Before this writer can share experiences with being drafted in fall of ’73, a need to go back a few years for better reference into my mindset on things political. My first real ‘awakening’ to things of major importance was reading the October ’67 Playboy magazine interview with Jim Garrison. Newly arrived to Brooklyn College that fall, I wanted to act and feel like a person of intellect. Don’t laugh because Playboy had always conducted interesting and biting interviews with famous people. Garrison, the District Attorney of New Orleans, had brought forth an indictment of businessman Clay Shaw (and possible CIA asset) for the conspiracy to assassinate JFK. That interview had really ‘opened my eyes’ to something that until then I had never even contemplated: That our own government could do such heinous acts in the most covert manner. Less than a year later, with the murders of MLK and RFK, and then the chaos of the Chicago Democratic Convention, I was slowly (still too slowly) becoming radicalized. Regarding the war in Vietnam, I was still safely protected by the ‘cocoon’ of my student deferment. Translated: If you attended a college and were taking at least 12 credits per semester, Uncle Sam backed off from grabbing your balls and sending you to the ‘Shit’ as my veteran friends referred to it. Up until that wonderful springtime of flowers blooming and sunny May weather, I still did not really focus (or, sadly, care) about the horrors over there; the carpet bombings, sordid tales by returning vets (check out the Winter Soldier hearings of 1971), or massive protests here at home.
By the Spring of ’70, I was gearing up for our first Brooklyn College football season (after nearly 20 years of having no such college team), acting in student plays, and of course the oldest seasonal tradition of chasing beautiful girls. Vietnam was still too far from my mindset. Yet, as our campus became more aware of what was going down in relation to the (so-called) ‘War’, my interest began to peel away the layers of the ‘onion of insulation’ I had resided in for too long. When the news hit of Nixon and his ‘war whisperer’ Kissinger’s illegal secret bombing of Cambodia, followed by the five students (coulda been me) at Kent State University getting offed by National Guard troops, Wow!! Student strikes hit the nation, and we had a doozy of a one at Brooklyn College. Remember, our school, part of CUNY (City University of New York), had over 30,000 students at that time. Well, we shut the place down and chased the military recruiters off campus…along with most of everyone else who wanted no part of this thing. I helped take over the school President’s office, and actually made myself ‘Sanitation Chairman’ to get the offices we occupied, along with the campus lawns, cleaned of any mess. You see, some of the kids went wild in the guy’s office, even taking his liquor and cigars hostage. The campus lawns were filled with a sea of flyers from our demonstrations. Knowing that the press would be on their way to cover this all, and ever being the marketing guy, how we looked was as important as our message. As my late anti-war activist friend Walt DeYoung would put it so succinctly, Nuff said!
By 1973, I was on the’ right side of the street’ politically… and morally. The last thing I wanted was to be forced to serve in this empire’s military. Well, two things were working against me in 1973. A) I had received a low number in the previous draft lottery. My best pal at the time, Eddie, was really lucky. He not only got a number in the 200s, but, for his ‘sole surviving son’ status he would never have to go. Me.? Number 53 was my ticket to the ‘Shit’. B) By ’73, after keeping myself in college for going on six years, and recently either not taking enough credits, or perhaps having run past the time frame for a deferment, I got the letter to report for my physical. I was engaged to be married as well, scheduled for June of ’74. I needed but a few more credits to graduate and did not wish to come to my wedding in an Army dress uniform. What to do?
