My pre-induction draft notice read, on such and such a day, I was to report to the Houghton Lake Draft Board. There, I would be taken by bus to Detroit’s Fort Wayne where I would be given a series of tests and a physical. It also read that I should prepare for an overnight stay. That was the typical procedure for draftees. If you were deemed fit for service, and almost everybody was, you were then sent home to wait for your orders. Once your pre-induction physical was out of the way, you became, for all intents and purposes, the property of the U.S. military. I didn’t have long to make up my mind concerning my future.
My draft board prided itself on not giving conscientious objection
status to anyone. I knew this because a good friend of mine applied
for CO status. He had a number of good arguments in his favor, not the least of which was that he was a Peace Corps veteran and he was a “good Catholic.” He had the support of his priest. “To bad,” was the draft board’s response. I had a better chance of being hit by a meteor than I did at getting a CO status. “Whatever happens, happens,” I thought. “It didn’t matter what I did. If I’m drafted, okay. If I’m not drafted, even better.” I stopped worrying about the draft.
I went to my pre-induction physical with three things in my pocket, a book and two hits of chocolate mescaline. I read All Quiet on the Western Front on the bus ride to Detroit. It was the story of a nineteen-year-old German student who fought in WWI. The book spoke of friendships gained and lost during the war. It spoke of the horrors of war. More specifically, it contained a description of a French soldier’s death. The French soldier fell into the German teenager’s shell hole and the boy was forced to kill the French soldier with his bayonet. The book movingly described the German soldier’s torment as he watched the French soldier slowly die.
The German soldier also watched his friends die, one after the
other, on the battlefield and in the field hospitals. In the end,
the book described the battlefield death of the young German soldier himself. He died just before the end of the war, and the author left me with the impression that it was better to die than endure such pain and heartache. “All Quiet on the Western Front,” put an exclamation point on why I thought the Vietnam War was a total waste of lives. In my hotel room, just before I fell asleep, I knew what I had to do in the morning.
There were probably thirty of us scattered throughout the hotel.
Wake-up call came at 5:30 a.m. My roommate jumped out of bed as if he were late for a party. I climbed out of bed and swallowed both hits of the chocolate mescaline with a glass of water. Even before I stepped out of the shower, the floor beneath my feet was melting. Going through the cafeteria line, right before my eyes, the eggs, potatoes and sausage melted into pie-like syrup. The sounds of silverware clanking and breakfast trays sliding along the stainless steal serving line created an uncomfortable ring in my ears. I sat at the table until some of the others started to get up to leave. As I was getting up, Ken, the hometown guy sitting across from me, said, “Aren’t you going to eat? The food is actually good.” I tried to talk, but my throat was stiff. I managed to say “No,” as I handed him my tray. He slid my food onto his tray, and then I walked toward the door. The sound of everybody talking at once became an obnoxious drone in my ears. Once outside, the irritating drone faded. I thanked God for the morning silence.
It was a short bus ride to Fort Wayne. As we got off the bus, the
Drill Sergeant greeted us. The Sergeant began barking orders
immediately. The sound was dreadful, but at least I didn’t have to
think. By that time, thinking and responding became very difficult
for me. In front of the bus, standing in line, we were told to go to
the top of the stairs, turn left, and proceed to the first room.
There, we would be given the test that would determine just how
smart we were. We dutifully followed orders.
In the room another Drill Sergeant barked instructions. In the
confining room, with people sitting in every chair, the Sergeant’s
staccato voice became unbearably loud, and then it began bouncing from one side of my head to the other. As things got worse, I wanted to get up and run. Over and over, I began to hear the sounds of “Wa, Wa, Wa” in my head. The walls began to pulsate; it was as if the room inhaled on “Wa,” and at the next “Wa,” exhaled. Before the Sergeant finished with the instructions, I bolted from my chair and ran out the door. In the fresh air, I sat down on the cement with my legs dangling over the edge of the two story high wall. I held tightly to the metal railing. Before I knew it, two soldiers were screaming at me. One of the soldiers grabbed my arm. He let go when I started to puke. I felt like I was in the eye of a hurricane. I held tight to the metal railing while I vomited my guts out. When I finally lay down on the cement, uniforms were all around me. One of the soldiers bent down and said, “Can you walk?” I couldn’t move. My tongue was thick as a brick. The soldier leaned in closer and whispered, “Can you tell me what’s wrong?” I shook my head from side to side. When he got around to asking the same question again, I managed to get out the word, “Drugs.” He backed away.
Terrified, I laid on the cement waiting for somebody to do
something. Another uniform arrived and after he appraised the
situation, he gave the order to take me to the basement. He
said, “Get this kid cleaned up.” Three soldiers picked me up and
bodily carried me to the elevator. Once in the basement, I was given a washcloth and a towel. A guard was put at the door. I stayed in the basement for a long time. The basement was dark and quiet, exactly what I needed. Finally the army psychologist arrived and he spoke softly. He didn’t give orders. He said, “I’m going to be your friend and your companion for the rest of the day.” I liked that. I began to feel much better.
It was afternoon when I was escorted out of the basement and into
another room of test takers. For the most part, I was back in
control, but I was still tripping heavily. I had not lost my
resolve. I was intentionally flunking the test when a soldier picked
up my test and paged through it. In a loud voice he said, “You know, you can change your mind?” “What do you mean?” I said. “Well, if I were you,” he replied, “I wouldn’t want the whole world to know that I was a homosexual, a drug addict, and a coward. But, I guess that’s your choice.” He threw the test back on my desk and proceeded to walk down the aisle. Mumbled laughter came from the back of the room. I just sat there, wishing this nightmare would end.