"The draft haunted me during the Vietnam War, and for us college kids standing naked that morning, awaiting our pre-induction physicals, it was a vulnerable moment," writes Toby Thompson, author and writing teacher. "We’d boarded an Army bus for the ride to a nearby fort, where medics and physicians waited to decide our fitness for duty. A few boys were gung-ho, but our majority hung our heads in resignation or prayer, hoped for 1-Y or 4-F status. Either meant you wouldn’t have to serve.
"In the assembly hall, we stood ten deep and ten across. We’d been prodded and pricked, had our eyes, ears and fluids tested, and awaited judgment. The war was young, and deferments for abnormalities were being granted. I’d been scoffed at by a sergeant when I’d presented documentation of a kidney irregularity. “Albumen in the urine,” he said, laughing: and tossed my letter in the trash.
A white-coated surgeon moved through our ranks. I heard him stop and felt him touch, then count my ribs. As an art-history minor, I thought, his finger feels like God’s reaching for Adam’s on the Sistine ceiling. The doctor scribbled something, then moved along. At our dismissal I learned I’d been rejected. With a 1-Y ... for cavus foot, or high arches.
Our driver stopped at a liquor store outside the gate. “You rejectees are buyin’ beer for the 1-As on this trip.” Eagerly we complied. Passing around cans, I was ecstatic at this parole from eternity. Yet I remembered my World War II dad’s admonition that, if turned down, I’d “always be one of those who didn’t serve.”
The 1-As beamed, but as the miles unfurled, their grins hardened into thousand-yard stares ... characteristic of combat vets, well-captured on the faces of statues sculpted at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC.
Decades later–from curiosity or guilt--I negotiated the black V of that wall--the slope of its walk, I thought, a descent into a mass grave. A man near the tree line blew taps on a harmonica, blues bent and ratched-y.
I began to shake.
A gray-bearded man steadied me. "That’s alright,” he said. “You can make it.” Stumbling forward, I wept at the vertex.
The veteran offered a hug. “That’s right. Just don’t forget them names on that wall.''"
Thompson pairs his reflection with a poem from "Broken Gates" by Ken McCullough, Poet Laureate of Winona, Minnesota. McCullough, like Thompson, contrasts the pain of those who served in war with the pain of those who did not.
My cousin still tends the graves
and sets out flowers on Decoration Day
at the Midway Baptist Church
in the red dirt hilly country
south of Vardaman, Mississippi.
My father’s stone, military issue
says Robert E. McCullough
December 25, 1908-March 5, 1972
WWII, Korea, Vietnam—
he encouraged me and my two brothers
to take different paths.
My father didn’t talk much,
just drove it deeper inside;
what he couldn’t say
is at the roots of everything.
(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 4/13/16 and 10/26/16. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)