23 March 2009

Roger, draft dodger, sneakin' out the cellar door . . .

In October of 1964 I turned eighteen. Eighteen was that magical semi-step into adulthood for young men that meant that you were still far too young to drink alcohol, except in the state of New York, and still could not vote, but you were now mature enough to spend a few years in the Army. Several weeks before my birthday I received a large envelope in the mail from the Selective Service with a nine or ten page form I was to fill out and return before said birthday. I really don't remember much about the form except for thinking, "I haven't lived long enough to have answers for this many questions." Or something like that. That is at least the gist of my reaction which was a very complex mixture of thoughts, emotions and panic which at the time got edited down to something which probably sounded more like, "Damn!"

After answering questions about every aspect of my life up to and almost including dreams I may or may not have occasionally had about a certain nurse that worked the 4:00 to Midnight shift, I got to the section concerning my health, and any physical conditions that might make me unfit for fulfilling my duty to God, Country, and, most importantly, the Army. I dutifully checked the box next to "Hemophilia," and supplied the names, addresses and phone numbers of my doctors and the hospitals I had been in, along with release forms for records. I also did my best to summarize, in the space provided and on a plain, letter sized sheet of white paper attached to the back of the form, the nearly two hundred hospitalizations I had had and the uncounted hemorrhages that had not been deemed severe enough to warrant treatment. The next day I mailed the completed form off fully confident I would be getting an automatic 4-F, and got back to the really important business of applying to colleges.

A few days after my eighteenth birthday a somewhat smaller envelope arrived from the Selective Service, and I discovered that contrary to my expectations, my country felt I was qualified for the manly classification of 1-A. 1-A meant that in their humble opinion I was just the kind of young buck they were looking for, and at that time the odds were highly in favor of me being in uniform on my nineteenth birthday. The documents that accompanied the card were written in Officialese and for the most part did not make much sense, but in amongst the admonitions, orders and a couple outright threats we found a paragraph that said I had ten days from the date of the letter to appeal the classification. Said appeal to be made in person at the local Draft Board office during normal business hours. Since the Post Office had operated with unusual efficiency that meant I still had six days.

The next morning, Friday, I skipped school for the first time in my life, borrowed the family car and drove the twenty miles to the county seat. The Draft Board, being a federal agency, was no where near the county courthouse, or any of the other buildings with county and state offices, and I finally found it in a storefront two doors down from the JC Penny's. The door was locked. A notice next to the door said that the office's normal hours of operation were:

Tuesday and Thursday
7:00am to 11:30am.

I remember thinking these were definitely not normal business hours.

The next Tuesday I skipped school for the second time in my life (the Army was turning me into a regular truant), and at 7:00 o'clock in the morning, I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the Draft Board office wishing I had worn a heavier sweater. At 7:03am, according to my watch, the door was unlocked and I was allowed in.

First, it wasn't really a lobby or reception area, but a short, thoroughly dingy and dimly lighted hallway. There were no benches or chairs, and no effort had been spared to make you feel uninvited and unwelcome. It smelled of fear and resignation, with a slight memory of Pine-Sol. At the far end was a single window with a very small ledge for filling out papers. The window had a very stoutly built metal grating over it that had clearly been designed to keep anything smaller and less determined than an angry African war elephant on the outside. On the counter on the other side of the grating was a bell to ring if you wanted service. Years of dealing with the bitter bureaucrats and angry civil servants at the hospital had trained me not to touch the bell even if I could have reached it.

After a few minutes of standing patiently and humming quietly to myself in a way that said please take no notice of me, I'm just remembering a song I like and am not in any way trying to draw attention to myself or interrupt your vitally important work, an elderly woman came to the window and politely snarled, "What do you want?" It was clear that I was being singled out of an infinite number of irritations and interruptions that were vying for her attention on the off chance they could piss her off further.

"Yes, Ma'am. I need to appeal my draft classification, please."


"Well, you see, I was classified 1-A, but I have hemophilia and...."

"You need to fill out form 74Y-mumble-mumble."

"Yes, that's the one. If I could just have one, please, I could fill it out for you right now."

"I don't feel like looking for it," and she walked away.

Now, I will admit that certain details have been given a somewhat dramatic description to heighten whatever the effect is that I'm attempting to create. By that I mean I might have described the entrance a bit gloomier than it was—there might have been a light on—and the lady might not have snarled so much as hissed, but this whole unlikely episode happened essentially just as I am telling it, taking into account an occasional bit of hyperbole; and I swear that those were her exact words. She knew that I needed form 74Y-mumble mumble to file my appeal. She knew I had the right to file that appeal. She didn't see what that had to do with her, and wasn't going to interrupt her coffee break to look for some damn form for some whiny kid who didn't want to do his duty. I was 1-A, and I was going to stay 1-A. Petty details like hemophilia were not going to change things.

