The Viet Nam Era: Getting Drafted into the Military Wasn’t Always Fun
I have many memories about the Viet Nam era in my head, an era which filled up the nightly news from about 1963 through 1975, with the fall of Saigon. I’ve already written about some of the those memories, but one has lately floated up into my consciousness, a very personal and private aspect that occurred during that age of war.
When we graduated from the very rural and simplistic Almaden Elementary School at the corner of Almaden Road and Kooser Lane (that part of the lane that no longer exists after it was incorporated into the very long Blossomhill Road, annexed by the city of San Jose), we went to John Muir Junior High School on Branham Lane. This was a brand new school, with all sorts of new ideas and new facilities. All of this “newness” being forced upon us sedentary farm folk, by all of the new, up and coming immigrants into Santa Clara Valley from the east coast, forcing “high technology” and new life styles, conceived from where ever, down our simple and very countrified throats. This was the era when Santa Clara Valley was being reformed from the agricultural utopia known as the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight” into the ever pursuing progress of the future by the new “Silicon Valley” mentality spawned by the technology binging engineers left over from the experience and expertise of World War II and the new jet planes and nuclear submarines of the Korean War.
Boy, you want to talk about a clash of cultures, this was the heart and soul of such a clash. Personally, I stuck with the Valley of the Heart’s Delight, though it was so obviously soon to be dead and gone once the invaders put their sights on it. But it is there where my heart still resides, not in this vicious and perennially consumptive “Silicon Valley,” something so very pernicious, inhumane and self destructive. Because “progress” runs forward at some break neck speed, does not mean that it is positive progress and I much disdain such unrelenting, such incomprehensible progress leading to who knows where but, ultimately, leads to self destructive and self consumptive ends. It makes me think of the world of nothing more than the ugly mechanical and computerized existence so well graphically and wontenly portrayed in the collection of “Matrix” movies starring Keanu Reeves, where bottled up human beings are no more than batteries to energize and run a greater world of computer generated realities. To hell with that!
But back to the story line, so much for philosophical rantings. When I entered my first year of this neo-new, suburban reality at John Muir Junior High School on Branham Lane, they put us all through a series of “tests” to measure and record how smart we were, and how physically strong or weak we kids were. The plan was to make us do these tests every year until we graduated from high school so these school administrators could figure how successful or unsuccessful their newly developed programs were.
Well, the one thing these city slickers didn’t count on, was how unfamiliar us farm kids were of these new facilities. So here I was, just starting the seventh grade, and some asshole coach had us strip down and put on some school provided swim trunks. Then he took his clip board and ordered all of us out to the edge of the new swimming pool at the brand new John Muir Junior High School. I’d never been on the edge of a swimming pool before. The only water I ever knew were the mossy and shallow little ponds behind the squalid little dams that we had devised along the very few creeks in the very arid Almaden Valley. And let me tell you, they were shallow and short, not allowing for much swim training or diving expertise. We spent more time keeping the sucking slugs from attaching themselves to our skin than we ever spent learning how to dive or swim. We were much unlike the sun tanned athletes of our same age, up at the country club, in the chlorined water held by concrete swimming pools right next to the golf course that we were never allowed on. We were too poor and unkempt for the likes of the IBM executives and Air Force and U.S. Army colonels and generals who were now living on the unforgivably exploited and debased farmlands and vineyards of our beautiful hillsides. It was all too obvious that we, poor farm folk, were going to be diminished and desecrated by the likes of these snobby, heartless and self absorbed executives who had no care for the land or the nature which we old timers cherished. Probably, within the next few years, they’d be promoted to some new position in their high tech companies and be relocated to an even newer and more extravagant location, somewhere else in the sun belt. While they moved on, we little people were left with the remnants of our once productive farms and so little of our self respect and our all too important super productivity.
Decades later, when I’d go to garage sales in the old neighborhood, it was just all too obvious who’s house was a newer tract house, or was an older, anchor house, still held by the original farm family after they were forced to sell off the bulk of their original land by San Jose civil authorities who backed and supplied the means for the off sight developers to acquire and breach the real nature of this rich earth. I’d go to these original houses, having garage sales, and I’d bring up the name of the family on whose old property I was standing on, and we’d all shake our heads, all of us agreeing that we’d rather have the land rather than the check that was given to the family to give up the land, to give up the land for the check, or not give it up. If the family didn’t give it up, they could find itself facing a court case filed by the bureaucrats of the City of San Jose for refusing to accept an edict of eminent domain, court case the cash strapped could never afford.
