I lived in Alaska when I was a kid. One Christmas a model came in the mail from my uncle. For weeks I shook the box and wondered what sort of model it was, and at last I decided it was a battleship. It wasn’t. So I started buying model battleships for myself. I built the Bismarck, the Arizona, the Yamamoto, and the Missouri. I even had a model of the Olympia, flag ship of the Great White Fleet. I played with them on the black linoleum tiles of our living room floor.
One day I played “battleships” while my mother watched the Twilit Zone. The episode stared a very young Robert Redford and an old woman that looked like my aunt Winnie. The old woman was afraid of Death. There were all sorts of people trying to get in to see her; to convince her to sell her apartment so they could build a new building on the site, but she would not let anyone in. She was afraid they would be Death. One night, there was a fight in the alley outside her window. A young policeman, played by Redford, was injured, and to save his life she let him in. She would not call for help, but cared for him, and came to like him. Of course, he was Death. By the time she found out, she wasn’t afraid any more. She passed in peace, but I cried, because she reminded me of my aunt Winnie. My mother asked, “What’s the matter?” I told her the old woman’s death made me sad. She asked me what I thought happened every time a battleship sank. “Don’t you know thousands of men die?” Well, she ruined that game for me. When we moved to Brigham City, Utah, I put the ships on a shelf above my bed; all those I didn’tblow up with cherry bombs; coating them with model cement and setting them flaming and adrift on the Pioneer Park pond.
I heard of Vietnam for the first time when I was in the fifth grade. Remember those “country reports” fifth graders give? I chose Austria-Hungary. An early sign of my passion for the past; it didn’t bother me that Austria-Hungary had been extinct since 1918. I thought Franz Joseph had a nifty mustache. After a spate of reports on France, Holland, and Tahiti, a boy came to the front of the class with a scrap book bloated by newspaper clippings; they were all about Vietnam. I had never heard of that place before; after that, I would hear about it every day for many years.
By Jr. High, my buddies and I spent a lot of time thinking about the war in Vietnam. I always supported the containment of communism, my parents did – we were anti-communist. Brigham City was built on an alluvial fan; with the Jr. High at the top and our house at the bottom of the long gradual hill. I got very good a costing; no hands. I would gather pockets full of chestnuts on the Court House lawn and throw them into the open ditches as I glided home. The splash was like a battleship shell hitting the sea. When I got into high school my bike got stolen and I had to walk. When there were box elder bugs on the side walk I would pretend I was a helicopter hunting Viet Kong, and stomp on them. It made the trip to school and back go quickly. We all knew about the draft and we talked a lot about the war. The details seeped or flooded into our souls. I remember talking about kicking cans. Whenever an American boy sees a can on the road he kicks it; it’s nature. We knew that the Viet Kong would fill cans with explosives so when a kid kicked it, it would blow his leg off. We were warned about little kids. A lonely soldier, would see a little kid crying, and pick it up to hug and comfort and it would blow up and kill the soldier. What bothered me the most were the pungee sticks. Long slivers of bamboo steeped in human feces. The Viet Kong would stick them in the long grass at the side of the jungle trails, their germ soaked tips pointing up. Then the “Gooks” would hide in the bush ahead. When the American platoon was in place, the guerrillas would fire off a few shots. All American soldiers are trained to “hit the dirt” when they hear gun fire and the GI’s would throw themselves onto the pungee sticks in the barrow pit. This is what we talked about when we weren’t discussing sex, or sports, or Scouts, or the newest episode of Star Trek. It was what we thought about all the time. I read a lot of books and wished for more beautiful wars.
We watched the war on the TV news. Our family watched CBS. Walter Cronkite was the CBS anchor man in those days. Everyday, for years, he would end his news cast with a casualty count. So many killed today, bringing the number for the week to such and such, and the total in the war to. . .
It has only been in the past few years that my students have had any inkling of what is was like to grow up facing an “endless” war. Now, they hear the talking heads, the army of Cronkite want-to-bee’s, droning on. There were plenty of war protesters. But there was this difference; they do not face the draft. I think I remember watching a draft lottery. I see in my mind a great Plexiglas tank with a tube sticking out the top; inside, ping-pong balls swirled around like bubbles. Ever now and then, a ball would be sucked up into the tube and be fished out by some admirals and generals with chests full of ribbons. On each ball was a date. The first ball out might have “6/3” printed on it. Then all the boys born 19 years before on that day would have the draft number one, the next ball would determine the next draft number, and thus the process would continue until all the days of the year were assigned. I had the draft number 118.
