Turning 70, and looking back on the Vietnam War and why I didn’t go to War

I can’t believe it actually, but this year, 2017, I will turn 70! SEVENTY!! It’s blowing my mind. Seventy is not 40, 50 or 60, its OLD!! It’s my new reality.  I own and run a successful company, my health is pretty good, vascular and physiologically really good, normal blood pressure, resting pulse rate of 56,  low cholesterol and other things like that, 6′ 3″ and 210 lbs. Ride a Cannondale road racing bike 80 + miles per week, lift weights, eat right, drink not too much 12 year old scotch, and have sired four children, the youngest is only 2!!  ; and except for my back and both hips which I am developing arthritis in, so bending down is a huge chore, I am OK. People say to me:” you look 55 or so”, I Work out still 5 days a week but I AM OLD.

In 1965 I had just graduated from High School and was on the way to the new UC Irvine Campus, one of the first 400 ever to attend that university.

Thinking a lot of my youth and lately I have been reading a number of books on The Vietnam War (see bibliography notes) and the young Americans who served there. I now have a very deep appreciation of what they went through and how they felt. They are our heroes from my generation.  They fought, killed, were wounded physically and emotionally,   died and were deprived of all basic things daily, that all Americans take for granted , for months at a time; shit food, no showers, facing an unseen enemy who could pop up out of spider holes or treelines at any time, trip wires with land mines,  sleeping in foxholes wet or dry , carving paths through dense jungle in 100 degree heat and 90% humidity, facing real mortal danger at almost every minute, driven by some commissioned officers who cared little for them and cared a lot for “kill ratios”,  and fought an enemy in his homeland who could endure what Americans consider unendurable. Tactics that put them in areas as “bait” where the enemy congregated and an ever-changing disjointed strategy that was ineffective and cost lives constantly and needlessly. In war front line troops are expendable assets.  The involvement of US troops in Vietnam was a mistake and cost the lives of 58,000 + US citizens and millions of Vietnamese, I admire their effort and sacrifice.

I only personally knew a few who served in Vietnam, no one I was really close to in high school or college went or wanted to go, and here is my story.

For me the country of Vietnam, which I vaguely knew was somewhere in Asia, and the Vietnam War were a distant land and conflict that I had zero interest in going there or joining any military branch. I didn’t know zilch about this deal and wasn’t worried about Communism unless they invaded our shores. To me this was a trumped up deal instigated by old men who had some geo political ideas that didn’t concern me.

Let me say this, I didn’t want to go for personal reasons, I didn’t want to be killed or kill, and for the reason is that it was a waste of people and resources for no foreseeable conclusion. I think history has borne this theory out. It had nothing to do with the United States and it was a no win situation. Plus we didn’t conduct the war to win, you can’t one day want the people of Vietnam to be your friend then the next day bomb their homes and kill their men.  The overall political and military policy was never clear.

In 1966-68 I was living in Balboa Island in Newport Beach and then from 1969 on I was living in Laguna Beach CA and living the hipster life: girls, dope, cars, surfing, school and basketball and volleyball. The beach life in Orange County was as good as it gets when you’re white, 18 and free.  It was heaven and the entire area was turned on!

 

I never seriously thought about the war, or what was going on there and who was actually fighting on the American side, the Marines and the US Army. Who was stupid enough to go there except some lifer hard ons and people who bought the patriotism line they were shelling out? I know some wanted to go for the thrill and the adventure, but most had no choice they were draftees.

To me, if you had a brain, this was to be avoided at all costs! But I also knew if you were in a top university like the University of California, and you maintained a passing grade average you automatically got a 2 S deferment. I also was vaguely aware that those of draft age and who were not in school would get draft notices and had to report for their physical and from there to the army.  Who were these young men of my age group? I didn’t know and didn’t care.  I did find out later that these young men, aged 17-20 or so, were disaffected, didn’t like or want to go to college, were patriots or were seeking adventures away from home.  I knew the average American youth was 6″ taller and 60 pounds heavier than any small Asian guy. How could we not lose?  Anyway it didn’t concern me for a long while til 1970.

In 1970  I was married, went to school full time completing my undergraduate degree in psychology, worked 35+ hours a week at the  science lab, but was bored with school and then they started to peck away at those in college who had 2S deferments.  The public became aware that most of those who were drafted were young men not in college and were from the bottom strata of society. Their parents voted and these people thought the whole deal was unfair. They were right!

