There were few places colder in December of 1966 than Cleveland, Ohio and there was no place in Cleveland in December of 1966 that was colder than the hallways of the Federal Building that housed the United States Selective Service. It was there that the U.S. military pre-induction physical examinations were conducted. That is where I was on a particularly cold day in December of 1966.
How I got there was a combination of remarkable stupidity on my part and remarkable efficiency on the part of the Selective Service Draft Board in Beaver Falls, PA. Looking back from the precipice of almost a half century I can detect with a whiff of objectivity and amazement that it made enough of an impact on me that I can still remember it so clearly.
My day in the icy hallways of the Federal Building began more than a year earlier when we moved back to Cleveland and I enrolled at Cleveland State University, or as they insisted on calling it “THE Cleveland State University.”
There I was, the ultimate small town boy, dropped smack into a major metropolitan area and signed up to take classes at a university I had never seen and had not a clue on how to get there from where we were living.
I was told that the best way for me to get to the campus was to take the city bus into downtown Cleveland and transfer to a second bus that would take me up to the school. That was all well and good, but I had never been on a bus in my life, I had no idea what the fare was or where to get off let alone where to catch the second bus. My first day was a real sweatfest.
Through sheer luck and some very nice and helpful strangers I was able to find the school. Once there I actually found my way around. This was the first year for THE Cleveland State University. The state of Ohio had purchased a small private college and slapped on a few new signs. The entire school had only three buildings. Even I could figure out where things had to be. I followed the crowd a lot and even found my way home at the end of the day. I felt rather sophisticated, even though people said I had an accent and wanted to know where I was from. When I told them I hailed from “Beaver Falls” they answered with, “What’s that?” I never knew I had an accent. I just thought that they were the ones with the accent.
As the year progressed I learned to relax and not sweat so much. I got myself involved at the college radio station. No, not true – I got myself obsessed at the college radio station. I was fascinated with it all and they seemed to like me. I liked it so much that I began to skip classes to work at the station more and more. It got to the point that I was becoming a rumor in my assigned classes.
At the end of my third trimester at THE Cleveland State University my grades came in. It wasn’t so much that I was failing everything as it was that I was almost universally “Incomplete” as far as the school was concerned. They sent me a nice letter that, while officially “incompleting” my stay there, actually was saying, “You’re not really here anyway, so let’s just quit pretending. So long and have a nice day, you jackass.” It was hard to argue with their logic. I assume that in the same outbox as that letter was another addressed to my local Draft Board back in Beaver Falls saying, “He’s all yours, if you can find him. We couldn’t.”
During that time in American history it was the law that all males had to register with the Selective Service within a few days of their 18th birthday. This registration was to let the government know where you were in case of war and they wanted to drag your ass into the Army. The Draft Board, as it was called, kept track of every young male in the country, regardless of physical, mental, emotional, or peculiarity condition. They did a pretty good job of it too. At 18 you went to your local post office and filled out a card with your relevant information. It was a rite of passage that said you are no longer a child, you are now meat.
Based on a number of variables, each person was given a “draft status.”
If you were married, the sole support of your family or in prison you were placed in a status that pretty much guaranteed you would never be drafted into the military. I could never understand why being in prison was such a blanket exemption. I would think many of those guys would already have a skill set that could come in handy. Oh, well.
If you were a fulltime student in good standing in a real institution of higher learning you were given the status “2-S.” That was me for my year at Geneva College in Beaver Falls (lovingly called the High School on the Hill) and my time at THE Cleveland State University. That is, until I was sent a “Dear John” letter by the university. I wasn’t worried because I just assumed that, given my physical quirks, I would be given the new draft status of “4-F.”
4-F meant that you were physically disabled and rejected for military service. Well, if there was anyone I knew who fit that description it was little ol’ me. Boy was I wrong.
After THE Cleveland State University and I parted ways I figured that I would get a job to earn a few bucks and pick up some classes at THE Cuyahoga County Community College to try to resurrect my GPA so I could try to get into another college without being met with gales of academic laughter. I got a job in the toy department of a large store in downtown Cleveland. I still have bad dreams about that job. I’ll try to fill you in later
It never entered my mind that my local Draft Board back in PA was getting ready to stop me in my tracks. I knew that they would be notified by THE Cleveland State University that I was no longer among the ranks of “The Vikings”. (What Vikings had to do with THE Cleveland State University and Northeastern Ohio I had no idea, but then again it was a better choice than the far more appropriate “Floating Dead Lake Erie Fish.”)
The gents of the Draft Board just followed the manual that they used to determine the fate of local boys and reclassified my draft status from the relatively comfy “2-S” to the decidedly uncomfortable “1-A.”
1-A meant that you were not only a lousy student and/or not in prison, but that you were now at the head of the line. No longer just meat you were now a hunk of filet mignon. Don’t make any plans beyond next month and don’t think about any trips outside the country, Bucko. For some reason beyond my comprehension it seemed that my future now lay somewhere in between the Toy Department and Viet Nam.
I was more confused than concerned. I was the guy who had a doctor’s note excusing me from Gym Class all the way through school. I was the guy who was removed from Shop Class because I was, “A danger to myself and others.” I was the guy who couldn’t even hold a rifle properly, let alone aim and hit anything with it. Yup, I was just what the Army was looking for in the middle of a war. I figured that the only possible role I could have filled was that of Hostage.
When I got the letter saying that I was reclassified as 1-A I never really thought anything would come of it. I would just write a letter to the Draft Board in PA explaining things and that would be that.
