Thursday, May 6, 2010

Forty Years Ago Today

Two days after the Kent State University massacre of May 4, 1970, when four students were killed protesting the Vietnam War, I reported to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn for a military physical exam (anyone who has seen Arlo Guthrie’s depiction of his physical in the film Alice’s Restaurant can immediately identify with the experience—scores of young men walking around in their underwear holding clear plastic bags with their valuables while medics poke and prod them and ask for the odd “sample”) .

Rather than conjure up my thoughts of May 6, 1970, I’ll share with you a column I wrote 40 years ago under the title “The Crack of Doom” that appeared that very same day in Calling Card, a Brooklyn College newspaper I edited for 18 months:

“While you are sitting on the grass of the quadrangle or the cafeteria reading this column, I am currently seeking an Armed Forces Physical Examination. At precisely seven o’clock in the morning, I will have presented myself in Building 116 of Fort Hamilton to be tested as to my fitness to serve in the defense of our country. This quirk of fate, an issue of Calling Card coinciding with the date of my first formal introduction to the military, offers me a unique opportunity to express my predicament while, at the same time, undergoing the experience.

“During my high school days I had a history teacher who often lectured the class on the culpability of the Vietnam War. Most of the students, including myself, were rather na├»ve about the situation , and therefore took a position that, at best, could be described as “our country, right or wrong.” As the years passed and my learning progressed, the wisdom and foresight of my mentor became clearer to me. The need for action on my part was required. However, again with the naivete of youth, I believed that by the time I’d finish college the conflict would be over, I’d be in graduate school, and the spectre of enlistment would pass. During my sophomore year at Brooklyn, the war kept escalating and graduate deferments were limited to medical students. The noose was beginning to tighten around my neck as the options left me became fewer in number. Since I’m not a pre-med student, I was advised by many to put my name on Reserve lists. But before I had decided to sign on the dotted lines, President Johnson made his historic speech of March 31, 1968, and new hope for my future was kindled. Why sign away my life for six years if the Peace Talks would end the cause of my troubles before I graduated?

“And so, like millions of other Americans, I was deluded into believing that the war had taken a turn for the better. Partly by saying that he had a secret plan for ending the fighting, Nixon was elected president. Yet, in his full year in office, more American boys died in Vietnam than in 1967, the year of major opposition to Johnson’s war policies. Time was running out on me, my senior year had half elapsed, when I finally came to terms with myself. I had put my name on one Reserve list in December, but the thought of becoming a soldier, even a reservist, every day grew more repulsive. I could no more be a member of the army than be a teacher in a public school. Both professions would mean a compromise of my beliefs. (now, after the recent Nixon speeches on the cessation of future occupational deferments, I find that I saved myself a good deal of time in deciding against becoming an Education major.) I had made a choice concerning my profession (journalism), but as to my future the decision was still in the air. Come graduation, where would I be—Vietnam or Canada?

“The answer to that question awaits the outcome of today. My only hope is that I flunk my physical; it’s a slim chance, but that’s what I’m basing my failure on—I’m underweight. If I flunk, I’ll be able to live my life normally until the next physical, and if I fail enough of them I’ll be free forever. But if I pass, the words “soul searching” won’t be strong enough to express the inner conflicts that I will have—Vietnam is wrong...I don’t want to learn how to kill...i don’t want to be killed...but I also don’t want to leave the country or my family...nor do I want to serve a jail sentence.

“My predicament is not unique, but by vocalizing it I have given expression to the fears, frustrations, and shattered hopes of a whole generation of young people. To them, to me, the draft is not a cold wind on the neck—it’s doom.”

(Editor’s Note: To read how the physical turned out, revisit my blog of November 11, 2009: