With trouble brewing big time in the Middle East again, it got me thinking of a time when we had similar issues in Asia.
It also brought back memories of a time that we didn’t have a volunteer army. Uncle Sam required able-bodied young men to serve their country. This was not always what young men wanted to do right out of high school; we had no choice.
If you got the dreaded letter you could sneak off to Canada like one of our former presidents, Bill Clinton.
I have written before that I grew up in the southern Maryland countryside, near the mouth of the South River and Chesapeake Bay surrounded by woods and countryside.
I was 12 years old and just out of school for the summer in 1960 when I slipped on an oyster-shell filled hillside under a lawn mower that had gotten stuck on a big extended root and proceeded to mangle a few of the toes on my left foot.
In 1960, they didn’t have the technology to repair limbs, so I spent three months in the hospital while they tried to save my toes. During that time, I became the fattest, most spoiled kid in Annapolis.
There was a nurse who told me one day when I was feeling sorry for myself that someday I may find out that because I lost my toes, “that God sometimes takes care of fools.”
I went in the hospital in June and when August came, and there was no progress, so off with the toes.
During that time, the Vietnam conflict was just ratcheting up and a draft was in effect.
But I was only 12 and was more concerned about Dick Clark moving from Philadelphia to California and the Washington Senators winning a ball game than a place called Vietnam.
If you were a teenage boy in Maryland in those days, you wanted to go down to the draft board and register on time at age 18. Without a draft card you couldn’t get served beer in Washington D.C., which then had a drinking age of 18, and all of the party places were only a short drive away.
So the day I turned 18, at the crack of dawn I was standing in line to get my coveted draft card.
Because my toes were missing, I was classified as 1-Y, which meant I wouldn’t be called up for anything unless there was a national emergency of some sort.
In 1966, I was working full time at the local paper, had just graduated from high school and was just starting to be liked by girls.
I also had moved out of the countryside and into the big city and lived with my grandmother.
Everything was going just fine until the fall of my 18th year.
I received a surprise note from the draft board that said I was now reclassified as a 1-S and that I was to take a bus trip up to Baltimore to take the dreaded physical that could get you dressed in olive green or navy blue.
So bright and early one fall day, off I went.
When we got to Ft. Hollanberg in Baltimore, they loaded us like cattle into a gym-like structure where a sergeant shoved papers in our hands and proceeded to tell us what the rest of the day was going to be like.
He also gave us a brown lunch bag that contained one apple and a ham and cheese sandwich on dried bread, no dressing, and a moon pie.
I looked at my papers in disbelief. These were papers that said I was unemployed, desired to go into the military as a career, etc. It looked like my signature, but I hadn’t filled it out.
I tried to raise my hand to inform the sergeant that I didn’t personally fill out these papers and that somehow a mistake had been made.
I didn’t realize as I sat there in shock reading my papers that he had just told everybody that no excuse was going to work today.
What the sergeant said to me hurt me more than Sr. Gerard did in the third grade for sneaking extra chocolate milk out of the ice pail.
The next thing I knew, there were 12 neat rows of us stark naked, being looked at and prodded by a least eight doctors. Trust me; this was not a very pretty sight.
Being a very naïve person at that time, I couldn’t believe the different techniques that some of my fellows had tried to fail their physical, such as sticking soap in private places, staying up for days on end, and drinking coffee for three solid days.
It took until the very last doctor to realize that I had toes missing; he looked at me like I was a leper and immediately sent me to the base psychiatrist.
The first question he asked was, “Why did you cut off your toes, was it because you wouldn’t have to serve your country?”
While I was trying to tell him that at age 12 serving my country wasn’t really on my mind — and in fact I was about to tell him my whole life story — he looked at me over his glasses stamped my papers with a big red stamp that said “UNFIT” and snarled at me that I was through for the day.
Good, I thought to myself. This government is on the ball after all.
As I walked down the hall with a big old smile, two big sergeants were taking blood. I tried to tell them I was UNFIT. They told me to get my big fat ass over there and give blood.
I thought the remark about my butt was very insensitive and probably if they said it today, I could sue, I had learned my lesson on questioning sergeants, so I gave my blood, and UNFIT or not I was part of the program the rest of the day.
We soon had to take our written tests. I guess that was to determine if we were going to run the Pentagon or be one of the sanitation engineers.
Again, a sergeant informed us that everyone would pass this test, so don’t try to fail it.
There were some tough math questions though; for instance, Farmer Brown had two apples, he ate one, how many did he have left? Or some good logic questions like if a chicken crossed a busy interstate highway during rush hour was his chance of survival: (a) Good or (b) Bad.
At the end of the day, they loaded us back into the gym and started culling those who didn’t pass the physical and who didn’t pass the written test that no one could fail.
I think they kept some of those folks over to work with them. I actually didn’t see some of that group who stayed ever again.
They sent me to a social worker who was supposed to help me find a job since my papers said I didn’t have one.
I looked at my papers again while I was in line. I finally figured mom had filled them out.
My mom never thought the newspaper business was ever going to be a good choice of career for me. Sometimes I have to wonder if she wasn’t half right.
We never talk about her filling out those papers, even to this day.
As I stood in line for the social worker, my bus was getting ready to leave for home.
I just left the line and got on it. I reckon I became 4-F because I never heard from the draft board again.
In fact, when I was 21, I had to renew my card, because then to go to bars in Maryland at 21 you had to have a draft card.
It took them three days to find any record on me and I had to beg them to print me a card.
On the way home from Baltimore on the bus, guys were talking about going to Vietnam.
They were scared. I actually was feeling kind of low. I felt I was letting my country down.
I silently cursed the summer of my 12th year.
I was sitting with my friend Mickey. It turned out he had a perforated eardrum and they wouldn’t take him either.
He was feeling the same way I was.
It was a beautiful fall evening as we walked around Church Circle in Annapolis after we got off the bus.
The birds were singing, the air was crisp and the moon was full.
Soon I felt a little smile coming on and I asked Mick if he felt as bad and he said he didn’t and off we went to D.C. I regret never having been able to serve my country.
I lost a few of my friends in Vietnam, and when I can, I go to visit the memorial wall in D.C.
I find their names and I cry like a baby.
But I am thankful today. I don’t miss my toes and I know that God apparently does really take care of fools.
T. Pat Cavanaugh is the publisher of The Covington News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.