article below posted October 20, 2010
JOHNNY HORIZON’S DRAFT PHYSICAL
A multi-pronged effort to avoid Vietnam
by John Merriam
he alarm went off at 7:00 am. It was December 16th and still pitch dark. “Goddam draft board,” Johnny mumbled while getting up from his mattress on the floor.
He lurched toward the alarm clock on the desk in his small room. “Why’d they have to have a physical at 8:00 in the morning?!” He shut off the alarm clock and shuffled toward the kitchen to see if he could find anything to eat for breakfast. Johnny Horizon was not a morning person. That was part of the reason he’d lost his II-S draft deferment for being a student at the University of Washington. Quite a few of his classes started at 8:30—an hour Johnny considered uncivilized—and his attendance record was atrocious.
Unable to maintain a C average, Johnny received a notice from the Selective Service System to report for a pre-induction physical right after the Universtiy of Washington issued grade reports for fall quarter 1971. The report showed that his GPA (grade point average) had slipped below 2.0, the level required for a student deferment.
“Damn!” Johnny cursed when he opened the refrigerator. “Nothing to eat.” The only contents of the refrigerator were three empty wine bottles.
Johnny and his high school buddy, Jim—with whom he shared the $125 monthly rent—had thrown a party the night before. Johnny and Jim rented a ramshackle little two-bedroom house at 1742 26th Ave. East in the Montlake district of Seattle. Their backyard was next to the Washington Park Arboretum. Close to the University, the house was a frequent venue for students celebrating almost any occasion, even the day of the week.
Two hash brownies lay in a baking pan on a counter next to the kitchen sink, left over from the latest party. ‘This will have to be breakfast,’ Johnny thought as he ate both brownies. His choice of food would prove to make the upcoming draft physical a bit problematic.
Johnny hopped on his motorcycle, a 1968 Norton P-11, and roared off to the induction center in the Interbay district, south of the Ballard Bridge.
Johnny Horizon graduated from high school in 1969. He turned 18 three months later and was immediately classified I-A by his local draft board, located in the old Federal Building downtown at 1st and Madison.
Johnny joined the merchant marine to get a draft deferment. 13 days after he joined, he found out that that the deferment for merchant seamen had already been repealed. The draft went to a lottery system in late 1969 and most deferments had been eliminated.
But Johnny figured he was born lucky and wasn’t worried, confident that his birth date would draw a high number. He still thought he was born lucky even when his first job in the merchant marine turned out to be Crew Messman on a freighter bound for Saigon with a cargo of trucks and tanks for the South Vietnamese Army.
He began to wonder just how lucky he really was when numbers were drawn for the second draft lottery for his birth year, 1951. Johnny drew #68, and in 1970 the army was drafting up to #125. Johnny’s luck had run out. He had to do something, pronto, if he didn’t want to be sent back to Vietnam carrying a rifle.
Johnny’s ship had left Vietnam and was in Inchon, Korea when he learned that he was #68. Between the nightly poker game on his ship, prostitutes in several ports, and a casino in Inchon, Johnny had spent every dime that he was allowed to draw against his wages. He begged an emergency loan of $50 from the Chief Cook and mailed it with an application for admission to the University of Washington.
Johnny was a terrible student. During high school he was in the bottom half of his graduating class. The only reason the UW let him in was high scores on the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test).
Johnny figured he was home free—once he started at the UW and got the II-S deferment—and he spent more time partying than studying.
The final nail in the coffin of his GPA was the grade Johnny got in Philosophy 450, a class called Epistemology. The ‘450’ meant that it was a senior level course, and Johnny was barely a sophomore who’d taken only an introductory philosophy course before then. But he liked philosophy. ‘I’m just as philosophical as any senior,’ he thought cockily as he signed up for the course.
Epistemology is the study of how we perceive “reality” and acquire knowledge. At least that’s what Johnny thought it was. He didn’t really know because the class was scheduled for Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings at 8:30.
