The day started out in confusion. Nixon had ordered a stop to the draft two days before, and I was still going over my orders to report for a physical in Los Angeles. Would I have to go? Friends suggested that the orders were cancelled, but my doubts persisted.
"Yes," came a haggard voice over the line, "everyone who has received orders for the January 30th examinations must still report," the Selective Service lady paused and cleared her throat, "under penalty of law if they fail to do so." Her voice went upon the word "penalty." In the background, three other phones jangled for more attention. More of the same, she must have thought. No use harassing her further. I thanked her, and she hung up without saying goodbye.
"It's all a goddamned lie," he said, "and as long as Nixon or any other fool who gets elected maintains we gotta be big brother to the rest of the world, we're always gonna have a draft." He caught his breath and loosened his collar. Pulling a pack of Marlboros out of his shirt pocket, he shook the pack with one well-rehearsed flip of his wrist. Two cigarettes popped out on cue. He put one between his lips and lit it dangle a la Bogart, then offered the other one to me. His name was Jim, and so far he and I were the only "Selective Service personnel" who had shown up at the Greyhound depot.
Spotting other unfortunates was easy. the long mainly S.S. envelopes sticking out of a pocket were an easily recognizable badge. Jim was a 26-year-old construction worker from Pacific Beach, and he had been up long, sullen. Cigarettes began to burn at their filters.
"Will all Selective Service personnel please report to Gate five." The instructions were repeated, barely discernible through the loudspeaker's crackle.
"First time?" The guy next to me on the bus asked.
"No," I replied, "second time around for me. Was up there six months ago. Should be the last time, I judge."
He grinned and snickered, "don't count on it sport. This is to L.A. six times since he was 20, managing each time to score a deferment for high blood pressure. The military doctors were suspicious of high blood pressure cases, he commented. "It's about the easiest condition to fake."
The depot resembled a convention. Others with manila envelopes in their pockets were just now arriving, clutching overnight bags and buying cigarettes. Conversations between strangers centered around the common complaints of lost wages, ruined weekend trips, assholes with school schedules. Then long moments of silence. Faces grew my fourth time. Those clowns won't believe my story about my bad leg." Hmmm. My initial optimism dimmed a little.
Next to us, a bus full of Mexican nationals bound for Mexico City started to pull out. Some of the prettier girls waved at us. "God, I'd like to be able to get into her pants," one short-haired guy across the row gasped at a girl walking away from the bus. He stood and peered out the window, eyes wide. She saw his stare, and hurried into the waiting area inside. His row partner offered a look, but returned to his Agatha Christie paperback.
As we pulled out of the station, the driver fumbled with his public address microphone, but was only about to produce sick sputters. Obviously irked by this, he placed the milk back on its perch. Clearing his throat several times, he called to our attention several rules of the road. No alcohol, please use the ashtrays for cigarette butts, please remain seated at all times. "And i fyou fells got any POT," he said, "well, save me the butts.
It was six o'clock by the time the bus pulled in font of the Normandie Wilshire Hotel. The Normandie looked older than it had the last time. Its business seems to have been robbed by newer, more expansive hotels in the neighborhood. But new light fixtures had been installed, the walls had been repaneled, modern furniture had replaced older. Minute portraits of world leaders hung from huge pillars. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. The King of Denmark. President Nixon and Family.
The manager spoke to us as we lined up to get our room assignments. Welcome, welcome, if there is anything we can do to make your stay more enjoyable, blah, blah. Then his eyes narrowed as he came more to the point. All manner of alcoholic beverage is verboten, by order of the LAPD and the Armed Forces. He enumerated all the sneaky ways we couldn't get booze past him because he was "him to 'em all." Why was the order imposed? He proceeded to a horror story about a young boy, who while stoned on "something," raced from the hotel lobby into Wilshire Boulevard traffic and was killed when struck by a car.
BORED, BORED, GODDAMN, AM I BORED! my roommate Mike yelled out the window. The street below was empty of most traffic. A cop drove by, slowing down as he passed the hotel, but not stopping. I tapped Mike on the shoulder. "It's probably in our best interest to remain calm," I suggested, "at least for the time being. Wouldn't be any use to piss off the management right off." He shrugged, turned around, and fell face first on to his bed. "Turn on the TV," he groaned.
"...and if you happen to be home when we call you, and if you guess the lucky word of the day..."
"All my men wear..."
"...and it is the opinion of Channel 5 that hitchhiking has become a statewide disgrace. Lat year there were 98 rapes in..."
"What do you wanna do?"
"Get me out of the hotel room before we got crazy, to begin with."
