I'm a child of The Cold War. I can still recall the terror and the empty, hot feeling in the pit of my stomach when, in elementary school, we had to practice what we would do in the event of nuclear war. The local fire company would crank up it's sirens, the principal's voice would crackle into life on the speaker system to tell us that this was an air raid drill. We had assigned duties. Two kids were in charge of opening all the windows. This was supposed to help keep flying glass from flaying us alive when the detonation occurred. Two other kids followed behind them making sure the blinds were all the way down so that the nuclear flash didn't blind us. Some kids had to move all our chairs to the wall while others pushed all our desks together in the center of the room.
_5140135.jpg The weapons change, but the personal morality doesn't.
(image by Frans Berkelaar) License DMCA
Then we all crawled on our hands and knees to the center of that collection of desks. This was to keep our bodies from being crushed if the bomb caused the building to collapse. There we would wait, face down in the fetal position until the sirens sounded again to announce the end of the drill.
It was war made real in the hearts and minds of children who were privileged enough not to be living a war zone. There were always some tears, to be expected I guess when the adults didn't deal down the monsters under the bed but instead told you the monsters were very real and they wanted to kill you.
The Domino Theory.
We don't hear about that any more, but it was the justification for Korea, and later Viet Nam. See, the evil, evil Communists weren't waging a civilized, gentleman's war. They weren't drawing lines on a map. They were sneaky and insidious. Their plan was to knock off one country after another, take one bite at a time until, inevitably, Democracy, Liberty and The American Way was the last to fall, the last domino.
We could not allow this to happen. We had to fight them there so we didn't end up fighting them here. The resonance of that shrill shout still echoes today in The White House, the Halls of Congress and in our streets. We've put a new label on it, redesigned the packaging, but it's still the same great war we've come to know and love.
Then Viet Nam became America's first Real Life TV show. We saw it every night on our ridiculously large black and white Westinghouse or Philco televisions. The images of gunfire, explosions, the wounded, the dead. We didn't sanitize it, we glorified it. It wasn't hidden away it was rubbed in our faces. "Look what they're making us do! How many of them do we have to slaughter?"
All neatly wedged between smart, slick ads urging us to buy the American Dream, one toy at a time.
I got the letter, as had thousands of other young men of my generation.
"Greetings ... ."
I was ordered to appear at the local draft board, to put my name in the hat. It was all very democratic. Your birth date went into a barrel and then one by one every day of the year was pulled out until all 365 days were accounted for. Where ever your date of birth ended up in that list, that was your number. If your birthday was fifth on the list, then you were in the fifth segment of young men who would be called to duty that year.
I knew kids who had enlisted, opted out of waiting for the inevitable. They were seen as heroes. They always got laid. There was a swaggering bravado in them.
But I knew a lot of friends and school acquaintances who had waited until they had gotten the letter and then did what was "right." America needed them, and they went off to serve, rural kids, a teenage Army fighting and dying over there. Still too young to drink or vote but old enough to hold a rifle. I knew kids who died. I knew kids who came back physically crippled. I knew kids who came back so mentally fucked up that drugs, alcohol and suicide became the tripod of their sad, stunted life.
The crowd I hung out with, we had a friend who had gotten the letter about a year before I got mine. The last time I saw him was at the train station in Doylestown. He had a duffel bag filled with clothes, his guitar slung over his shoulder and $500.00 dollars in cash. His plan was to get to Canada, become a draft dodger. A lot of my generation opted for that, so many in fact that it also became a part of The Reality Show. They were presented as cowards, lacking morality, snubbing their noses, turning their backs on all of us. "Where did we go wrong? Have we coddled them too much?"
Spin, spin, spin, we all fall down.
I remember the night my Dad sat down with me on our front porch. To the west, over the gently rolling hills of the dairy farm, the sun was going down in deep reds and purples. The old hickory tree was a Japanese silhouette, the swing I no longer played on circled slowly in the warm breeze. Behind the house ring necked pheasants were calling to each other from their roost in the woods, and the sound of insects hung in the air as they buzzed around being picked off by swarms of bats.
We talked about so many things that night. Personal things, the secrets that fathers and sons share after a storm of life has washed away the bullshit.
He told me about his experiences in World War II, and how what he had seen and done had broken his mind, of how he had been hospitalized for what was at that time called shell shock. I'd never heard this story before. I'd heard plenty of stories about growing up in a coal town, and about all the fun and mischief he and his brother and sisters had gotten into, about how times were hard and food was scarce, about the impossibility of how the spontaneous gathering of guitar players and banjo players and fiddlers had turned into glorious nights of reels and jigs in the face of poverty and struggle. Songs of Ireland and Scotland played in the wasteland of coal slags and railroad tracks and the shacks of the coal towns, the music magically summoning up enough grit to go on, to make it through another day or month.