My dad worked with the military. He explained to me that, “It’s better to be telling people what to do than being told; be an officer.” I also knew that if one enlisted they got to choose their branch of the service. I loved battleships, although in those days, before the re-commissioning of the New Jersey, I knew there were no battleships in the U.S. Navy. I also knew that North Vietnam didn’t have much of a navy; that seemed to put our sailors at an advantage, finally, there were the pungee sticks at sea. I chose the Navy.
As is my way; I read books about navy battles and naval heroes. I was always reading; the movies were so bad when I was young. I did enjoy Waterloo and Patton, also Romeo and Juliet. Everything else was too angry. I reread the Lord of the Rings and wanted to be an elfin prince but always ended up Gandalf. I became wizard and commander, and forged my fame on the quarterdeck with wisdom and magic. I began to resent Vietnam’s lack of sea power, and there didn’t seem much chance of any kind of Star Fleet position. I saw possibilities in the gun boats on the Mekong River; a place to craft the stories about me. But how does one get from the Utah desert to the rivers of South East Asia?
Then it happened, God intervened. A Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp (NJROTC) unit was established at Box Elder high school. I joined that first, my senior, year. Fresh back from Boy Scout Camp, I entered a world of uniforms and titles, of marching, and the manual of arms. Our teachers were real Navy men. Commander Michaels, an Annapolis Graduate who had been to the South Pole, and Chief Bassett, a Navy Seal who had fought in Vietnam.
You might think that the anti-war “movement” would miss rural Utah. Not so. Our class room was firebombed. The ROTC met in a portable building behind the school. One night someone threw a cider jug full of gasoline through the window and chucked in a match. The bomber was caught by breakfast. The FBI checked the gas stations until they found one where somebody had pumped gas into a glass jug. The new building was nice; it had wood paneled walls.
We got past the bombs; murder was something else. The nation was torn in two when Lieutenant Cowley and his crew murdered 500 South Vietnamese at My Lie. Many, who considered all Vietnamese our enemies, celebrated. Others saw this isolated and obscene abuse as symptomatic of American Imperialism; the proof that we were unjustly in the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Chief Bassett explained the truth.
After weeks of observation the officer jobs were handed out. Note: everyone went by last names. Butler was Cadet Commander, I was made executive, first, officer. I was okay with that. Butler was one of the toughest guys in the school, he could grow sideburns. If I couldn’t be Captain Kirk, at least I was Spock. I worked very hard at my job and at my class work. I got the highest scores, learned the manual of arms for rifle and sword, marched at every drill, wore my uniform perfectly; I even spit polished my shoes.
Then came the shower incident. The gym showers were hard to adjust; and once one got the water just right, someone would turn on another head and scald or freeze you. One afternoon, all alone in the shower room; I got the water perfectly adjusted, hopped in, lathered up, and Butler came in. He shoved me aside, and stepped into my shower. Not one of the tough kids at Box Elder High, I was perhaps the most foolish. I backed up against the wall, brought my foot up against the tile, and threw my naked body against Butler; knocking him out of the shower. He rushed back, fists clenched. Inches form my face he snarled. “If you were anyone else, I’d kill you.” I have often wondered what it was about me that distilled his mercy. I like to think that he held some deep, if grudging respect for me; more likely he didn’t want to ruin his reputation. I see him sitting with the bully boys at the bar.
“You ever killed anybody?” someone asks.
“Ah, just Conner,” says Butler. Everyone titters.
“You killed Conner,” they scoff. Oh the shame.
Not long after the Battle of the Bath, Butler got in a fight with Commander Michaels. I don’t know the details; I do know Butler got kicked out of NJROTC, As Executive officer, when the captain went missing; I became the Company Commander.
We had many adventures together: marched in parades, color guard at the Golden Spike commemoration. We had a formal military ball to which we officers wore our sword belts. A word about swords; we got to pick our own. First pick, I chose the longest one. Big mistake. Parade rest with the sword requires one to thrust the blade at an angle to the front. One hot afternoon, as we stood on the sweltering asphalt I gave the command, “parade rest!” and drove my sword three inches into the tar-Mack.