It was always funny to us that the new people had more regard for the paper green backs than the fruitful earth beneath their feet. One commodity so false and fallible, the other so ancient, ageless and bountiful.
We had to go through all these tests during our first weeks at John Muir Junior High School. They were tests none of us farm kids ever experienced before, but so familiar to the city kids we were now merged with. We were provided with these school owned swim trunks and were then told to report to the edge of the brand new swimming pool in this brand new school. They’d call off a dozen or so names, and so many guys who fit the names, would hang their toes over the edge of the pool’s coping. The junior high school coach would bark out a quick set of orders, then blow a whistle and all the kids on the long edge of the pool would dive in and swim the width of the new, sparkling clean pool.
We farm kids had never dove into any body of water, as nothing in our neighborhood was deep enough to allow for a dive, let alone not even for a well meant belly flop. At one point in time, the junior high coach called my name, among a lot of others, so I copied the movements and posture of those city kids that came before me, I hung my toes over the edge of the pool’s coping stones. The coach blew his little, chrome whistle and we all dived into the water. I’d never dived before, but I was copying the motions of the guys that went before me. Trouble was, I had no idea of what I was doing. As soon as I hit the water, I raised my right arm like I saw all these guys before me do, however, I did it too soon, and the pressure of the water wrenched my right arm right out of its socket and I was stuck in the middle of the pool with a dislocated shoulder. With my head under water, and being in a blinding state of shock, I just curled up into a ball and held my breath. My friends told me that all they could see of me were several of my vertebrae bobbing above the churned up surface of the swimming pool’s water. The rest of me was all curled up below.
As we were diving off the edge of the pool in the shallow end, the coach jumped into the pool and walked up to me and tossed me onto the wet concrete deck surrounding the pool, unrolled me, and yanked on my right arm to get the joint back into its proper configuration. That was the end of it. He never sent me to the school nurse nor reported the dislocation to anyone. While it hurt like hell, and was sore for a couple of days, I really had no idea what had happened to me, and I just let it go, not making any big deal of it.
Later in the year, at this new school, they asked us if we wanted to join in any athletic programs. By this point in my life, I’d acquired a great disdain for team sports, like baseball and football. All through elementary school, I was scorned and ridiculed by the team sports leaders because I was the runt of the school yard and not well trained at the specific mechanics of the really popular sports like baseball, football, and certainly, the tall man’s sport, basketball. We farm kids had learned how to toss 60 pound prune boxes onto truck beds and buck hay bails one atop the other, but we knew nothing about shooting hoops or aiming at goal posts. I chose to join the wrestling team, where strength was a primary virtue, size was classified by body weight and skill was determined by the aggression and tenacity of the individual wrestler.
While it turns out that I was as strong as anyone else on our wrestling team, even for my size, I just didn’t have the aggressive nature necessary to make me a winning wrestler. I was the worst wrestler on the team for all of the three years of my junior high term, but no one ever pinned me, I always lost by points. I was too strong for my opponents to pin both of my shoulders down at one time, to win me by a pin. I’d back bridge and keep one of my shoulders off the mat, in each and every match. I didn’t have the sense of aggression to make me a decent wrestler. However, because of my wrestling involvement, I learned how profound the right shoulder dislocation was. While the guys on the wrestling team would wrap me up and twist me all around, but when they got me into certain positions, they’d pull my right arm right out of it’s socket. I’d go limp and my opponent would just jump right off me, as they felt the arm jump out of its correctness. I’d roll over and pound my shoulder into the mat, to push the arm back into its joint.
After a good number of these dislocations, after which several of these occurrences left my shoulder very deeply black and blue, my mom finally took me to an orthopedic specialist in downtown San Jose. He took a bunch of x-rays and had me take a series of tests, and he determined that my shoulder was really, really screwed up. I was 14 or 15 years old when all of this took place.
