By Ben Fine
The gleaming white veterans’ hospital with its immaculate lawns was much nicer and more impressive than the local Coney Island hospital. That was my initial reaction as I drove by the front of the Fort Hamilton. But why were there those big cannons facing out to New York Bay? What were they expecting? An invasion of Brooklyn by Staten Islanders? These random observations ended as I pulled into the fenced entrance. My anxiety grew. This was October of 1969, the war was raging in Southeast Asia and I had arrived for my draft physical.
During my undergraduate years I was shielded from the war by student deferments but it was hard to ignore Vietnam. The constant images of death, both American and Vietnamese, were put on television every evening. Casualty figures and video clips of wounded and dead American soldiers being removed from combat in helicopters were the staples of the nightly news. As potential soldiers, students looked in shock at what might be awaiting them. Pictures like that of a young Vietnamese girl, burned by napalm, running naked down a road, are forever etched in the memories of anyone who saw it. By 1969 four of my high school classmates had already been killed in Vietnam. One of the four was a friend, a fellow I played football with. Mikey Russo was the starting fullback on our high school football team; I was a backup linebacker. He was a big, quiet, friendly guy. A year out of high school he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was killed two years later.
It was because of guys like Mikey Russo that the war tore the United States apart, with people lined up for and against. Anti-war campus protests were a frequent occurrence. Most students were against Vietnam, although for many it was more of being against going there than against the war itself.
For me there were no more deferments. I was now in graduate school, for which deferments had been cancelled two years earlier. This was real and all my bravado couldn’t stop anything. What would happen would happen and I couldn’t control it. I parked my car, took a deep breath and followed the signs pointing to the induction physical.
I was ambivalent about being drafted, even up to this moment. On one hand, I had no desire to kill anyone and I did not want to go to Vietnam. The war was no patriotic endeavor, no glorious mission. It seemed to any careful observer that it had turned into death for death’s sake. For most of the war, to my regret these many years later, I made no conscious stand on the struggle one way or the other. However by my senior year in college the war had dragged on for over five years and I came to the realization that this war was a huge mistake both in conception and execution. Thirty thousand American soldiers had already died including my four classmates. Each week the news announced American deaths for the previous week, usually one hundred to two hundred. The next announcement would be that a thousand North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had been killed. I figured the Vietnamese body count was just bullshit exaggeration by the army. After the war ended I discovered to my horror that the Vietnamese death figures were true. Along with the sixty thousand Americans killed, one million Vietnamese died.
On the other hand, I had a not uncommon problem for the children of the World War Two generation. Every male member of my family had served in the military and most were combat veterans of either the Second World War or Korea. We flew the American flag each Memorial Day, then called Decoration Day, and flew the flag each Veteran’s Day, then called Armistice Day. Military service and dedication to country were considered obligations that transcended even some tragic family history. My mother’s first cousin, Oscar Seltzer, was killed in Korea and posthumously awarded the Silver Star. A combat medic, he dragged eight wounded GI’s to safety during a Chinese sneak attack on Easter Sunday 1952, before being strafed by machine gun fire and killed. His best friend, Herman Raucher, dedicated the book Summer of 42 to him and he is the character Oscy in the hit film. Oscar’s death cast a shadow over the family but did not diminish their belief in America or their belief that one owed the country service. My close bonds with my family prevented me from doing anything about the draft other than go through the process. I never considered avoiding the draft or running away to Canada as viable options. Such actions would have torn me away from those closest to me. My family believed that the Second World War was a just war and we Americans were the good guys. It was a given that the Nazis and the Japanese militarists were evil and that we Americans saved the world from this evil. To my family, questions about war and obligation were black and white. There were no shades of gray. Unfortunately they carried this belief over to Vietnam. However by 1969 the accumulated deaths, with no seeming end or plan, made me realize that Vietnam was no great historic mission and its justness was questionable. If I found an honorable way to avoid combat I would take it and if I had to go then I would do the best I could to survive.
