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