Tales of My Father #7
When last we left my father, he had finally become convinced that his son could make a living as a professional writer. Still, he found reasons aplenty to worry about me. There were big worries and small worries but this is the story of, by far, the biggest. Bigger even than his worry about my chosen career.
In 1970, I turned 18 and as was required, I registered for The Draft. The selective service office where I did this was in the same federal building (the one over on Wilshire near Veteran) where he went to work each day for the Internal Revenue Service. So after registering, I went up to that floor to say hello to him. Even though he'd see me a few hours later at the dinner table, he was glad I came by so he could introduce me to some of his co-workers. From them, I learned he'd done an awful lot of bragging in the office about his son, the Professional Writer who was — believe it or not — actually making a living at it.
But he was chilled by the reason I was in the building. The next few days, I noticed him looking pale and older, like he wasn't sleeping. Finally one evening, he sat me down for what was easily the most serious father/son talk we ever had. He said, almost trembling, "I need you to do something for me. If you love your father, you will do this. You will not give me an argument or tell me not to worry about it. You will do this because both our lives, mine and yours, depend on it." I couldn't for the life of me imagine what he was talking about.
Then he told me: "I want you…I need you to do everything that is humanly possible to avoid being drafted. I swear to God, if you get a draft notice…if there's the slightest chance of you being sent to Vietnam, I will have a heart attack and die."
I tried to tell him that he wouldn't but he got so upset that I was afraid he would. Then and there. He'd had a heart attack a few years earlier and he also had a bleeding ulcer — mostly, it seemed, from stress at the office.
"You must do everything. Go to lawyers. Talk to counselors. Whatever it costs, I will come up with the money. I am even prepared to quit my job here, sell this house and move us all up to Canada if I have to. But you must…not…be drafted." I can still hear how he said that, pausing between words.
I said, "Well, not everyone who's drafted goes to Vietnam…"
He said, "If you were drafted, I would never sleep again. I would be up all night worrying that wherever you were stationed, they would suddenly decide to send you off to war. I haven't even been able to sleep since you signed up for the draft the other day. That's how much this upsets me."
I promised him I would do everything possible to not get drafted and that was the end of the conversation. That night.
Some context is necessary. In 1970, America was slowly turning against U.S. military action in Southeast Asia. It wasn't anywhere near a majority viewpoint then, which is why Richard Nixon was able to win a landslide re-election two years later. Still, it was growing, especially as Nixon's '68 campaign promises — that he had a "secret plan" to end The War — seemed increasingly illusory. The War wasn't ending. It was multiplying and dividing and every week, there were new stories of massacres and dead Americans and it was harder and harder to explain our objective over there.
My parents had been against it from about half past Lyndon Johnson's term in office. I was slower to come around. It may be impossible for readers of my blog to believe now but back in the sixties, I was pretty conservative. Which is not to say I ever liked Nixon or Ronald Reagan. Even if I did side with most of the causes they espoused, I thought they came at them from the wrong angles with selfish motives instead of selfless. Just because you believe in the message, it doesn't mean you have to respect every messenger who carries it or even his arguments for it. You should always be embarrassed by at least a few of the people on your side.
In high school during the Johnson administration, there were occasional well-attended demonstrations against The War and some pretty feeble, poorly-attended counter-demonstrations in support of it. I was one of the kids leading the counter-demonstrations. Like everyone who finds himself in such a minority of his peers, I congratulated myself on not being part of the mindless majority; of having the courage to buck the crowds. Eventually, I decided that wasn't a particularly good reason.
Neither was that from my viewpoint, the friends of mine backing The War were my smarter friends and the "other side" was full of the dumber people, few of whom seemed to even understand the issues. It seemed to me they were all jumping on that particular bandwagon for the same reason they were all buying bell bottom pants and listening to certain musicians: Because they were "in," because they were what our generation was doing…and in some cases, just because they pissed off our parents.
But sometimes, the folks around you aren't a representative sample. It always helps to remember that remark attributed to various East Coast Liberal types after the '68 election: "I can't understand how Nixon won. I don't know anyone who voted for him." For a time, I didn't know anyone I thought was intelligent who opposed The War. Then by '70, the year I entered U.C.L.A., I knew a few and by '72, I knew enough that I saw the error of my thinking and joined the protest marches. My root distrust of Nixon and his cronies also did a lot to get me to the other side as did many of his actions. If you ever bomb Cambodia, I'll lose my last bit of trust in you, too.
The point is that in '70 when my father asked what he asked of me, I didn't know how I felt about The War. I did though know how I felt about The Army. With all my might, I wanted no part of it.
My aversion to the Army had nothing to do with any possibility of being sent to fire guns at people who were firing at me. That wasn't going to happen. I wasn't going to volunteer for that and no one would have been dumb enough to send the guy who would soon be writing Super Goof comics into combat.
But just being in the service seemed utterly incompatible with me. How would I sleep? I was used to having my own room. How would I eat? I had all my weird, defy-all-medical-analysis food allergies. Even Basic Training seemed impossible. One evening, I watched some news footage of fresh recruits on their first day. They were climbing ropes (I couldn't do that) and scaling walls (I couldn't do that) and slithering on their bellies (I couldn't do that) and eating Army Chow (I really couldn't do that). No high school student ever hated Gym Class as much as I hated Gym Class…and even the simplest, non-combat Army life seemed to me like living 24/7 in Gym Class.