In addition to failing the physical, there were several job- or education-related methods to get out of the draft. However, I found none of these appealing. The first was medical school. I had excellent grades and might have applied. To decide whether to try this route or not I spoke to several relatives who were physicians. The constant pressure and constant work they described was something I couldn’t picture myself doing, even if being a medical student continued my deferments. Further there were many pre-med students in my classes and most were such grinds and grade grubbers that I wanted no part of this lifestyle.
A second method to avoid the draft was to become a high school teacher, an option taken by many of my college classmates. This I also nixed this idea, which is surprising, looking back, given that I eventually became a professor and love teaching.
Finally one could become a police officer. The campus protests had set students and police as warring adversaries. To the students any policeman became a pig and to the police all students were hippies. In late 1968 the NYPD, in an attempt to defuse the tension between students and police began looking specifically for college graduate police officers. In early 1969 I took the police exam and scored highly. Besides being a draft-deferred profession I thought it was a cool idea to be a detective, a young Kojak with hair. My mother thought differently.
“What are you doing?” she cried at me. “You could get killed as a cop.”
“But mom,” I tried to explain to her, “I could get killed in Vietnam and in the police I’ll quickly become a detective and be off the street.”
“The army is your responsibility,” she told me. “If they call you, you have to go. A detective is not your responsibility.”
Even now, so many years later, I find her logic strange, but that was that, and so I also nixed the NYPD. I decided on mathematics and graduate school. If I was called for the draft I would go and try to do my best, as all the males in my family had done. If somehow I failed the physical or the graduate school could do something for me so that I didn’t have to go, well, that was even better
I started grad school at NYU in September of 1969, and in mid October, as I expected, I was called for the draft physical. I was in good shape, an athlete, and basically healthy. I had two small health issues that I thought might keep me from being drafted. First I was allergic to ragweed and took hay fever shots. Hoping for the best I went to my allergist, Doctor McGovern, and told him I had to go for my draft physical and then possible deployment to Southeast Asia. I suggested with a wink that perhaps he could say that hay fever became asthma and jungles were inappropriate for asthmatics. Dr. McGovern, a veteran of the Second World War, ignored the wink, puffed up angrily and told me in no uncertain terms: “Don’t worry. I’ll say you’re fine. We’ve got to kill those Commies.”
Those in favor of the war were called hawks and it was my luck to have one of the only hawk doctors in New York City. I would have preferred him to be more like his namesake, prominent dove and future presidential candidate, George McGovern. “That’s okay doctor,” I told him, backing off a bit.“Don’t do me any favors.”
The other health issue was a hearing problem I had a mastoid infection when I was a baby and had substantial hearing loss in my right ear–nowhere near deafness but severe enough to be noticeable. I went to the health center at school to have my hearing tested and perhaps get a note for the draft board. Sure enough I tested with forty percent hearing loss in the right ear. They gave me a form attesting to this fact. I was elated but the technician knew why I was being tested.
“This won’t get you out of the draft. You have to be completely deaf,” he told me. “A bit of advice; don’t show anybody that form. If you have the form and you don’t test completely deaf they think you’re faking it. If you get called for the draft physical let them discover your ears. I’ve seen a couple of cases where the draft physical unearths hearing problems and that gets the people out.”
I was of course disappointed with his advice but I followed it and didn’t send the report to the draft board or bring it to the physical. Maybe they would discover my hearing problems and that would be my hidden ace.
So in mid-October 1969, with only these minimal things wrong with me, I found myself at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn about to take the induction physical. Following posted signs I was led to a long, low building. Along with a large group of other potential inductees I was guided to a table manned by a soldier. He checked our names against a large list and instructed us to sign in. From there we were directed to a huge auditorium. In typical army fashion we were instructed to sit and wait.
We sat for almost an hour. I looked at the thousands of people waiting with me and again thought of Mike Russo. How many of these fellows would be dead in two years? Vietnam was a working-class war. Perhaps every war is, but it was so clear during Vietnam. If a person went to college, the war became something outside of his life, until he reached the point that I had. To the others, who didn’t go to college, and instead went to work after high school, the military, the draft and Vietnam, were an ever-present possibility. Mike Russo was in this second group. In high school he often talked about becoming a cop but enlisted before he ever went to the police force. My thinking was interrupted by the fellow sitting next to me.
