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.