I understood all about serving your country. I just didn't think our current leaders were serving that country very well, nor did I see that I could possibly be of any use to them. I wouldn't even have made a good hostage.
One night during this period, I actually had the following dream: I'm drafted but they immediately call me in and some fancy general-type who looks like George C. Scott says, "Evanier! We've looked over your qualifications and we've decided you can best help America by staying here in Los Angeles, dating that cute girl friend of yours and editing a line of comic books designed to educate and entertain the military!"
And then in the dream, so help me, he added, "This being the military, we believe in drastically overpaying for everything so we're going to give you a budget of several thousand dollars a page. Hire anyone you want, pay them whatever you want…and, oh yes, keep the change!"
How much did I not want to go into the Army? Here's how much: Even if that dream had happened exactly as dreamed, I probably still would have packed up my comics and moved to Vancouver.
My father's plea for me to avoid conscription was not because he opposed The War. He did but it was a lot simpler than that. He just had nightmares about his only son being killed. In later years, he would worry the same way because he knew I was on an airplane or driving on the Santa Monica Freeway at rush hour. As much to make him happy as to save my own skin, I went to see some Draft Avoidance Counselors. That was the job description at least one of them had on the door.
There were several such services then operating in Westwood Village, which was adjacent to my current place of learning. They were all free and in each case, I met with a serious, committed volunteer who believed The War and The Draft were both immoral. They looked over my family situation, my health, my next-to-non-existent religious background, my academic record — everything — and suggested applications for deferments, doctor notes I might be able to get, financial hardship forms, etc. I do not recall what I filled out or what I did but I'm sure I didn't do as much of it as my father wanted, though I assured him I had. I did undergo some kind of brief government physical in which I emphasized the flatness of my feet and the expensive special shoes my podiatrist then had me wearing.
And I do recall one moment with one of the draft counselors that stuck with me. I filled out a ridiculous number of questionnaires and he looked them over and said, "I don't think you have much to worry about. You went to University High."
I had to ask: "What does that have to do with this?"
He said, "Uni Hi is primarily white and wealthy. Kids from white and wealthy areas have ways of not getting drafted."
I didn't believe that. I also didn't believe that all the forms I'd filled out and exemptions I'd applied for would make any difference. It was all going to come down to my number in the draft lottery. In a few months, they would be drawing for males born in 1952 and the way it worked was that your date of birth was your lottery number. If your number was drawn in the first hundred, you were likely to go. If you were in the next thirty or forty, you were unlikely to go but it was vaguely possible. And anything over 140 or 150, you were safe. I just knew I'd be safe.
An odd "calm" settled in on me about the topic: No panic, no worry. I was certain, with no basis in reality, that it would never come to that. It was like, "Me? In the Army? It'll never happen." I didn't fret about it because I knew that Fate would never do such a thing to me. And on August 5, 1971, it didn't.
I had thought so little about The Draft that I was unaware of that date, the date they drew the numbers for my birth year. My mind that morning was on what I was going to do the following morning, which was to drive down to attend the second of what we now call Comic-Con Internationals. My friend Tony Isabella was staying with us, in from Ohio, primed to head south to San Diego with me.
But though I didn't know when the drawing was, my father did. He got up early and sat down in the living room in his pajamas to watch them pick the numbers live on The CBS Morning News and, I suppose, other programs. When my birthday of March 2 was assigned #184, he let out a whoop.
I was in my pajamas too, talking with Tony about the con when my father burst into my room and began hugging me, saying over and over, "Thank God, thank God." At first, I honestly didn't know what he was so happy about. Then he told me and while I was pleased, it wasn't because it meant that I would probably never have to go into the military. It was more like the way you're pleased when something you know is not going to happen doesn't happen. Sometimes, it's just plain reassuring to know you were right.
In later years, I got to know and talk with a number of guys my age who did serve in Vietnam. I respected the hell out of them for their service and to some extent envied their ability to do something like that. I know I couldn't…any more than I could have played pro football or become a police officer. I respect the hell out of police officers, too. None of the veterans I spoke with, I'm happy to say, ever had a problem with my not having served. Most were jealous and one even said, after I'd told one of my zillion tales of incompetence at anything besides writing silly stories, "I'm glad you weren't in the Army. You would have gotten a lot of us killed."
None of these vets I knew were guys from my old high school. At our 25 year reunion, I got to talking with one of the organizers of the event. He had put together a display/tribute to honor those of our classmates who didn't live to be at the reunion. There were about 18 in a class of more than 600. I asked how many of the men had died in military service and he said, "None. Almost none of our classmates even went into the service." I had assumed that based on the way the lottery worked, about 30% of males my age were drafted but he said, "No, not with our class. It was less than ten and I think most of them enlisted. The rest whose numbers were picked…they all found ways to get out of it."
So maybe there was something to that "white and wealthy" business.
I think that morning of 8/5/71 was the happiest I ever saw my father. He actually danced a little in the kitchen with my mother, twirling her about to unheard but very joyous music. He seemed younger, too. He was still happy that evening and he said to me, "Maybe we should go out to dinner this weekend and celebrate."
I told him, "We can celebrate if you like but it won't be this weekend. Remember, tomorrow Tony and I are going down to San Diego for that comic book convention."
He looked suddenly concerned and he asked, "You're going by freeway, I assume?" I told him we were.
He paused a moment then said, "Please…do your father a favor and be real careful!"