It’s 1962 and Morris Krieger’s dire warning is ringing in my ears.
“World War III is coming.”
I’m taking my Army physical with several hundred other kids in Selective Service Headquarters off Wall Street in downtown Manhattan. A red faced Sergeant, crewcut bristling, hash marks covering his khaki sleeve, sharply creased blue trousers with a red stripe strides along our line, shouting:
“Strip to your shorts and shoes. Guard your belongings. If you lose your pants you will go home to your mothers bareass naked…”
Krieger, the last anarchist orator of Union Square, greeted JFK’s election with a prediction:
“Camelot will have its war…”
I kept myself awake all night smoking Gauloises to increase my heart rate; chugging Coke to turn my urine brown. Now I’m lightheaded. I stumble into the kid in front of me. He turns with a snarl: “What the fuck’s the matter with you?”
After the Bay of Pigs, Krieger became more strident.
“No one will remember the poor fools left to die on the beach…Millions more will be led to their death…”
I’ve been in high school locker rooms, but have never seen such a grotesque profusion of male flesh. Fat and woebegone, buff and arrogant, slight and timid…Red pustules on white flab, acne clusters, pimples, sores, weird Rorschach bruises. Gray jockeys, bulky boxers with stripes and flowers. The undersized sneak covert looks. The muscled strut and sneer…I try to place myself along this continuum. I am tall, but slouched and narrow-shouldered. I always made the team, but was never a star. I can do sit ups and push ups, but strain at pullups and chins. I’ve fought to defend myself, but have never attacked anyone in anger…
The Russians move their missiles out of Cuba. Krieger scoffs at claims of victory.
“Russians don’t blink. They merely look for another battlefield.“
They give us a form to fill out.
“Print clearly,” an older man in a doctor’s white coat says in a German accent. “If we can’t read it you’ll do it again.”
I curse my good health. There’s an endless column of diseases, but I’ve never had one.
The mental disorders are more promising. Bed-wetting, problems in school, visits to a psychiatrist, arrests, convictions, feelings of persecution, sudden eruptions of rage, homosexual attraction…
I’ve been advised I’ll arouse suspicion if I check them all. Just pick one aberration I can defend.
I check “use alcohol and illegal drugs…”
” Word War II was just a sideshow,” Krieger says. “The Tsar and the Robber Baron tried so hard to get Adolph on their side. Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Mosley, Chamberlain, Joe Kennedy, JFK’s dad. If only he wouldn’t be so stubborn about the Jews. Even Uncle Joe Stalin wanted to make a deal. From one mass murderer to another. You keep your camps I’ll keep mine. But Adolph wouldn’t share. So they formed an uneasy alliance to silence his Wagnerian oompah band. And when it was over they couldn’t wait to return to the eternal debate on what is the best way to control a subject population–Communist regimentation or Capitalist exploitation…”
We form a single line and shuffle into a large room, the size of a gymnasium where doctors in white coats are waiting. They are elderly, probably retired, and bored. Stethoscopes are pressed to our chests. “Deep breath…Breathe out.” Lights are shined in our eyes, noses and ears…A tongue depressor is thrust so deep in our mouths we gag. “Say Ahhh…”
Some kids are taken out of the line and sent to smaller examination rooms. They’re the lucky ones, but they walk with heads down as if they’ve been found wanting.
A doctor with a hammer gestures impatiently to a chair. “Well, sit down…” He taps our knees lightly. The kid ahead of me shudders and his knee shoots up. Mine hardly moves. “You waiting for the second feature?” he snaps. “Get up.”
Krieger spots me carrying Camus and Hesse.
“Alienation and mysticism,” he thunders. “The cheap thrills of the bourgeois state. Meant to distract the intelligentsia from its oppression.”
It’s pointless to explain that I use the books to start conversations with girls in coffee shops.
“Drop your drawers,” a doctor shouts. A kid walks up to him. He thrusts his hand under his right testicle and orders:
Then moves the left.
And does this a hundred times.
At the end of the room a doctor commands:
“Lean over and press the wall with both hands. Now reach back and spread the cheeks of your ass…Spread ‘em!”
