In 1969, my last year in high school, I worked on the school newspaper. I had heard that the previous year’s class president – his name was Curtis as I recall – had sought sanctuary from the draft in a local Unitarian Church. I visited him and we talked for a while, then I wrote about him and the ideas he had shared with me in the following week’s edition of the paper. About a week later I heard that soldiers in uniform had gone into the church one night, beaten Curtis, and dragged him out onto the lawn where police were waiting and took him into custody. That was in Whittier, California. A sleepy college town where Nixon had spent much of his youth.
Late one Sunday night shortly after Curtis’s arrest I was working alone at school cranking out the Monday edition of the newspaper on the mimeograph machine. The paper’s staff moderator had given me keys so I could come and go at odd hours, and it was after 10. I was not expecting to bump into anyone, so I was startled to discover a guy named Don who I had known since first grade standing in the doorway in army dress uniform.
Don had always been very strong. In fifth grade he had broken one of my ribs with a punch to the chest. I still get a twinge there from time to time when I laugh. And my sophomore year I had lost a dollar to him on a bet. He claimed he could bench press 200 pounds ten times. I had asked him how much he weighed. 180 pounds. No way, I thought, and then he did it. Now he seemed even more substantial. Filling the doorway. Straight and tall with massive arms and shoulders. He asked me what I was doing. “School paper,” I said. He told me he was in the army and had just finished “basic.” Next day he was going to Vietnam.
We talked a little longer. I don’t recall what we said. In grade school we had both been terrible students and often in trouble, but now we did not have much in common. He said he was going to check out “the field.” He had played varsity football. I wished him luck and then he was gone. It wasn’t until a long time later that it occurred to me he was probably at the school that night because there was no place else for him to be. And that I had not been very good company. His name does not appear on The Vietnam Veterans Memorial so I’m optimistic he survived the war.
Roger, Roger – Draft Dogger
I knew a guy named Roger who was the dear friend of a dear friend. Roger was a first year police science student at Fullerton Junior College in Orange County, California. He had a student deferral that exempted him from the draft but the head of the Police Science Department was also the head of the local draft board – and Roger was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. In those days if you were eligible for the draft you could avoid getting called up by reporting your full-time student status every six months. This meant that if you reported yourself to be a full-time student toward the end of an academic year, you would be a student again after the summer break when you reported your status again the next time. Nonetheless, the day after his last class before the summer break Roger received his draft notice. He protested that he had been unfairly singled out in an act of political reprisal, but the man who could set things right was the man who had done him wrong. A couple of nights later Roger got crazy drunk and threw himself in front of a train. He survived but lost segments of various lengths from each of his limbs.
On December 1, 1969, I waited in the cafeteria of a student housing facility on the UCLA campus with about 400 other guys born from 1944 through 1950 while US Selective Service lottery numbers were reported over the radio. “Birthdate number 1, September 14th. Birthdate number 2, April 24th. Birthdate number 3, December 30th.” I remember one young man walking quickly from the hall muttering, “I’m dead. I’m fucking dead.” Most guys just lowered their heads into their hands as their birthdates were called. “Birthdate number 4, February 14th.” Some wept. Some walked with apparent calm to an exit, then flung the door open fiercely and trudged away. “Birthdate number 5. October 18th.”
Conventional wisdom said, worst case scenario, up through number 221 might actually get called up. When that number wasn’t my birthdate I joined the others favored by chance heading for the exits. I do not recall that any of us lucky guys stayed behind to comfort those who remained seated in mourning for their lives before that moment.
For several months while I was going to school I worked Friday and Saturday nights at a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor on Sunset near Western in Hollywood. I was the only member of the late night team who was not a Vietnam vet. We closed at midnight and usually finished cleanup around 1 am. Then it was story time. We’d sit in the near-dark at one of the long wooden tables. Hardly able to see each other’s faces in the dim yellow glow from the lamp posts in the empty parking lot out front. The vets spoke, usually one at a time and for quite a stretch, telling what they had seen and done. I sat with them and listened, watching their faces.
One guy named John was too skinny. Almost skeleton thin. He had long hair and a mustache, and he always moved and talked twice as fast as anyone else in the room. Sometimes thoughts leapt out of him without warning. On the second or third shift I’d worked with him he had suddenly shared with me his opinion that “Smack is poison. It’ll kill ya. But coke is medicine. It’ll keep you alive.”