The really ironic thing, to me at least, was that I had actually talked to the Coast Guard and Navy to see if there was some way I could enlist in a non running, jumping, fighting capacity, and had been turned down. The way I saw it, even on an aircraft carrier someone has to type or decorate cakes. The Coast Guard and Navy, however, have very firm beliefs that even the cake decorators have to be able to run, jump and fight when need be, and as soon as the word 'hemophilia' found its way into the discussion they immediately showed me the door and made sure I made it through without bumping into either jamb.

The next fall when I registered for classes at EMU, one of the punch cards in my packet was for applying for a student deferment. I filled it out, and in a few weeks received a new draft card showing I had been given the temporary classification of 2-S. After my freshman year I decided to confront things head on, and did not try to renew my 2-S classification.

Now we are finally getting to what I wanted to tell you about.

After once again being 1-A for a few months I received orders to report to my Draft Board office at 5:00am on a certain date for a physical examination. A week later I received another order canceling the first one. A few weeks later I received another order to report for a physical, and another cancelation. The third time was the charm.

At 5:00am one sunny, early spring morning I was once again standing on the sidewalk in front of the Draft Board office. This time, however, I had not had to skip school, and I was accompanied by about twenty other guys. We were put on an old school bus, and started the hour drive to Fort Wayne. Actually, I'm not really sure if that was its name or not. I'm pretty sure it was in that area south of Detroit that always confused me, and know for certain it was a bit over an hour's bus ride from the Draft Board office. In my pocket was a letter from my doctor stating I had a severe form of hemophilia and really wasn't what the Army was looking for. After my initial 1-A classification my doctor had had a copy of my entire hospital record sent to the Selective Service, but I took a letter from him to the physical on the off chance no one had noticed the three very large cartons kicking around the office filled with papers detailing my medical history since 1958.

The first morning was devoted to psychological tests. About 150 guys from all over southeast Michigan sitting at school desks in a room with nice, large windows overlooking a broad lawn. On each desk were two #2 pencils, nicely sharpened, and a rather thick booklet with a front cover that was blank except for the statement: Do not open until ordered. When the hands on the clock snapped to 7:00, a Sergeant at the front of the room began talking. He was speaking in the overly loud monotone they always show military men using, and for a few seconds I was amused by how cartoon like it was. Then I dawned on me that he was giving us the directions for the test and I hadn't a clue to what he had said.

Fortunately, when he got to the end and shouted, "Are there any questions?" someone near the front had the courage to raise his hand. The instructions were shouted again, and by concentrating I was able to pick out the more important points. Staring intently at his watch, he counted off the seconds and told us to begin.

There were sections that asked us to pick the most moral choice between what were often very bizarre situations. You were given choices like was it better have an affair with your wife's best friend, or preach sermons for a religion you knew was false. There were sections that asked us to indicate which of three things we would rather do. Sometimes this was easy because it would be things you could relate to like: "Would you rather a) Read a book, b) Go to a concert, c) Sail a boat." Sometimes, however, you would get something like: "Would you rather a) Learn Swedish, b) Sit in room temperature aspic, c) Get a tattoo." There were sections that dissected our family relations, hopes, dreams and brought to light whole forests of unresolved conflicts we didn't know we were denying. By the time we were done they knew pretty much everything about us including if, unknown to you, you had a latent tendency to look at apple pies in a disturbing way.

After that, and a cigarette break, (which some of the guys really seemed to need) we went back in to examine the limits of our loyalty to God, country, and the American way of life. There were questions much like before, but this time aimed at discovering whether or not we could be trusted with secrets, or would be apt to blab to the first Red Agent that came our way the correct way to pack a footlocker. There were also questions that explored what your priorities might be. Things like, if your hometown was invaded would you obey the orders of your Boy Scout Troop Leader, or stay at home to protect your mother. We also listed all the organizations we had ever joined. I put down the Boy Scouts, Explorers, Future Teachers of America, Science Club and the Lone Ranger's Secret Posse. We listed all the organizations we had attended meetings for but had not officially joined. I dutifully listed Students for a Democratic Society, the Methodist Church, and the high school Chess Club. Then there was about three pages of names of organizations in very small type, and we were to check off the ones we had ever, in any way, been involved with and forgot to list before.

Finally, after having finally confessed having admiration for Adlai Stevenson and a deep distrust of Republicans, they said we had had finished the psychological part of the examination. A few names were called out, and those guys were told to remain in their seats. The rest of us were told to follow a Corporal. I noticed that several of the guys who stayed behind had been the ones most disturbingly in need of cigarette after the ethics quiz. The Corporal took us to a very large locker room and told us to undress down to our underpants and shoes, no socks, and put any valuables in the paper lunch bag provided along with the key to the locker. Then we were to line up at the far door.

When we had all gotten into line we were taken outside and across the lawn to another building. Here and there, usually under a tree, were picnic tables and at most of the tables people were eating their lunch—a large percentage of them were women. From the way they overwhelmingly failed to take notice made me suspect that the sight of a hundred or so young men going from building to building in nothing but their Y-fronts (there were a few boxers also and one or two what we called French bikinis) had lost a lot of its novelty.

