While Republicans and Democrats argue the relative shortcomings of George W. Bush’s and John Kerry’s decisions about serving during the Vietnam War, I find myself hanging back. I remember what I did. While Kerry, focused already on life ambitions, tried to work the war into the main chance, and while Bush made the best he could of an awkwardly placed but essential obligation, I took another path entirely. I was a complete disgrace.
I had dropped out of Columbia University in the middle of my sophomore year post-Christmas break in 1967. I had a vision: fame, rock and roll, songwriting, who knows? That vision covered up my real driving ambition, which was to take as many drugs as possible. I took a lot of them. In those days, the split between up heads and down heads was complete. I was on the up head side. I smoked grass and hash, popped some speed, and took LSD frequently. No barbs or alcohol for me. I was a space cadet.
And I proceeded on my way as though nothing could touch me. But of course Uncle Sam did. My student deferment duly expired, and I received a notice in the mail re-classifying me 1-A, eligible for the military draft.
THE CHOICES SEEMED DEADLY AWFUL, and I suppose they were even for young men with heads a good deal clearer than mine. The war had escalated to serious pitch in 1967. If you let yourself be drafted, you could get out after a three-year hitch, but you were almost certain to end up in combat. If you joined, you pledged four years. Either stretch sounded like an eternity to me.
I think I talked to my Dad on the phone shortly after the notice arrived. I’m not sure if it was then or later, I was so thoroughly blitzed. But he gave me good advice. “Join and qualify for OCS. You’re smart, you’ll make it. Join the Navy and you can stay out of the line of fire.”
Four years! No way! I swallowed a handful of Valiums and persuaded some friends of mine to “discover” me in a failed suicide attempt. Got my stomach pumped in an emergency room, ended up in a psychiatric ward at Kings County Hospital, Brooklyn. Woke up from the Thorazine blizzard on a cold tile floor in a hospital johnny, started figuring out how to game the system, found a way to make a phone call, and my Dad came up from Florida to bail me out.
I still remember him waiting for me in the Kings County hallway in his suit and overcoat, with my electric guitar case in his hand. We drove all the way home to Largo, Florida, together, mid-winter. We talked all the way. I was a raving lunatic. He was a newspaper publisher. He held a senior office in the local chapter of the John Birch Society.
THREE MONTHS LATER MY PARENTS GOT SO FED UP WITH ME, they staked my return to New York City. And shortly after that, I got a new notice from the Draft Board in the mail. I had been reclassified 4-F, medically exempt, without even taking a physical. Here is what I think happened.
The weeks at home gave my Dad a chance to talk with me more and to watch how I behaved. He hated what he saw, but knew as well he couldn’t do anything to change me. He got together with his political buddies, a group which, in very conservative Pinellas County, probably included some members of the local draft board. And my Dad was forced to say, choking on the words, “He’ll never make it. He’ll either get killed or end up in the brig. He might do something really stupid and go to Leavenworth.”
I may even have met one of those draft board members. Dad took me golfing with him and with a friend of his, an outing which made no sense. My Dad hated golf, and was terrible at it. I had never played. I spent the round goofing off, showing off, generally being an idiot. Dad’s friend played his own game, a good one, and watched.
Within a short time, the whole issue became moot. The draft was reorganized as a lottery, based on birth date, and I got a high number. It may have been even more moot than that. Within a year or two, I began to see signs of kidney disease in myself, not knowing what they were; my kidneys eventually failed in 1975. Chances are good I couldn’t have passed a physical.
I’ve told that story before, sometimes to Vietnam veterans. No veteran has ever condemned me for it, behavior far more generous than people like me ever showed to soldiers.
Dad died in 1984, just as I was beginning, finally, to get my act together. He didn’t get to see me married, didn’t get to see his grandchildren, didn’t get to see what I made of myself. And he never got to hear this apology to him, to his generation, and to mine.