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.