Tom remembers what happened when he showed up for his draft physical

This week, my longtime online friendly nemesis, Al (CW13), snarkily asked me what branch of the military I had been in. The answer is none. I was of a time and age where I certainly could have—and probably should have—gone into the military, but weird stuff happened. Being a kid who grew up in The Projects, I certainly wasn't able to buy myself free, like Chicken George wanted to (in Roots) and like Even-More-Chicken Donald Trump was able to.

I had to go into downtown L.A. for my first draft physical. There were over 700 guys there that day and it was a madhouse. The military guys went through the lines and grabbed the guys who had shown up drunk and/or stoned. (The rumor was that if you had a drug problem, the Army wouldn't take you. Yeah...no. As a matter of fact, if they took you to Vietnam, there was a chance that they would provide you with a drug problem, free of charge.) Then we had to take a test that the worst student at the worst charter school could have passed on his worst day. They had multiple-choice questions for which all of the answers were correct.

Sometime after that, we were in this large room. On the wall was a sign that I'll never forget. It said "Strip to the Waist From Both Ends." I remember thinking that I really didn't want to be part of that particular organization. Plus, in the back of my head was the fact that there were already four guys from my general neighborhood who had died in Vietnam.

We had to be checked for "rupture," which is always fun, especially when you're not sure that the "doctor" is changing rubber gloves. Then we had to pee in a cup and put the cup on a shelf. Some Army guy walked along and put litmus paper strips in all of the urine samples. When one was the wrong color, the guy would just point at somebody and say, "You! Step out of line." The military became more and more appealing as the day went along.

A rumor went around the building that day that a guy had shown up without a left arm and they sent him home to go get a note from his family doctor stating that he was missing his left arm. To this day, I have no idea if that actually happened, but it sure made for lively conversation over the sack lunches they provided us.

By mid-afternoon, we were all in this big auditorium, waiting for our names to be called. Once called, you'd walk down to the front of the room, grab the papers they handed you and then exit the building. I've always wondered how many, if any, of the guys who were there that day would die in Southeast Asia.

When they called my name, I noticed that my papers were of a different color than most. I stopped and read it and it said that I had a serious knee problem and that I would have to take another physical in six months. After that day, I would go on to play football, basketball, baseball and tennis in college, followed by decades of pickup basketball and other sports and, even now, at this advanced age and weight, I STILL have never had any knee problems of any kind.

I read it quickly and walked out without saying a word. I didn't feel guilty, thinking that some other guy would have to go in my place. Anybody whose knees were as messed up as that paper said would get identified by the Army before it was too late. In six months, I would have to go to either Fresno or Phoenix for another physical. I had always liked Isaac Hayes' version of "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," so I chose Arizona.

I stopped by to see my mom before heading out to Phoenix. Some of the neighborhood kids were playing kickball and they asked if I wanted to take a turn. I kicked it and started running; first base was a tree and second was a clothesline pole. As I was running to second, a little kid who wasn't in the game ran in front of me. I hurdled the kid and hit the round end of the clothesline pole with my temple. As soon as I hit the ground, I felt the blood pouring down my face.

I went to the Ghetto Clinic and they sewed me up. The doctor said I should go to the hospital but I said, "No, I have my Army physical tomorrow!" I couldn't drive so I took the Greyhound to Phoenix. Skull fracture, severe concussion, blurred vision and I couldn't hear out of my right ear (but my knee was fine). I was blissfully all messed up. I would have to take another physical in a year.

By then, my new lottery number was in the 300s and the draft was winding down. They sent me a letter saying to forget about it. At the time, I wondered if I had been spared so that I could do something great with my life. That really hasn't happened so I'm hoping that a whole lot of little something goods will suffice. ■

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