and sniffed the food. “My eggs are staring at me.”
“Think of all the weight we’ll lose.” Steve offered.
I agreed. “Gandhi got more calories than this.”
After swallowing what we could stomach, Wolinski dragged us back outside.
“Okay boys, time for your first G.I. Joe haircut.” I cringed. A pair of scissors had not touched my beautiful shoulder-length mane in four years. We marched to the nearest barber pole. Sarge said, “Line up, single file on the sidewalk starting with Private Jones. He looked at me and laughed like the wicked witch of the west. “Be sure to tell them how you’d like it.”
With a heavy heart, I opened the screen door and sat down in the first barber chair. An enlisted man came out of the back, put a cotton sheet over my clothes, and produced a huge electric clipper–the size Australians use to shear sheep. “Just take a little off the sides,” I hopefully requested.
“No problem,” says the barber with a snicker, and then proceeds to cut a path down the middle of my head, within a centimeter of my scalp.
“Careful, you lout!” I cried.
“Sorry sir, let me even that out.” The brute then cut a similar path next to the first one, and so forth, until my entire head had been shaved to mere peach fuzz.
I cursed my assassin. “May a crazed guitarist twang your sister.”
As I exited, the platoon stared at my missing mane with their mouths agape. “Oh my God,” said one soldier, shading his eyes from the glare, “Is that a Yul Brenner cut?”
After each new recruit took his turn getting scalped, Wolinski marched us to our next destination–another white wooden building with a sign that read, “Supply Depot.” We lined up and entered the poorly lit structure that smelled strongly of mothballs. A disinterested clerk handed me an empty duffel bag that I was supposed to take to each station and fill with Army clothing. I didn’t have to worry about color coordination because everything came in olive drab. Apparently, fit didn’t matter either because each clerk would hand me whatever size lay on the closest shelf. No place for Beau Brummel in this man’s Army.
We marched back to our barracks, put our new duds away, and then headed for lunch. My spirits had slightly recovered from this morning’s shearing–even though my head had become several hat sizes smaller. At least now I wouldn’t have to waste any time brushing my hair. I rubbed my hand on top of my head and gave a long sigh. Bastards!
That afternoon we filled out more paperwork, got more military gear, and took more tests. At five p.m. we returned to the barracks carrying our latest issue, an olive drab blanket, white sheets, and a pillowcase. Having been mostly awake since yesterday and ridden more than 800 miles on a bus, I was more than ready for the day to end. Instead, Wolinski announces bed-making training.
Now, my mother tried unsuccessfully asked me to make my bed for several years, but Wolinski turned out to be a different kind of mother. He picked my lower bunk to demonstrate the Army way of folding hospital corners and pulling the sheets and blanket as tight as possible.
“Thanks, Sarge,” I said after he finished. “I’m so tired, I think I’ll skip dinner and go right to sleep.” I flopped down on the bunk and closed my eyes.
Wolinski screamed, “MOVE YOU YO-YO!”
Leaping up, I banged my head on the upper bunk and then stood in pain watching Sarge tear up his good work and throw it on the floor.
Sarge ordered, “Now, I want each one of you pecker-heads to make those beds so tight I can bounce a quarter on them…before you go to chow.”
“Who cares,” I cried. “I’ll sleep on the bare mattress.”
Wolinski shoved me against my wall locker. “There’s the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way. Got it numb nuts?”
“Got it,” I grumbled and began remaking my bed.
Steve whispered, “Boy, Eli, you sure know how to make friends.”
“I’m beginning to dislike this guy.”
“I’m betting he’s not too fond of you either.”
Skipping supper turned out not to be an option, but at least, Wolinski left us alone afterward. Steve and I brushed our teeth and were in bed before they gave the nine o’clock command for lights out.
Small patches of moonlight shone on the scrubbed wooden floor as I lay there trying to picture the gang at Silver Lake. I wondered. How in the blazes did I go from king of the world to bottom of the heap in less than 48 hours?
Steve peered down from the top bunk. “Homesick?”
“I miss Karen.”
“At least, you were getting laid. My girlfriend kept insisting on marriage before sex. For Christ sake, do you realize I could die a virgin?”
“Forget about dying. It’s only the first day.”
“I know we’ll have to go to ‘Nam. I’ve heard you’re damn lucky if you can make it six months in the bush without stepping on a mine or getting shot.”
I frowned. “Not everybody gets hurt, do they?”
“Don’t you pay attention to the news? The media takes great delight in describing painful ways soldiers are killed in Vietnam. The Viet Cong hide sharpened, shit-covered bamboo in deep pits, and if you don’t die from the puncture wounds, you die from the infection. They also hang bamboo stakes in trees hooked to a trip wire, so when released, it swings down and perforates your face.”
“Okay, I get the idea. You can croak a thousand different nasty ways. Thanks for eliminating my image of Karen in a bathing suit.”
“You weren’t going to flog the flagpole, were you? I could be seriously hurt if you shook me out of bed from this height.”
“Shut up you moron and go to sleep. I’ll bet morning comes real early around here.”
Dad drove me to the Springfield induction center. “I’ll put your car in storage while you’re gone,” he said in a husky voice.
I got my stuff out of the trunk. We stood beside the car looking at each other for the longest time–an awkward moment, like at the end of a first date, when you don’t know if you should kiss the girl, or just leave quickly and avoid the rejection. There were similar scenes all around us with mothers, fathers, girlfriends…all saying goodbye…nobody wanting to let go. I gave him a final bear hug. “Love you too, dad.”
