Saturday, January 9, 2010

Forty Years Ago Today in Brooklyn: Draft Physical at Fort Hamilton

From an 18-year-old Brooklyn College freshman's diary:

Friday, January 9, 1970

I got up at five, and Dad drove me to Fort Hamilton in the four-degree darkness. First about 150 of us were seated in an orientation room, the roll was called & we went through an hour mental test.

After an hour filling out endless forms in quadruplicate, the actual physical began. It was just like Alice's Restaurant: I was "inspected, injected, rejected."

I took off everything but my shoes & shorts & waited on endless benches to have everything checked: my vision, hearing, blood pressure, urine, blood tests, height (5'4"), weight (130!) & everything else.

Finally at about one, I was allowed to get dressed & presented my doctors' letters to the guy at stop #11. (All the soldiers were expectedly gruff, especially a sergeant who looked like Flip Wilson.) He classified me 1-Y, said I would be rejected for a year, and said I could go home.

I called Dad & he picked me up. A quick late lunch, and then I was off to school. The French final was pleasant & not hard. Exams may make some people nervous, but the mental working relaxes me.

It's difficult to believe that there are no more classes this term - I'm going to miss some of my friends, but hopefully I'll be seeing them in the future. I'm going to take this weekend off to relax, & then I'll study next week.

The family went out to eat, but I was so exhausted I just had a hamburger at home. Tonight it's supposed to get even colder - it's going to be in the 40's in Miami.

We couldn't write for shit in those days, so there's a lot we can remember that we left out:

How they distributed from bags two of the new 30-cent subway/bus tokens to everyone.

How the guy who took your clothes in a plastic bag and put them on hangers had one arm, just like our friend Bud from Marine Park and others had told us.

How we checked, along with all our other physical and mental defects, "homosexual tendencies" and how the sergeant who reviewed our papers asked us why we checked that and if we had sex with men. Turning beet red, we said, "No, I'm only 18," and nobody laughed, and the sergeant said, "So why did you check that box?" We said softly, "I like guys, I guess," and the sergeant smiled and said, "Then you'll like the army; we got a lot of guys here."

How, curious, we tried to watch someone ahead of us get his blood taken to see what it was like and when we lifted the curtain a little, a sergeant yelled, "Stop that, you'll faint if you see it" and we said, "I don't faint at the sight of blood" and he didn't say anything back.

How the little hearing booth was really claustrophobic but it didn't bother us because we didn't have claustrophobia and how we would later hear from friends who were freaked out by it or pretended to be freaked out by it.

How we had notes about our agoraphobia and anxiety attacks from our former psychiatrist, Dr. Lippman from Albemarle Road, and our then-current psychologist, Dr. Wolk from Concord Village, and how the guy at station #11 said the psychologist's note was no good, but the note from the M.D. saying our prognosis was guarded was good enough to keep us out of the army.

And how we never heard from Selective Service again. We thought "1-Y" meant "one year" but that wasn't quite right.

Years later, we learned that our brother's friend's sister was a secretary to our draft board in Coney Island, and she was quietly taking home with her in a big pocketbook the manila folders - the only records at the time - of guys she knew in the neighborhood and thought shouldn't go to Vietnam. She recognized our name, and although she knew us only slightly she figured we would not make a good soldier, even in a national emergency, which was the true nature of the 1-Y classification.

She was right.

For a much more articulate account of a Vietnam-era draft physical, read Doug Rigg's "Adventures at Fort Hamilton." And other guys who got their 1-Y classificatons from Fort Hamilton draft physicals include the great guitarist Waddy Wachtel and former Democratic National Committee chair and Vermont Governor Howard Dean.

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