Facing The Fear of The Stupid Selective Service and Mrs. Wright at the Dumb Draft Board
By the numbers, here are my three terrifying teen milestones: I was 16 in 1970; 17 in 1971 and 18 on Monday, Nov. 27, 1972. Sure, I was shaking like an amateur cat burglar because of the fear, that I can only assume, was planted at me at a very early age by a controlling, power-driven dad and these three events are the reason for my personal narrative about facing the road test given by an employee from the State of Alabama Dept. of Public Safety so if I passed this test, I would be a licensed driver. Hoo-ray! A man at last. Yeah, right.
1971 was just another year for me. I had my driving license, but so did everyone in my high school class of 1972. My classmates' dads must have supported them from the time that they came from their mothers' wombs for they were allowed to go riding with friends (or alone) and not be questioned prior to or after what few minutes my dad allowed me to drive our family car. See the stark difference between me and my high school friends?
For me when I would return for a short outing, it was an inquisition about where I went? Who did I talk to? And why I was two minutes late? I told the truth about all of these useless questions. But my dad never made an attempt to believe what I said. He was beyond strict. Once, he recorded the numbers on our car's odemeter before I went on a short drive and when I arrived home, he secretly recorded the numbers and substracted the difference to ask me where (all) that I had traveled. So it hit me so hard, this cold truth: you are wrong no matter what you say and the sooner you accept it, the happier you will be. Who said that? It certainly not Dr. Vincent Peal.
Welcome to one of my sample dialogues starring my dad and myself when I returned from a short ride to our hometown: Hamilton, Ala.
DAD: "where'd you go?"
ME: "to town and back. I told you that before I left."
DAD: "I'll ask the questions here."
ME: "okay. What's next?"
DAD: "who'd you see in town?"
ME: "oh, well, no one in particular. I saw my buddy, Allen and his friend, James and they . . .
(Suddenly as was his style, dad interrupted)
"were probably figuring out how to break into the stores in town who are closed on Sunday evenings, huh?"
ME: "no, dad. We were just talking. That's all."
DAD: "about what? Tell me what you were talking about--slurring the government?"
ME: "no, dad. Just talking about football and cars. That was about it."
DAD: "you listen to me and listen good. You might as well not get it in your head that you are going to get a car. No, sir. You will work alright when school is out, but you won't be getting a car."
ME: "dad, can we talk about this?"
DAD: "why? I've said all that I'm going to say on this subject."
And as the late NBC journalist, Linda Ellerby would say her famous closing line: "and so it goes."
My last and Third Terror was Monday, Nov. 27, 1972, the date which was without a doubt, the most-terrifying day of my life--the day when I turned 18. And in 1972, a lot of you guys who were of my age in '72 know what I was worried about. I did not sleep the night before. This was the day that I had dreaded for two years prior to this day when I received my Alabama Driver's License at age 16. Compared to signing for the Draft was more like an afternoon snooze compared to registering for the Selective Service. Just by writing my name on the bottom of a confusing piece of 8 1/2 x 11 Federal government paper meant opening the door for a dark, treacherous pathway was set before me on my eighteenth birthday. An old, ragged, weather-worn wooden door would send me and a few others in my area for service in the Vietnam War. To those, the entitled, the children of privilege, who did not have to register for the Draft, these outsiders can never understand the sheer terror of someone who was signing their live away to go into an undeclared war in some foreign country to do battle with an enemy that could not be idenfified. For reference sake, I shall call the enemy, "Charlie," aka/Viet Cong guerillas based in Communist North Vietnam home of Mao Tse Tung aka/Chairman Mao.
At first, taking my road test for my driver's license, I thought would be scary. I was right. At (that) time, I thought that this was the most terrifying day of my life. My clothes were soaked with sweat when the driver's license examiner, a Mr. Veeno Rayburn, an employee from the State of Alabama Public Safety Dept., (handgun on his side and all) said, "son, you best settle down if you are ever going to drive in bigger towns than Hamilton." Rayburn was honest in his advice, but was compassionate for not pointing out how much sweat was in the fibers of my clothes. I was happy at making a passing grade of 70.
My next terror-filled night was my high school graduation from my hometown, Hamilton, Ala., the same town (above) where I made 70 on my road test to receive my driver's license. My clothes were also soaked with sweat during this teen milestone. I was okay about getting to graduate from Hamilton High School in May of 1972--and also felt a certain comfort at having already signed up for the Selective Service (prior to graduation) which was light years away and time for me to get my roots planted deep in the ground for a job so I could start making some folding money.