My father is not very emotional, but a tear appeared, and then another. “Take care of yourself son. Watch your back.”
“Goodbye father,” I managed to mumble, getting a little misty myself watching him drive away. With a heavy sigh, I went inside.
Several fellow draftees already stood in a long line leading to a burly sergeant seated behind a desk, busy checking off names and directing new recruits to the next station. I joined the cue and started shuffling forward, pushing my suitcase with my foot, while holding my guitar in one hand, and my draft notice in the other. My tennis racquet and golf clubs were slung over my shoulder. I finally reached the sergeant and held out my letter.
He looked up and exclaimed, “Sweet Mary Mother of God.”
“Nope, Eli Jones. Is this where I check in?”
“What do you think this is–a hotel?”
“What do I win if I guess right?”
“Oh, a smart ass,” the sergeant growled. “You’re damn lucky I don’t beat you to a pulp.” He ripped the letter from my hand. “Now before I change my mind, take all your crap, stuff it in a locker, and then report on the double to classroom number five.”
I sat down on the corner of his desk, “Any chance of me going home instead?” I beat a hasty retreat when smoke began to pour out of his ears.
After storing my gear, I arrived at a large open atrium, lit mainly by a dirty skylight from above, and climbed a set of stairs to the second floor. I located the correct room, entered, and squeezed into an antique one-piece wooden desk–obtained, I’m guessing, from a torn down one-room schoolhouse. Next to me sat a familiar-looking, skinny guy, about my height, with red hair and a lot of freckles. We exchanged introductions, and he turned out to be Steve Butler, a guy I had met at a high school tennis match a few years before.
“So, what do we do here?” I asked him.
“We’re supposed to take an Army intelligence test–like you need brains to be a soldier,” said Steve.
“Yeah, isn’t that an oxymoron–putting Army and intelligence in the same sentence?” We chuckled at our cleverness.
The testing sergeant arrived, took his place up front and then barked out, “All right, take a seat.” I watched in amazement as one recruit picked up the nearest chair/desk and started toward the door. “Okay, wise guy, put it back, and listen up.”
Without taking a breath, in an unintelligible monotone, he raced through the following statement: “This is the Army intelligence test. You are allowed 25 minutes to complete it. Don’t leave the room and remain absolutely silent at all times. Be sure to use a number two pencil to mark the correct answer in each box. There will be no cheating allowed. If I see your eyes on somebody else’s paper I will rip your test into tiny pieces, make you eat it, and pound you into the ground. Answer all of the questions. Do not leave any section blank. Do not open your test booklets until I tell you to begin. Are there any questions?”
I raised my hand. “Could you please repeat that again…a lot slower?”
Our host smiled, walked over to my desk, and bellowed the same speech even faster than before. With my ears ringing like an angry phone, I wilted and sank a little lower in my chair.
“Before we begin,” the sergeant continued, “is there anyone here that can’t read?”
Steve leaned over and whispered to me. “What moron over 18 can’t read?”
We stopped snickering when a huge mass rose silently behind us and blocked out the sun. Over our shoulder stood a pair of 300-pound frowning giants, who resembled starting tackles for the Chicago Bears. Luckily, the sergeant escorted them out of the room before Steve and I became the Springfield induction center’s first casualties.
The sergeant returned and passed out the test booklets, an answer sheet, and the aforementioned number two pencils. Checking the wall clock, he announced, “It’s eleven hundred hours. You are alloted until 1155 to finish. Go.”
Steve and I were done in less than ten minutes and spent the rest of the time staring at flies on the ceiling and our navels because we didn’t want the Sergeant to make us eat our test. At last, he said, “Time’s up. Put down your pencils, close your booklets, and report to the mess hall downstairs. You’ve got one hour for chow.”
We made our way downstairs and stood in yet another long line. Steve asked, “Why do you suppose they call this a mess hall, instead of a cafeteria?”
I suggested, “Maybe it has something to do with the food presentation.”
We grabbed some aluminum silverware and a tray. The aging cook serving the food had a potbelly and a previously broken nose. He wore a too-small white T-shirt covered by a full-length apron, but no protective covering over his stringy, greasy hair. His right arm sported a full-length tattoo of a mostly-naked woman, called Daisy, and a lit cigarette hung from his mouth that periodically dropped ashes into the food.
The guy ahead of me held out his tray, Sarge tossed him a burnt piece of toast and then slopped on an overflowing spoonful of runny, gray-colored gravy with tiny brown flecks. The accompanying aroma reminded me of passing too close to a rendering plant in the summertime.
I felt nauseous. Steve looked on with the same disgusted face that I had. When it was my turn, Sarge growled, “Hold out your tray.” Instinctively, I clutched it tighter to my chest. “What is that stuff…and is it toxic?” I asked.
The cook smiled, “Creamed chipped beef on toast is an Army specialty that we fondly call SOS or shit on a shingle.”
“Sounds delicious, but I’ll pass. Is there a salad bar?”
“What do you think this is–a hotel?”
“You’re the second person to ask me that today.”
“Take it or go hungry,” he exploded.
I held out my tray. Sarge heaped up an extra portion of slop over the blackest, coldest piece of toast he could find with two flicks of his cigarette to top it off.
I whispered to Steve. “Obviously, you don’t want to piss off the help.”
We grabbed a couple slices of white bread, a glass of watered-down iced tea and found an empty table.
“What are we doing here, Eli?” Steve moaned.
“Don’t know about you, but I got drafted.”
Steve lamented, “I had just gotten my college degree, a new job, a steady girlfriend, and my own apartment. I had plans, you know.”
