Chapter Two: Escape

Chapter Two: Escape

Back in his home town, James made a trip to the local draft office. It was just up the old road five miles to Preston. The winter weather was mild with no snow so the gravel road was open. He parked on the square next to the old familiar bandstand, where he had listened to high school bands as a kid, and crossed the street to the office of the local draft board. It was not difficult to find. But he had always had a dread of the place.

He remembered his first contact with the Selective Service Office. After he had turned eighteen, in his senior year of high school, he had heard that he was supposed to register. But somehow he neglected it. He just put it out of his mind. His parents were unaware of the requirement and so said nothing about it. So he just let it slide until by the summertime after his birthday in February, he started feeling guilty and feared that he might get into some kind of trouble if he did not register.

Finally, by the summer, he had mustered the courage to go and face the music. He appeared and told the middle-aged Secretary, Mrs. Grinna, that he wished to register. He was feeling like a criminal. What would she say when she discovered that he was late? She gave him a paper to fill out. When she looked at it, she admonished him for not registering six months earlier. Legally, he had been required to do it by his eighteenth birthday. But nothing was done about it. She filled out a draft card and issued it to him. The card indicated that he was now eligible to be drafted but he told her that he was planning to go the university in the fall.

The secretary was the wife of a local businessman who sold farm equipment and profited by cheating farmers. Sometimes he charged them too much. Now James wanted to have some idea whether he was going to be granted a deferment for two years to serve in the Peace Corps.

Entering the small office, he found the middle aged woman sitting at a small desk. She was the only one there, sitting idle. Nothing had changed in those five years. She looked exactly the same. The same dowdy middle-aged small-town woman.  

“Hi, my name is James Weldon,” he began. “I have been a student with a deferment but now I have graduated last month. I applied for the Peace Corps and have been accepted for a two-year program. I am wondering if the local draft board would consider giving me a deferment for the Peace Corps.”

There was a look of disgust on Mrs. Grinna’s face. Yes she remembered him. In fact, she had him in her sites and had just been waiting for his time to come up. He should have graduated the last year. He could not remain a student forever and once out of the university, he would be another warm body to fill up their quota of draftees from the county.   

“Oh yes, you on my list here,” she said. “You’ll have to go to Kansas City for a draft physical. We will send you a notice. You’re not going to be deferred to serve in the Peace Corps.”

It was just as he had feared. He had no idea how the system worked. Did it mean that this was the final word and that he would definitely be drafted? He had a sudden vision of catching a bus north to Canada, thinking that it must be colder than a motherfucker there at this time of year. But better than going to Vietnam. There was Europe too.

James wondered how she could know the decision. Wasn’t it the board that was supposed to make the decisions?  And they could have had no idea that his application for the Peace Corps was now accepted, could they? She was not the draft board. But perhaps the decisions were being left up to her. That figured.

She didn’t indicate that she was at all sorry. It seemed that she rather relished the idea of sending him off to the military and probably to Vietnam. She enjoyed seeing the looks on the faces of those college graduates when she informed them that now it was time to throw away their books and pick up a gun. Probably that was how she got her kicks. Who did they think they were anyway? Did they think they were better than the local guys who had never gone to college and had already been sent off in uniform? Some of them wounded. A couple of them killed.

“Oh,” James said, “I thought maybe they would let me go into the Peace Corps. I have received an invitation from Washington.”

“It depends on the draft board,” she said. “And they are not going to let you out for that.”

If she knew, she did not tell him that there was an appeals process. The local draft board did not make the final decision in such cases.

She asked him for his draft card.

James pulled his billfold out of his back pocket and pulled it out. It still indicated that he had a student deferment. Reaching inside her desk, she pulled out a fresh card and changed his classification from student deferment to eligible for the draft and handed it to him.

“The bus for the physical will leave for Kansas City next Monday morning at seven o’clock,” she informed him. “Please be here by six-thirty.” 

