I thought about this anniversary several weeks ago, reluctant to believe it could be that long ago. I'm not that old, am I? As mind-boggling as it is to me, November 30, 2006, is the 40th anniversary of the day I went into the U.S. Army, a 19-year-old draftee from Salt Lake City, Utah.
In those days getting drafted was more of a process. You almost had to work at it, because other guys were finding it so easy to stay out of the Army. Stay in college, keep your deferment. Dick Cheney did that several times. A friend of mine was deferred because at 17 he had become a married father. Other guys found legal ways to stay out, going into the National Guard or Army Reserve. I never even considered that route. I had no clout, no rich daddy like George W. Bush, who could get me into such a unit.
My process was to get kicked out of college in December 1965, then go to work in my dad's business for several months. I knew I'd be drafted and I went into a depressive funk. It kept getting worse. The more depressed I got the less capable I was of doing anything like getting back into college to help myself stay out of the Army. I got called for my pre-induction physical in July, 1966, and was scheduled to be drafted at the end of September.
But I got sick in early September with mononucleosis, which had me down in bed for 10 days. They call it the kissing disease, but my then-girlfriend never got it. I don't know what I kissed to get mono, but I hope I never kiss it again. My doctor wrote a note to my draft board asking for a deferment of six months, because he told me it would take that long to fully recuperate. He said I'd be weak and worn down. They gave me 60 days, so in late October I got my notice: Report on November 30, 1966. Say goodbye to family and friends, girls, long hair, my car, my job. There was a war to be won, boy. Get over there and win it for Uncle Sam. Oh yeah…we don't care how sick you are.
November 30, 1966 was a day we know in Salt Lake as a temperature inversion day. We live in a valley surrounded by mountains, a bowl. During the winter sometimes high pressure settles over us, and our car exhausts and industrial pollution can't go anywhere, so it all lays in the air like a big, ugly, brown cloud of fog. It makes your lungs feel like you've smoked a pack of cigarettes, all at once. It's gotten better over the years with stricter regulations, but it still occurs at times almost every winter. It creates hazards to health, but when it gets bad enough it can also keeps planes from flying. We were scheduled to go to Fort Lewis, Washington, but there was no flying out that night. The Army fed us at a local greasy spoon. I don't remember anything I ate except that it had no taste whatsoever. Some goofball sat across from me and I thought he was on drugs. His eyes were bright, and he seemed manic. He kept saying, "Boy, I'm excited to be going into the Army! Aren't you guys excited? I'm really excited." I just looked at him, hoping my eyes would tell him, "Hey, Excited, shut the fuck up." I didn't say anything, though. Maybe I was the only guy in there who wasn't excited to be going. I looked around. No, the guy across from me was the only one excited. The rest of the guys had the sick look of men condemned to hard labor in a federal penitentiary.
The army set us up in a fleabag motel, two guys to a room. They told us, "If you live locally you can call someone and go home for the night, or if you live out of town you can stay here." About half of the guys were from out of town, including a clown named Willard, who was from Park City. He called his girlfriend and they screwed all night, much to the amusement of everyone else. There was a parade of guys going through his room just to say hello, checking out his girlfriend sitting up in bed, nude. I didn't see it, but I sure heard enough about it the next day. At least Willard got a sendoff. I don't remember what I did. I think I went home and went to bed. Alone.
The next day Dad drove me to the motel in the stinking, still thick inversion. After gathering us all up we were on our way to Ft. Lewis by rail, which took about 24 hours. It wasn't Amtrak, because it was in the days before Amtrak. It was some creaking, rattley-assed train with a genuine porter who mostly sat in his cubicle, told stories and drank whiskey out of a bottle.
What I remember most about that trip was that the meal they'd served us the day before and a case of nerves was hitting me hard, so I was in the bathroom every hour or so. So if I tell you it was a shitty train ride, I'm not being facetious.
Nowadays there is no draft, so with a lot of Americans there is no real connection with the wars we're fighting. In those days every family either had a male eligible for the draft, in the service, or trying to stay out. I listened to Rep. Charles Rangel say on Face The Nation recently that we should reinstitute the draft. There's no stomach for that anywhere, so it was rhetoric on his part. I understood his point. What he wants is for the rest of the country to feel like they have a stake in this war, to make the rich and powerful feel it the same as poorer families with servicemen who are fighting.
I'll bet if I was to stop 10 students at any of the schools where I go every day and ask them about the war at least half of them wouldn't know anything about it. They'd probably know we are in a war--actually we're in two wars--but they wouldn't know any details because kids in high school don't care about things like that. They're in their own little worlds of girls, boys, cars, cell phones, who's doing what to who…war? That's someone else's business, isn't it?
On that day 40 years ago I was faced with the real possibility that this could be the last stop for me. I could end up in Vietnam, I could end up dead. I'm still around to talk about it, but those were my thoughts at the time. And my parents, friends and family were all thinking the same thing. I'm not recommending we ever start up the draft again, but we also need for Americans to shake off their apathy and know what many young men and women are facing every day in a combat zone.
Ciao for now, Private E-1 Postino