“Army doesn’t care. They nailed me in the middle of my undergraduate degree.”
“You should protest.”
“I did…and see where it got me.”
We finished lunch and reported to the next station. A pimpled-faced medic ushered us into a drafty room and told us to take off our clothes, hang them on the hooks on the back wall, and then stand behind a yellow line. Not a pretty picture–twenty naked, fat, tall, skinny, short, white, brown and black guys all standing in a row–visually proving that not all men are created equal.
A weary-looking doctor entered, and starting with the guy on the left, told the guy to take a deep breath and hold it while he thumped on the man’s chest in three places and listened through his stethoscope.
Pulling on a rubber glove, Doc started over, grabbing the first man’s balls in his hand. “Turn your head and cough.” After finishing that charming little procedure on the rest of us, he discarded the first rubber glove, put on a fresh one, dipped his index finger in a jar of Vaseline, and announced, “Turn around, bend over, grab your cheeks and spread ’em.”
You guessed it. One draftee bent over, stuck a finger in each side of his mouth and pulled his cheeks as far apart as he could. The doctor shook his head. “No, son, your other cheeks.”
This got everybody laughing. We looked rather funny anyway with our head on the ground, ass in the air, and the doctor sticking his finger up each man’s wazoo. Soon the wisecracks started…
“We must stop meeting like this.”
“Warm up those hands.”
“Do you do rear end alignments?”
“Are things looking up?”
“Do you enjoy working in a dead-end job?”
“I bet you never forget a face.”
“Are you sure it’s okay to do this on the first date?”
The doctor never laughed, because I’m sure he’d heard it all a hundred times before. In a monotone, he told us to put on our clothes and move to the next station.
A series of tests followed, including jogging on a treadmill with electrodes taped to my chest, giving blood and urine samples, plus getting measured and weighed. While a cute nurse took my blood pressure, I hit on her. “Being this close to a beautiful woman is bound to throw off my reading, don’t you think?” She never smiled. Doesn’t anybody in the Army have a sense of humor?
I ended up in the eye doctor’s office, still a bit uncomfortable because I had leftover petroleum jelly in my underwear. I figured the ophthalmologist remained my best opportunity to be rejected; so, I decided to go for broke, when he requested, “Take out your contacts, so I can test your uncorrected vision.”
Like a blind man, I stumbled over and started touching his face. “I want to remember the man who helped me return to civilian life.”
“Nice try. Sit in the chair and read line ten on the chart.”
“What chair? What chart? Keep talking, so I can follow your voice and find you. Do you offer an eye chart in Braille?”
“Look, you still have to go in the Army, even if you need lenses the thickness of a Coke bottle bottom.”
“Glasses, I don’t need any stinking glasses. I need a dog. Does the Army provide Seeing Eye dogs? Can the dogs go into combat? What if I shoot one of my own men? What if I shoot the dog? You wouldn’t want that on your conscience.”
“Sorry, but I’ve heard it all before,” he stated, unmoved. “And you can’t wear your contacts 18 hours a day.”
I protested. “But the only other thing I own is my prescription sunglasses that I use when lifeguarding.”
“Those will do until the Army can make a new pair of regular glasses. I’ll give you a note. By the way, you need to see the psychologist. The intelligence test you took this morning had some discrepancies.”
My heart leaped with joy!
In the hallway outside the shrink’s office, I messed up my hair and assumed my best wild-eyed look. Taking a deep breath, I opened the door. The doctor sat behind a desk working a crossword puzzle. “Name?” he asked, as I entered.
“Eli Jones,” I gave a nervous laugh. “Crazy as they come.”
“I reviewed your test and you missed every single question. What do you think about that?”
“Oh, no,” I cried. “You promised! I want to kill, kill, and kill again.”
“Sure you do. It would take a very clever person to get all the questions wrong. Good effort, son, but you’re in the Army now. Go to the first floor and wait until called.” As I walked out, head hung down, the shrink asked, “By the way, do you know a seven-letter word for bad luck?”
“Yeah,” I said, “DRAFTED.”
I wandered downstairs to the waiting area, which had all the charm of an abandoned bus station. Steve waved me over to the bench where he was sitting. “How did it go?”
“Crappy, I passed everything with flying colors.”
He shook his head, “Yeah, me too. Wonder what happens now?”
“I’m afraid to find out.”
Thirty minutes later, a bored-looking private walked up with a clipboard. “Listen up. When you hear your name called, go to the big conference room at the end of the hallway. Wait there until Lieutenant Perkins arrives for the swearing in ceremony. If I don’t call your name, see me afterward.”
Steve and I chanted a silent mantra together. Don’t call my name. Don’t call my name. Don’t call my name. No such luck. With morale dangerously low, we followed the rest of the sorry mob to the conference room.
We didn’t wait long until a way-too-cheerful officer came bounding into the room and introduced himself as Lieutenant Perkins. “Gentleman, please rise, raise your right hand and repeat after me.”
Everyone came to their feet and most put their right hand in the air. “No men, your other right hand,” Perkins pointed out to those in error. “I, state your name, do solemnly swear,” the Lieutenant paused and waited for us to repeat, so we did. “I, state your name, do swear…”
“Uh…no, each of you should say your individual name. Okay? Let’s try it again.” This time, we got it right.
“I, Eli J. Jones, do solemnly swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America, defending this country’s flag, people, and property with my life if need be, and to obey all direct orders without question from my superiors. So help me God.”
I hung my head. No turning back. Why don’t you just shoot me now and get it over with?