He walks up and down the line looking up every one’s ass.
“Did he lose somethin’?” some kid whispers and we all get hysterical laughing.
We walk into a room with rusty sinks, faucets sputtering, along all four walls. A man in a white coat hands out plastic vials.
“Piss in the vial and bring it to the desk,” he orders.
Another moment of truth as we check out the line of pissing penises. Dark ropes, purple veined monstrosities, fragile pink wands; it’s amazing that they are all the same organ. I am abashed by the larger ones, but not encouraged by the smaller.
After all that Coke my urine rust brown.
The man at the desk hands me a tiny dipstick.
“Stick it in your specimen,” he says. “Show it to me.” He hardly looks. “Dump it in the sink…”
We’re done. Our journey through the rooms has taken us back to the entry hall. A man in a white shirt covered with medals checks my form. Suddenly, I am sorry that I checked off drug use.
“Down the hall to the left,” he says.
A line of kids is waiting outside four offices. We hear snatches of conversation.
“How many times a week?”
“Was there a police report?”
“Don’t give me the letter. Send it to the Draft Board.”
I am steered into an office. An old man with two brown moles, each sprouting a hair, on his bald head looks down at my form.
“Drugs?” he asks.
” Heroin? Opium? Hashish?”
“Marijuana,” I say.
He writes in a blank space on my form.
“Sweet wine, dry wine? Beaujolais, Chablis?”
“Italian Swiss Colony,” I say. “Whiskey, too?”
“Rye, vodka, gin…?”
“Scotch,” I blurt.
I panic. Try to remember the weird-shaped bottle in the sideboard that my father sneaks shots out of while my mother is in the kitchen.
“Haig and Haig…”
He looks up with a smile. “Haig and Haig. Can’t afford that on a private’s salary…”
JFK is sending 16 thousand “advisors” to help the South Vietnamese repel the Communist invaders from the north.
“The Tsar cannot take his army away from oppressing his own people,” Krieger says. “He will use the Vietnamese as proxies. The Robber Baron will send his own young men to keep them from making trouble in the Civil Rights movement and Organized Labor…”
Krieger’s wife comes to keep him company. A wiry old lady with sun-leathered skin, she knits while he rants. Unwraps salami sandwiches and pours coffee from a thermos.
“Were you in the Army?” I ask.
“It was important to defeat the Nazis,” he says. “But I did not support the oppressive military system…”
“He was a good soldier,” his wife says, placidly knitting.
Krieger twitches in irritation.
“I was not,” he says.
Three weeks later I get a letter from the Selective Service System. I have been classified “1Y”, which means I am deferred for a year.
It’s what I wanted. Still, I feel rejected and vaguely ashamed.
NEXT: A VERY SHORT REPRIEVE
Tag Archive for 'gauloises'
I GET AN EDGE
“I BECOME A CHESS HUSTLER.”
My new partner in crime chain-smokes Gauloises and scratches his forehead until it bleeds. He’s sparse with the bio, doesn’t even introduce himself.
But when I ask about his chess ranking is he can’t help bragging.
“I’m a Master, 2200 rating.”
I flash him a dubious look.
“If you don’t believe it, look me up, ” he says.
I have him on the defensive. “You have to tell me your name.”
He realizes he’s been trapped into a forced move, so he tells all.
“Getty B….m. I played for Harvard.”
“What did you major in?”
Somehow my use of the word “major” tars me as a provincial. He regains the advantage with patrician sniff. “I guess you could say I majored in chess and mescaline,” he says. “Anyway, once I destroyed Yale for them they had no further use for me.”
His system uses the standard system of chess notation, dividing the board into numbers. He flashes the numbers by touching his nose with his fingers. When he rubs his eyes it means the number is greater than five. First signal indicates the piece to be moved. Second signal the designated square. As the game develops and most of the pieces are deployed he signals the square, depending upon my knowledge of the position to know which piece he is indicating. If I have a question I touch my king and he gives the original position of the piece. For example if he wants me to move a knight , he touches his nose again with two fingers, indicating the knight’s opening position
He knows I can play the first seven to ten moves of any opening or defense so he wanders around kibitzing other games until I signal him by lighting a Marlboro. Then, he saunters over, takes in the board in a split second and flashes his signal. He stays long enough to maneuver me into a winning position, then saunters away and leaves me to finish the game.
