Now and again the subject comes up: What did you do in the war, Daddy? Like so many who were drafted during the Vietnam era, I don’t especially like to talk about it. That’s because I was sent home early, after an Army shrink determined I was suffering from PTSD. Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Fact is, I never got to Vietnam. I didn’t even make it to basic training. Truth be told, I spent only one day at Fort Douglas—which was more than enough time to confirm what I already suspected going in: I’m just not cut out to be a soldier.
I didn’t always think so. Like most kids growing up in post-World War Two America, I was enthralled by the comic book exploits of G.I. Joe and Combat Kelly. I participated in make-believe war games and enjoyed watching war movies, in particular, THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO, starring Van Johnson and June Allyson. THIRTY SECONDS came out during the war and was intended boost morale and teach the American public that China and Japan are two separate countries. Then there was the unforgettable saga of the five fighting Sullivan brothers.
Released in 1944, THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS is about five Irish-American brothers who, following the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, enlist in the Navy and are subsequently assigned to the same ship, the USS Juneau. The movie ends when a telegram arrives informing Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan that the Juneau has been sunk in the Pacific and all five Sullivan brothers are lost. Whereupon Mr. Sullivan, played by Thomas Mitchell, grabs his lunch bucket and reports to his job as a railroad freight conductor, but not before pausing briefly to salute a water tower as patriotic music swells and ghostly images of George, Frank, Joseph, Matt and Albert march resolutely through the cumulous clouds toward heaven.
Incredibly, a lot of young men who saw that film in 1944 marched straight from the theater to the naval recruiting office. WHY?
“Every twenty years, the Tree of Liberty must be watered by the blood of patriots,” is how it was explained to me. So it came to pass in the year 1966, twenty-one years following the end of World War Two, I was doing some frantic arithmetic. Had it really been twenty years already? What about the so-called Korean Conflict? Wasn’t that, in fact, a war? Hadn’t fifty thousand American soldiers lost their lives? Could it be it was already time to once again water that danged tree?
In those days, America had something called a draft, but it was very selective—in fact, the agency in charge of the process was known as the Selective Service. Each regional district across the land had a quota to fill, and I was fortunate in that I came from a county teeming with folks very much like the Sullivans—working class, flag-waving families whose sons are typically the first to volunteer and first off the landing craft. In other words, cannon fodder.
As long as I remained in college, I wouldn’t have to worry about being drafted. Unfortunately, I was about to graduate, and in order to keep my deferment, I would have to enter graduate school, and in order to enter graduate school, I would have to come up with some money. It was no use asking my parents to help, for in their eyes I was a grown man, old enough to be on my own. Moreover, Mom had recently discovered that I harbored a secret ambition to become a writer—an ambition she equated, not without some merit, with sloth. Perhaps a stint in the military would be good for me, she figured. It might teach me a valuable lesson; i.e., that life is not a bed of roses and “money doesn’t grow on trees!” Trees that must be watered every twenty years with the blood of young men whose parents won’t pony up the money to keep them in college until the war is over.
The day after graduation I took a job I hated, as a door-to-door salesman, but come September I had saved only four hundred dollars. “Not enough to pay for grad school,” declared my father. Goodbye college deferment, hello water tower and cumulus clouds. Goodbye, life.
I rented a room close to the university and spent my last days on earth pretending to be a student. I blew sixty of my hard-earned dollars on a guitar and spent countless hours in the shade of a tree in Reservoir Park struggling to master the basic chords of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” I read books, and joined in many an animated discussion with my roommates regarding America’s deepening involvement in Indochina. Then one day my bank account ran dry, so I sent off a letter to my draft board. Soon thereafter, I got a response from Lyndon Baines Johnson.
“We really didn’t want to draft you,” explained the Selective Service lady as I boarded the bus to Fort Douglas. “But you insisted.”
Sonofabitch! I looked around the bus. Sure enough, it was chock full of Sullivans and half a dozen Forrest Gumps. Not one college graduate in the bunch. No, these were the guys who had goofed off all through high school, who had snapped wet towels at the bare butts of timid souls like me in the locker room shower. Young men who had never seen the inside of a library, habitués of bars and brothels, boys whose vocabulary could blister paint. In other words, America’s best!
My day at Fort Douglas was spent in a waiting room watching daytime television—ordered to do so by some officious troglodyte with a very nasty attitude. That night I slipped out of the barracks and walked out the front gate, which wasn’t guarded. I paid a visit to my friends on University Street, all of whom held college deferments.
“I hate to be the first to tell you this,” explained Robert Macri, “but military service nowadays isn’t mandatory. If you had half a brain in your head, you’d figure a way around it.”
In the morning, I asked to speak to a psychiatrist, who, following a brief interview, changed my classification from 1-A to 1-Y, which meant I was temporarily crazy.
Unfortunately, I was still broke, so two months later I enlisted in the Peace Corps, only to be “deselected”—thanks, again, to a psychiatrist. According to Dr. Hart, I was mentally ill, same as almost half the volunteers in our training camp situated on a cold and rainy mountaintop near Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
Among the deselect were my pals Mike Parsons and Charlie Boss, and for a time the three of us bummed around the island, sleeping in parks and bumming rides and handouts from villagers. In San Juan, we fell in with a whole community of deselected Peace Corps volunteers, none of whom was in a hurry to return to the states—at least not until the war was over. We were the lost boys—or at any rate, they were. Because my resume now included not just one, but two negative psychiatric evaluations, I didn’t have to worry about any more letters from LBJ.
One bright sunny afternoon, near the end of my sojourn in Puerto Rico, I found myself riding on a bus next to a uniformed American soldier. I asked him how he liked the island.
“I hate these blankety-blank Greaseballs,” he answered. “Damn money-grubbin’ blankety-blank, blank, blank, blank blank blanks.” I took it he hadn’t ventured far from San Juan’s red light district.
“Well,” I said, “I’ve found the people here to be quite friendly and hospitable. I would have starved to death by now if not for the generosity of strangers. And in any event, you have to admit that Puerto Rico is a lot better than Vietnam.”
“Naw,” he answered. “If I was in ‘nam, at least I could shoot somebody and have a little bit of blankety-blank fun.”
On that note, the two of us parted ways. Any possibility that a trigger happy bigot and a certified lunatic will meet again? Who knows? At a Tea Party rally, perhaps?