I was born in 1949. That means I came of age, draft age, during the height of the Vietnam War. Like 99% of my draft age friends and family, I did not serve in the military. I’m alive today, but not totally sure I’m as complete for it.
Perhaps I’m being naïve and simplistic, and probably too sentimental and starry-eyed, but I’ve swallowed the pap that says military service builds lifelong bonds with a band of brothers. I’ve accepted the Hollywood version of combat as character-building. So my lack of military experience is a missing part of my armor.
It’s Veterans’ Day today, and though I salute the men and women who have protected and continue to guard our liberties, I ultimately have no regrets that I thwarted Johnson’s and McNamara’s desire to send me to a rice paddy half way around the world to be fodder for what is now acknowledged to have been a war that could not be won. Even McNamara, several years before he died, owned up to the evil delusion he perpetrated on our country.
139. That was my March 6 birthday lottery number in 1970, my senior year at Brooklyn College. With my education deferment about to expire, my draft notice came in early spring. Report in 10 days to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn for a physical. Time to put my action plan into practice.
I had read in “1001 Ways to Beat the Draft” that the military had an acceptance table based on weight and height. At six feet, which I was, you had to weigh at least 131 pounds. I weighed 134. I had 10 days to lose enough weight to get under the minimum, and then some, because the book also said they could keep me for three days of observation, read that, time to fatten me up for the kill.
God bless Dr. Stillman, as in Dr. Stillman’s Water Diet. His regimen, much like the latter day Atkins Diet, permitted only proteins and required drinking 80 ounces of water a day. For 10 straight days I avoided all carbohydrates, all fruit, anything but meat, fish, eggs and water. For years my mother had tried to fatten me up, forcing me to drink milk shakes spiked with a raw egg that my sister gleefully recalls preparing, even threatening to send me away to a special camp for the undernourished. Now faced with the prospect of her youngest child being shipped off to Vietnam, she reversed course. She worried I was eating too much of my restricted diet. She removed food from my plate.
The fateful day at Fort Hamilton, the scene played out much as it did to Arlo Guthrie in the film “Alice’s Restaurant.” The sergeant told us no one, absolutely no one, would fail the intelligence test. We walked around the physical area in our skivvies, holding our valuables in see-thru plastic bags. Medical technicians poked our arms to draw blood. They couldn’t find the veins of a really fat guy ahead of me. He fainted. At the urine sample station, real or sarcastic offers and requests for extra fluid abounded. At the weigh-in, I tipped the scales at 124 pounds.
Ten days. Ten pounds. They could still keep me for observation. I cautiously approached the decision desk. They could keep me on base for three days, or ask me back for another physical in six months. They deferred me for a year.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was forever safe. The draft never reached number 139 again.
To celebrate my immediate victory, I took advantage of the free meal they provided in the mess hall. I remember I ate breaded, yes, breaded veal cutlet, corn niblets, mashed potatoes, rye bread, banana cream pie, Coca-Cola. Army food was delicious.
Today is Veterans’ Day. It’s also what would have been my mother’s 92nd birthday. I’ll pause to honor both today.