In May we headed for San Diego, to the Naval Training center. What a great week. We got tear gassed, marched everywhere, were awakened by the Marines at their calisthenics; one of our guys got pooped on by a seagull. A highlight was the rifle range. My father had put a rifle in my hands before I can remember. I read the scores at morning assembly. I was pleased to see my score of seventy eight was twenty points higher than any other. I keep my success a secret, modesty I suppose, and I read the next three. Commander Michaels announced that there was one score I had not given. He gave my score. Someone groaned, “I knew I was shooting at the wrong target.” So much for my pride.
A Company Commander has a lot of paperwork to do and no time to do it in. This challenge compounded with another to provide a solution to both. The toilet and bath facilities at the Naval Training center were a bit disconcerting to a modest boy. There were twenty-five toilets in a line with no walls between, and across the room, in full view, there was bank of showers. Answering the “call of nature” in front of a room full of naked men was not within my comfort zone. The fact that the one place the lights were on after “lights out” was the head, gave me an idea. Once everyone was in bed, I would settle on a pot in the empty bathroom; my paperwork on my knees and take care of all my business at once. The only interruption was the Fire Watch, who greeted me with a salute and an admonition every ten minuets.
At weeks end there was a selection of Top Cadet. I and my Guidon Bearer were both nominated by the Chief who supervised our crew. I had chosen this Guidon Bearer myself; he was the natural leader of our group, a handsome fellow, already a man – I looked like a child beside him. The competition culminated in an interview with the base commander. I stood in the Captain’s office before several officers as he questioned me from behind his desk. I don’t remember much, but his last question was, “What do you think of the My Lai Massacre?” I gave the answer my teacher, my Chief, had taught.
“We are in Vietnam to stop the spread of Communism. Communists kill people who don’t agree with them, they use murder and terror to destroy freedom. America cannot do what we have gone to stop.” The next day I was awarded Top Cadet; the highest honor of my “military carrier”.
That spring I received two nominations to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. I was on my way to the quarter deck.
First came the “draft” physical. Again, my lack of physical presence made so much exposure difficult, but I seemed to survive. Then the letter came. I had failed the physical. One had to have perfect vision to attend Annapolis. They did offer me a “second best”. I would have a full ride scholarship to any university with an NROTC program. This was perfect.
The University of Utah had a program, and I was off to Bailiff Hall. I took a second physical, got into classes; was even elected class chairman of the freshman cadets. I credit my experience, and my mouth. We were measured of our uniforms, drilled in street cloths, and studied declination. When the uniforms arrived, I was in charge of handing them out. Big brown paper wrapped packages with names. When I gave out the last, I realized there was no package for me. I went to the Captain. “Oh, Conner, I need to talk to you. It seems you failed your physical.” I was told I had one last chance; if I could get my eyesight to 20/70 I could get a waver. I would lose my scholarship but I would be allowed into ROTC. It didn’t seem fair.
Once more I put my foot to the tile. I went to my eye doctor. He gave me the system he used to help pilots prep for their eye exams, a big and a little eye chart. I would post the big chart twenty feet away and hold the card in my hand and exercise by focusing back and forth between them. I went without my glasses for two weeks. Finally I had my Mormon Bishop and his councilors bless me, oil and all.
I Feel a Draft
The moon light came in through the open curtains and the soft breeze through the screen; I lay there; looking at the line of toy battleships on the shelf above the bed, and wondered why I wanted to cry. I could hear the cheers and happy noise from the ball park a few blocks off, but I just lay there watching the battleships and waiting for the tears to come.
I had entered the induction center for the third time early that morning. At eighteen, I was an old pro at the selective service physical. The benches, the reception desk, the sleepy boys waiting for the exam to begin, even the impersonal attitudes of the men and women in their uniforms and white coats did not frighten me.
This was my battle. I had to pass the physical if I was to become an admiral. I’d failed two times before, but my dreams had not dimmed. Dreams of space ships and battleships, and gun boats on the rivers of Vietnam; dreams of glory and power and adventure that never left my mind: Caesar, Nelson, Perry on the Lakes, Captain Kirk, Alexander, and Gandalf; these were my heroes, and they were always with me. Adventures read and reread, lived and relived. The guns, the ships, the ranks of soldiers, and the uniforms; I knew them all. They were all part of my dream.