The first harbingers of the “draft college students” movement came in the form of the draft test. I don’t recall what it was about, but I do recall sitting in the student lecture hall, which held around 400 people, on a Saturday morning and listening to some army bureaucrat talk about the test.  It was like listening to some nincompoop teacher in junior high. Irvine was chock full of very smart people, people who didn’t like the war or those who represented the government.  After a fifteen minute monologue, the guy asked “were there any questions?”  Me being the stone wiseass I always was, I raised my hand, stood up and then said: “could you please repeat this again, but slowly?” At first there was just a stunned silence, then a few chuckles, and then seconds later everyone was laughing so hard the room echoed with the volume of glee.  Needless to say the officials there were not laughing.

After that came the Draft Lottery. Once again, don’t recall this but if your name starting with the First letter of your last name came up, in a certain order, like the top 50, you would go on a list of those to be drafted.  I think mine came up 2 or something.  That made me think.

At this point in time I was bored with school, my wife and I were light years apart intellectually, we were too young to be married and I just don’t like things hanging over my head that I need to deal with, I always deal with problems. I also don’t like anyone telling me what to do, I have lived my life on my own terms successfully since i was 16, and this is part of my life philosophy.   So i dropped out of school for one quarter and then soon got my draft physical notice.

I spoke to my dad and he said , “Don’t worry, you’re so smart that when they test you and find out you have a genius IQ, which I did have, they will make you an officer immediately, then he said, “you’re tall (6′ 3″) you’ll make a good target”.  Hmmmm! Not so funny.

I now thought , screw it, I’ll deal with it, it can’t be that bad and go in the army  and  I’ll do my best.  I decided that my life was my life and I could overcome my fears.  I didn’t know anything really, but a few things about myself.  I wasn’t brave, my only brave actions centered around riding my motorcycle at very  high speed in the back roads of Irvine while high on LSD, I could shot a pistol well with either hand, but I wasn’t a hunter, and I was an athlete and in great shape, and I could deal with situations.

My friends all thought I was nuts to drop out of school, but Irvine told me I could get back in anytime, I was actually one of the first 400 ever admitted to Irvine so I was a semi special case.

I got the notice to take my physical at a building in downtown LA at 8:00 AM. I worried about this as the date approached but I had to do it. I wasn’t like some who were going to Canada, I tried the conscientious objector route but after meeting with an attorney she said it wasn’t going to fly, I hardly ever went to Mass.  I knew they tested your urine, so I didn’t do drugs for a while.

The day came and I arrived for my draft physical. It was a dreary winter day and I had hardly ever been in downtown LA; it’s a crappy place and still is. I went in, presented my draft card and California driver’s license and then was told to strip down to underwear and shoes. There were several hundred other young men in the arrival area. They started the physical in a line and you went to various stations and did what you were told to do.

I looked around me, I was no Adonis but I am 6′ 3″ and weighed bout 190 lbs. I was an athlete, and had been since I was 7 years old, played sports all through my youth and into college. I was used to being in locker rooms with other male athletes. Most of the other people in the room were bags of skin, skinny or fat but definitely not jocks. They mostly had flaccid bodies!   I was astounded; I had never been in a regular PE class in my life. These were not my peers! I started to feel a bit confident.

Then when they were drawing blood some guy passed out, and everyone just froze, but not me! I wanted to get this over with so I jumped ahead of everyone in front of me and then got my blood drawn and then was almost at the head of the line. Heart checked out fine, then the doctor took my blood pressure he said it was borderline high. I was amped up about this whole deal and I guess it made it jump up, who knows, he said it’s was too high for my age group and then it was over for the day. I left and drove back to Laguna Beach.

A month or two later I got my draft card back stamped 1Y, it meant I was eligible if things got rough but not 1A, so i didn’t get called up.

That’s my story, I dealt with the problem and it worked out fine for me, several years later the war was winding down and I was home free. I didn’t really ponder it much; I did what I had to do and was free to pursue my life on my terms.

I am sure that some vets who may read this will think I was a shirker and maybe a coward, and from them I would accept this criticism.

Did I regret not going to Vietnam to fight for our country? NO WAY!; but I do admire those who went and fought this war.

 

 

Bibliography:

Fields of Fire: James Webb

Rumor of War: Philip Caputo

Charlie Company: Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller

Everything We Had: Al Santoli

 

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