First Contact: The Draft Physical

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First Contact: The Draft Physical

A demonstration outside a draft board in the US in 1971

In the Spring of 1970 my country erupted in protests over President Nixon's invasion of Cambodia. I was finishing up my Senior year classes at the time, while preparing for a choral tour of Europe with my college's Chorale. I was so busy taking early exams to complete my degree that I couldn't cope with the protesters who seemed to be everywhere, even though I was in complete sympathy with them.

Little did I realize that a few weeks later I would return from that triumphal tour to find a letter from my local draft board waiting for me.

My fate was mapped out for me: I was to catch a bus in Clinton (the next town over from where I lived) at such and such a time. The bus was to go to Worcester, where I would change to a bus bound for the Naval base in Boston. where I was to have my army physical.

That was the year of the draft lottery. I think my lottery number was about 220; I would likely not have been called up anyway, but I sure as heck was going to stack the deck in favor of not haivng to serve. I had been born with a defect in one of my kidneys, and I came prepared with copious copies of medical records proving it.

In every other way, however, I was unprepared for what lay ahead of me that day.

My mother drove me to the bus stop in Clinton. Three other guys were already waiting when I arrived. Two were sitting on the curb. I considered doing likewise, when a policeman came along and scolded them for it. We weren't five miles along when one of the three did something that got him kicked off the bus and seized by policemen. Bring taken away by the police probably seemed a better deal for him than being drafted.

Things did not get better after that point. Because I was a college graduate (Yay, me!), the draft board thought I was ideal to be in charge of the others. I was told to carry the transfer vouchers that would get us on the bus in Worcester. One of the results of this was that
the guys I was in "charge" of resented the fact that, when the vouchers seemed at first to be the wrong ones, I figured out how to exchange them for vouchers which would work. I must be in cahoots with the establishment, right? Well, no. I wanted to get to Boston so could present my medical papers. I got chewed out plenty by the other guys during that bus trip.

50-plus years have passed since that day, so maybe it's just as well that I don't have vivid memories of the Naval base itself. I remember the indignity of standing in a line of guys who had to strip and bend over so our butts could be examined. My eyesight was bad, so I was in no mood to let them think it was any better than it had to be. I remember that another guy confided that he was gay (a surefire reason for being rejected). I wondered what it was like to be gay.

When I presented my papers, I was prepared to be told that my experience with kidney problems would probably be a reason for being rejected for service. What I wasn't prepared for was that my blood pressure was sky-high. (Mercifully, I didn't know then that I would develop chronic blood pressure problems by the early 1980s and be on medication for the rest of my life.)

My head was swirling as I walked away from the Navy base to catch a bus for home. What was I to make of any of it? On the plus side, I was likely exempt from military service (ultimately classified 4-F. On the minus side I had a serious health worry (high blood pressure) that I hadn't had before. Was I doomed to a short life? Socially, I was a bad person in the eyes of guys who didn't even know me. Was this the worst day of my life? It sure felt like it!

What happened to those other guys? Maybe it's just as well that I don't know. Hopefully they have forgotten that I ever existed. What does it say about me that I can agonize about the matter? Since that day, the closest I've come to visiting a military base was as an entertainer at VA hospitals. I hope that doing so has at least partially repaired the bad karma that I might have earned on that fateful day.....

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