About this same time, the Viet Nam war was expanding and becoming more impending. I stayed on the wrestling team and suffered the occasional dislocations of my right shoulder. Then a new awareness came into my realm of what was happening. All of the nation’s draft boards were calling up all of the able bodied young men to fight a ridiculous war in some tiny country all the way across the planet. I wanted nothing to do with it, me and and so many others more. It became a huge national controversy.
Before I graduated from high school, I went back to the San Jose orthopedist and inquired as to my viability as an acceptable candidate for the military draft. This specialized physician told me that my bum arm would not find me to be an acceptable and reliable participant in a military environment, my shoulder popping out of joint in any of such very normal of sorts of orientations. What do you know, I had a “get out of jail free” card, when it came to the rampant military draft of that era.
But guess what? When the military needed every “swinging dick” (excuse my usage of the military’s vernacular, but this is how they phrased it), I was sent a draft notice. My shoulder disability was now to be ignored. In those days, if you were to get drafted into the U.S. Military in the Bay Area, you’d be called into the induction center in Oakland. This being nearly 50 years ago, I really don’t remember the address of that place. It was just a big, multistory building in the middle of all the multistory buildings in downtown Oakland.
I do remember that there were thirteen “stations” that we teenaged fellows had to go through to get our blood pressure checked, to see if we had athlete’s foot or if we had a hernia, to check our eyes, this, that and all of the other normal and abnormal things that happen to the young, male, human body. This was all done to see if you were fit and able enough to get sent twelve thousand miles away, to a tiny, jungle country to shoot at people who had nothing to do with you or your home. This was such bull shit (For you old timers, refer you memory back to the famous “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie).
In this induction center, station thirteen was where they considered your special situations, such as my screwed up shoulder, to see if your particular, personal screw up warranted your inclusion or exclusion into the draft of all of our young and viable bodies into this questionable brotherhood of the mid-1960s. By this time, I had made sure to collect a whole passel of expert letters from a variety of orthopedic specialists garnering descriptions of how messed up my right shoulder was. At station thirteen, a doctor in street clothes reviewed all the orthopedic letters in my file and grabbed the handle of one of the several rubber stamps strewn across his puny desk and he stamped so many pages in my file with the inked impression which read “4-H” which meant, he explained to me, that I was unavailable for the draft until I had a surgical procedure to correct my messed up shoulder. I was not draftable.
Whew! What a relief.
Now that I had gone through the thirteen stations in nothing but my long, hippy hair, my jockey shorts and my cowboy boots, now me and everyone else were allowed to put our clothes back on. However, there was one last, unaccounted for “station” we had to go through before we were let out of the building. This “non” station was the tiny table manned by an obviously long time army Sargent whose job it was to make sure that all of the forms in each and every page in your personal packet of forms were correctly signed in the lower right hand corner on each of your many, many pieces of paper in your draft board packet of forms.
While this shaved head of a Sargent fanned through everyone else’s packet of forms with a ridiculously agile and competent ability to flip pages, confirming the required signatures were on the bottom right hand corner of so many packets of such similar forms. However, when I showed up in front of him, with my long hippy hair and polished cowboy boots, and the beginnings of a proud and bountiful hippy beard, this Sargent’s ample dexterity at page validations seems to have left him for my stack of papers. Nope, now that I stood before him, with my file full of their papers, he slowed way down, and purposely and solemnly reviewed each page that I had in my stack as though they were final decrees of some death warrant issued by a heartless and ruthless member of some ancient judiciary. No, it wasn’t any of that. He slowly reviewed each page and then he got to the page that was stamped with the ink acclaiming my new, official “4-H” status which found me unfit for the military draft. Sitting at his tiny, little table, with a long line of teenagers waiting behind me, this Sargent glared at this page for a few, long seconds, then glared at me for even a few more longer seconds, then he quietly told me that the doctor who had stamped this page with the 4-H status was a reservist and was not a died in the wool military doctor. My status was under question and I’d have to be examined by military doctors at the San Francisco Presidio within the next 30 days. The big balloon of my elation at being exempted from the draft, popped into nothingness, right then and there. Now what?