The final exam for Philosophy 450 was in early December. Johnny realized that he hadn’t read any of the assigned books and started getting a bit nervous. He spent 72 hours before the exam in non-stop reading, popping "bennies" to stay awake. On the morning of the final exam, during a rare sunny day, Johnny sauntered in to Parrington Hall with Benzedrine-fueled confidence.
The exam was a single essay question, written on the chalkboard by the professor, for which the students were given three hours to answer: “How do we know that what we think we know reflects the reality of what really is?”
Three days without sleep made Johnny impatient to show he knew the answer to that question. He wrote fast, rapidly rattling off epistemological theories, concluding that we don’t know what reality really is. “For that reason,” he continued writing, “I have no guarantee that the professor for this course actually exists. Therefore, to continue this essay is pointless.” Johnny got out of his seat, 15 minutes into the three-hour exam, and jauntily strode up to the desk where the professor sat, to turn in his exam.
"Brilliant!" he thought. "I’ll get an A for sure. Those suckers will be stuck here for another couple of hours." Some of the philosophy students raised their heads incredulously as Johnny strolled out to enjoy the December sunshine.
The exam essays were returned a week later after being graded by the professor. On Johnny’s, in angry red ink and in large font, was written: D - - - BULLSHIT!
After getting over his surprise that a college professor would use such crude language, Johnny realized that a D grade meant his GPA would fall below 2.0. Johnny knew this was going to be a problem that might require some sucking up to the draft board. A few days later he was shocked to find out that he’d lost his II-S deferment so soon.
Johnny did not have a friendly relationship with his draft board, and that might have had something to do with how quickly his physical was scheduled—mere days after grades were reported for the latest academic quarter.
Earlier, when still secure in his deferment, Johnny had read something by a member of the Youth International Party (the original ‘Yippies’) suggesting that students and others send telephone books to their draft boards because the Selective Service Act forbade the draft boards from discarding anything sent to the file of a potential draftee. Johnny sent his draft board a ham sandwich. The Yippies were right. The local draft board didn’t throw away the ham sandwich. But no one at the draft board ate it either. Instead they sent it back by certified mail.
“Gross!” Johnny exclaimed when opening the package with a Selective Service System return address. The sandwich was a moldy goo by the time it was sent back. After losing his II-S deferment, Johnny had good reason to be apprehensive that some members of his draft board might remember the ham sandwich and want to send him to Vietnam immediately.
In the early days of the Vietnam war, before the anti-war movement heated up, it was easy to be disqualified from the army. A friend of Johnny’s had been deemed not fit for induction due to a bad driving record. Johnny was a contender, or so he thought, for that category. The Norton P-11 was so fast that staying within the speed limit was almost impossible. He had a long string of traffic tickets, culminating in a conviction for reckless driving earlier that year when he’d tried to outrun UW cops on his motorcycle, while he was trying to save the 25-cent campus parking charge by not paying. His driver’s license was suspended after the reckless driving conviction. (Read "Reckless Driving" at wafreepress.org/article/090906law-merriam.shtml
The Norton P-11 was often parked for a quick getaway. What's that funny thing strapped to the front fender?
Unwilling to stop riding his motorcycle, Johnny created a fictitious identity so he could get another license. He first applied for a social security card in a fake name, chosen at random off a billboard for Johnnie Walker whisky. He also got a library card in the same name, “John X. Walker”.
The next step was registering for the draft, using the social security and library cards as proof of identity. No one really wanted to register for the draft—at the time a lot of guys were publicly burning their draft cards—so Johnny had no problem getting one. Together with the other ID cards, the draft card easily got Johnny an application for a driver’s license.
Most requests for fake licenses involved minors wanting to be 21 so they could get into bars. Johnny was 19 at the time and chose a birthdate for his alias two days from his own, in the same year, for ease of memory about his age if ever challenged. The female bureaucrat at the licensing bureau thought Johnny was a good boy who wasn’t trying to dodge the draft and wasn’t trying to get into bars early. After the driving test she cheerfully handed him a brand-new license in the name of John X. Walker.