In the next building things got down to business.The rooms, and sometimes different area within a room were labeled with large numbers, and we were to make our way from Station 1 onward and upward. We were weighed, blood was drawn, hearts listened to, vision and hearing checked, blood pressure checked, lungs listened to, and urine collected (one enterprising young man was charging a $1 to fill the cup of those who couldn't). In one room with a row of cubicles we, one by one, stepped up and turned our heads and coughed. I noticed that the doctors (?) had plexiglass shields between them and us they had to reach under. Every time I came across some one with clothes on I would show them my letter, and they always responded "Station 26."

They looked at our feet quite carefully, and how we walked, and we had to verify which was our dominant hand. Finally we came to a very large room with five long rows of squares marked out with tape on the floor. As we came in we were lined up in the last row of squares and told to drop our drawers, take our shoes off and set our bag of valuables down next to our right foot. There we stood carefully concentrating of the back of the head of the guy in front of us, while the guys in the front row went through a few calisthenics that ended with them turning to face us, and bending over while this old man walked down the line.

As soon as the front row was done they put their underpants and shoes back on and left. Then each row would move up one square pushing their shorts, shoes and paper bag along with their feet, and a new bunch would come in the fill the last row. Why we had to get naked as soon as we came in, and why they had to have us all in there waiting for our turn was never explained. Perhaps we needed a cooling off period.

Eventually it was my row's turn at the front. We were told to touch our toes, do a couple jumping jacks (not an exercise made for nude execution), and then we were told to do three deep knee bends. I tried to raise an objection because my knees, the left one especially, were not really strong enough for deep knee bends. I was given the choice of bucking up like a man and doing the squats, or I could stay overnight for further examinations. Trying the squats sounded like the better alternative. The first one went pretty well, but it wasn't deep enough for the guy in charge, so on the second and third ones I went as far down as I could. Meanwhile, a black kid two spaces to my right kept mumbling about banging his 'thang' on the cold floor. During my third squat there was a pain in my left knee, and I had a little trouble getting up. I knew this was not going to end well, but it was made very clear that it was not the Army's problem.

Then came the finalé. We were told to turn around, bend over, and spread 'em. Just bending over three feet away from another nude man has, all on its own, a few aspects that are, well, awkward, but having to spread your butt cheeks at the same time while an old man examines you like you were a beagle in a dog show just adds layers of absurdity and humiliation that took my mind completely off my knee.

Pulling up our underpants and slipping on our shoes we made our way out the exit to the next station which happened to be the locker room which, you will remember, was in a building on the other side of the parade grounds. Now, our first trip across the grounds had been as a large group; and just as a wildebeest finds comfort in having a few thousand fellow wildebeest around him to divert the attention of the local lions, I felt much more naked and exposed walking across the lawn with this smaller group that I had that morning. When we got to the locker room we were told to get dressed, and then walk across to another building for our final stations.

This was Station 26, and I got my letter out and smoothed some of the wrinkles out of it. This Station was a large room with several desks for different letters of the alphabet. I waited my turn at the desk for 'A-B' and looked around. At one end of the room was a smaller room with just one desk, and it was labeled 'Station 29.' The unique aspect of Station 29 was the person running it. She was beautiful. Except for the clerks at the distant picnic tables when we made our nearly naked migrations across the lawn, everyone we had met that day had been male, definitely passed middle-aged, and usually in a less than pleasant mood. And they usually had that rumpled look that spoke of failed expectations and easy access to whisky. Station 29, however, was young and gorgeous, and was wearing a rather short skirt, and had very long, very dark red hair.

My thoughts were interrupted by being called up the chair next to the 'A-B' desk. I showed this doctor my letter, and he looked at it briefly and then took a long, hard look at the results of the various tests and measurements performed that day. He asked me if the hammer toe on my left foot ever bothered me, and a couple other questions, and then asked me if I had any questions. I asked him how you got to Station 29. He kind of smiled, and said you have to have been convicted of a sex crime like rape.

From there we were put back on our bus and taken back to the sidewalk in front of the Draft Board Office we had started from about ten hours previously. By the time we got there my leg had started swelling, and by the time my parents picked me up it was bad enough we just drove straight to Ann Arbor so I could start getting some treatment. That hemorrhage took three weeks to get under control, and it was close to four weeks before I could go home. My father tried very hard to sue the Selective Service, but it was, at that time at least, one of those departments that had to give you permission to sue them before you could sue them; and for some reason that permission just wasn't forthcoming.

Several weeks after I got home I got my new draft card, and found out I was I-Y. It was that hammer toe on my left foot. While not quite good enough for the peacetime army, it could keep me from marching for long distances, I could, and would, be called up if war was finally declared. The Draft Board Clerk for our county just could not give out a 4-F, but because of the findings of the physical she had to give me some kind of deferment so she licked her wounds by giving me the 1-Y. The years passed and in due course I turned 26. That week I received another card listing me as 5-W, I think. I was now too old to be drafted. Three months later another Draft Card came in the mail. I was 4-F.

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