For whatever reason I don’t remember, the Sargent handed me a voucher so I could stay in a nearby hotel for the upcoming night. I’d be getting my paperwork to take to the Presidio the next morning, here, in the same room I was getting ready to leave. I’d be given a date at the Presidio in San Francisco for a more thorough examination of my bum shoulder by the military doctors over in the City. Man, oh Man, how much more were they going to drag this out?
The next morning, after sleeping the night away in a sleazy, Oakland hotel room, I returned to the induction center simply to be given a date to show up at the Presidio across the Bay within the next 30 days, but as I waited for the notice of my Presidio appointment, they lined up a bunch of guys in the same room where I was waiting, and some uniformed personage started barking out orders to the twenty or so teenagers standing in a line in front of him.
I just wanted to get out of there, and I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to what else was going on around me. But, in a whisper, I heard my name being called, in a frantic but silent whisper. I looked up, and in the line of guys standing in front of the uniformed, bossy guy, was one of my best friends, Butch Henderson. There was Butch, a very simple fellow, the son of an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who had bought a house along the eighteenth fairway of the Almaden County Club a few years before. Unlike his over-achieving parents and older sister, Butch was a simple and easy going young fellow who was nearly blind and constantly wearing his overbearingly thick, horn rimmed black glasses so he could see where in the hell he was going. The problem was, Butch was a hugely handsome young buck, but he couldn’t see more than two feet in front of him. His family constantly lauded his good looks, and prodded him to keep his glasses off his face. But doing such, he never knew what he was encountering as he could never see what was just a few feet before him.
I met Butch as I made my way through John Muir Junior High, and as we were both major screw ups in each, our own ways; me being the runt farm guy, and he being the handsome but dumb and blind Dumbo, we became pretty close buddies.
In the evenings of the early 1960s, when everyone would head to downtown San Jose to “Drag the Main” circling First and Second streets, the boys teasing the girls and girls teasing the boys, Butch and I would jump into the the silly little, brown Corvair that his father let him use, or my stupid, faded white Corvair that my dad let me use, and we’d go “Drag the Main” every Friday and Saturday night. A perfect presentation of these sorts of experiences are portrayed in the movie “American Graffiti,” so embarrassingly right on the mark.
While I don’t think we ever picked up any girls in the several years full of “dragging the Main,” Butch and I were strident devotees of the weekend practice in our powerless, pooped out little Corvairs. A couple of times a year, my parents would go off on a trip in some jet airplane and leave me at home with my mom’s monstrously powerful 383 cubic inch, dual carbuerated “Police Interceptor” Dodge Polara. Now, this is when Butch and I would go dragging the Main, full of confidence and aplomb. Hey, nothing could touch this light blue Mopar Monster. It was a factory built dragster of a speed machine. It wasn’t ordered by my mom, but when she got ready to spend the money, my dad put in the order. Lucky for me! It was an unstoppable machine that never lost a race. But, little did my mom know any of this.
As “AC,” as it’s called now-a-days, as air conditioning was yet to become standard equipment in early 1960s passenger cars, my parents had outfitted their Dodge Polara with a set of coiled wire seat cushions, designed to keep your hot, sweaty body off the leather seats of your high class, sleeper race car and keep you cool and calm while driving all over the place even without the “AC” so common now. So, when Butch and I got possession of the Polara, we’d gather up all of these cushions throughout the car’s interior, we’d fold them up and place them under my tail bone, to make me appear to be much more than the tiny, little runt that I actually was. We won a whole bunch of road races with me sliding around on these cool air cushions. This was a subtle part of “dragging the Main” that the American Graffiti movie missed.
While dragging the main in the Polara was a very gratifying experience, for the most part, Butch and I were usually, really relegated to doing the drag in the poopless and powerless Corvairs. And, add to this, without his big and bold horn rimmed, black spectacles, Butch was as blind as a bat. But, add to that, because of his parent’s and his sister’s constant comments on how he turned out to be such a handsome and Cary Grant-like screen idol, Butch’s self confidence didn’t include any reference to big, black, horn rimmed glasses. Whenever we did encounter any number of eligible and interested young ladies, the first thing Butch would do is whip those big, black glasses right off his face, and then smile big, not knowing at all what he was looking at. I always had to direct him to the left and right, to keep him on target.