Lieutenant Perkins beamed. “Congratulations men, you’re now in the United States Army. By the way, any of you who crossed your fingers behind your back while taking the oath (how could he see that from way up front?), it doesn’t matter. You’re still a soldier for the next two years.” Perkins continued. “Please be seated until your orders are cut, and then you will be magically transported to basic training.”
Steve said, “This guy sounds like a tram guide at Disneyland.”
Sgt. Smith arrived about thirty minutes later, divided us into groups, and handed out our papers. Steve and I were both assigned to Fort Dix, New Jersey, where suicide is redundant. Smith told us to gather up our personal belongings, and board the number nine bus at the back of the building. I couldn’t believe we were going to spend the next twelve to fourteen hours riding on a bus. My bad day had turned into a nightmare.
“Are you going on vacation?” Steve asked when he saw me dragging my golf bag, tennis racquet, guitar, and luggage across the lobby floor.
“Does this seem like a vacation? I just like to maintain my things about me when venturing into the unknown.” Steve chuckled and helped me get my stuff through the double doors. He carried only a small duffel bag.
Outside, we came face-to-face with a group of Wittenberg University students protesting the war. An attractive, blond-haired girl, wearing a fringed buckskin jacket, and carrying a make love, not war sign, smiled and motioned for me to come closer. As I approached, I hoped she might want to wish me luck, and maybe offer a goodbye kiss, but instead, she spat at me and hissed, “Baby killer.”
Stunned, I started to reply–I’m not a killer. I’m a college student just like you. But, three military policemen with nightsticks stepped between us to stop any trouble.
“Get back with the others, son,” said one of the MPs.
The Greyhound driver took my gear and threw it into one of the underneath compartments. I climbed the steps, walked down the aisle and sat down next to Steve. As the bus slowly pulled out of the station, the protesters continued raising their fists and shouting obscenities at us, while fighting with the MPs, who were busy pushing the students further away from the induction center. I shook my head and said to Steve, “When did you and I become the bad guys?”
The bus turned onto the Old National Road and headed out of town, leaving Springfield and our previous lives behind. Neither of us felt like talking, so I stared out the window watching the little towns slide by until I fell asleep somewhere in West Virginia.
“My appeal went well,” I told Karen and John, “Except for the part where they turned me down and dragged me screaming out of the room. This bastard Willie, who apparently runs the draft board, ignored every word I said.” They listened in disbelief as I related my sad story.
“Now will you consider Canada?” John asked when I had finished.
“Don’t forget marriage and a baby,” Karen added.
“Why don’t I marry in Canada, produce a baby, and declare myself a homo? It won’t help. This man is pure evil–if you’re breathing, then you’re dead meat. There is no place to hide.”
“What will you do?” Karen asked.
“I want to get drunk and feel sorry for myself.”
John lit up. “So what do we do when we’re feeling blue?”
“LIFEGUARD PARTY,” Karen and I said in sync.
“I’ll spread the word and reserve the party cabin for tomorrow night.” John offered.
The party cabin is a 1930s dance hall built into the hillside overlooking Silver Lake. It features a significant screened-in, semi-circular porch on stilts that takes advantage of the steady cool breezes coming out of the valley. Inside there is plenty of space for dancing, ten picnic tables for sitting, and at the east end, a classic bar, with a converted horse trough for icing down the beer. A dusty moose head hangs on the north wall with a lacy bra from some previous soiree dangling permanently from one of the antlers.
When John got married last year, we rented the cabin for his bachelor blowout, so nobody would try to drive home drunk. Our plan would have been perfect if Larry, one of the ushers, hadn’t found where we hid his car keys, and managed, while searching in town for more ice, to crash into the back of a parked car. “The guy was moving like a turtle,” Larry later explained after we bailed him out.
People come from miles around for our infamous nighttime lifeguard soirees, mainly because of a convenient nearby forest, where couples can slip away for a fun time. Yep, at Silver Lake, if you kick the bushes during a lifeguard party, they’re likely to kick you back!
When we arrived later that night, the party was already in full swing. The live band, playing “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love” had the crowd rocking, so Karen grabbed my hand and pulled me onto the dance floor. We found a small open spot and joined the others, shuffling and rhythmically twitching our bodies, in a ritualistic mating dance that goes back to the dawn of time.
Several beers later, I had achieved totally wasted, along with most of the other party people, but Karen remained raring to go. “Uh oh,” she observed, looking at my droopy eyes, “You’re getting that sleepy, about to pass out look. Let’s grab some fresh air before you’re no good to me at all.”
Karen dragged me outside. “Okay, lover boy. “What’s your pleasure tonight? Most of the best bushes will be gone by now. Want to try the high dive?”
“Oh no,” I shook my head. “Last time we almost bounced to our death.”
“I know, let’s take out a canoe. It will be so romantic on the lake in the moonlight.”
Doing the horizontal mambo in an unstable canoe was nuts, but I agreed anyway. We walked down the hill to the beach, grabbed a couple of paddles, and shoved off. With no headwind, it didn’t take us long to find a secluded spot. We moved together to cuddle. “I’m going to miss you,” I said.
Karen kissed me long and hard. “Ditto.”
One of her shoulder straps had fallen. I kissed the side of her neck and then worked my way down her shoulder. Karen moaned. I pulled off my T-shirt, slid my hand under her skirt, and removed her lace panties. Karen blew into my ear and unbuckled my jeans. I slid off her other shoulder strap and her dress fell in a heap to the bottom of our craft. We crashed together like rams in mating season. Our locked bodies’ energetic locomotion started the canoe rhythmically rocking, and before we knew it, our un-seaworthy vessel flipped over.
