My Road to Vietnam: A Very Inartful Draft Dodger

August 18, 1969, fifty-two years ago today, I was supposed to be at the Woodstock Festival in upstate New York with my buddies. But instead on that sultry mid-summer morning, I was in Brooklyn, where I took my first military steps on the way to Vietnam. 
POINT OF NO RETURN: My path to Vietnam began at Fort Hamilton, on Brooklyn’s idyllic waterfront. 

August 18,1969, was the last day of the Woodstock “Peace and Music” festival in upstate New York. I was supposed to be there with my buddies Charlie Boy and Vinny. But I never made it. Instead, on that sultry mid-summer morning, I was at Ft. Hamilton, a languid, postage stamp of an Army base in the shadow of the Verrazano Bridge in Brooklyn, NY.  It was church quiet on the base, befitting its role as a military chaplain school. But Ft. Hamilton was no pastoral refuge to me that morning. A major induction point for Army draftees, this was the scene of my military debut— fifty-two years ago today.

THE WHITE WHALE: 1964 Buick Riviera

Big brother Frank dropped me off on his way to work in Manhattan. As he drove, I observed with inner pride Frank’s slender hands gliding over the highly polished steering wheel of his Buick Riviera—a gleaming 5-year old classic we called the White Whale. I was nuts about that damned car even more than Frank was. Each week that summer, I painstakingly cleaned and shined the Riviera down to Q-tip detail, merely to earn the privilege of driving it every now and again.  On Friday afternoons, I’d set up a transistor radio in our driveway, chill six cans of Carlton Black Label beer, and gather up a sleeve of saltine crackers and a hunk of cheddar cheese to munch on. I’d then proceed to make sweet, sudsy love to the Riviera for nearly three hours with an elephant-ear sponge, Simonize paste wax, a damp chamois cloth and an aerosol can of Lemon Pledge. About the time I rinsed the blue Brillo soap off the super-wide gangster whitewall tires, Frank returned home from his TV-producer job at CBS. He’d inspect my work and flip me a couple of singles. Most times, if I wasn’t too tipsy, he’d let me take the Whale for a spin.

Frank and I shared a bedroom in our parents’ modest two-family home in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn. I doted on everything in his life, from his love of Beach Boys music to his fetish for shopping the one-of-a-kind rack at Bloomingdale’s department store. I was flattered whenever Frank had the time and inclination to talk to me, nearly 6 years his junior. I’d often adopt jokes and anecdotes he’d share with me that spoke of life beyond our insular Brooklyn neighborhood and Italian-American family. I’d pass these on to my friends as if they were my own.  Frank’s favorite TV shows—Peyton Place and the Twilight Zone—became my favorite shows, way before I could figure them out.

For most of my adolescent life, Frank had been my protector; in particular, a shield against our stepmother’s wild emotional mood swings which rained terror on our household. I’d cower when Phyllis periodically lost her shit—bilging forth tantrums born of frustrations about her childless, loveless life as a second wife. But Frank stood up to her cooly and defiantly. He’d pick up the receiver of our wall phone and threaten to call Phyllis’ father if she didn’t simmer down. Like the miracle of sunrise, domestic peace returned.

But there would be no reprieve on this morning of August 18, this H-hour of separation from family, friends, lovers, and all things good, bad and familiar to me. I looked at the Ft. Hamilton administration building, and then back at my brother. For once, Frank was powerless to save me. Without leaving his driver’s seat, Frank signaled his farewell with a silent, sympathetic shoulder shrug. “Hope for the best; prepare for the worst,” his body language said. I was wordless in return. As the Riviera turned out of Ft. Hamilton’s gate, I stood paralyzed in fear, bewilderment and loneliness. For the first time that morning, I saw clearly my situation: I was about to be sworn in to the Army, unlike so many of my contemporaries who managed to avoid the military draft.

At the time, every male US citizen aged 18 to 25—approximately 27 million of them—was required to register with the Selective Service, becoming eligible for conscription into the Army. However, only a tiny fraction actually served or was called. The bulk of the armed forces, including the Army, and all who served in Vietnam, were volunteers. Of some 10 million US military members during the war years, only about 2 million were draftees. Many many millions received deferments. They became exempt from the draft for reasons ranging from poor health or injuries, family hardship, religious beliefs (conscientious objectors), military sensitive jobs, criminal records or, college studies.  Hundreds of thousands became “draft dodgers;” they openly defied and refused military service, or skipped out to Canada, Mexico, Scandinavia or elsewhere beyond its reach. 