John had picked up a heroin habit in “Nam” and most of his late night stories concerned adventures he had had enroute from one base to another while supposedly returning to his unit after release from rehab. “I was lost and I stayed lost as long as I could.” One night he told us that in his travels he had bumped into another “lost guy” and the two of them had wandered around together for a couple of days. At one point they came upon a cannon with all the trimmings that had been left unattended. Neither John nor his lost companion knew anything about big guns but they played around with it and managed to load and fire it. “Wow! Where’d the shell come down?” someone asked. “Shit if I know. We took off at a run…and then decided we should split up.”
First Hand, Second Hand
There was a guy I knew at school named Vince. Since we both smoked pipes we often sat together at a bit of a distance from everyone else, reading under a cloud of sweet amber smoke. Vince described himself as an Air Force brat. His father was an Air Force officer. One day I happened upon him while he was engaged in an intense conversation with another guy about our age. It turned out that this other guy wanted to be a pilot but his eyesight was not up to Air Force standards. Vince was tutoring his nearsighted pal in how to scam the Air Force eye exam. When the tutorial ended and the conversation turned my way I told the story Lost John had shared with me about firing an abandoned cannon. “That is total BS!” Vince assured us vehemently. “First of all, nobody leaves an artillery piece unattended. But most of all, every shell is cataloged. Every shot is documented. Date, time, target. That could never have happened. Total crap!”
I remember thinking, “I don’t know, Vince. There’s the plan…and then there’s what actually happens.” Also, it seemed to me ironic that Vince could tutor a pal in the ways and means of tricking the Air Force around a pretty fundamental recruiting requirement, yet knew with utter certainty that an unattended cannon in the chaos of Vietnam could not have been promiscuously fired by an AWOL junky.
Forgotten But Not Gone
About a year later, I did some extra work on an educational film about the dangers of cigarette smoking. The scene was set in an operating theater. I was one of several actors pretending to be medical students standing around a table upon which an autopsy was being performed. The location where the scene was shot was a mortuary on the grounds of the Los Angeles National Cemetery. The mortuary building had been decommissioned by the Veterans Administration some months before.
The set was a brightly lit room all clean and polished, but the rest of the building was a hastily abandoned mess. Dust covered chairs and gurneys scattered at odd angles or lying on their sides in the hallways. Interior chambers completely dark except for whatever illumination might reach them though the open door of a room with windows across the hall. And a really, really distressing smell. Barely noticable on the set, but progressively more intense as I made my way toward it during the lunch break. The epicenter was a large dark room that had been some sort of storage area. There were two long stainless steel tables down the middle and tall shelves along one wall.
All the shelves were empty except the top shelf just below the ceiling. On that shelf, from nearly one end of the room to the other, stood a row of large specimen jars. Each contained a human brain. I was certain because I lit a match and held it up as high as I could. Then I lit another, and another. Holding each match until I had to drop it on the floor and crush it under foot.
I can’t be seeing what I’m seeing, I told myself. Each brain appeared to be impossibly large. The curve of the glass must be distorting the size, I thought. But maybe that’s why they were kept, I considered. Maybe somebody thought they were extraordinary because of their size.
I decided to stand on one of the tables to get a better look, but just as I let a match drop to the floor I noticed a fifty gallon drum near the end of the second table. I can drag the drum closer to the shelves and stand on it, I thought. As I drew close the horrible smell grew even more intense. I struck another match. There was no lid. Upside down inside was a human spine hanging by the sacrum bone hooked over the lip of the drum.
But there’s one thing…
I used to know an actor/writer who I’ll call Lisbon. He had been a hospital corpsman in Vietnam. We worked together closely for two intense and wonderful years on satirical reviews that we staged at a little theater in Hollywood where we were members of the resident company. Lisbon only mentioned his time in Vietnam twice. On both occasions we were alone, working through some difficult problem or other. And both times he told the same story. “You know, I was a medic in Vietnam.” Long silence, his eyes moving to the right and left then settling on me. “But there’s one thing… There was this guy. He’d been hit in the side of the head with a rocket. But it didn’t go off. So there he is lying on this cot with a rocket sticking out of the side of his head. Now I know he’s brain dead. He’s gone. But his eyes are still moving. Reacting to light. So he’s got this kind of thoughtful expression on his face, and if you move his eyes follow you. How can that be? How can that be?”
During one of the nocturnal memory shares at Shakey’s Lost John interrupted a meditative lull in the conversation, saying, “But there’s one thing…” We all turned to him and waited. “One time I hitched a ride in an armored car. Just me and the driver tooling along this road out in the middle of nowhere. Up ahead there was this gook on a bicycle. Just peddling along. We caught up and ran over him.” Coked-up, manic Lost John became very still. “There was this sound.”