A year later, in an ironic twist of fate, the birthdate for John X. Walker drew #228 in the draft lottery. Johnny’s alias would not have been drafted.
Johnny’s buddy, Willie Maybee, had gotten a draft deferment two years earlier by saying he was a homosexual. Wanting to cover all his bases, Johnny told Willie he’d buy him a pitcher of beer at the Comet Tavern if he’d swear out an affidavit stating that Johnny, too, was a “homo”. Willie jumped at the offer of free beer and they appeared in front of a notary public to both sign a statement about being sexual deviants.
Finally, Johnny set out to prove that he was physically, as well as morally, unfit for the army. One of his classes during fall quarter was Psychology 210, Human Sexual Behavior. Scheduled for the evening in the newly-constructed Kane Hall, Johnny almost always attended that class.
One evening during a break Johnny was outside smoking cigarettes and telling dirty jokes with one of his classmates who also had a student deferment. The guy told him about an anti-war doctor at Group Health who helped young men stay out of Vietnam.
“Yeah, man, my cousin couldn’t afford college and this doctor said he was at medical risk of dying if he went in the army. It worked, man!” Johnny resolved to see this doctor after he got the bad news from his draft board. Johnny still had a Group Health ID card from high school, when his aunt and uncle paid for his medical coverage. He had to pay $10 for an appointment with the doctor his classmate told him about.
The doctor was simpatico and asked Johnny a string of leading questions until he found an answer he liked: “I see that you have flat feet. Do they ever hurt?” “Well, sure, if I’m on my feet long enough.” Johnny thought that flat feet meant the army would make him an MP (military policeman). Instead, the doctor typed up a quick letter stating that flat feet would cause acute pain if Johnny was made to stand for more than 20 minutes at a time.
Johnny rode up to the induction center at the corner of 15th Avenue West and W. Wheeler promptly at 8:00. He toed out the kickstand and parked his P-11 as close as he could to the front door, lest a hasty departure become necessary.
He was part of a group of about 30 young men reporting for the pre-induction physical. They were directed into a space resembling a large classroom, with small unibody desks having a writing board attached to the seat, and given a questionnaire to fill out before the actual examination started. "Damn!" Johnny thought when looking at the questionnaire. "There are no questions about being queer or being a traffic scofflaw."
The Army had apparently modified its criteria for draftees after too many had marked any available box to get disqualified. The times were such that males were using any trick in the book to get disqualified. Young guys in San Francisco were dropping acid and showing up naked at the induction centers down there. The only boxes to check on Johnny’s form were mundane background questions.
The last page of the questionnaire required affirmation that he had never been a member of any group on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations. Johnny wrote in the signature space that he refused to sign because the question violated his Constitutional right to freedom of association.
After Johnny handed in the questionnaire, a young Specialist 4 in uniform came into the room and addressed the group. “I know that most of you guys don’t want to be here,” he said in the understatement of the year. The Specialist was about the same age as his audience and was clearly uncomfortable. In a "them and us" atmosphere—youth versus the Establishment—he was on the wrong side of the fence and he knew it.
“I’m handing out a multiple-choice test to measure intelligence. It’s not hard to pass, and you guys with student deferments need to know that if you flunk this test you’ll get drafted immediately.”
While Johnny was filling in the boxes on the intelligence test, which he prudently decided to pass, another young guy came through the door to the room. He was short and stocky with a crew-cut and a bad complexion. “Is this where you join the Marines?” he asked. “No,” the Specialist said. “That’s down the hall to your right.”
The group was then split up and taken through a series of rooms where different tests were administered. Johnny was first taken to a room where an Army Specialist in his late 20s stood stiffly next to a chamber the size of four phone booths.
Johnny was directed into the chamber and told to put on headphones for a hearing test. “Pick up that button holder on the end of the cord,” the Specialist directed. “Tones will be sent to each side of the headphones. Push the button with your thumb as soon as you hear the tone in that ear.”