Karen got in one brief scream before we hit the dark, cold water. Shivering, she asked. “What are we going to do now?” Looking at her, the semi-submerged canoe, and our nakedness–I couldn’t help it–I began laughing. “This is not funny,” Karen insisted, but I saw a smile sneak onto her luscious lips.
“Oh yes, it is. We are treading water in the middle of a lake, our clothes are gone, and I have a major boner–having recently suffered from coitus interrupt us.”
Karen giggled. “Poor baby, let me fix that.” She swam over and put me in a very interesting lifeguard carry.
“I don’t remember this from the Red Cross manual,” I said, as we paddled our way across the lake.
“Sure you do. This is the tired swimmers carry, designed for a non-panicking, cooperative victim. The instructions say–lay on your back. Spread your legs. Put your hands on my shoulders and relax.”
She had it right, just like the picture in the manual (except for the relax part). But, I’ll bet the Red Cross never had this version in mind.
We arrived at the shore and after a quick glance around to make sure we were alone, we jumped up and streaked into the guard shack. After drying off and sharing one more naked, lingering kiss, we got dressed using the spare bathing suits and jackets we kept in our lockers.
Karen wrapped her arms around me. “I love you, Eli.”
“I love you too, Karen, and don’t worry about me; I’ll sort out this draft business.”
“I don’t want you hurt.”
“I’m very good at hide and seek.”
“That’s not funny,” she said.
I agreed. “Come on, let me take you home.”
We hiked back up the hill to the party cabin and found a few diehards still awake; sitting around, guzzling beer, and singing one of our favorite drinking songs.
“Now I am a member of the Souse family,
The best family that ever came over from old Germany,
There’s the Highland Dutch and the Lowland Dutch,
The Rotterdam Dutch and the goddamn Dutch,
Singing glorious, glorious, one keg of beer for the four of us,
Glory be that there are no more of us,
For one of us could drink it all alone,
All alone, all alone, glory be that there are no more of us,
For one of us could drink it all alone (damn near)!”
Why is it whenever people get drunk, they think they can sing? Wincing at the discordant melody coming from the lousy, but enthusiastic, choir, we declined the invitation to join them and the nearby howling dogs.
Between working and seeing Karen every night until she went back to college, the next sixty days flew by. My dad tried to intervene with the draft board on my behalf but had no more luck than I did. In fact, my father, who never loses his temper, shook Willie so hard the prick’s false teeth fell out. Willie didn’t press charges only because my dad had been a decorated WW II veteran.
I had run out of time and options.
My last night at home, I spent with my family. “Make sure you take enough warm clothes,” mother sniffled. “You never know where they might send you for basic training and it’s already mid-October.”
“Don’t worry, mother. The Army provides you with food, clothing, and shelter, plus they pay you $100 a month just to let people take shots at you.” She did not look amused. “I’ll be fine. In fact, I hear that Army bases have a lot of recreational facilities, so I plan to take along my tennis racquet and golf clubs.”
My father smiled. “I wouldn’t count on too much free time in basic training.”
My twelve-year-old brother asked the question on everyone’s mind. “Are you going to die?”
My fake smile melted. “Not if I can help it. Maybe the war will end, or I won’t be sent to Vietnam. We can always hope.” I tried to sound positive for my family’s sake, but knew I was being pulled down a path to a place I didn’t want to go.
I had lost my appetite. I couldn’t breathe. It felt like someone had shoved my hand into a wall socket while I stood knee deep in water. My mind raced in a thousand directions. What happened to my student deferment? How far is Canada? Had I just soiled my underwear? I wiped the gravy off my notice and stuck it in my pocket.
“Well, this is wrong,” my father said, “You have a student deferment. Tomorrow I want you to march right down to that draft board and straighten them out.”
“I’ll try,” I said. “But what happens if they won’t listen?” Nobody had an answer. Getting up from the table, I began pacing back and forth. Why me?
I decided to drive over to John Winston, my best buddy, and fellow lifeguard to commiserate my situation. When I got there, John, who is about my height with sandy hair and brown eyes, was sitting on his front porch drinking a beer. I plopped down in an adjacent chair.
Noting my frown, he asked, “What’s up?”
“I just got my draft notice.”
“You’re kidding. I thought you had a student deferment?”
“I did. The draft board says my school certification didn’t arrive in time.”
“Oh man, that happened to Dave Harrington, and he got sent straight to ‘Nam.”
I hesitated to ask. “Did he make it?”
“Nah, he got wasted by the Viet Cong somewhere near Da Nang. You wanna beer?”
We sat there drinking for a few minutes without speaking.
Finally, John suggested, “Some guys are going to Canada.”
“I don’t know, man.”
John said, “You don’t believe in this war, do you?”
“No…but isn’t it our duty as citizens to serve?”
“Hey, I think a person would have to be crazy to put himself in harm’s way just because LBJ wants to improve the economy.”
“Yeah, it’s not that I’m afraid to go…I just don’t understand why we are over there.”
John smiled. “So screw the government and take up hockey in Canada.”
“I can’t see abandoning America. What are my other options?”
“You got any physical defects?”
“I’m blind as a bat without my contacts.”
“Nope, that doesn’t count. Uncle Sam wants you up close and personal, so you won’t miss the little devils when you shoot them. You like girls, right?”
I puffed out my chest. “Damn straight.”
“Are you sure? Because they kick you out if you’re queer.”
“Check with Karen, if you don’t believe me.”
“Okay, how about you knock up your girlfriend and marry her.”
I shook my head. “…and ruin both our lives? No, thanks.”