The night was dull. We cruised Wilshire Boulevard for what was vaguely termed "action," but nothing materialized. My last trip here at least had its compensations in that we all partied the night before. But this time the mood was different. Subdued, restrained. No spirit of rebelling against the system. Maybe everyone was confident enough about the war's end.
"Wow," he said. "Look at this!" Mike handed the book to me, carefully pointing to a picture he had been studying inside a porno shop. Finally, I put back my copy of Teen Age Dog Fetishes and tugged at his sleeve. The man at the counter seemed to be getting a pit perturbed at our dog eating his merchandise. The sound of him clearing his throat was getting louder.
The cruise ended at a Denny's. Might as well get speeded on coffee, we concluded. No one would buy booze for us two minors, let alone lend us his i.d. Southern Comfort would be nice to have right now, or tequila. "Or even a six-pack of Coors," Mike signed.
"Coors? I'd sooner drink piss," I replied, feeling the mild amphetamine effect of the coffee speed up my sentences. "Another cup?" asked the waitress.
Topics of conversation switched erratically. "Did you see The Godfather, man?"
"No, but how about Five Easy Pieces? Man that was hip."
"Yeah, I saw that; it reminded me of a film on Mt. Helix in my sociology class."
"Helix? Nice country. Ever been to Carmel Valley? It's nice but they are screwing it up and, hey pass me a smoke."
"Hey, tell me this — why did Channel 10 in San Diego show The Ugly American the same day the peace agreement was signed?"
The babble went on. our ashtrays were overflowing with butts; our cups had been empty for at least 20 minutes. Two policeman walked in, took seats about four spaces from us and ordered coffee.
Jack Webb must have used the Induction Center as a setting for police headquarters in Dragnet. Like the show's set, the design was basic 20th-century utilitarian, void of flourishes of artwork, save for some lobby pictures of Americans in combat. Iwo Jima. But somehow the atmosphere was less intimidating than my first time here.
Like most everyone else up here, I was armed with all available evidence to show just how unfit for the draft I was. My excuse was a hearing loss. The big question was whether these guys would make me strip to my underwear again or merely administer the hearing test.
Luckily, it was the latter. A doctor took my folder, perused it, and pointed down the hall. "Station 13," he said, "follow the yellow line all the way." I was ushered into single soundproof room. A pair of headphones dangled from a hook over a thick observation window.
The doctor took the headphones, handed them to me, and ran through the instructions. When you hear something, press that little button. When the sound disappears, release it at once. The button resembled one of those machine gun triggers you see air force pilots use in war movies.
"Understand?" his voice asked. "Yes, sir." He shut the door and the room became dark, silent. Noises came over the headphones and were annoying low-tone moans. High-pitched whines, and midrange buzzing, barely audible. Buzz press. Zoooiiingg, press. Three second silence, and then cut of nowhere, swoooooosssssSSSSSSSHHHHH. Then fade out to deathly quiet. Press.
"About the same as last time," the doctor said. He marked off my audiogram with a red pencil, noting highs and lows, range o floss, and then matching it with the results from six months ago. "Go see the ear, nose and throat man. He'll determine your status. Follow the green line to Station 14."
The doctor was late. A black orderly on lunch break stopped to talk with the three of us seated outside his office. "Don't know why we got you all up here, now that the war's over," he halted, stroked his chin with his thumb. "Well, supposed to over. I heard they still shootin' at each other."
"I'm waiting," a voice trailed form inside the office. My tura. I seated myself, placed the audiograms on top of my folder and laid them on his desk. He looked at them in cold, objective silence, letting go with a few noncommital "hmmm's" every so often. Finally, he withdrew a pen from his white coat.
"I"m going to have you come up in another six months," he said as he checked some boxes on teh back of my medical sheet.
"Uh, sir," I raised my voice, "excuse me, please, but my history will prove my hearing won't get better in six months. I've been this way all my life, at least as long as I can remember." He picked a letter out of the folder. It was from a family doctor verifying my assertion.
"Son," he began again, "this letter talks about a condition, a disease which should clear up either by itself or with treatment." He put the letter down, removed his glasses. "It's apparent to me you haven't done much to improve your condition."
Detailing some of the operations I've had, my voice quivered and cracked at the wrong moments, in the middle of words. The doctor put his glasses back on and hmmm'd one more.
"Okay," he sighed, "We'll make it permanent. But let me say..." his voice trailed off as he changed what he had written down. Huh? Somehow what he said didn't register at first. Permanent. Permanent disqualification. Suddenly all these years of constant worry about the draft vanished. It was out of my life forever. "I think you're being very stupid not to take steps to improve yourself. But you're the one who'll have to live with it," he said, listlessly handing me my papers and calling out for his next customer.