On This Memorial Day: How I Came to Stay Home

Given that its Memorial Day, the title makes it sound like this might be be some sort of political rant, but it’s not. It’s just a story. One of those life stories—we all have them—that I don’t entirely understand myself.

In 1969 I was in Bloomington, Indiana, a graduate student in the English Department of Indiana University, recently married and about to start writing my Ph.D. dissertation. The Vietnam War was going strong, needing lots of troops, and graduate deferments had recently been eliminated.

I was not what you would call a political person at the time. I “opposed” the war, joined in the occasional demonstration, but basically my heart and mind were focused on literature, particularly modern American literature. (My dissertation topic ultimately was Robert Frost’s poetry.)

One warm spring day I was returning from class to the little semi-detached house/apartment where I lived with my wife Susan. Coming down the sidewalk, I heard the most peculiar and frightening sounds coming from our home. It sounded like Susan was being attacked by someone—moaning and crying as I’d never heard her or anyone else.

I ran to the door, burst into the living room, and found her standing there in the middle of the room looking almost calm, clearly having pulled herself together when she realized I was home. No one was attacking her. There was no else there at all. But she was holding a piece of paper in her hand.

Wordlessly, she held the paper out to me. It was my notice to go take a physical so that I could be drafted. I was to appear in my hometown of Evansville, Indiana, in two weeks to be examined.

My reaction, unlike hers, was basically to go numb, which I suppose covered great fear. Needless to say, I didn’t want to go off and be featured in the kind of news coverage we were seeing of the terrible fighting in Vietnam. (Back then you could sit in your living room and REALLY see what war was like.) I didn’t want to leave her and my studies. I didn’t want to die.

On the other hand, I had no desire or intention to flee to Canada, declare myself a non-combatant, shoot myself in the foot, or otherwise resist. Thus the numbness. I would have my physical examination and see what happened.

What in fact happened was totally unexpected and remains unexplained to this day.

Understand: I registered no protests, complained to no one, asked for no special treatment, did not in fact even tell anyone I’d received the notice. Only Susan and I knew.

And my hometown draft board. This is where the pure speculation begins. Because, about a week later, I received another notice. Cancelling my physical. No explanation. No rescheduling. I never heard from them again.

The only theory I ever came up with was that there was someone on that draft board who knew me or knew of me and saw that I’d been called. Membership on the draft board was anonymous so there’s no way to know who it could have been. I don’t even know for sure that someone in that position would have had the power to cancel my physical and take me off the list.

But something happened. It’s not like I dropped through the cracks. I got that official cancellation in the mail, which had to be generated by somebody for some reason.

Did I then volunteer? No. Do I think I should have? No. Do I sometimes, just a little, regret that I didn’t get to go through the process that so many others did and find out what would have happened? Yes – but not until I was much older.

It could be that I owe my life to some never-to-be-identified member of the Evansville, Indiana, draft board in 1969. If so, this Memorial Day is as good a day as any to thank them very kindly.

And, of course, even more importantly, to thank all those who did not have such a guardian angel.

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