After we had all completed our paper work, instructions were given like little speeches, and the crowd of nervous boys was herded down the hall toward the locker room. I mooed – moooooo – and there was nervous laughter. Reality crowded in on my dreams as I striped and crammed my cloths into the tiny locker. Someday, I would be a great warrior, but for now, I was a scrawny boy. I looked younger than I was and didn’t like standing around in my underwear. The waxed cement floors were cold and so was the air. I folded my arms across my chest.
The boy beside me was not scrawny. He was beautiful, and I couldn’t help looking at him. His shoulders and chest were round with muscles, his arms thick and manly. There were a few hairs around his nipples. His skin was tan and his hair sun-streaked. The boy wore red silk boxer shorts which hung carelessly open in the front as he sat looking at his feet. His body was completely at ease, being naked didn’t bother it. This boy’s suffering was in his eyes and voice as he looked up at me and said, “Hi.”
I was moved by some emotion. I wanted to be friends with this beautiful boy. My experience and determination lent me the confidence my body could not give, and that this impressive youth could be so plainly pitiful, gave me strength.
“Well, here we go,” I said easily. “Don’t worry, I’ve been through before, it’s kind of fun.” It was not so much what I said but the way I was able to say it that set my mind as at ease as the body in the red shorts. That pleased me.
“You’ve been through before?”
“Ya, it’s the eyes.” I tapped my thick glasses. But I’ll get in yet.”
“You want to get in?” He paused, “I’d give anything to stay out.” Red Shorts voice almost broke, “you’re crazy.”
“Oh, I want to be an officer.” I was chatty, “I had an appointment to Annapolis, you know the Naval Academy, but if I can get a waver I can still take NROTC. Come on I’ll show you were to go.”
I felt cocky; it was almost like being someone else. At the first station all the boys were given a clear plastic cup and directed to step into a small bathroom to fill our cup in turn. My mind was racing. I was trying to think of conversation; anything to say to put Red Shorts at ease and give me an excuse to talk to him. The urine samples were crowded together on a small cart, each marked with a strip of paper with the producer’s name on it. The content of ever cup was a different shade of yellow and each had a different amount of foam afloat on top.
“It looks like a beer tasting table.” I ventured, although I had never seen a beer tasting table. Red Short and some of the other guys close at hand chuckled.
“I should have sugar under my finger nails, to dump in the cup,” said Red Shorts.
“It doesn’t work,” said a pimply kid. “They take you anyway. Some guys cut their toes off; they take you anyway.”
“You can’t be an officer if you haven’t got perfect eyes.” I was an expert. “They’ll draft you, but you can’t be an officer.”
Two “older men” turned to look at me. They were obviously returned Mormon missionaries. That would make them twenty-one or older. They looked older and they were naked. I knew Mormon missionaries didn’t wear their underwear in public.
“They drafted you?” one scorned, “How old are you anyway?”
“I’m eighteen.” I said. The two laughed and turned away. “Come on.” I was eager to show I wasn’t rattled. “You’ll really get a kick out of the next one.”
About eight boys, including Red Shorts and I were herded against a wall and told to turn around and drop our shorts.
“What do you bet they shoot us,” someone said.
“We’ll be doing the shooting,” I said. I turned to smile at my charge; very pleased with my cleverness. Red Shorts didn’t know what was going on, but he smiled timidly.
“Bend over and spread your cheeks,” snapped the doctor. I grabbed either side of my face and turned to Red Shorts beaming. This time he saw the humor.
After the doctor had seen what he wanted, he had the line face front. Followed by an assistant carrying a box of thin plastic wrap gloves he started down the line. “Turn your head and cough!” he barked again and again; jamming a finger into each groin in turn; between changes of gloves.
Shorts in place we got in another line. We were inseparable now. We were buddies.
“Hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait,” I chanted; remembering a saying my father liked.
“They say they bury sharpened sticks with human . . . waist on them,” Red Shorts hesitated as he said waist. “They tie bombs to little kids.”
“That’s why I want to be out on a big safe ship,” I said.
