Monday, February 29, 2016

The Draft: Fit to Kill

Before I actually got the very low draft-lottery number (63) I always knew I would, there was the obligatory Preinduction Armed Forces Physical, the pleasures of which I would like to share at this time as a kind of appetizer leading up to my big Draft Decision Day and the lengthy exercises in absurdity that followed -- not to give anything away:

A cluster of draft-age boys banter away outside a Greyhound bus somewhere in Madison. Some are smoking, some are hoping the bus's diesel fumes will either get them high or damage their brains enough to keep them out of service, all are in constant motion, talking too fast, laughing without humor. With no girls in the crowd, they have no one to impress with their wit or charm or humor or taste. Just a herd of noisy teen-aged boys, making noises just to make noises, or making them as masked cries for help. 


The whole scene is a little too reminiscent of clueless cattle awaiting entrance into the chute to the slaughterhouse.

We are heading from Madison to Jacksonville to find out if we are fit enough to serve our country. On the way there, we joke about how lousy our odds are for failing a physical when our government, desperate to clean up the mess in Nam, will take any breathing human male.

The oldest joke was this: The doc walks up to you and says, "Do this," and imitates squeezing a trigger with his index finger. "If you can do that, you're in!" 

Ha, ha, ha! We're all gonna die!

All our banter and teenage humor is followed by nervous laughter. Occasionally, we would all go quiet, and almost everyone would be gazing out the window at rural north Florida -- all its natural shades of green -- racing past them. 
Hey! This is all bull shit!

Jacksonville is not far enough away. It is only 113 miles from Madison. We will be there soon.
We had that glum, dazed, flat stare I wouldn't see again until I was in a room full of teachers listening to an insurance agent urging us to sign up for extended care, because as we age, our chances of contracting horrible diseases would blah blah, and we would shut out the rest of her presentation while we ruminated on the many, many ways old humans could die, and we saw ourselves shriveled up, shrinking away on something called a hospital bed, and nearby there's a cold bedpan and a masked stranger with a washcloth and goddangit we were in a good mood just 15 minutes ago.

We -- the boys -- shared that same heavy, sudden-onset, flu-like despondency, but of course our images of mortality were a bit different from the teachers'. Depending on our temperament and/or our genetic makeup, we either imagined falling on a grenade for our brothers in arms or slowly dying from an infection caused by stepping on a shit-smeared punji stick.

As you've probably guessed by now, we made it to Jacksonville.

We walk into some ugly-ass, smelly, soulless building at the Naval Air Station and start getting yelled at immediately. We also start getting naked. The people in charge think it would be nice if we spend the day in our underwear, maybe just to make things easier when an actual (I guess) doctor examines us, or maybe to make us feel powerless and exposed. They do give us flip-flops or shower shoes or whatever the freak they called them so we don't have to traipse around in our underwear barefooted. Thoughtful!

Some uniformed jackass says "This ain't nothin' compared to what it's gonna be like once you join up."

The place quickly morphs into a carnival or scavenger hunt created by an ill-tempered Stephen King on hallucinogens, just one messed up exhibit after another.


For example: We'd all been warned about the "turn-your-head-and-cough" hernia exam, but we didn't picture it happening in a long chorus line of about 50 potential warriors. No underpants required for this one!

And, also while in a long line with our fellow patriots, we had the ol' "are you hiding something up your ass?" exam, so just in case we had a trace of remaining dignity about us, this communal cheek-spreading quickly extinguished it. Some nitwit in charge initiated the ceremony by yelling out, "Bend over and crack a smile!"  Whatever they were searching for up there, they found nothing, at least not in our row. (Admittedly, they probably weren't really searching for foreign objects, but they never told us otherwise.) 
Next!
"Wait your turn, ladies."

Urine samples! We find ourselves in what appears to be a huge ballroom, stripped of its gaudy decor, crammed full of boys seemingly slow dancing with themselves, blindly bumping into each other zombie-like, while they wait for space to clear at a massive splotched and rusted trough lined with guys pissing into plastic cups.

I was not alone in announcing "I can NOT take a piss in these conditions!"

Not a problem. There is a guy amiably circulating among the dancers offering his surplus urine to the needy. Either he had consumed a gallon of cranberry juice on the bus or he had been defying his body's natural needs since the night before, because he dishes out free samples like a thoughtful host at a cocktail party. I think they were free samples. I don't remember being asked for anything in return.

His name is Ed, and if we can't conjure our own liquid offering, we simply hold our plastic cup under his dangling spigot, feel it (our cup, not his spigot) increase in weight and warmth, then proceed to the MUST (Main Urine Sample Taker).

Mercifully and surprisingly, the long day of parading in our underwear while sampling the Defense Department's buffet line of humiliations finally comes to an end.


Back on the bus, I pick up where I left off on the way over, smearing the window with my facial oil while I look again at the only part of the world I had ever seen, north Florida, with its pines and oaks and fields and folks -- not to be too Rockwellian. But my somber musings are soon interrupted by a surprising lifting of spirits.

An unwonted and unwanted sanguinity and lightheartedness erupts, a far cry from the gloomily apprehensive mood of the morning trip. It's as if the wind has changed direction, and instead of nauseating us with the noxious fumes from Clyattville's Paper Mill, it seems to be soothing us, some of us, with the palpable sweetness of gardenia blossoms.


Why? Well, it turns out many of my brothers were found to be unfit for service. Some of them had bad knees. Others an irregular heartbeat. Others some other infirmity invisible to the naked eye.

(There was one among us who was rejected for having an extra testicle. Who knew the military would pass over a guy for having a lot of balls?)

And I, I alone* had survived the not-so-rigorous exams and was stamped ready for combat duty on the front lines or deep inside the tunnels. Shit. I, the skinny one with the nerd facade, turned out be among the very healthiest specimens on that loathsome bus on that godforsaken day.

There was not one freaking thing wrong with me. And I look at all my seemingly fit mates, smiling at the green landscape hurrying past them, smiling because now they are free to stick around and call it home or to find another, smiling the smiles of winners and patriots and flag wavers, who will gladly cheer the troops on from afar, and maybe even shame their brothers who find less respectable ways to avoid the fray.


For me, the wind turned again, watering my eyes and tickling my gag reflex, and my own personal dominoes began rapidly tumbling. More on that next time.


*Not really, but it might as well have been just me





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