“Hey man you being drafted?” he asked.
He was a young Hispanic man, no more than nineteen. He had darkish skin, jet-black hair and just a hint of a lilting New York Spanglish accent.
“We’ll see when this is over,” I said, and shrugged.
“Me, I’m enlisting,” he said.“The Army recruiter promised me I could be a medic if I passed all this. My older brother was over in Nam. He’s back now but he told me that the medics have it better than the grunts so I should be a medic.”
I thought about medics working out on the battlefield. My cousin Oscar was a medic and he got killed. It didn’t seem better to me, but this fellow seemed so serious that I said “Sounds good.”
He continued talking. “Where you from? I’m from Bay Ridge.”
“Brighton Beach,” I said.
“Where did you go to high school”
“I went to New Utrecht. Graduated last June. I work in a paint store but my brother told me to join up. Being a medic will help me get a job when I get back, medical technician or something.”
I couldn’t help thinking “if you don’t get killed,” but I kept it to myself.
Then several soldiers walked into the auditorium and passed out exam booklets. A tough sergeant barked at us.
“You’ll be taking this written test. All you college guys who think you’re going to fail this test and get out of the Army, forget it. We’re going to keep you here until you pass.”
The test was ridiculously easy. The questions were multiple choice at about the difficult level of “What color is the blue sky?”
Despite the simplicity of the test, the potential medic had a great deal of trouble with it. Several times he asked me for answers. I finished quickly but he struggled and was still writing when they started collecting the tests. He was a nice fellow but I hoped that he wasn’t representative of the army medical corps.
We were then directed into a huge locker room and given a paper shopping bag. We were instructed to strip to our underwear, leave on our shoes and socks and put our remaining clothes in the shopping bag. We carried with us any supporting materials that might get you out of the draft.
It was surreal. Picture 10,000 guys in their underwear, with their shoes and socks on, all carrying paper bags, and more than half are carrying briefcases. They then put us in lines took us six at a time into a room to go over our materials.
I had graduated four years earlier from Lincoln High School, on Ocean Parkway, about five miles from Fort Hamilton. My graduating class had 1400 people. From Lincoln I went to Brooklyn College, also five to six miles from the fort. My graduating class there, the previous May, was more than 4,000. There were many people from my both high school and college taking the physical the same day. Of the five people they took into the room with me, I knew four.
They led us into a small office, where a doctor sat at a table. He called us up one at a time and instructed the rest of us to stand in the rear. The room was so small that everything he or one of the potential inductees said could be heard by everyone else.
The first guy in line was Stan I., who had been the co-valedictorian of my high school class. He was a brilliant fellow who in October of 1969 was a law student at Yale. He stood there in his underwear, wearing a neck brace. He handed the doctor a set of papers. The doctor looked at the neck brace, looked a bit at his papers and asked, in a curt manner, “What’s your problem?”
“Car accident,” Stan responded quickly, and handed the doctor more papers.
“Psychological trauma.” Stan handed him even more papers.
“Okay, you’re out,” the doctor said, and gave him a slip of paper.
“Go back to the main desk.”
Stan left. Out of the draft and safe to return to law school. He eventually became a law professor and then a federal judge.
The second fellow in line was Richie S., a friend from college who had been in many of my mathematics and physics classes; great student and a very nice guy. He had had polio as a child. Polio, if you survived, often left you disabled and Richie had one normal leg, and one skinny, deformed leg that looked like his wrist all the way down. I knew that he limped, but I didn’t know his leg was deformed until I saw him in his underwear. The doctor looked at him, looked at his deformed leg and asked “What are you doing here?”
Richie shrugged. “I gave all the material to the draft board,” he said, “but they wouldn’t let me out of this.”
The doctor shook his head and said that it’s plain that he wouldn’t be going into the service. He handed Richie the same slip of paper that he had given to Stan.
