Sunday, June 24, 2012

1966: The Janitor with a Heart

Wednesday night I found myself in a familiar place, the beer garden behind our fraternity house.  Brian Beach had sprung for a mid-week keg and half the house was there to partake of free beer.  Jack Rodman had strung two extension cords from the house and we were listening to his stack of hit 45’s.  “Good Lovin’ ” by the Young Rascals, “ Wouldn't It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys and the best sound of The Beatles with “We Can Work It Out”, filled the night air.  

At a little after 11:30 PM the last of the bookworms made it out to the garden.  He grabbed a cup and tried to squeeze the last few ounces of beer from a floating keg.  “Everybody get their deferments re-upped today?”, he sang out, confidently.  Except for the final strains of “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians, you could have heard a pin drop.

Suddenly, there was a mass exodus from the beer garden as a dozen men scrambled up the hill to the frat house.  Banging through the back door, my brothers and I dashed to our rooms.  We retrieved our long overlooked forms from the Selective Service and hurriedly filled them out as we raced to the parking lot.

Surprisingly, I was the most sober person in the group so I was assigned “designated driver” duty and fired up my car as eleven of my brothers stuffed themselves into my five-seater Malibu.  It was pandemonium.  Everyone was screaming and yelling and encouraging me to drive like the wind to the central post office which was just east of downtown.  Normally this trip would have taken 20 minutes.  However, because of the lateness of the hour, my total disregard for traffic lights and an average speed in excess of 80 MPH on city streets, we made it in 10 minutes. 

As we pulled into the front of the building and the boys extricated themselves from a self-imposed sardine can, we sprinted into the lobby of the post office.  We were screaming and yelling for anyone who might be inside the building.  I glanced at my watch and it was already just midnight.  After about five minutes of chaos, Brian was shouting for us to be quiet.  We all stopped hollering and finally heard a reassuring voice with the  unmistakable accent of a black man, shouting through the wall at us.  “Do’n y’all worry, boyz,” he said, “I’z gonna stamp ever one of ‘em twelve O’clock, midnight”.  The thanks of a dozen, suddenly sober young men rang out but then the man behind the wall said, “Let me axe you a pacific question”. 

“What?”, we all said in unison. 

“Why’d y’all dumb white boyz wait so long?”  Without answering, we slunk silently into the late summer night and drove home, thankful for the janitor with a heart.

As it turned out the draft lottery we all feared did not come until December 1, 1969.  If you were born on September 14th, you were the most assured of a trip to Southeast Asia.  My birthdate, October 1st ended up being # 359 out of 365.  That meant, for all practical purposes, I would have never been drafted.  Leaving nothing to chance, I dropped out of school and joined an airborne National Guard unit in 1967, one of only two in the entire country.  We were never called up.  By the end of 1966 there were over 385,000 troops in Vietnam, a number which escalated to a high of 536,000 in 1968.  And yet, ironically,
60 % of eligible men escaped military service during the Vietnam era.  Despite this favorable statistic, by the end of the war in 1972, over 70,000 draft evaders and deserters were living in Canada.

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