Knowing that the Army was by this time used to all the tricks in the book for getting out of the draft, I had to be cool as to proceed. Let’s see, a few options for me. Last season in football, I had gotten so banged up as a pass receiver that my elbows would swell up with fluid. The team orthopedist called it some kind of bursitis, and had to drain my elbows a few times. He was very willing to write a nice note for the Army doctors… and did just that. As far as any other way to get out of this mess, I did have a speech impediment since childhood. I stuttered. So much so that I actually chose Speech and Theater as my major to force myself to confront this. It helped but I still did stutter. Many times in class throughout the years since elementary school, I would actually know the answers to questions posed by a teacher, and kept my mouth shut for fear of embarrassment. What to do now? Well, in comes good old Dr. Carl Cohen, who liked to call himself ‘Needles Cohen’ because of his tendency to give B-12 shots for any condition. Actually, the man was perhaps ahead of his time on that one. Anyhow, I had been going to him on a weekly basis for my prostate condition. A few years back, while spending the summer working and playing in the resort town of Virginia Beach, Va. I had contracted ghonneria (or as we called it ‘The Clap’) not once but twice. The prostate never recovered from it, and enter ‘Needles Cohen’. He had me come by every Friday afternoon for a prostate massage and a shot. We became friendly (he loved my ‘sexual conquest’ stories) and thus, why not have him write me a note on my stuttering? He wrote a great one too. So, on it was to Fort Hamilton in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
When I arrived for my draft physical, carrying the two letters, I felt confident. After all, the horror in Vietnam seemed to be winding down a bit. Plus, so many of the other young guys drafted had opted to try every trick in the book. Some dropped acid or took Quaaludes before they showed up. Some wore women’s clothes, carried a purse and had more makeup on than a French whore. I figured that my approach would distinguish me from the other ‘pikers’. For this famous medical, the one that frightened so many, they had us draftees follow the ‘yellow brick road’ from medical station to medical station. The first one was the orthopedic station for those with conditions etc. Each station had a specialist, a Captain, to check you out. I showed the doc my note on the elbows. He examined me for not even twenty seconds and said “I see no permanent damage here. No reason why you cannot serve son. Next!” The following station was for a hearing test. Another doc, a Captain, most likely a hearing expert, broke us into groups of six at a time. He had us enter this glass booth and sit down and put on headphones. “When you hear a whistling sound, raise your hands.” I heard the noise and raised my hand along with four other guys. One guy just sat there. The captain entered and tapped the kid on the shoulder. The guy took off his headphones and the captain said: “You didn’t hear the sound son?” The kid looked up and all he said was “What?” The doc answered “OK let’s do it again son. Put them on and raise your hand when you hear the whistling sound.” The rest of us just watched this go down. Nothing from the kid again. “You mean you did NOT hear anything son?” The kid looked up and again answered “What?” Now the doc was getting really pissed. “Son, let me put this straight for you. I’m going to have you sit there again with the headphones on. When we begin, if that fucking hand isn’t straight in the air…” And as he was still finishing his sentence the kid just looked up and said “What?” They pulled the kid out of the booth and marched him down the corridor.
I went through more stations and finally, they told me to go to the shrink. I figured this was the last station left for me, with but one chance to get out of this mess. I arrived at the psychiatrist’s office and noticed that someone was inside with him. I sat outside the door and waited. I could hear shouts from the room increasing in volume. As the door opened, I saw a guy maybe my age standing by the open door, shouting. “You Motherfucker, you murderer, you fuck, sending kids to die in some rice paddy for your fucking war! You bastard!” As he slammed the door behind him he strutted passed me, as nonchalantly as can be, saying “He’s tough!” Oh boy, I thought. I better be good at this as the doc opened the door and invited me in. I handed my note to him and proceeded to give one of my best performances as an actor. He asked me about my condition and how long I had it etc. I made sure to not overdo the stutter. I would begin each sentence with a prolonged stammer on the first word or two. After a few minutes of this he said “Well, Philip, I see you do have a nasty stutter there, but seem to be able to handle it. I see no reason why you should not or could not serve.” At that point, I just wanted to get the hell out of there and go home, a defeated player. Was I through I asked? “You have one more station to go to son. You need to go and get checked for a hernia and any other complications.” He pointed me down the corridor and I arrived at another medical office. The doc greeted me by telling me to “Drop your drawers son.” He had me cough as he held my groin area. “Whoa, wait a second here”, he exclaimed. “Are you aware that you have a vericocele? How long have you had this son?” I told him I was apparently born with it, so that one gonad was twice the size of the other. “You cannot serve with this son. I have to classify you as 1-Y. You know it is an easy procedure to ‘untie’ it. Not very painful at all. Just let us know if you have it done son. Good day.” He handed me some paperwork and that was that. As I walked out of the Army base I laughed to myself. Yeah, right guys, I’ll run out and get it done ASAP. Assholes!
Driving home in a very happy state of mind, I thought back to five years earlier. I recalled, most vividly, seeing my friend’s older brother Vito at Mass one Sunday. He was home on leave from the Army Rangers, replete with his uniform, boots and beret. I gazed at him and saw such a stalwart figure standing but five feet away. He held his beret like a lady proudly holds a bouquet of flowers that she just received as a gift. Perhaps a month or so later we got the news that Vito was killed on some famous hill in the Nam that made the network news. His kid brother never recovered from his big brother’s death. A few years later I would see him at our schoolyard sniffing glue, and hearing from some of his friends that they were all shooting heroin. During that same time period another guy from our neighborhood, Tommy Lombardo, joined the Marines with his pal Pete Haros, the kid from the neighborhood Greek diner. Tommy’s mom was our school crossing guard by St. Edmunds church. We all loved her, with that beautiful smile and pleasant voice. When Tommy returned home in a box, his mom never really recovered. She would still do her job on Sundays after each Mass, but that wonderful smile was now transformed into the one from the famous Mona Lisa painting. That certain look told it all in both the painting and in Mrs. Lombardo’s face. How many other moms out there shared those same sorrows as her? How many kids out there would feel lost when the stupid phony war came home to them too? I was one of the fortunate ones. Something I should and never did forget.