I wrote that letter and they answered with a letter of their own telling me to report for my Pre-induction Physical Examination. I was being drafted!
I wrote them another letter asking them if they were serious and, anyway I was living in Cleveland and I didn’t want to have to make the trip back to Beaver Falls just to be told to turn around and go home carrying my new 4-F draft status letter.
They replied quickly, telling me that, yes indeed they were serious and that they would be satisfied if I would report to the Cleveland Selective Service Offices for my Pre-induction Physical. They also added a P.S. saying that if I didn’t report for the Physical I would soon find myself in a Federal Prison. I decided that I would follow their suggestion.
So, at 6 AM on a freezing December morning in 1966 I showed up at the marble halls of the Federal Building in downtown Cleveland prepared to get this nonsense settled so that I could be home in time for breakfast.
When I tried to approach someone who appeared to have some authority I was told be quiet and to strip down to my Fruit of the Looms and get in line with the several hundred other young men who were there. I left my clothes in a small pile next to several hundred other small piles, put my wallet in a small cloth bag and tied it to my wrist as instructed by a man in uniform who looked like he would just as soon shoot me as stab me.
Here I was in the chilly marble halls in my undies standing next to a long line of other young men who looked much more physically fit than I. This shouldn’t take long. One gander at my mismatched legs and clearly malfunctioning arm and I would be sent home.
Eight hours later I was still there wondering what the heck I had to do to get these people to open their eyes.
I had put in a group of about twenty other guys standing in a neat row while another angry looking man in uniform stood at the front of the room read off a list of various diseases, conditions, and symptoms. Out of sheer boredom he had turned his list into a song. Our job was to listen and to take one step forward for each of his lyrics applied to us. He did not have much of a voice, but by the time he was finished I was standing alone at the top of a human pyramid. He made note of that.
I was shuffled off to a line where a man in a white coat took my blood pressure. He said not a word to me other than, “Next!” I moved on to another man in another white coat who looked in my ears and down my throat. “Next!”
In another room I and the others were ordered to turn around, drop our shorts and bend over. What heinous crime must this man have committed to get that job? I’m not sure what he was looking for, but we were all then moved on to another room for a vision test. I had to take off my glasses and read the chart on the wall. After the big “E” I was not too sure what was next. That didn’t seem to matter to the man with the clipboard. On to the hearing test!
Before we were shuttled into a small booth for the test yet another angry looking soldier advised us that this test did not have a “pass/fail” cutoff. “You’re going in hearing or you’re going in deaf – but you’re going in. Next!”
After this, as my morning slipped away, I was sent in for an interview by a person who actually had the word Doctor on his name tag. He sat behind his desk and I sat on a chair in front of him. He asked me a series of questions about my likes and dislikes. I think his key question was whether or not I liked “Mannish Women.” Subtle, real subtle. When he finished he finally looked up from his clipboard, looked me in the face, shrugged and called out, “Next!”
Somewhere along the line someone must have noticed that my left arm and leg didn’t match the ones on my right side. I was sent to another office where another white coat squeezed my arm and leg and then asked me to use my left hand to squeeze his hand. At last somebody was catching on that I was not G.I. Joe material. Or so I thought.
After having my arm and leg squeezed I was soon back with another roomful of my fellow Pre-inductees. For some reason the guy at the front of the room put us through a series of calisthenics. I’m terrible at such things. Jumping Jacks? Get real. I never took Phys. Ed. In school and the room was too crowded anyway. Here were twenty guys jumping around with their little cloth bags swinging around on their wrists. It got ugly as a couple of fights broke out and the MPs waded in.
Most of the young men I had seen in their underwear so far had looked reasonably fit and they knew that they were going to pass the exam. And they knew that passing the exam meant that their next stop was Southeast Asia. They were scared to death and it didn’t take much to upset their emotional apple cart.
In every room I had seen at least two soldiers wearing armbands reading “MP” and carrying Billy clubs. All it took was for a couple of boys to innocently bump into each other and a fight would erupt. Within seconds the MPs would break it up by swinging their clubs and dragging the fighters away. It was such a happy place to spend my day.
At noon everything stopped and, still in our shorts, all of us were handed a wax paper wrapped sandwich and a carton of milk – lunchtime courtesy of the American taxpayers. Not many of us could eat. We were either too nervous or afraid of vomiting. The place smelled bad enough with all of the panic sweat. Ham and cheese upchuck wouldn’t have helped at all.
After lunch we lined up again, but this time my name was called out and I was told to report to a specific doctor down the hall.
This man in his white coat informed me that as a result of the physical exam I had just completed that I was not going into military service – yet. Say what? What’s with the “yet”?
According to this fellow I was being rejected because I had high blood pressure. I had high blood pressure at 7:30 in the morning. It was now past 1 PM. What took them so long? Because having high blood pressure was considered a temporary thing I was being reclassified to a 1-Y draft status and subject to being recalled for service at any time.
I guess the fact that my left arm and leg were distinctly below industry standards somehow slipped past them.
I found my own pile of clothing, dressed and returned their little cloth bag that was still tied to my wrist. As I left I was handed a donut by a lady wearing a “USO” tag. It was stale.
From that day until I was 28 years old I received a post card from the Selective Service every three months asking me if my blood pressure was any better. I checked the box saying “No” and I mailed it back to them.
The next time I saw my own doctor I mentioned my new draft status and the whole blood pressure thing. He said that my BP was fine and that, “Those clowns don’t know what they’re doing ninety percent of the time.”
I feel that by failing that physical exam I did my little bit to make the world a safer place.