So here we are, early the next morning, sometime in the early 1960s in the Induction Center, me being purposely diverted from my physical disability, so well documented by a long series of bone specialists. Then there was Butch, standing in this line that I was looking at, with all of the ever present authorities ignoring his very well documented blindness. The lenses of his glasses were as thick and distorting as the bottom of coke bottles. He was obviously as blind as a bat. However, being the only son of a well regarded and upward floating Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, Butch obediently acquiesced to every order aimed at him.
As he stood in that line, at the draft center in Oakland, where I was waiting for my paper work, some uniformed official counted out the first eight guys in the line and told those eight guys that they were going into the army. Then he counted out a half dozen more guys and told them that they going into the navy. Then he counted out about three more, these three, which included Butch, and this uniformed individual told these three guys were going into the Marines. I didn’t know all that much about the military, but I did know that Butch and his bad eye sight had no business in the stringent reality of the U.S. Marines. Once again, he was blind as a bat, I knew this all too well. But, in my inflamed silence, and Butch’s obedient, obsequious silence, he let himself be marched out to some other room in this grand, old building in the middle of this infamously violent city to be not heard from for many, many months to come.
At this point in time, Butch had already married his high school sweetheart and was now disconnected from her, by the blind and bureaucratic virtue of his draft board, whatever the hell that was. In that same span of time, I fell in love with a gorgeous and rebellious young lady of a similar consciousness to my own. We got married and came up with plans for our lives in the future. But we had to muddle our way through this Viet Nam War bullshit, and my insecure status with the draft board.
One night, my wife, Angela, and I went out to my family’s Almaden home to have dinner with my folks. We’d traveled from our Twelfth Street apartment, which we selected to make for the most convenience for Angela to finish out her formal education at San Jose State College. While we were setting up the table for our semi-formal dinner, something very unusual for my very informal family, the phone rang. Surprisingly, the call was for me, in this place were I hadn’t in lived for several years now. I took the handset and looked about the room, my wife, my dad and mom looking to me very curiously, what could this be?
A female voice officiously asked me if I’d accept the charges for this collect call. Completely clueless, I accepted the charges, who was this and what was going on? Then I heard one word and it all became clear. What I heard on the other end of the phone was a simple “Hello.” It was Butch. It was Butch and he was in great distress. Angela and I had heard from his wife that, thought they drafted him into the Marine Corps, he was so blind that they posted him to some shipping depot in the desert lands of southern California, near the border of Southern California and Arizona. Being so blind, he was useless as a combat soldier, and his Marine brethren let him constantly know as much. Now, he was nothing more than a shipping clerk, much to the chagrin of his Lieutenant Colonel father and the rest of his family. Butch was going crazy out there, and he was being much abused and distressed in this entirely overly military environment in the empty desert.
During this collect call, I listened to Butch tell me that he was on leave, but that he didn’t know where to go or what to do. He didn’t feel worth enough to come back to San Jose and be with his wife, he was such a failure, and so incompetent, as the Marines had told him, and he didn’t know where else to go. Hearing just this much, my heart sank. Butch’s parents were so unknowing and so self centered, they never gave the boy the support that he needed. Now, in this even less than supportive military environment, he was floundering in self doubt and uselessness.
Butch wasn’t the brightest bulb in the six pack, but he was intelligent and even more so, he was a very sensitive guy, that’s what connected him and me. And here I am at the age of twenty one, listening to a very suicidal best friend. What could I do? What should I do? This guy had a plane ticket to come back to his wife and he told us that he was ready to tear it up and wander out into the water- less wastelands of the surrounding desert, to dehydrate himself until he died out there, totally alone and totally ineffectual, a good life wasted.
What in the hell was I supposed to do? One very specific reality came to me in a flash: don’t let him hang up. Some how, some way, keep him on the phone. No matter what we came up with as some sort of solution, if he wasn’t on the phone line, it would all be useless. Reader, please pay attention, this was in a time thirty years before cell phones were even thought of. We still had party lines in those days. Go google on what a party line was.