John thought for a moment. “Can you say it’s against your beliefs to kill another human being?”
“That idea has possibilities. Maybe my minister would write me a letter.”
“Forget about it.” John laughed. “Pastor Tom hates you. Remember when he threw you out of the church, because you questioned him, in front of the entire congregation, about having to be Christian in order to be truly happy.”
“I just observed there are millions of Buddhists and Muslims in the world, and that some of them had to be happy–then he turned purple, started sputtering and calling me the anti-Christ.”
John chuckled. “Yeah, I thought he was going to have a heart attack.”
“Maybe I’m worrying for nothing and this is all a mistake.”
John said, “Local Draft Board 13? I don’t think so.”
We were getting nowhere fast and I had to get to work, so I finished my second beer in the car, threw the empty in the boot, and put the pedal to the metal. But even the joy of flying in my Corvette through the night on a winding, country road couldn’t help me get my mind off that draft notice.
Normally working at WBLY-FM, a middle-of-the-road radio station based in Springfield, gave me a chance to relax after a hectic day at the beach. All the other employees go home at five p.m., so I have the place to myself. All I have to do is intro the records, rip and read the news from the Associated Press teleprinter on the half-hour, and write down the transmitter readings in the daily log. But tonight, I just couldn’t concentrate. Maybe they sent the notice to the wrong Eli Jones. It’s a common name.
At 10:00 p.m. on the dot, Karen walked through the back door, wearing flops, tan shorts, and a thin white top with no bra.
“Are you happy to see me or just cold?” I joked, after observing her headlights on high beam.
“Happy to see you, of course, darling.” She sat down on my lap and her eyes got real big. “It feels like you were expecting me as well.”
Oh yeah, I couldn’t have been readier. My life was in the toilet, but Karen still could make me horny. I shook my head…and tried to temporarily ignore the hot woman sitting so close and smelling so delicious. “Karen, I’ve got some bad news…”
“Don’t tell me…you’re pregnant.”
“I got my draft notice today.”
She pulled back. “What?”
“Something got screwed up with my student deferment.”
“You can’t go.”
“What choice do I have? I don’t want people thinking I’m a coward.”
“One out of every 13 U.S. soldiers in Vietnam comes home in a bag. Do you want to die for some unknown political agenda?”
“I’m 19. Death is not in my immediate plans.”
She kissed me on the forehead. “Then you have to do whatever’s necessary to stay alive.”
I slipped on a Dave Brubeck album, tried to put Vietnam out of my head, and instead focus on Karen. We only paused making out long enough for me to flip the L.P. on the turntable and then continued to fiddle about until my shift ended at midnight. I shut down the equipment, turned off the lights, and locked the door behind us.
Karen loves to dance, so we jumped into my car, and headed to a club we liked in Huber Heights.
“Can I help with your stick shift?” Karen offered on the way.
“No thanks,” I shook my head. “The little general is still recovering from our session in the studio.”
I flipped on the radio and we sang along to My Baby Does the Hanky Panky.
We arrived at the Diamond Club around one in the morning. The place was packed because the beer is cheap, they have a great house band and no cover charge. We showed our IDs, and since I’m 19, the guy at the door marked my hand with a red symbol. Karen, who had just turned twenty-one, got a blue stamp.
We found a table, sat down, and started reviewing my options. To her credit, Karen didn’t run out of the room when I suggested marriage. We also discussed me claiming to be a homosexual.
Karen pondered. “Hmmm…that could work…if I dress you in the right clothes.”
“Are you kidding?” I shouted over the band, “Nobody’s going to believe I’m gay.” Of course, the band stopped playing right before the “I’m gay” part. Upon hearing my loud confession, everyone stopped and stared in my direction. One guy even gave me a thumbs up.
We continued discussing my options, dancing, and drinking until closing. I took Karen home, thanked her for her help, and after a proper goodnight kiss, headed for Silver Lake. If it got real late, I’d often crash at the beach, allowing me a few extra minutes sleep in the morning. Tonight was one of those nights. I finally drifted off sometime after three a.m., overcome with swirling images of Karen running naked through the jungle while bombs fell from the sky.
The next day I went to see my physician, Doc Brown, the first person on my list. After a quick stop to give the lab a blood sample, I proceeded to the examination room, which still held a lingering hint of his Old Spice aftershave. I undressed and put on the blue cloth dressing gown with the big slit down the back, which provided both natural air conditioning, and an occasional peek-a-boo view of my naked posterior.
After a few minutes wait, Dr. Brown entered and checked me over from head to foot. Exam concluded, he said, “We’ll have to wait for the blood tests to be sure, but I’d say you have nothing to be concerned about.”
“You must have missed something Doc because I haven’t felt well for the last couple of days. I’ve had violent stomach cramps, boils under my arms, and dark patches all over my body.”
“Oh?” He appeared surprised. “I don’t see anything now.”
“Well, it comes and goes. Do you recognize the symptoms?”
“It sounds like Black Death.”
“Oh no,” I put my hand over my mouth and start to weep. “Looks like I only have a few weeks to live. You have to tell my draft board I can’t go.”
“Now I understand the sudden need for a physical. You don’t have the plague. It died out in the 12th century. Do you take me for a fool?”
“I’ll take you dancing if you’ll write an excuse to my draft board.” Before he could reply, I walked over to the skeleton hanging in the corner, “You know, Doc, you’re not looking too healthy yourself. Have you lost weight?”