He told me how the war of his generation was different than the war of my generation, that no matter the horrendous cost of life, including the death of his own brother, he had to believe that there had been a seed of morality in it, a rightness, that in the face of real life tyranny it was his duty to fight. He spoke of how Korea and Viet Nam were not that kind of war, how they were wars of ideologies fought not to liberate but to impose our vision on others.
He spoke of how, if I chose to go to Canada, he and my Mom would support that decision, and help as much as they could.
I was young and filled with the self righteousness of youth. I wasn't going to run away from this any more than I had chosen not to run away from the protest meetings that were springing up in towns and colleges all across America. The draft dodgers had made their choice, and I understood why. The Sausage Factory would chew you up, it was too big, too powerful. There were millions of them, but only one you. If you stood up to them, there weren't ten thousand others standing shoulder to shoulder, gaining strength from each other like the protest meetings. It was just you, in the moment.
I was going to make my stand here, where the War Machine had brought it's battle to me. I would go and register for the f*cking draft, but I would file as a conscientious objector. I would tell them to their piggy smug faces that they could put me in jail, but they couldn't make me kill for them.
And so when I went to register, I asked how I could become a conscientious objector. I watched as the face of the Sergeant altered itself from the mild disdain of having to deal with another long haired hippie into the angry demeanor of someone who is forced to deal with a resistor, a punk who will not shut up and follow orders. I went from human to virus in the blink of an eye. See, I was a different kind of Domino Theory come to sh*t in his office, me and my ilk taking one bite after another out of the glorious machinery of Freedom. "Where will we be if they all refuse?"
He got out of his chair and came around his desk. He put his face inches from mine. He smelled of Aqua Velva aftershave and cigarettes. He put his finger to my chest and pushed me backwards, step by step across the little store front office, each push accentuated with a loud angry question.
"What are you- a fuckin' momma's boy? You a fuckin' pinko? You a f*ggot, son? You want to suck my dick?"
We ran out of office long before he ran out of anger, so when I was up against the wall he just continued to scream at me. "You want to watch your mother get raped by some gook? Got no balls? Go ahead, take a swing at me you little ass wipe, I'll break your fuckin' neck ... .""
It went on for a while like that. I just stood there, taking it. I was angry at him and frightened and embarrassed and even more angry at myself that my knees were shaking and I knew, KNEW, if I tried to speak my voice would quaver.
"What do have to say, maggot?"
"How do I become a conscientious objector?"
"How do I become a conscientious objector, Sir.," he said, mocking me by imitating my thin, weak voice. "You say Sir to me, f*ggot. You call me Sir. Show me respect. I've got all fuckin' day."
That's how the game went down. You f*ck with them and they'll f*ck with you. Maybe they couldn't force you to do things their way, but they sure as hell wanted that pound of flesh, that ego fulfilling moment where you had to bend your knees and acknowledge that one way or the other your life was in their hands. Maybe they'd let you go, maybe not, the whims of the Emperor are inscrutable, but the maybe's depended on that moment when you caved, when you called them Sir even as your mouth filled with the taste of sh*t.
That was the moment when I grew up, became an adult, lost all the illusions I'd been fed all my life about how doing the right thing was a strong and powerful way to live your life, that by sheer force of will you could stand against Power. alone, and create a different reality.
"How do I become a conscientious objector ... Sir?"
He laughed. His moment of glory. He'd fed me a piece of sh*t, and I'd swallowed it. Tears of fear or anger or both slid down my cheeks against my will. And he watched it. He watched it and enjoyed it.
He went back to sit behind his desk, pulled out two forms. He explained that I had to fill out the draft registration card, and on it was a little box where I had to put an X claiming I was a conscientious objector. On the second form I had to explain my reasons for wanting to be a p*ssy little conscientious objector. It would be reviewed, a decision would be made.
"Can I have a pen?" He smiled at me. "Sir?"
With pen in hand, I rambled. I ranted. I wrote about dead babies and puppet governments and war mongering for profit. Sitting there in quiet little Doylestown, half a world away from the DMZ and Hamburger Hill, the smell of Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks filling the air from the factory right around the corner where every day Blacks and Hispanics got off the bus from Philly to clean, gut, fillet and transform fish into neat breaded little American main dishes. This was Bucks County, affluent white people didn't clean fish for sh*t wages. We imported our servants, and sneered at them while we did it.
At the end of my statement, running out of room, I posed the question: Would I defend myself if someone entered the room right now with a gun and the intent to kill me? Yes. Yes, I would. What I object to is my government putting me in a situation where I have to take a life in order to defend my own. That, Sir, is my objection. When my only option is to kill or be killed, when the simple animal sense of self preservation is the only course, yes, I'll be the savage you want me to be. And if I survive, if I come home, I will never forgive you.