So, the big deal was to keep him on the line, but I had absolutely no idea on how to do that. And at the same time, my wife and my parents were gathering all around me, wanting to know what was going on, obvious to all of them that this collect call was something very significant and important. Man, this was just too much to handle all at once. My hands motioned my family to back off and give me some space. Angela handed me a small pad of paper and a pencil. I wrote the family quick notes as to what was happening. I talked to Butch about weak, little Corvairs and strong Dodge Polaras. I avoided talking about the military. Angela broke off and took our car down to the nearest gas station, jumped into their phone booth and called Butch’s wife to tell her of what was happening back at my parent’s house. All too soon, here is Butch’s wife pounding on our front door, crying and pleading to talk to the confused and errant brother to us all.
I knew her hysterics would do nothing but have him shoot off into this negative and unknowing little world where he was stuck right now. Angela and my parents kept her at a safe distance from the phone I was on.
I wasn’t really clear as to what to do, but one thing kept me going in one direction, talk about the ordinary, the mundane, the simple stuff. Don’t even try to mention the complex problems he couldn’t sort out right now. All I could think to do was to keep it on a simple and very direct road. Keep him focused on stuff other than the messed up bull shit he was all twisted up in. I mean, I hadn’t figured this out in any sort of verbal and rational terms, but, in a general sort of way, this is what came to me. I worked on it as best I could. I was running this all by the seat of my pants.
As time went by, the longer I kept him on the line, the better I felt, the more relaxed I became, the more I found other non military stuff to talk about, the more we chuckled and laughed, the more the tension was reduced. As this endless conversation progressed, with my family and Butch’s wife curled up at my feet, listening to every word they could hear, for what was for them a one way conversation, only hearing what I was trying to figure out what to say.
Finally, I really do forget how it all turned out, but I kept promising Butch that he could stay in my old bed room at my parents house and not have to face his parents, or even his wife, if he didn’t want to, not until he sorted out all of his confusion. His wife was weeping at my feet as I was saying this, not knowing what else to say. I just wanted to give him all the room he needed to sort stuff out. That’s all I came up with.
Finally Butch hung up on me. In my parent’s home, we all just collapsed and we just fell to the floor, exhausted and stressed. We had no idea of what he was thinking, what he decided, what we were supposed to expect. This was all happening a few weeks after Thanksgiving, a few weeks before Christmas, and all of our holiday expectations were suspended with this unexpected phone call.
None of us moved from the dining room floor after Butch hung up the phone. We just all slumped down and waited for what ever was next to happen.
Into the middle of the pitch black morning, the phone rang again. This time without an operator requesting our acceptance of a collect call. It was Butch, finally, once again. Were we talking to him directly, now, where was he? What was he thinking? Simply, he told us he was at the San Jose Airport and he was wondering if we could pick him up and let him stay in my old bedroom at my parent’s house. As I repeated his request, there was a huge, simultaneous sigh of relief, and, of course, me and Angela jumped into my hot rod Volkswagen and picked him up at the airport. We all decided that it might be best to let him just unwind at the my folks house and get his head straight before dealing with his wife or his military family. We were all flying by the seat of our pants. Let’s just get him to settle down. Then we tried to figure where to go and what to do. None of this was in our realm of reality. We just didn’t know anything and wanted to keep it all as simple and direct as he was requesting.
For the next few days, it was like me and my family were living in a vacuum. The only thing happening in our lives was Butch. He was calm and silent, but even more so, he was distant and inaccessible. We just left him alone, at least making sure that he had plenty to eat and had more than enough room to keep to himself.
Finally, the tightly wound spring that had Butch all screwed up, was becoming unwound. He finally spent some time with his wife. He uncoiled some more and made contact with his parents, but on a limited and controlled manner, something very unusual for a guy like Butch. Even his pushy and overbearing father backed off and gave my friend a good amount of space. Slowly, Butch was coming round and getting his feet underneath himself. In the end, Butch came out of this as one of the brightest bulbs in the six pack, and he rose far above where he went in. He finally took control of his life and he did a really good and complete job of it. He divorced from his hysterical wife, remarried years later and had some very successful and healthy kids, retired from a successful career as a chemical/biologist and hopefully, has moved on, with very little remembrance of that nasty night when he called me collect.
What if Angela and I hadn’t been at the parent’s house on that night?