The real Dr. Brown stood with his arms crossed, looking not the least bit amused. “Oh, I believe you’re crazy, but I won’t write any letter…you…you, draft dodger. I can’t stand any man who won’t proudly serve his country. Now get the hell out of my office!”
While Dr. Brown searched for something heavy to throw, I ran toward the exit. “Remember they can draft doctors up to the age of 50!” I escaped to the safety of the waiting room, just before hearing a loud crash against the other side of the door.
After waiting nearly an hour, the receptionist gave me the high sign to enter Rabbi Cohen’s chamber. He invited me to sit down. “I understand you are a conscientious objector. Is that correct?”
“Yes, your worship.” I intoned. “I can’t bring myself to shoot our poor helpless Viet Cong brothers, who never did me any harm.”
“Are you a member of our synagogue?”
“No, your holiness, but I have a lot of Jewish friends.”
He looked somewhat surprised. “You’re not Jewish?”
“No, but I could get circumcised if it would help–what do you call it–a bisque? Oh, and I could start wearing one of those funny round hats.”
“That won’t be necessary, Eli.” The Rabbi chuckled. “And by the way, ritual circumcision is called Bris Milah. What religion are you, assuming you do attend somewhere?”
“I’m Methodist by nature.”
“So why doesn’t your minister write the letter?”
“Pastor Tom and I have different religious philosophies. He’s asked me not to set foot on church grounds again, or he’ll have me shot. Obviously, he’s not a conscientious objector.”
“Well Eli, you’re not Jewish. I don’t know you from a cake of soap and have no clue if you are against violence. Why should I write you a letter?”
“Can you do it on faith? Please, I’ll look terrible in green.”
“Sorry, I think not.” He started to leave but turned back. “Just out of curiosity, how many others have you asked?”
“Besides you?” I counted in my head, “Five–three ministers and two priests.”
The rabbi smiled. “Besides, even if they accept you as a conscientious objector, you can still be drafted. Think about it. You’re on the front lines and bullets are flying all around, do you want to be carrying a medic’s bag or a rifle?”
I sighed. “You’re right,” and started to leave. “But, I’m not giving up yet.”
“Good for you, Eli, and best of luck.”
“Thanks for the advice. Say, do you know where I could find a Buddhist monk?”
The day arrived for me to review my case with the draft board. I picked out my best suit and tie, practiced my arguments, and then headed toward Springfield and my moment of truth. A clerk told me to wait on a long wooden bench in the hallway, so I took a seat next to several other draftees. I figured the kid with the dark glasses and white cane had a valid case, and it appeared promising for the guy with a wife and two kids, even if they were a rent-a-family. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
A clerk called out my name and held the door open for me to go inside. I swallowed hard, stood up, and entered the dark, foreboding chamber. I could barely make out the five guys sitting behind a table on the far side of the room. It reminded me of a TV show where the testifying mob witness is shrouded in shadows and his voice disguised, so he can’t be identified and later whacked.
A deep, gravelly voice rang out, “Eli J. Jones?”
He instructed me to stand behind a yellow line painted on the floor about 12 feet away from the board. “What additional testimony or evidence do you wish to present concerning your 1A status…you whiner.”
I could swear this guy called me a whiner, but I cleared my throat and began. “Well sir, I’ve been a full-time student at Ohio State for the past two years with a “B” average. My tuition’s paid for this fall, and I have a letter from OSU verifying my attendance.” I handed a copy to an outstretched hand. “I’m entitled to an exemption.”
“What is your major?” A friendlier voice asked.
“I’m studying radio and television production. One of my summer jobs is right here in Springfield at WBLY-FM.”
“Pussy station and pussy major,” the gravelly voice muttered again.
“Excuse me, is that a question?”
“…And you’re deaf as well.”
No one spoke for a moment, and then all at once, the five shapes started shuffling papers and muttering. There appeared to be a serious disagreement among the board members. The gravelly voice leader whispered loudly to the other members, “Our quota has been raised again. We can’t let any of this cannon fodder get away.”
“But, Willie, he has a valid educational deferment.” I heard a loud slap and watched the last speaker, along with his chair, fall over backward. The man moaned and started to sit up, but his head hit the floor with a thud when struck a second blow.
His attacker, the gravelly-voiced one they had just called Willie, addressed me, his voice dripping with venom. “Tough luck, Nancy boy, your 1A status stays. Report to the Springfield Induction Center at nine in the morning on September 25th, you’re going to be a soldier. NEXT!”
I ignored the yellow line, rushed the table and grabbed him by the throat. “You can’t draft me…you old fart.”
Willie screamed, “Get this crazy son-of-a-bitch off me!”
Two burly guards grabbed my arms and started dragging me out of the room backward while I continued to rave. “You cheated me, you bastard, and I won’t let you get away with it!”
Willie blew me a raspberry and gave me the finger. The board member next to him put his hands over his ears; another covered his eyes; the third put his hand to his mouth.
Back in the hallway, after being tossed from the chambers, I took a deep breath and tried to pull myself together. The waiting draftees stared at me, and I could see the hope quickly fade from their eyes (except for the blind guy). But, I resolved not to panic. Somehow, I would fight this injustice.
Hi, Eli here. After finishing my shift at Silver Lake, I changed into street clothes and hopped into my ‘61 candy-apple red Corvette convertible—the one with the white scoops on the side that all my friends covet. Gunning the 315 horsepower fuel-injected engine a few times, I peeled out, spewing gravel everywhere, the back end fishtailing twice before the Michelin tires grabbed hold. With the radio blasting Paperback Writer, I headed home to grab some supper before going to my second summer job at radio station WBLY-FM.