Statistically, an overwhelming majority of my generation qualified as one or more of the above.  They did not serve. And an even larger percentage of my demographic—middle class, college-eligible, white males—never came close to seeing Vietnam let alone military service. Even among those conscripted, less than one-third went to the war: only 650,000. Draftees like me were a minority in Vietnam—though their casualties were proportionally higher.

Indeed, none of my friends and relatives served full time in the military during the 60s, let alone got their butts shipped to Vietnam like me.  Most either held onto their student deferment long enough to run out the clock on the draft, or managed to finagle their way into homebound National Guard units. That’s what Frank did. Following 2 months of basic training at Fort. Dix, NJ, Frank lived as a civilian, occasionally turning into a weekend warrior by attending National Guard meetings in New York City, and spending two weeks annually at sleep-away camp.

HELL NO; THEY DID NOT GO: Nearly every young American male was required to register for the military and carry his draft card……

So what was my problem?  How come I wasn’t able to pull off what most of my contemporaries did?  Why did I wind up in the Army—and eventually Vietnam—when so many others did not? The one simple answer is that I screwed up. I was lazy and totally irresponsible for my existence.  Rudderless is the best description of my life in 1969, and the course it had been on for some time. I simply didn’t get my shit together enough to engineer a deferment.

After 4 college semesters of embarrassing academic underperformance (which was totally predictable from my lackadaisical attitude at one of New York’s elite, entrance-exam high schools), I was politely asked to “take some time off” from the University of Bridgeport. Immediately, I lost my 2-S student deferment from the draft. The hallowed 2-S designation was doubtless the most coveted beat-the-draft, get-out-of-jail card of them all. An undergraduate student was required to be in good standing with an accredited college and carry a full matriculation course load—typically 12 credits or more. 2-S accounted for the lion’s share by far of the 15-million plus draft deferments. I was not clever enough to hold onto mine.

I got a job in New York City in the spring of 1969, with a plan to get back to school and regain my student deferment by the fall semester. Part of my problem was I was broke. I asked my dad for a $3,000 tuition loan, but never got it. My father, and by extension our family, was not wealthy by any means.  He had a steady job, and we always lived comfortably, if modestly.  We never owned a new car nor took a vacation to anyplace beyond Long Island beaches. So, perhaps he didn’t have the money. Or, he didn’t think I was a worthwhile investment. Considering how I squandered my first two years of college, that wasn’t an arguable conclusion. Truth is, I don’t know which was the issue because my father essentially never answered my request. As lawyers might say, he was silent on the topic. 

My attempt to join the National Guard was half hearted and totally unsuccessful.  My application didn’t impress the unit commander with the same conviction that a case of Scotch might have. I was too proud to beg. I opted instead for a summer scramble to build a bank roll in time to return to school. My strategy was a long shot race against the clock that I lost by a couple of weeks. The result was the proverbial “Greetings” letter announcing my induction date.

SUNRISE SERANADE: At Woodstock, Hendrix played the anthem; in Brooklyn, I took the oath.

When Frank and the Riviera were no longer in sight, I unfroze and stepped inside the processing center. My sweaty hand had a death grip on a supermarket shopping bag holding one change of clothes and a toothbrush.  Nineteen years old and seriously hurting from a week of subsisting on booze and amphetamines, I was dizzy with dread. It was a relief to get out from under the merciless summer sun, which beat down, frying my shoulder-length brown hair, virtually reigniting my hangover.  Inside the induction hall, just about the time that Jimi Hendrix was turning the Star Spangled Banner into a plaintive psychedelic anti-war anthem at Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York, I peed into a cup, raised my right hand, and took the proverbial step forward that Muhammad Ali and tens of thousands of others courageously did not. 

Woodstock was history, and so was my life as a civilian.

Less than four months hence, the draft “lottery” was instituted.  Numbers from one to 366 (for leap year) were assigned to birthdates, designating the order in which men aged 19 and older would be conscripted into the army from then on. Anyone with a lottery number of 196 or lower was eventually called for service. With chagrin, I and a barracks full of shaved-head GI’s watched this spectacle on TV.  My number?  October 13: number 138. My destiny was inescapable. I was on the road to Vietnam.

THIS CHANGED EVERYTHING : On Dec. 1, 1969, who went to war and who didn’t became a numbers game.