I say this in all honesty for those of my class whose parents worked, all got Vocational Diploma's which signified that I, and those with these diplomas would not be going to any college in that following fall. Those whose parents had money, owned a business, or were of some local, state, or Federal government occupation, got Academic Diploma's for they were destined for college life. Hoo-ray. Hail! Hail! The gang's all here for rubbing the noses of guys and girls like myself who were not in the elite of my high school class who graduated college and had successful doctors and lawyers' offices as well as teachers with Ph.D's and even a few who retired (with hefty pensions) from our Armed Forces.
I need to ask you a very personal question: Did you have a healthy relationship with your parents before you graduated from high school? Let me answer my own question for you. I didn't. From the age of six, maybe earlier, all that I ever knew was fear. Being scolded at every little move that I made. Then yelled at by a short-tempered dad whom I loved despite how I was talked to like a stray alleyway mutt. And that fear, not respect for him, began to grow with every year that I grew older.
"you get out of that," "you can't do that--you will get killed," and on and on the same record seemed to be stuck on dad's mental turn table. By the time that I was 15, I had mixed emotions about trying for my driver's license because at first I had to get by dad's sharp remarks said to make me feel inferior so I would be discouraged and fail my test and if I were allowed to try for my license, I saw far enough away to know that I would be stuck at home not being allowed to use the car or even go with my buddies who were now thought of as adults by their parents. Even the ones who like me, would sign up for the Draft. They were adults. Not me. I carried my Draft Card in my wallet just like those Federal papers said that came in my Draft Package in our mailbox. And I, being a terrified, sweating teenager, obeyed Uncle Sam to the letter.
When I received my Driver's License, I was happy for all of two hours total. And stupid? What are you talking about? I remember the very first time that I asked to have the car for "a little while," my words, my dad's countenance changed from peaceful to angry in a split second and started a tirade about who did I think that I was? And just because I was 16 and a licensed driver did not make me that much of a man. I was not that surprised. His next factory-manufactured excuse for me not letting me borrow the car was, "oh, I would, but I need to save the gas--because of the Gas Crisis, you know?" That one worked smoother than any German-made clock.
But in my senior year of high school came graduation and my overly-active sweat glands which was a marriage made in humiliation for each milestone that I had reached, I sweated--not like other teenagers, but like the men and women who made their living by share cropping--planting and picking cotton by hand in the hot Hades-like sun in Alabama where the sweat is excessive and the sun could bake frankfruters on the asphalt farm market highways in the rural area of where I lived. Pure sweat, cold to the touch and weak from a body being hydrated from over-work in the broiling sun. The reason why I sweated profusely was the graduation robes weighed at least 60 pounds and with the huge fans and air conditioned turned off in the gym, no cool air could get inside the building--so sweating gallons for me was not a problem.
But getting back to the day that I turned 18, I had to face the Draft Board in Hamilton, Ala., all by myself. My cousin, Donnie Avery, gave me a ride to the court house in the center of town where I was to walk up two floors and meet the Draft Board which was not a real "board," but a lone female obviously plagued with menopause at the snippy-snappy way that she talked. As Donnie and I rode toward the court house, we both smoked several cigarettes so I could relax for I had been given a lot of advice by guys who had already signed up for the Draft and if I answered a certain question a certain way, my Draft Number would somehow be higher and higher as time went by.
I remember how the court house smelled on this fateful day when I walked to the stairs and took my sweet time walking up the two floors. My footsteps resembled the Clydesdales who pull a certain beer company's wagon seen in major parades. And when I opened the obviously-worn wooden door, I saw "it," the Draft "board," a Mrs. Edith Wright. Honestly speaking, she was not that tough to look at. She had nicely-styled brunette hair and for her age, she looked like one of those girls that my friends and I loved to see in the girly books that we got every chance that we could. I guess this was my imagination kicking in to help with the terror of thinking: I could leave the country and go to the Army and train in a far-away place and be put on a plane and sent to another far-away place to Vietnam and shoot at those who are going to shoot at me and possibly kill me.
Mrs. Wright got up from her desk and told me to sit anywhere. I sat near the back of the room since I was the only idiot signing my life away, so I figured that it didn't matter. She walked slowly as I enjoyed the sound of her high heels playing a tune on the tile floor and then dumped a 30-page questionaire about registering for the Selective Service. More like Selective Stupidity in Military Service. I was tempted to write that near the huge banner on the top of the first page, but she was scowling at me for most of the time that I was there, so I played it very cool.
Although I was now 18 and she looked to be in her mid-40s, I couldn't help but enjoy the aroma of her perfume--a quiet-natured perfume, but very nice to the nostrils of a single 18-year old guy. Once, I even caught myself looking at herself in her compact and then applying more red lipstick. Wouldn't you just know it? Red lipstick. My favorite. I even had thoughts about her and I having an out-of-tow fling somewhere near Sumiton, Ala., near Birmingham where there are a lot of those seedy-looking motels where a man and a woman can register under an assumed name and pay cash. No questions asked. These thoughts were the result of a mind who was scared to death and now sweating down the back of my neck and down my spine causing my skin to tickle.
