|After completing their physicals these Vietnam inductees wait to be sowrn in. Don't they look happy?|
Note: This chapter of my continuing story of my adventures with the Selective Service and Justice systems first ran in a slightly different form in two posts on The Third City blog.
Life was pretty good for me in late 1972 despite the election of Richard Nixon that November. After leaving the staff of the Chicago Seed, I had gotten a fairly good paying factory job, my first fulltime real pay check in years. I was on the second shift welding line at Schwinn Bicycle’s frame plant. There was a bicycle boom back then and the market wasn’t flooded by imports. Schwinn had three plants in Chicago working around the clock.
I was living in a spacious first floor apartment of a two flat on Fremont Street just south of Addison and a couple of blocks from Wriggly Field. The neighborhood wasn’t gentrified yet, so the rent was reasonable. I shared the place with my girl friend Cecelia. She was several steps above me on hotness scale. We had met on an IWW picket line at the Three Penny Cinema on Lincoln Ave. She was one of the strikers. God only knows why she took up with me. We also had an extra room and various friends rotated in and out kicking in a share of the rent.
I had even gone out and bought stuff, after years of living out of a duffle bag. We bought real furniture—a nice used couch that featured a floral embroidered upholstery we referred to as Puerto Rican chic, some of those heavy carved end tables and matching coffee table you could get on time from Nelson Brothers, a brand new dinette table with a bright yellow lemon design on top, and a little component stereo system from the discount electronic store across from Wriggly.
I spent my weekends at the IWW hall working on the Industrial Worker. And every Saturday night I partied hard with my Wobbly friends or hit my favorite saloons on Lincoln Ave. Weed was plentiful and cheep. Life was good.
Naturally this uncommon state of bliss could not continue. The gods had other plans. Or at least the Selective Service System did. In late November, out of the blue, I got a letter ordering me to report for induction in December.
It was a dismal, gray rainy Friday afternoon when I climbed on the El platform by the ball park and headed to meet my fate.
The Induction Center was in a non-descript building in the seedy South Loop. Upon entering precisely at 9 am as ordered, I was shown to a large room filled with nervous young men of various shapes, sizes, and colors and handed sheaves of forms to fill out. Because I planned to refuse induction that day, I answered some of the questions rather flippantly and what I thought of as a great deal of witty sarcasm. I highlighted my association with the IWW, which was still then on the official list of Un-American and Subversive Organizations. Some of those bon motts would come back to bite me in the ass later.
We were instructed to strip to our undershorts and socks and put our clothes, shoes, and personal crap in wire baskets. Everyone who was ever inducted remembers in vivid detail the hour or two of standing in lines with other nearly naked guys trying not to look at anything while waiting to be poked and prodded at a succession of stations. Despite my dismal eyesight—I was 20-200 in one eye and completely un-functional without my thick glasses—I somehow managed to clear that hurdle. I tried to convince the doctor who examined my feet that my foreshortened Achilles tendons, which caused my feet to stick out at 45% angles and made my ankles subject to easy and repeated injury, was dehabilitating enough to be rejected. The bored doc was having none of it. I passed my physical with apparent flying colors. So did almost everybody else.
I wondered how so many of us, including some guys who looked to be in bad shape by my untrained eye, could have passed. Then I remembered Audie Murphy’s account of how he finally got in the Army in World War II despite being an undersized runt and 16 years old—it had gotten to the point when they were taking anyone “who could piss a hole in the snow.” It was clear that in the Vietnam War, the Army had reached that point again.
We were given back our clothes and seated in uncomfortable fiberglass bucket seats to wait to be called for actual induction in batches of twenty or so. After twenty minutes or so, my turn came.
We were called into a smaller room and told to form two lines along tape on the floor. I was in the back row. We faced a young Army officer and two NCO’s, one of them carrying a clipboard. A flag was off to one side. The sergeant read our names off the clip board. We were instructed to respond, crisply, “Here, Sir!”
When they ascertained that we were all present, we were instructed to raise our right hands. The officer read our oath which we were to repeat. Then we were to take one step forward to seal our entrance to the army. When the oath was read, I remained silent. And I didn’t step forward.
The officer looked confused. “You’re supposed to step forward, son,” he said although he was barely older than me. “I’m refusing induction,” I told him. This seemed to confuse all of them. Evidently none of them had ever had this happen.
The new official recruits were told to march in line out of the room and to retrieve their belongings. They would be loaded on buses and on the way to Basic Training by the end of the afternoon.
I was taken to a small office and seated by a desk. After a wait, the officer sat down at the desk, offered me one last chance to change my mind, then picked up the phone to call the FBI to come and arrest me. Then I was sent back to the same holding area where the recruits were waiting for their busses. I found a seat off by myself.
A woman moved through the seats with a paper box filled with little pocket sized Gideon New Testaments, earnestly handing one to each of the boys. She gave me one in a bright green cover. But when I told her that I was not going into the Army but had refused induction, she angrily snatched the book from my hands. Evidently I did not need the consolation of the Lord where I was headed.
It was about two o’clock by the two-dollar pocket watch I carried when I sat down. Time dragged. At four I began to get nervous. I knew from talking to American Friends draft councilors that I needed to get to the Federal Building and before a judge by 5 pm. Most hearing magistrates would release a draft resistor on personal recognizance. But after 5, I would have to spend the weekend as a federal prisoner in Cook County Jail until Monday morning court. Even though I was potentially looking at years behind bars if convicted, I was sweating those two days.
About ten after two youngish agents showed up. They must have been pretty low on the FBI totem pole to get duty like this. They took me into custody. One of them said if didn’t cause them any trouble he would handcuff me loosely in front instead of tightly behind my back. I assured them I was peaceful. We drove the few blocks to the Federal Building in a big sedan. I babbled nervously—complemented them on how neatly dressed and groomed FBI guys were compared to the fat slobs of the Chicago Red Squad. I especially admired their shoes. They seemed to take it as a complement. I even expressed my concern about spending the weekend in jail. They even seemed sympathetic to that. “We’ll get you in front of judge,” one of them said.
I was unloaded in the basement and taken up a secure elevator and buzzed into a holding area. I once again surrendered my coat, cowboy hat, and personal items—a wallet, keys, change, the pocket watch, a shirt pocket address book, cheap cartridge fountain pen, and an old Boy Scout knife. In those long ago days no one even blinked at the weapon. Then with the remarkable efficiency for which the FBI was famous, I was finger printed and mug shot in a trice.
After a few moment of waiting I was escorted through a hall way to judge’s chambers. The clock on the wall read 5:55. The magistrate was as eager to be done as I was. An underling from the Federal Attorney’s office had no objection to my release on personal recognizance. Trial was set for March 17, 1973, by coincidence by 24th birthday.
After signing once again for my property, I was on the street joining the rush hour crush in minutes. I climbed on a packed El car and was home for dinner. Friday was usually a work night—pay day in fact. But this week Cecelia drove me to Glascott’s Groggery at Webster and Halstead, half a block from the new IWW Headquarters storefront office. My Wobbly friends were out in force. We took up a huge round table and then some. Pitchers and shot kept coming. I didn’t pay for a thing all night. We laughed. We sang at the top of our lungs. I got blind, stinking, falling down drunk. Cecelia hauled my sorry ass home in her VW Bug and manhandled me up the stairs and into bed. She was not happy.