Unlike President Bill Clinton, unlike President George Bush the Younger, unlike Vice President Dick Cheney, Vice President Dan Quayle, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, former Senate Majority/Minority Leader Trent Lott, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Karl Rove, Phil Gramm, Jack Kemp, Mitch McConnell, Elliott Abrams, Ken Adelman, Don Evans, Harvey Pitt, Tommy Thompson, Bill Bennett, Bill O’Reilly, Pat Buchanan, Kenneth Starr, George Will, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes; unlike the foregoing public servants and opinion-makers, I did not have the stroke to oink my way past odious little people to the front of a National Guard induction line or obtain a deferment by way of doc, college, vocation, or family.
At one point, however, I did possess a certificate, drawn up and hand-delivered to me at government expense, proclaiming that I had been classified 1-Y. For readers interested in obscure cultural artifacts, a 1-Y draft classification meant I was draft ineligible for reasons of physical disability, except in times of war or declared national emergency. Vietnam was not then, and never would be, a declared war or national emergency.
Nowadays, the government hires poor people and people of color to do the killing and dying, this exploitation so natural, so trouble-free, it’s easy to think that’s the way it’s always been. But back in 1965, white middle-class males, and, occasionally, inattentive white upper-class males, were taken, whether they wanted to go or not, into the Army.
The 1-Y came to me in this way. The thugs who ran my local draft board dispatched a communiqué to my personal sanctuary, ordering me to appear at the Armed Forces Induction Center on Clay Street in Oakland, California, for the purposes of taking a physical examination. This examination would determine if I was healthy enough to allow my country to place me in situations and locations where I might be killed or maimed. Starting pay was, and this is not a joke, $78 a month.
This first physical was regarded in my circle as a “free at bat.” If I could work a deal here, I would be excused from more difficult decisions down the road.
You showed up or were bused into the Oakland Induction Center sometime after the bars closed and before the donut shops opened — it’s always 4:30 a.m. when you’re dealing with the military. I stripped to my underwear and got in a long line. All the guys wore white Jockey briefs. We looked like a flock of little boys making a first foray into the men’s locker room.
The line slogged around a gymnasium-sized room crowded with wooden booths. The slap-up stalls gave the space a depressing look, like a circus midway at daybreak. Inside every booth was an Army doc who presided over that booth’s anatomical turf.
I lodged a complaint at every stop. Booth number one might be the chest booth. “I’ve had this pain for the last year or so. Increases when I walk up a flight of stairs.” Then, the eye booth. “Every once in awhile, and this is weird if it happens while I’m driving, I see everything as a blur.” Ear booth. “It’s only the high-pitch sounds; whistles, shouts, fire alarms.” Appendage booth. “Can’t lift my right arm past shoulder height. Football injury.” Foot booth. “Can’t walk down hills. Fishing accident.” Hand booth. “Wrists hurt like hell in the mornings.” Mouth booth. “I choke on food and cough blood. My mother is a drug addict.”
Weeks later, I received another communiqué, this one informing me that I’d been awarded a 1-Y draft classification at the hand-station booth. And that, I thought, was that.
This was fall of 1964, when the U.S. had no combat troops in South Vietnam, the 17,000 American military personnel there officially termed “American advisors.” There was still some wiggle in the meat line, before the monthly order got so big it required every carcass that came down the chute.
At the time, I was living in a seedy retirement hotel on Fourth Avenue in San Diego, smoking a lot of dope/ganja/weed/shit/bammy/buddha/chillums/hookah/hemp/pacalolo/cannabis/kiff/weed/mota/reefer/sinsemilla/ stick/tea/happy cigarettes. I lived in Tijuana during a large portion of that interval. There were too many drugs to keep a coherent timeline, but I recall coming up for air one summer morning in Lemon Grove, a methamphetamine suburb of San Diego. I was crashing at a friend’s house. There was a knock on the door, and another friend from an apartment I’d abandoned months ago delivered a brown bag filled with mail addressed to me, including my draft notice. Those scurvy-mouth draft-board pig-fuckers had reclassified me 1-A, then drafted my ass while I was out of the country.
We are now into July of 1965. The American propaganda machine, so good that to this day Americans don’t believe it exists, was cranked up to battle speed. Time, Newsweek, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the rest were honking about the commie threat to freedom-loving South Vietnam and how, if freedom-loving South Vietnam went commie, then Cambodia, the strategic hub of Asia, would go commie, followed by Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the Pitcairn Islands, Bolivia, Newfoundland, and, ultimately, the state of Delaware. National survival was on the line.
Never underestimate the persuasiveness of a government willing to put its citizens in jail unless they agree to be involved in an evil, senseless war waged on the other side of the globe against a people who have caused said citizens no harm, for a cause no greater than not knowing what else to do.
“I don’t believe they’re [the North Vietnamese] ever going to quit. And I don’t see any plan for a victory — militarily or diplomatically.” This is was what President Lyndon Johnson said to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on June 21, 1965, the day I received my induction notice.
I completed boot camp at Fort Ord, located on the romantic Monterey, California, peninsula, under sedate, even pleasant conditions. There had been a meningitis outbreak in the class preceding mine. Someone died, which caused one or two stories to appear in nearby newspapers. My company was not allowed to run or indulge in blatant physical activity. We were bused around Fort Ord to our kill classes and ordered to sleep eight hours every night. Mostly, I recall being loaded on pharmaceutical speed, courtesy of a girlfriend who was a doctor’s daughter.