Later, I bragged to my friends about how I'd mouthed off to the guy and stood toe to toe with him, not backing off. How I'd called him a baby killer. Lies, of course, but my ego demanded a cover story, a myth that I could use to hide my fear and humiliation.
A couple of weeks went by, intense weeks where every aspect of life seemed to have been elevated to a higher plain. I was drinking life like it was cold lemonade at the end of a long hot day in August. I seemed to be aware of the smallest details, and to find pleasure in the most mundane aspects of simply being alive. I felt the air on my skin. I felt the weight of the sky and the warmth of the sun pressing down on me, not oppressively but gently, like a heart felt hug. I breathed in the scent of hay growing in the field, the scent of the dairy herd belching and sh*tting as they performed the magic of turning grass and oats into milk and cheese and ice cream. I was wrapped in a weird kind of nostalgia, not yet absent from my childhood home, but already missing it's presence. Being there but not being there, touching everything with my body then touching the absence of everything with my mind.
Another letter arrived.
I walked down the long dirt lane that led to my home, walked across the green grass of the yard, past the swing in the hickory tree, past the picnic table set at the edge of the woods so we could enjoy the shade from the trees. My cousins and I had burned many a hot dog over a camp fire there, snubbing the charcoal grill in favor of the more primitive raw flames. The hot dogs skewered on a branch, perfect savages that we imagined ourselves to be in a time when death was clutching your heart dramatically while playing Cowboys and Indians, or later where death was a flickering black and white image on the Philco safely filtered and softened.
I climbed the ladder made from slats of wood nailed to tree, up into the treehouse my Dad had made for me years before. It was a double decker, the first floor a little cabin, the second floor an observation deck, high in the trees amongst the leaves and the birds. I'd read my comic books here, I'd slept here with the quiet whisperings of night creatures and the occasional sudden heart shuddering scream of a screech owl sounding like a woman being tortured somewhere deeper in the woods. Here was where I'd laid plans of becoming a fireman or an astronaut or a rock and roll star, in a country where you were told you could become whatever you wanted to be, in a time and place where we all believed that to be true.
This was my America, not the profit driven war for profit obscenity that had grown up around us.
I opened the letter. There was my draft card. "Burkett, Jacob L." My address, my social security number. My height, my weight, my hair and eye color. All of me that mattered to my country, on that little slip of paper. No place for morality or dreams, just the fact of my existence as a mind and a body. A thing. And behind my name, in a little box, in bold letters, slightly off kilter as if the printing press had shuddered, was my draft classification: 1-A/CO. I was fit of body and mind, the government said it was so, but I was unfit morally to be a cog in the machinery of war. A p*ssy little conscientious objector.
If drafted I would be assigned to a Medical Unit as a paramedic, the first in a line of alchemists who would attempt to turn wounded, mangled, dying bodies back into living, breathing human beings, knowing full well that there is no Philosopher's Stone to work that magic. Life or death was left to luck and happen stance and the voodoo of medicine was, really, nothing more than a wish to be greater than it was.
Later that year, the draft was ended. Too many people had seen too much on their Philco, Mom and Pop America were beginning to question things, things they had no right to question. People were in the streets, there was anger and blood, conflict and civil disobedience, Castles were being threatened with torches. My number that year was 11. They had already enlisted 1 through 9. I had resigned myself to what I thought would be my fate. I had conjured up in my mind all the images I'd ever seen of the dead and the mangled in order to steel myself against the horror, to try to form a callous over my humanity. I would not kill, but I would live in the midst of death.
Oddly, when the draft was ended, I felt no sense of relief, no feeling that I had escaped. I felt very alone. I had participated in anti-war protests, and had felt the sense of community, all of us standing united in condemning murder for profit, very vocally and with a large degree of risk. But by putting my beliefs into action on this very personal level I had crossed a line somehow, separated myself even from that community. I saw that no matter the numbers, no matter the rhetoric, there is a huge divide between being against something as a community and taking a personal responsibility to act on your own. You become a stray, of sorts, outside the fence, away from the herd.
I had the overwhelming understanding that somewhere a pen had edited the script, that the story would be played out after a short hiatus, in a different location with different story lines. There would be a season of reruns, a moment of reflection, then a return to the new, improved fall line up. It would be a different war for different reasons. It would be sanitized. There would be no nightly recap, no daily numbers of enemy dead, no lists of American dead and wounded. War would become hidden, motives would be offered up and altered as needed.
I was angry. I didn't want to be saved. I wanted the f*cking war to end.