"Something wrong, son?" Mrs. Wright asked.
"Uhhh, no, ma'am. I am fine thank you," I replied.
Page after stupid page of stupid questions that only someone from The Dept. of Defense could devise. Who knows? The people who wrote these asinine questions probably didn't attend college, so I felt a little better.
One of the stupid questions was: Name three people from at least four generations on your father's side of your family and include if whether or not they had a criminal record.
Huh? I didn't have access to my grandfather's father's father and how should I answer this? "How should I answer this question, ma'am?" I asked very softly. Then it happened. Mrs. Wright rose from her desk and walked to where I was sitting and bent over to see what question that stumped me. Frankly, I liked the way she looked at me standing over me knowing that she held the power. Not me. "just guess at some names," she said. And walked away and I must say, with that showgirl walk.
"But ma'am, I cannot forge any names for this is a Federal crime--says right here at the top right on this page, so you are telling to just make up some names?" I pleaded.
"Well, you write down something. We can't be here the rest of the day," she snapped.
What few good fantasies I was having about her vanished when she started being snappy.
More pages and pages of asking basically the same sets of questions--grades in school; type of diploma, etc. Like all of this information is going to keep me from 'Nam. Yeah, right. So with a couple of pages of this bale of papers to fill out, I ran across THE dumbest question of all and it was similar to the generations of folks that I had to make up the names.
This dumb question said: Name seven people, not family and not friends, who know your whereabouts 24 hours a day.
I couldn't resist. My shirt and pants where now saturated with sweat. I opened my mouth and had to ask, "Ma'am, about this last question, who does this leave--seven people not family or friends who know my whereabouts 24 hours a day. Ma'am, I do not know any strangers who I can put down for the answer."
Mrs. Wright glared. Looked out of the window. Wiped her lips. Why? I don't know.
"Well, son, all I know to do is make up someone," she said sternly.
Then the Bob Dylan in me just had to reply: "I ain't about to spent 10 years in Folsom Prison for forgery on a Federal document."
"Write it! Just write some names, for God's sakes. I didn't create these questions," Mrs. Wright said almost at the point of crying. "the dumb Draft Board is not going to send you to prison!"
So I put down all of the Hamilton merchants that my dad had done business with and I got it all written down--all except three people. Mrs. Wright looked it all over and quickly said I would be receiving a Federal Draft Package in the mail and to read it all.
I read most of it. And tucked my Draft Card safely away in my wallet. Now I could go with the other potential rounder-friends-of-mine to a local adult late show whose manager only look at guys who were "packing" the Draft card and you were ready for an hour and a half of good, old-fashioned flesh pot films that would make any Marine on leave curl his wavy hair.
I admit it. My "rounder"friends and I did take in a few of "those" adult films which would now be tame enough for prime time TV in 2017, but all the while, we were all grieving our minds away from (just) thinking about the Draft and being gunned down in Vietnam. Prior to and during my pre-Vietnam worryfest, a dear buddy, Joe Collier, an ex-Marine, who had completed a tour of 'Nam visited my family and me along with his mom who worked with my mom in the textile industries that once brought American workers a lot of pride, and told me about a few of the more-interesting episodes that he and his grunts had enjoyed.
Yes, I said enjoyed. Collier shared that where he was sent to do battle with Charlie, marijuana grew wild like ragweed in Alabama and of course, during the "night sweeps" as he said, they would sit back and enjoy some of this land's more-colorful nature products. When he and his grunt friends got a few days off, they hit it for Saigon and doing what they wanted from daylight to dark. His detailed stories about the teenage girls in Saigon were way too grahic for me to publish. You would agree too.
But this visit with Joe did not stop the worrying. I watched every night on CBS, to get the latest Draft numbers and with "Old Man Time" being a great compadre, my years grew quick and my odds of being drafted grew slim.
Then the day came when President Nixon announced that our country and North Vietnam had signed the agreement, "Peace With Honor," to get us out of there--I almost fell down in the floor right on my face with happiness and much joy. I was free. I almost sat down and wrote Nixon a 11-page thank you note, but in those days, my imagination was much too expansive and dark and although the Draft was done . . .I might face some real trouble if the F.B.I. should stop my letter before it got to the Oval Office and travel to Hamilton, Ala., to first blindfold me, then haul me to some darkened subterranean area in Virginia to ask me a few direct and pointed questions. I heard (at this time) that some F.B.I. agents had resorted to beating those who were thought of as: "Draft Dodgers," who opposed the War in Vietnam, but rumors can always be started by those who have nothing to gain.
Seeing me being placed in a Federal Government-issued vehicle, probably a 1970 Chrysler of that day, and taken from our home would have killed my mother.
To say nothing about what was going to happen to me.
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© 2017 Kenneth Avery