13 Replies to “My Road to Vietnam: A Very Inartful Draft Dodger

  1. More things here I did not know!!! Where was my head in 1969 ???? Love you my dear brother.

  2. Very interesting. Luck of the drawer in my case was a 321 while a neighbor pulled a number in the lower third and promptly joined the National Guard. So, my main memories of `69 were working a summer job at a supermarket, watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the Quad my first night as a freshman at Syracuse University and experiencing all hell breaking loose in my high-rise dorm when the Mets won the World Series. My freshman year ended two weeks early in May, 1970, when other freshmen were killed at Kent State and rioting at our campus closed down the school. Fred: thank you for your service. Too bad it was all for nothing.

  3. I was drafted in 1968 after leaving a Catholic seminary after 3rd year of college and then bumming around after 1 semester at public University. My dad gave me about as much direction as yours. Ended up getting a Chaplain Assistant MOS and spent approximately 5 weeks at Ft. Hamilton August 68 before getting orders to the ‘Nam. Ft H was the best Army assignment in the world as far as I was concerned, a Missouri hick who had never been to NY. ALSO SAW 2001 IN Manhattan with my soon to be fiancee who came to visit me one weekend.
    So Fred, do you think we were “unbrave” for answering the call even if very reluctantly. I wondered so at that time, but, with many years of reflection and contemplation I have grown to accept and even find pride in the service we gave.

  4. Gives a whole new meaning to stay in school, kids. Enlightening, as always. I dare say you might not be the man you are without all of the good, and bad, experiences. But who knows. Thanks, Fred.

  5. Brave or courageous I was not. Lost and confused. All wars are heinious; this one was additionally unjust and politically reprehensible. I give thanks every day that I am lucky enough to be here to tell about it, and I cry everyday for the millions who are not.

  6. No telling what the course would have been for fabatemarco had the butterfly not flapped it’s wings in 1969. Unlikely to have met the BW, so not complaining.

  7. My experience with the draft and the war in Viet Nam was quite a bit different from yours. I spent most of my college years dating a very nice young lady and studying a lot. I was going to go to graduate school, get a master’s degree and teach English Literature. How naive. By the spring of my senior year (1970) my college had erupted in anger at the war and I was thinking a lot about it. I was scared. My lottery number was 135. For me, too close for comfort. I talked to a lot of my classmates and many of them confessed that they had gone down to the local National Guard office and enlisted. I was not crazy about this option. But one afternoon my fear of dying got the better of me and I drove down to the National Guard office and met Major McGuire (not Barry McGuire). No finagling, no Dan Quayle maneuvers were required–he signed me up on the spot. He then directed me to a supply room where they gave me a shit load of equipment. My roommate and I camped out with it in a verdant portion of the campus that night. One night not long after I heard cursing and screaming from a nearby dorm room, and I went out to see what was up. They were cursing about footage from Kent State, cursing at the National Guard. What had I gotten myself into?
    I went to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where it was very very hot. While it was objectionable to be ordered around and fire guns and march all over the place, Basic was tolerable. I told myself that it beat Viet Nam. Many of the trainees were guys like me–college grads who took the cowards way out. I have always been a shy guy, and it felt good to be able to sit down at any dinner table and talk about the common enemy: the drill sergeants. Also, I dropped 30 pounds and got into great physical shape.
    When Basic was over and I got back to my unit I found that almost everyone was like the guys I met in Basic. I’m not proud of it, but most of us did as little as we could at the monthly meetings. The new trend of National Guard units being activated and sent to dangerous places overseas, never happened to us. If it had, we all would have been killed. We were pathetic excuses for soldiers.

  8. Basic training was like being hit in the head with a shovel everyday. When it was over, you were a mess, but it felt so good that the head banging was done.

  9. Bob… I checked with the judges, and you still get a thank you for your service! Hope you’re well.

  10. Fred-my “get out of the draft card” was my new born daughter, Tricia-1/4/70. Unlike my father in WW2 who was drafted with two kids they never got around to drafting fathers of one kid for Nam. Being a father & supporting a family at 21 had its challenges but it was nothing compared to what you & many others had to live through. Thank you for your service!

  11. Felix–Linda Tesorierio faithly kept me informed of the goings on among you and the other guys all through my army time. I still have letters referring to your marriage and the birth of your daughter. She also sent me clippings of the NY Mets march to the championship in 1969. I owe my mental health throughout my service to good friends like her and you and BW and so many others.

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