“Ya, makes sense. I hear if an M16 bullet hits you in the hand it will travel all over inside your body and kill you. Just from hitting you in the hand.” Red Shorts looked at me. He looked like he wanted to say more, or maybe cry.
“Sit down and look in here.”
Red Shorts sat down and put his face to the eye machine. They young soldier–like attendant flicked some dials and told him to read the line. I would be next. I hated the eye test; it reveled my failing; I thought of it as my enemy. I meant to look at the machine, but found myself staring at my friend, his back, his broad shoulders, his thick neck; barely visible under the long bushy hair.
“Okay,” said the soldier, “you wear contacts?”
I sat down. “Take off your glasses and look in here.” I removed the glasses and put my eyes into the sockets. I squinted; little black blurs flashed past in the light.
“I can’t see it.” I could hear my own voice, but again it was like being someone else; someone else talking.
“Say when.” The blurs flashed by till the big fuzzy E appeared.
“Okay,” I said.
There was an ache in my chest as I sat in front of the locker. So many dreams just out of reach; it wasn’t fair. But, I didn’t feel as bad as I thought I should; maybe I even felt good.
I dressed quickly. I hurried to cover myself. Red Shorts was in no rush; he pulled his pants on and then went for his shoes, slowly tying the laces. I watched him sitting there. I wanted to memorize him. I didn’t even know his name, but I wanted to memorize his form and his face. The boy looked up and smiled. I look hard at his face, his handsome face, strong and beautiful.
Sincerely and quietly he said, “I hope you make it.”
“I hope you don’t.” We smiled at each other like friends. Then I left, I couldn’t stay and stair any more. At the door I looked back; he was standing there in his perfect body with little hairs around each nipple.
At home that night I sat waiting for dinner. I was half listening to the news and thinking about the boy in the red shorts. Suddenly what the man on the TV was saying sunk in. The numbers he was chanting, the figures on the screen didn’t register, but I saw a face, a tanned, handsome face surrounded with sun streaked hair, above round muscles, a few chest hairs, and red silk boxer shorts.
“Killed to date in Vietnam,” the announcer finished. I began to wonder if my friend would be a number someday. Now the numbers and the battles and the sinking ships carried a face, one I had memorized. I went to bed early, lay in the moon light, stared at the toy battle ships and waited for the tears to come to my eyes; my blessed eyes.
I left the University of Utah at the end of the quarter, and that summer applied for a deferment and went on an LDS mission in the fall. We sneaked off on missions in those days. Were we draft dodgers? I actually received a letter from the Navy telling me there had been a change and that I could re-apply. I did not. I went to Japan. There, the vast majority of the people I met had great affection for and gratitude toward America. There were those who used the war in Vietnam to reproach us; mostly as a ploy to get out of listening to us talk about eternal families and Jesus. Then, one day, I noticed that no one was talking war anymore. When I called the Mission Assistants to make my report, I asked what was going on. “Didn’t you hear, the war’s over, we lost.”
I came home a bit of a pacifist. Perhaps I wanted to believe that as war was wrong not fighting was right. So many of us were fooled, or fools. I didn’t want to be an admiral anymore. I taught Japanese in Hawaii, studied botany, and loved nature; I read and took history classes as my avocation.
I wrote “I Feel a Draft” down while I was still in college, during the down hill slide of the Nixon administration, or perhaps while healing with Jerry Ford. The only war America was fighting then was cold. For seven years I was a professional Boy Scout. I got married, we had children; took in a boat-person, a Laotian. We directed camps, lived in Jackson Hole, at last I became a school teacher.
I have shared this story with my students all these years. For a long time I took pride in it, or at least felt lucky. In the long years of peace, as the Soviet Union crumbled and the shame of deserting the Vietnamese dimed; it seemed to speak to the young people I taught of a past they would never have to face, of heroes without relevance. For a long time I seemed the hero of my story.
Now the long war between good and evil returns, and I see the world again as I did as a boy; I am at a loss as to what to do. I am grateful to those who served, to those who do serve. Red Short is the hero. I feel unworthy and in debt; like a teenager on Christmas morning. In youth, one receives gifts before one understands giving. I cannot repay now that I am old and safe and free. Is there a second best way to serve ones country?