Shit, James thought. I am in a world of shit. But I’ll be God-dammed if I am going to show up in this town for a draft physical. Some quick action was required. There was not much time to sort it out.

He turned and left the office. He was not about to let her know what was in his mind. He would pretend to go along with the program. Indeed, he was not certain at the time just what he had to do or could do. He had made up his mind that he was not going to be drafted and sent to the military where the probability of going to Vietnam and being killed was exceedingly high. He was not going to be coming back to the local funeral home in a box, at least not from being killed in that fucking war.

It was just a few weeks after the Tet offensive, after all. The Communists had captured and held the US Embassy in Saigon for several hours. Now the war was continuing with high casualty rates. It was exactly the wrong time to get drafted into the military. The slaughter in Vietnam had intensified and the US was on the losing end. There was no way.

When he got back to the farm, he got his packet of information and looked up the telephone number of the Peace Corps in Washington. He quickly called them up and told the woman there that he had talked to his local draft board. They were calling him in for a physical the same day that he was scheduled to start the training program in California for the Peace Corps.

A secretary located his file and told him not to worry about it. They were obviously used to dealing with such cases. “You have already been accepted and scheduled for the Peace Corps training program. Once you arrive at the training site in California, we will request that the examination be rescheduled for California,” she said. “You can then have the examination there after you have started training.”

“Thanks,” James said. “I was not sure what I was supposed to do about it.”

Fuck! What a relief, he thought. That sounded great to James. Fuck those local yokel farmers. He had now made a pre-emptive strike on them and was now one step ahead. Out in California, well, maybe it would not be so brutal as north Missouri. He would do whatever was required to work his way through it.  

I will be happy to see those sons of bitches in my rear view mirror, he thought. They are not going to get my ass shot off in Vietnam. I’ll fight for all I am worth to prevent that. There was no threat at all to him from the Communists in Vietnam, as far as he could tell. The threat was much closer to home. It was only the American military that could be a real threat, not only to his way of life, but to his life itself.

On the last day of March he was scheduled to fly to California. His ticket arrived in the mail a few days earlier. He was excited when he opened the packet. It was great to have it in his hand. It was proof that he was not going to be around come Monday morning when he was supposed to be on that bus up there on the square. It was like they were sheep that were being sent off to the market.

On Sunday, his family took him down to the Kansas City Airport. It was the old Municipal Airport close to downtown. He said good bye to his family, who he expected that he would not be seeing for a couple of years. Not if everything worked out. It was the first time that he had ever checked into a flight for anywhere. It would be his first trip in a jet plane. He was excited about it. Ready for adventure. He was not one to stay around his home town. He would get out in the world. Make something of himself.

His plane took off and headed west across Kansas. In Denver he had to switch planes. A couple of hours later, he came down in California, the first time he had set foot in California. After that, it was just a short commuter flight down to Ontario on an old prop job. When he arrived, a young member of the Peace Corps staff was there to meet him. Two other trainees had arrived at around the same time.

Norm, the guy who had met them, took them out to a van and they were soon on their way down to Hemet. The other two guys were equally young and green as Jack. They had all come from back east somewhere.

Hemet, out in a big valley, had been a ranch town. Now, it was developing rapidly with new housing districts.

To train the group, Development and Resources Corporation had rented an old site where Mexican farm workers were normally housed. Low one-story buildings made of wood were partitioned off in big rooms. Four volunteers were assigned to each room. Some forty volunteers would arrive before the evening was over.

The chow hall was across the street. The new trainees were sent over for some evening food. The meal was not likely to strain the budget. Jack tied into the thin pea soup and salad. There was a small piece of cake for desert.

He met his other roommates. In a little bit, he turned in on the small cot that had been provided in his corner of the room.

The next morning at breakfast, more of the staff had appeared. There were some of the older guys who would do the training. There was a young sour faced graduate student from the University of Wisconsin with a drooping moustache who was in charge of the language training. This was Punjabi.  Along with these were several Punjabis who would provide the language training.