When the Specialist closed the door of the hearing test chamber, Johnny felt a rush in his stomach like he was going down really fast in an elevator. He also started feeling slightly dizzy, like he’d just stepped off a merry-go-round. The hash brownies were starting to have an effect and his present straits suddenly struck him as somewhat humorous. "There’s no way I’m going back to Vietnam," Johnny thought, "even if these bozos pass me on all the tests. This could be fun!"
He decided that there was no risk from the pre-induction physical: if he didn’t flunk it as planned he’d simply run outside, jump on his Norton and then either ride to Canada or become John X. Walker, his alias who had a high draft lottery number.
Johnny heard the first tone start dimly in the right headphone and slowly increase in volume. He waited three seconds before acknowledging that he heard it. After another tone started he counted "one-mississippi, two-mississippi, three-mississippi," before pressing the button. And so on. Johnny did the same thing for tones to his left ear.
The Specialist scowled when looking at the results after Johnny came out of the hearing booth. “Do the test again!” Johnny dutifully went back into the booth for a repeat of the hearing test. "One-mississippi, two-mississippi, three-mississippi." He delayed pressing the acknowlegment button exactly as he had for the first test.
The Specialist seemed more agitated when Johnny re-emerged from the booth. “You passed!” he shouted as he angrily marked a box on the clipboard he was holding.
Johnny was next herded into a small room for an eye examination. Two soldiers were in that room for some reason. One of them directed Johnny to sit on a stool and rest his forehead against some sort of large viewing machine.
“Read the lowest line you can with your right eye,” the second soldier commanded.
“OK,” Johnny said, “turn the machine on.”
“Are you refusing to cooperate?” the first soldier asked. Lots of guys must have been trying to flunk the eye test.
“No, man, it’s just that I’m near-sighted and only have one contact lens. I lost my right contact at a party and don’t have the money to buy a new one.” Johnny was actually telling the truth. He really did only have one contact lens. He did his best on the eye exam but the right eye could only have tested at a result near blindness.
“You pass!” The second soldier was almost yelling.
Johnny went cattle-like down the hall to the lab area. He wrote “Robert McNamara” on the masking tape to label one’s name on the beaker for his urine sample. The blood samples for Johnny’s group were lined up on a shelf as the potential inductees were herded out of the lab. On the way out Johnny peeled the masking tape with his name off his blood tube and switched it with another tube that he‘d grabbed at random. "I hope this guy has the clap or some genetic disease," Johnny thought as he replaced the vials.
Johnny’s group was reassembled and mustered into a larger room, where they were told to strip down to their underwear. Then they were ordered to line up into two squads, one facing the other at opposite sides of the room, by what appeared to be a drill Sergeant in full dress uniform. The Sergeant was backed up by two Corporals with swagger sticks dangling from their belts.
“Ten-hut” the Sergeant barked. The 30 inductees, including Johnny, all complied, snapping to attention. “Drop shorts!” Johnny was amazed that he along with everybody else exposed their privates without hesitation, simply in obedience to a barked command. "So that’s how Hitler could take over an entire country," Johnny thought.
“About face! Bend over and grab ankles!” Johnny was amazed again as both squads did as told. He looked through his legs at 15 gaping assholes on the other side of the room pointed at 15 gaping assholes on Johnny’s side. The Corporals marched along either side of the room, each inspecting their respective assigned assholes for hemorrhoids or other visible problems. No touching was involved so Johnny, for one, retained his anal virginity.
The next stop was to be interviewed by an Army doctor. Someone in Johnny’s group grabbed his arm before he went into the small office. Johnny recognized him from his Chem 151 lab class at the UW but didn’t know his name. “Hey man, there’s this military police guy that’s been chasing around trying to find you.” “Thanks for the tip.” Johnny ducked into the doctor’s office, still in his underwear.
