Thatâ€™s what it said – not â€œGreetings,â€ but â€œGreeting.â€ To this day, I wonder if it had been a typo. We had always been told that draft notices opened their chilling message with the cheery salutation â€œGreetings.â€ It was one of many things we were told that turned out to be wrong. December 12th marks the 35th anniversary of my induction into the U.S. Army. It was 1968, and all hell was breaking loose at home and war casualties were peaking.
Being drafted did not come as a surprise. Several months earlier, during our senior year in college, I, along with several guys I grew up with, had been ordered to report to the Induction Center in Newark for our pre-induction physicals. Our first taste of the military was being barked at by an immense sergeant who seemed to be all stripes from his shoulder to his elbow. He hollered, â€œTake off everything except your undershorts, socks and shoes.â€ Barely five minutes in and already it was surreal. A hundred or so men looked like actors in a black and white, 35 millimeter stag film.
Back then, most college seniors were not terribly keen on the idea of being killed or maimed in Southeast Asia, so stories circulated about ways to avoid being drafted without having to flee to Canada or serve out your time in a federal prison, where we were told that the inmates just LOVED â€œcollege puke draft dodgers.â€
According to some of these stories, you could avoid being drafted by showing up for the pre-induction physical in a dress. However, given the choice between being drafted and possibly being shot or blown to bits in some godforsaken place like the Mekong Delta and showing up at the Induction Center in drag, most men, myself included, took the easy way out and opted for possible death or dismemberment There was, however, that ONE GUY who wore a dress.
I hadnâ€™t noticed the guy in the dress, and I suspect that not many others did either. After all, he was not wearing sequins and a boa, but rather he sported a tasteful, rather understated cotton shirtwaist number. But once we all got down to shorts, socks and shoes, as ordered, we couldnâ€™t help but notice the Dress Guy, because despite the unmistakable order to â€œtake off everything but shorts, socks and shoes,â€ the Dress Guy remained dressed.
We all buzzed, â€œHoly shit. Check it out. Thereâ€™s a guy over there in a DRESS!!â€ Virtually every eye in the room was fixed on the Dress Guy â€“ that is, until Sergeant Bulldog re-entered the room. We looked back and forth between the Sergeant and the Dress Guy as if we were watching two gunfighters squaring off on Main Street in Dodge City.
The crusty lifer scanned the ridiculous looking, scared shitless array, until he spotted the Dress Guy and placed him in the crosshairs. We all held our breath, for this promised to be a moment of high drama and the confirmation or refutation of all the â€œbeat it by wearing a dressâ€ stories we had so often heard. Would Sergeant Bulldog ridicule the Dress Guy? Would he smack hell out of him? Maybe he would drag the Dress Guy off to a special room reserved for dealing with guys who show up in dresses?
None of the above happened. Sergeant Bulldog looked directly at the Dress Guy and said, â€œ Hey you!â€
The Dress Guy pointed at himself and said, â€œMe?â€
Sergeant Bulldog matter-of-factly replied, â€œYeah you. Take off the dress. Shorts, socks and shoes.â€ The Dress Guy, who probably had mentally rehearsed his lines for months in anticipation of a major confrontation, was so caught off guard that he sheepishly removed the shirtwaist and instantly became just another guy in the shorts, socks and shoes crowd. And, just as instantly his plans to beat the draft evaporated.
For my part, I held tightly to the note from my podiatrist certifying that I had â€œsecond degree pes planus that sometimes became symptomatic.â€ In other words, I had (and still have) flat feet that sometimes hurt. I was hoping that the Army would have no need for a guy with second-degree pes planus, for Heavenâ€™s sake.
My chance would come at the final step in the physical when each man was to get a one on one with a doctor, at which time we would be able to explain all the reasons why the Army might not want us. This is the time, so the stories went, that you could beat the draft by telling the doctor that you are gay, schizophrenic, depressed, or who knows what. None of that for me. I was going with pes planus, second degree.
So, I endured the â€œbend over and spread â€˜emâ€ indignity, I dutifully peed in the bottle, I turned my head and coughed (twice, as some of you know), and cooperated with the Army guys who herded us around like cattle, but cattle wearing shorts, socks and shoes.
When I finally got to the doc, I proudly presented my flat feet note. He read it and, showing off either his knowledge of medicine or Latin, said, â€œFlat feet, huh?â€ I nodded in the affirmative. He told me to take my socks off. Great sign, I thought. Here is a guy who appreciates how serious pes planus, second degree is. He said, â€œStand on your toes,â€ which I did. He muttered, â€œUh-huh,â€ stamped something on my note, kept it, and said, â€œPut your socks back on and move on. Next man.â€ So much for pes planus, second degree.
I found myself in a large room with all the other guys who were found to be healthy enough to be shot or blown to bits in the Mekong Delta. I couldnâ€™t believe it was all happening to me. Oh yeah, the Dress Guy was there too.
A few weeks later, we got our â€œGreetingâ€ letter, and a month or so after that, on December 12, 1968, we reported again to the Induction Center, this time to be formally inducted and transported to Fort Dix, for basic training, which made the pre-induction physical seem like a day at the beach.
But thatâ€™s a story for another day.