As the time was short, no attempt would be made to teach the Gurmukhi Alphabet. The language would be learned by the sounds of the words only with phonetic spellings.

The volunteers were divided into groups of six and the training began from eight in the morning until seven in the evening. Just time out for meals.

It was difficult. Some days there would be a lecture on Indian culture and society in the afternoon. This would break the monotony of the language training.

James, being somewhat timid, soon discovered that he was not one of the top language students. It was not clear how much of a concern this was going to be in evaluating the volunteers. What many did not realize was that the major language of India was actually English. And most of what would be learned would have to be learned in the field anyway, after arriving in the country.

Around eight, the training would end and the volunteers were on their own. Just across the small highway that ran past the compound was a small pub called the winner’s circle. Every evening, several of the volunteers would head over for some draft beer and pool. James followed the others. It was almost the first time he had drank beer. He had tried it just a couple of times in the university but had not drank enough to get the taste. Now he tasted the light draft beer and began to start to like it.

The volunteers had been provided an allowance of eight dollars a week. As most of everything was provided, this was actually quite enough. They could drink the draft beer at a quarter a glass.

James tried his hand at pool and even won a game now and then. But he was best at the shuffle board. This was a fun game to play and it made him feel good when the draft beer began to tickle his gut.

The group had the pub practically to themselves. Only a few others came in. Never a woman.

The training went on. Then there were the trips. This was interesting, seeing some of the countryside of California.

A field trip was arranged to the Coachella Valley to see how the vegetables were grown in California. It was the first time that James had been in the desert, down close to Palm Springs.

On a Sunday, there was a trip to Los Angeles and a Punjabi meal at a Sikh Family’s house in Baldwin Hills.

One day, James was told that he was to go up to Los Angeles for his draft physical. Another volunteer, named Erwin, also had to go for the physical. They were picked up and taken in an ancient bus, from the 1940s. Taken down town, they were taken to a flea bag hotel and given a room. The rooms were old and musty needing renovation. It was clear that they were reserved for military guys. They had been rented cheaply to the government.

James and Erwin took the opportunity to go on the town. James bought a couple of books and they went to a park and watched the girls. They were having a pleasant time.

They had been given orders to report to AFEES, the Armed Forces Examining and Entry Station at zero seven hundred hours the next morning. They got up at six and headed out, not having time even for some breakfast.

Arriving at the site, a mob of unkempt young guys from seventeen to twenty five were starting to gather up outside the large doors. There were few who wanted to be there. Most were looking for a way to escape the lot that now seemed to have befallen them. Some had already been drafted. But now if they could only flunk the physical, they would be safe. This would be difficult for most, short of shooting themselves in the foot.

A young army petty officer appeared and began to bark commands at the unruly mob.

“Shut the fuck up, you motherfuckers,” he barked. “Line the fuck up and get your young asses in there. You’re on your way to a new way of life, motherfuckers. I’ll ream you pussies a new asshole. You civie scum.”

All the talk about how to get out of the military now broke off. This would be the moments of truth for some of them. Those drafted who passed the physical would be signed in, given the oath, and shipped out to boot camp somewhere before the end of the day. It was hard not to pass the physical. But some lucky few would not. They were the fortunate ones who would find themselves back home.

Others would pass and then wait for the draft notice. It was either that or head for Canada. Most would not have the means to get to Europe, even if they knew how to do it.

As for James, he did not want to be a part of the whole debacle. He had no desire to be herded like a sheep. Yes, you are right, son of a bitch, he thought. I am on my way to a new way of life. But it is a lot different from that one that you have in mind. I am not going to be cannon fodder for the American imperialist machine. I am not going to carry a gun and kill anybody. If I get my ass out of this country, then it will be to make friends with new people and not to kill them.

If the Vietnamese wanted to have communism, that was their own business and none of his own. Let freedom ring.