“We’ll beat these guys with their own vanity,” he says. “They all think you’re an easy mark. They’ll go nuts and double up when you beat them…”
We start with Ronald. He plays a simple Ruy Lopez opening and I hang with him for eleven moves before I need help. Getty strolls over as if he’s making a tour of the tables. He flashes me a signal and then moves away. I realize he has backed Ronald into a forced position where only one move is possible. He doesn’t even have to watch the game. He flashes the signals from another table. I follow his instructions and marvel at the elegant inevitability of his strategy. Ronald stares at me in disbelief and knocks over his king in the universal gesture of resignation.
“Again,” he says.
“For five bucks?” I say.
“Make it ten,” he says. “Lightning never strikes twice…”
“This time I play white,” I say.
White pieces make the first move and allow the player to determine the opening. Getty makes me play the Guioco Piano, a simple opening played by most beginners. It lulls Ronald into a false sense of confidence. He plays carelessly. Getty stands behind him and signals my next move. I am a puppet amazed at my master’s brilliance. I watch in astonishment as he maneuvers Ronald into a steel trap and begins to shut its jaws. Ronald tears his hair. He flicks bloody boogers. After two more games his spirit is broken. And we’re thirty two dollars ahead.
Next night I meet Getty outside the West 4th. Street subway stop.
“Ronald won’t play you anymore,” he says. “We’ll go to Fritz. He’s a jailhouse player. A lot of natural ability, but no theory. He’ll try to trick you with the King’s Bishop, but it’s the kind of opening where the attacker loses his advantage if the defender plays correctly. His friends will be watching so I’ll give you the first eight moves now.”
“You know what he’s going to play?” I ask, amazed.
“He plays the same opening every night,” Getty says. “He wins ninety-five per cent of the time. Now let’s split up. Remember, people are watching. Don’t even look around like you’re waiting for me to show. I’ll be there when I have to be.”
I take a few steps up Sixth Ave. When I turn, Getty has vanished./
Heads turn as I enter the park. I get a few grudging nods from the weaker players. They know I’ve jumped a level. I try not to swagger.
Ronald waves me away, just as Getty predicted. “Oh no, not you…”
I see Getty talking to Fritz’s entourage of tough black dudes. Is he making bets? When a loser gets up I slide in.
“Five dollars,” Fritz says. Getty wanders away as the game begins. Sure enough Fritz plays the King’s Bishop opening.
“You’re gonna do this,” he says after making what he thinks is a crushing move.
Armed with Getty’s sure thing I can’t resist a little kibitz. “No, I’m gonna do this,” I say and make the move that blunts his attack. A few moves later he resigns. “Beginner’s luck” he says. He pays the five and sets up the pieces. This time I take white and play the same opening he did. “You can’t beat me at my own game, boy,” he says.
I can’t, but Getty can. Thirteen moves later Fritz resigns to avert disaster. I offer a rematch, but his backers mutter uneasily and he waves me off. “Back of the line…”
By the end of the night I’ve taken Jack, the DA for twenty and Serge, the intern for ten. With Fritz’s money it adds up to a forty-five dollar night.
At dawn I follow Getty and his classy blonde girlfriend into the West Fourth Street station. He doesn’t introduce us.
“You owe me twenty-two fifty,” he says.
“What did you collect from Fritz’s boys?” I ask.
“Oh yes,” he says. “Twenty from them…” He gives me ten crumpled ones. “It was a good night.”
“Amazing,” I say.
He doesn’t want to talk.” We shouldn’t be seen together,” he says.
“I feel like I’m learning so much,” I say.
“Your game might come up a notch,” he begrudges. He walks to the uptown train. The blonde hesitates as if she wants to tell me something, but then turns and follows him.
“I feel could take over the game after you make that one brilliant move,” I say.” I wouldn’t need you anymore.”
“Maybe,” he says over his shoulder. “But that brilliant move is the one you’ll never make.”
NEXT: I LOSE MY EDGE