I’d bought into the idea, proposed in 1970 by a draft counselor, that my chances for getting a physical deferment, and thus opting out of the Vietnam war, were much better in Idaho than in my native California. I hoped he was right. I clutched a manila folder with my medical records in it, along with an overnight bag, as I descended the bus steps onto a hot Boise sidewalk, and, together with a lot of other young “hopefuls,” checked into an ancient downtown hotel. We paid with government vouchers, a fact that seemed weirdly cool at the time.
I say hopefuls, because, just as the draft counselor had predicted, the next day’s physical was chockablock with innocent, peach-fuzzed boys who actually wanted to join the Army and see the world. I decided they were spud farmers, or the sons of spud farmers, though I don’t recall any of them sharing that fact. Their skin was as pale, as translucent as the inside of a raw potato.
One kid ahead of me in line told everyone who would listen that he was not old enough to join up, but that he had a letter from his parents, and his birthday was close enough, so that he could begin the process. Another boy asked the desk sergeant at every station we came to, “When do we find out if we passed? When do we find out if we passed?”
This was during the physical exam portion of the long, hot day. Those hours we stood in lines in our skivvies, otherwise naked in a stifling, windowless hall, where we were “injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and see-lected,” as Arlo Guthrie put it in “Alice’s Restaurant.”
I wanted to ask every sergeant to whom I handed my chart, “When do we find out if we flunked?” But of course I kept my mouth shut. I was terrified that the gig was already up.
I was still reeling, you see, from a blow earlier in the day during our written test, the one designed “to see if you’re moral enough” (Arlo again) “to burn women, kids, houses and villages.”
We still had our clothes on then. We were in a kind of classroom with school chairs in rows, and we were each bent over our multiple-choice booklets, scribbling in pronounced silence. I remember thinking, what’s the goal here? Do I try to ace this test, as I’d always done before? Or should I be trying for dumb? Purposely flub some answers? Lots of answers? No one had offered advice on this back in Berkeley.
The proctor, the non-com in charge, was a big man in squeaky leather and pressed khaki. He strode the aisles like a career despot, our fate held lightly in clasped hands behind his back. His footfalls on the polished floorboards – up one row and down the next – made the only sound.
Because I am left-handed and the writing platforms are always on the right on these seats, my back was turned to the proctor when he approached from the rear. He stopped for a minute just behind me then leaned over and whispered in my left ear: “You think we don’t know who you are, but we do. We even have a name for you. We call you the California Road Runners.” Then he straightened up and continued his slow stroll.
He might as well have kicked me in the gut. I had to think to breathe. Wait. Had he really just said that? I’m doomed. I am so screwed. How could they know? And why, if they really did know, did they prolong the charade? Were they just going to let me run the entire day’s gauntlet and then drop the bomb? I was a dead man walking.
The rest of the day went by as if in a dream: the hours in BVDs, the peeing in cups, the feeling of ice-cold stethoscopes on bare chests and backs, the “turn your head and cough” hernia test, the testicle count. Did they all know? I hardly dared look anyone in the eye, fearful of a damning confirmation.
The only rays of hope – completely irrational, I see now – came every time my potato-white comrade asked, “When do we find out if we passed? When do we find out if we passed?”
To be continued . . .