“Mr. Horizon?” A very bored-looking Major with medical insignia on his uniform sat behind a large desk in the small room. “I see that you don’t consider yourself fit to be inducted.”
“That’s correct, sir. I’m a homosexual, sir. I also have a problem with authority figures. I’ve gotten so many traffic tickets that I lost my license, sir. I don’t think I’m emotionally qualified to be a soldier, sir.”
“That may all be true, but of more concern is this letter from your doctor about flat feet. Take off your socks.” Johnny did as he was told. The Major took a cursory look at Johnny’s soles. “Not much of an arch but I wouldn’t expect the pain diagnosed by your doctor.” The Major returned to his desk. “Nevertheless, I’ll defer to his judgment and classify you as 4-F, physically disqualified for induction.”
“Thank you, sir! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Johnny almost did cartwheels leaving the Major’s office. But before he could run down the hall to get his clothes, he felt a vice-like grip on his right arm.
“Come with me.” Johnny looked up to an MP who stood about 6’4” and reminded him of Chuck Connors on “The Rifleman” TV show. “The Lieutenant wants to see you.”
“See me for what?”
“I’ve got my orders.” The military policeman took him to a small office at the other end of the hall and thrust him onto a wooden chair in front of another desk. Behind the desk—smaller than the doctor/Major’s—sat a Lieutenant about Johnny’s size and a few years older. He had a military haircut and a slight mustache. The MP saluted and closed the door as he left the room.
“You refused to sign the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations. That means there’s going to be a background check on you by the FBI and the CID." (The CID is the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division). The Lieutenant stared blankly at Johnny. He didn’t look like he really wanted to go on a big anti-Commie crusade.
“Well,” Johhny said cockily, "I don’t know about the FBI but the CID can’t touch me. I’m a civilian.”
“Inductees are part of the Army,” the Lieutenant tried to correct Johnny.
“I’m not in the Army. I just got a 4-F!”
“What!” The Lieutenant looked at Johnny incredulously. After it sunk in, he picked up the telephone on his desk. Someone confirmed Johnny's classification. He hung up the phone. “You know,” the Lieutenant waxed philosophical, “you look just like my cousin in Ohio...”
“I hope your cousin gets a 4-F, too!” Johnny jumped up and ran for his clothes. A few minutes later he hopped onto his Norton and left the induction center like a cool breeze.
Willie Maybee’s sister, Candace, had a baby the same day as the pre-induction physical. Johnny thought he should go pay his respects and maybe bring a present. But he had hardly any money left. Trying to stay in school until he could get a job over Christmas vacation had reduced his savings to less than $20. After food stamps were used up each month, Johnny’s diet consisted primarily of noodles, rice and homebrew.
Johnny rode up Capitol Hill to a grocery store he knew about on 12th Avenue East. The Chinese owner never asked for ID and only cared if the bills were crisp. Johnny found a bottle of Andre champagne on special for 99 cents. His next stop was close by, on Harvard Avenue East. He rode there and parked the P-11 in front of the house rented by Candace and her husband, Jon.
Candace had a boy and named him Jesse. Jesse’s skin was all crinkly and folded, like a fat kid who’d lost a lot of weight really fast. “Here.” Johnny handed Candace the bottle of champagne. “You and Jon can’t drink this until Jesse is 21 and he drinks it with you.”
“We won’t.” Candace and Jon piously promised not to open the cheap champagne for 21 years.
“I’ve got to go look for a job.” Johnny secretly thought all babies were ugly and wanted to leave. He said goodbye, left the house and kicked his motorcyle to life.
"I wonder how many days that champagne will last?" Johnny said to himself as he rode to his union hall at 1st & Wall. He went there to see if any ships were in port with empty berths. Three days later Johnny signed on a grain ship bound for Iran, where the Shah was still in power. That’s yet another story.
Please keep comments polite and related to the above page.
This comment form is powered by GentleSource Comment Script. It can be included in PHP or HTML files and allows visitors to leave comments on the website.