The third guy in line was also a friend from college, Mike K. He had been a chemistry major and also in many of my classes. I hadn’t seen him since graduation the previous May. He was in graduate school in chemistry at Michigan State while I was in graduate school at NYU. Mike’s eyes were bad and he wore old-fashioned, Coke-bottle glasses like the comedian Frank Gorshin. These glasses always gave Mike, who in reality was a very quiet and stable student, a wild-ass look in his eyes. Before they lined us up, I met him out in the hall and asked him how things were going in grad school. His answers weren’t making any sense at all and his conversation was flying all over the planet. He’d say one thing about school then jump back to something he remembered and then back to something about the physical. I looked at him with concern. He told me not to worry. “I’ve been stoned continuously for the past three weeks to try to mess up this physical,” he said.
While the doctor was interviewing Richie, with the deformed leg, Mike, who I assumed was still completely stoned, couldn’t stand still. He was wandering all around this small room. The doctor yelled at him to stand still, but Mike really couldn’t stop what he was doing. With those giant Coke-bottle glasses and the wild eyes, he looked like a mad man.
With Richie now finished, the doctor called Mike to the desk. With two down, the doctor was now sounding pretty pissed off, especially with Mike, who seemed totally out of it.
“What’s your problem?”
“High blood pressure,” Mike said, unable to focus on the doctor.
Mike took out reams of material on severe high blood pressure, bad vision and probably other things. Again the doctor went through the same motions.
“Okay, you’re out.”
Now we were down to the fourth guy in line, Richie B., who had been a high school classmate and grew up in the same neighborhood. Before we entered the interview room he had whispered to me that he had just gotten into the National Guard. They didn’t send the National Guard to Vietnam so it was an entirely legitimate way to evade combat. “If I fail this physical, I’m going to drop out of the Guard,” he said. “I haven’t been sworn in yet.”
While the doctor was interviewing Mike, with his wild eyes, Richie had an asthma attack. He started gasping for breath and before the doctor had even finished with Mike. They had to call in a medical tech with oxygen. Richie left the room even before Mike and I assumed that he was out also. We were down to the final two.
The only fellow I didn’t know of the five people was standing right in front of me. He looked like Steve Reeves, Mr. Universe, who had played Hercules in the movies. He was a giant guy with huge muscles and a enormous weight lifter’s back. I could hardly see around him. The doctor was really annoyed. Of the initial six people he had no one to send on to the rest of the physical. “What’s your problem?” he yelled at Hurcules.
With both index fingers the big guy nonchalantly pointed to his knees. “Football injury. No mobility in the knees.”
The doctor now became even more irate. “Come on, let me see you do a deep knee bend,” he spit out.
This giant guy shrugged and did a deep knee bend and then crumpled to the floor like a sack of flour. The doctor had to bring in three orderlies to scrape him up and drag him out. So Hercules was also out of the draft.
That left me. Shaking his head, almost in resignation, the doctor waved me over to the desk and asked, “What’s your problem?”
I handed him the forms I had filled out where I put down anything I could think of –frequent indigestion, bedwetting and such. He examined these and asked if I had any corroborating documentation. Of course I didn’t, so I was his one out of six. I had to go take the rest of the physical. I began picturing myself trudging along some jungle road outside of Saigon.
I was placed in another line and followed along as we completed the physical: eye exam, reflexes, blood pressure, anal exam and so on. Then we came to the hearing exam. I had kept my hearing loss hidden. Following the health center technician’s advice my strategy was to let the army discover it. Unfortunately for me and my strategy, the Army doesn’t consider hearing loss as deafness. Everybody was trying to fail the test, produces a series of noises that increase in loudness until the person hears it. Many people would pretend not to hear anything but then got to a level where they had to scream “aaaaaahhhhhh”.
I still couldn’t hear in my right ear, even at the “aaaaahhhh” level. When I came out of the testing booth the officer in charge told me that I had significant hearing loss in my right ear. In my mind I was clapping. I thought, ‘This is it, this was my out.’ I asked what all of this meant for me.
“You get a hearing profile,” the testing officer told me.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means that you get to wear ear plugs at the rifle range.”