My parent’s house is located on SR571, a mile past New Carlisle’s westernmost welcome/come again sign. My hometown, a typical Ohio village, features a city manager, two gas stations, four churches, and a few locally-owned stores, like Strome’s barbershop. On the state map, it barely earns a small dot with an official population figure of less than 5,000. Most of the dads who live here drive to nearby Dayton or Springfield for work while the moms stay home to keep house and raise the kids. We only have one elementary school, junior high, and senior high in town, and yet the school board still has to bus students in from ten miles away in every direction to fill up the classrooms.
There aren’t a lot of things in the summertime for a young man to do in New Carlisle, besides Silver Lake. Although we do have the Frostop, a local drive-in restaurant serving the best foot-long hot dogs in a four-county area, especially when smothered with mustard, relish, and onions, and accompanied by a foam-topped root beer in a frosty mug. Guys like to hang out there to watch the female carhops, in their short red skirts, roller-skating back and forth to the rock and roll beat of top 40 radio station WING blasting from the large Frostop mounted speakers.
There are no nightclubs in New Carlisle because the town is “dry.” The closest drinking establishment, the “Boom-Boom Room,” is located in the Midway Bowling Lanes, about five miles south of town. This tiny watering hole became famous in November of 1965, when a local high school English teacher, Miss French, became very intoxicated one evening, and then atop one of the lounge tables proceeded to do a provocative striptease to the loud applause of the Thursday night men’s league.
Nothing in a small town remains a secret long, so when the students found out about Miss French’s impromptu performance, they nicknamed her Boom-Boom. Needless to say, once the teasing starts, kids never let up, so Miss French left town soon after the incident and moved to Las Vegas. (We found out later she kept Boom-Boom as her professional name and had a very successful career there).
Every fall New Carlisle has a big affair called the “Potato Festival” to celebrate the town’s largest local crop. There’s a parade lead by the high school band, a few small floats pulled by tractors, and the Shriners march in funny hats. The town also elects a queen and her court, although I’m not sure if being voted “Miss Spud” is an honor or not.
They close down three blocks of Main Street for the festival so vendors can erect their canvas and wood-framed booths to sell curly, deep-fried potatoes, or amazing kitchen tools that slice and dice, or offer games of chance to win a whistle, yo-yo, or stuffed animal. Personally, I like the Jaycees’ dunk booth best. There’s no prize, but if you hit the big red bullseye with one of the three-for-a-dollar softballs, then your favorite cheerleader, teacher or coach gets dropped into a big tub of cold water.
Main Street, by the way, is also State Route 69. The Ohio Highway Department doesn’t realize the significant secondary market value of the large signs they place every two to three miles along this famous road. After a little midnight requisition with a flashlight and a pair of pliers, I can sell these signs at $25 each to my fellow OSU students for their dorm and fraternity walls. And the best thing about this moneymaking endeavor is…no matter how many signs I acquire, the state keeps replacing them. Technically, this could be considered stealing, but I try not to dwell on it.
I stay at home in the summer because of the free room, board, and laundry service, plus it’s close to my job at Silver Lake. The downside is sharing a bedroom with my pesky kid brother, and trying to sleep without air conditioning, because Ohio can get really hot and humid, especially in August.
Pulling into the driveway, I grab the mail and leap up the steps to our white, one-story ranch house that sits on a big corner lot just down the highway from Charlie’s Carryout. Our door is never locked because there’s no real crime in New Carlisle—just the occasional youth mischief, as Policeman Sam likes to call it.
“I’m home.” I hollered to no one in particular and tossed the mail on the kitchen table. Mom appeared in the hallway arch. “You’re just in time for supper. I made your favorite—homemade chicken and noodles.”
I sat down, and like magic, my brother and sister appeared, drawn no doubt by the good kitchen smells. In unison, they say, “Let’s eat.” Mother replied, “Not until your father gets home.” We didn’t have long to wait before dad pulled into the driveway at exactly 5:30 p.m.—the same time he got home from work every day. He was so consistent; you could set your watch by his arrival time.
My mother is five-foot-one with dark hair, a round face, and a constant smile. You can tell from her profile that she enjoys her own cooking. My father, on the other hand, is just the opposite, skinny and well over six-feet tall. Mother says he looks a little like Jimmy Stewart, but I can’t see it.
My brother and sister are younger than me. We were born exactly seven years apart, so we often teased mother about having the seven-year itch—you know, like the movie with Marilyn Monroe? She always gets embarrassed and then scurries into the kitchen to bake some cookies.
Sitting down around our large old-fashioned wooden kitchen table (it could seat twelve guests at Thanksgiving), we started stuffing our faces with thick slabs of noodles, in heavy brown gravy, overflowing with big chunks of white chicken. Mom made all of the noodles by hand, usually, the day before, rolling out the dough and cutting it into twelve-inch long, quarter-inch wide strips that she hung on a rack to dry until ready to cook.
Deep into our second helping, dad picked up the mail I had brought in earlier and started sorting through it. “Bill, bill, advertisement, bill…wait, Eli, there’s something here for you.” He paused, and then handed me the letter, “It’s from the U.S. Selective Service.”
“Probably just a confirmation of my student status for fall…I hope.” My voice cracked and I let slip a nervous laugh. Palms sweaty, I fumbled with the envelope, finally giving up neatness and ripping off the end. I pulled out the letter and read, “Greetings from Uncle Sam.” My heart stopped. Never very good at poker, mom saw my concern and asked. “What is it?”
Dropping the letter into my plate of homemade chicken and noodles, I announced, “I’ve been drafted.”