Military Stories 1 --- the draft and me
When I got out of high school, Vietnam was just getting ready to crank up from a minor politician's hobby to a major problem. The draft was already established, and young men were all concerned about their 'lottery number'. (Those of us who didn’t get bit by the patriotism bug and rush down to enlist the day after graduation.) The lottery was a bizarre system whereby they drew birthday dates for each month out of a fishbowl, and assigned decreasing priority for being drafted according to the order drawn. In the beginning, if your birth date was drawn first you were screwed and if your birth date was drawn last you could rest easy, knowing that they would have to draft everybody else before your number would come up. In a few years, when the supply of warm, eligible bodies began to run out, everybody who didn’t have a deferment was screwed. Deferments were in essence, a ‘get out of draft free’ card. If you were a full time college student, or married with a child, or physically (or mentally) unfit, then your draft status changed from 1A to another ‘exempt’ classification, like 1 or 2S for students or 4F for unfits. I don’t remember the number for family men, but it didn’t matter, because later as more men were needed the list dipped into that classification as well.
Playing these deferments, primarily the student one, was the way that many of the more wealthy white kids stayed out of the draft and less wealthy or minority ones got drafted in our place. Since I was accepted for a college, I had a student deferment and could breathe easy. At least until about a month after my draft board got word that I had dropped out of college. I went for a physical examination, armed with a letter from a doctor who had treated me in very early childhood for a bone disease that had kept me in bed for a year but which was, in reality, fully cured. The letter said that I was incapable of strenuous physical activity or that it would promote a recurrence of the disease. Letters like this were a dime a dozen in those days (at least for those with a pale complexion or parents of moderate or better means), and the army doctors saw right through it. I was promptly reclassified 1A. My mom freaked out and started calling everyone she knew or could find for advice: Ministers, but I wouldn’t say I was morally opposed to ALL war, and besides then they just made you a medic which meant that you got to get shot at, but didn’t get to shoot back. More doctors, no help there. Members of the draft board, same story. Then she hit on one of the local politicians, whose son I had gone to high school with. He gave her the name of a local shrink and suggested I see this guy for an evaluation. I had taken a psychology course in high school, and I took a few books out of the library to study up for my examination.
So I went in to talk to this guy. Throughout the interview, I refused to make eye contact with him, even when asked to. Instead, I stared into the corners, looked at my feet, or at his belly across the desk, sometimes turning completely around behind me in the chair to look behind me for no apparent reason. If he asked a question, I answered politely and fluently, but my answer had as little as possible to do with the question and lacked much enthusiasm. If it was a question that required a yes or no answer, I made a speech. I looked at ink-blots and made up wild stories about them, always with violent themes and more enthusiasm than I had shown any other time: “Oh that looks like an airplane crashing, see, there are pieces of people being thrown out. Uh, this one looks like a person’s head after it has been split open by an axe.” He made furious notes, and a tape recording. At the end of an hour, he told me to stop back in a few days, that his secretary would have a letter for me to take to the draft board, and suggested that it would be a very good idea for me to come back in for some group therapy. I stood up, looked him right in the eye, thanked him for his time, and walked out. The letter I picked up later was sealed, and addressed personally to the chief medical examiner at the induction center for my state. I dared not open it to see what it said. Sure enough in a month of so the letter from the draft board came (it was right around my birthday if I remember correctly). “You are required to report to your local draft board at 6AM on such and such a date for induction into the US Army …” That morning, entirely unintentionally, my parents’ alarm clock didn’t work and we all overslept about 2 hours, causing me to miss the bus which took the next load of victims off to Baltimore to meet their Uncle. I showed up at the draft board, and they freaked out, then scurried around and put me on the next Greyhound to Baltimore, where a sergeant was specially detailed to meet me and make sure I made it down to the induction center. I turned myself in to the guy at the reception desk and told him my doctor had sent this letter for me to give to doctor so-and-so. He kind of raised his eyebrows, looked at the letter and sent me to wait on the bench. I waited, staring straight ahead into space, Zen meditation time. Lunch time came and went. Lots of people came and went, but my name was never called. Along about 4PM, they called me back to the desk, handed me a chit for the bus company and told me to go home, “Your draft board will be contacting you.” They contacted me about a week later, by sending me a new draft card, stamped 4F. (unfit for military service).