So I passed the physical and the images of that jungle road outside Saigon came back even more clearly. I went to the auditorium to fill out a loyalty oath. I was a given a piece of paper with a list of what I assumed were subversive organizations. At the bottom of the form it said “If you have never been a member of any of the above organizations sign below.” I signed and brought it back to the front desk. The soldier on duty refused to take it.
“Sit back down and wait. You have to take a class on that form.”
“Why do I have to wait? I can read the form.”
“Sit back down.”
After another half hour an officer walked in.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “please take out your forms. Read them through. If you have never been in any of those organizations sign the form and bring it to the front.” That was the class.
I signed the form handed it in. The physical was over.
Two months later, I received a call from the army.
“Mr. Fine, you scored very highly on the army qualifying exam and we have an excellent opportunity for you in the U.S. Army. If you enlist and agree to the extra time you can have it.”
Being a graduate student in mathematics, naturally I assumed it might be something involving mathematics. “What is it?” I asked.
The answer floored me.
“What do I do as a hard hat diver?”
The man spit out, short and to the point: “River salvage.”
Hard-hat divers are the men with the giant bell helmets, who dive off of boats attached to breathing cables.
Now the only river the army was salvaging in 1969 was the Mekong, the main river flowing through Vietnam. This river was constantly part of ongoing battles during the war. I immediately envisioned myself with this giant helmet on, plodding underwater with bullets flying over my head. I asked the fellow if I could think it over. From his tone I could tell that he was now mad at me. “This is an excellent MOS (Military Occupational Specialty),” he answered curtly. “Not only do you get extra pay but you only make one dive a day. If you come up, you’re through for the day.”
I told him that I would really have to think about it. I found out later that supposedly if the pressure builds up enough in those helmets and the cord is cut, the whole body is sucked into the helmet, and they bury you in your helmet. It’s called a raspberry helmet.
It didn’t take me long to decide and I called the next day, just to make them think that I thought it over, and turned it down. Instead, ignoring the fact that I was a mathematician at a top grad school they made me a mechanic.
I became a wrecker operator and was sent to Fort Lee, Virginia. It was certainly not as dangerous as Southeast Asia. The graduate director at NYU told me not to volunteer for anything until perhaps the school could figure out what they could do for me. However my army motor pool company, where I was the wrecker operator, wanted a representative for the post boxing team. They asked if anyone had any boxing experience. I had fought for a Y team and had some golden gloves fights. I was a decent enthusiastic pugilist whose strongest skill was a hard head. Despite NYU’s admonitions I volunteered for the team and spent the rest of my active duty boxing as well as wrecker operating. After thirteen months on active duty I was assigned to a special project helping a mathematician at NYU, transferred to a reserve unit in Jersey City, and allowed to go back to school.
Being drafted and going into the army had one major unexpected consequence and in some sense determined where I have spent the rest of my life. In September of 1969 my wife had just started working as a teacher in Stamford, Connecticut. I left for basic training in June of 1970 and while I was away she might have returned to Brooklyn to live with her parents. We had just moved to town, she knew very few people, and was essentially alone in a strange city. However she had to take care of my dog, now our dog, a huge white German shepherd who looked more wolf than dog. Her mother was afraid to keep such a large animal in their small apartment so my wife was forced by circumstance to remain in Connecticut. When I came home from the service I went back to grad school and she was now settled into her job. We stayed in Stamford and she went on to a thirty-eight-year career both as a teacher and an administrator with the Stamford School system. Because of her being tied to Stamford, after getting my Ph.D. I found a job in a university in Connecticut and I’ve been there ever since.
Whenever I think of my draft physical I realize that it worked out for me in the best way possible. I did my military service, honoring both my family tradition, and my country, without shooting at anybody or participating further in what I came to truly believe was a horrible mistake. Still, my memories of the draft physical also hold a sadness. Many in that huge crowd milling around in their underwear at Fort Hamilton ended up in Southeast Asia—and many were no doubt killed. Perhaps the enthusiastic medic to be, who couldn’t pass a very simple exam, but counted on the army to set up the rest of his life, was one of them.