A multi-pronged effort to avoid Vietnam
by John Merriam
October 20, 2010
The alarm went off at 7:00 am. It was December 16th and still pitch
dark. "Goddam draft board," Johnny mumbled while getting up from his
mattress on the floor.
He lurched toward the alarm clock on the desk in his small room.
"Why'd they have to have a physical at 8:00 in the morning?!" He shut
off the alarm clock and shuffled toward the kitchen to see if he
could find anything to eat for breakfast. Johnny Horizon was not a
morning person. That was part of the reason he'd lost his II-S draft
deferment for being a student at the University of Washington. Quite
a few of his classes started at 8:30an hour Johnny considered
uncivilizedand his attendance record was atrocious.
Unable to maintain a C average, Johnny received a notice from the
Selective Service System to report for a pre-induction physical right
after the Universtiy of Washington issued grade reports for fall
quarter 1971. The report showed that his GPA (grade point average)
had slipped below 2.0, the level required for a student deferment.
"Damn!" Johnny cursed when he opened the refrigerator. "Nothing to
eat." The only contents of the refrigerator were three empty wine bottles.
Johnny and his high school buddy, Jimwith whom he shared the $125
monthly renthad thrown a party the night before. Johnny and Jim
rented a ramshackle little two-bedroom house at 1742 26th Ave. East
in the Montlake district of Seattle. Their backyard was next to the
Washington Park Arboretum. Close to the University, the house was a
frequent venue for students celebrating almost any occasion, even the
day of the week.
Two hash brownies lay in a baking pan on a counter next to the
kitchen sink, left over from the latest party. 'This will have to be
breakfast,' Johnny thought as he ate both brownies. His choice of
food would prove to make the upcoming draft physical a bit problematic.
Johnny hopped on his motorcycle, a 1968 Norton P-11, and roared off
to the induction center in the Interbay district, south of the Ballard Bridge.
Johnny Horizon graduated from high school in 1969. He turned 18 three
months later and was immediately classified I-A by his local draft
board, located in the old Federal Building downtown at 1st and Madison.
Johnny joined the merchant marine to get a draft deferment. 13 days
after he joined, he found out that that the deferment for merchant
seamen had already been repealed. The draft went to a lottery system
in late 1969 and most deferments had been eliminated.
But Johnny figured he was born lucky and wasn't worried, confident
that his birth date would draw a high number. He still thought he was
born lucky even when his first job in the merchant marine turned out
to be Crew Messman on a freighter bound for Saigon with a cargo of
trucks and tanks for the South Vietnamese Army.
He began to wonder just how lucky he really was when numbers were
drawn for the second draft lottery for his birth year, 1951. Johnny
drew #68, and in 1970 the army was drafting up to #125. Johnny's luck
had run out. He had to do something, pronto, if he didn't want to be
sent back to Vietnam carrying a rifle.
Johnny's ship had left Vietnam and was in Inchon, Korea when he
learned that he was #68. Between the nightly poker game on his ship,
prostitutes in several ports, and a casino in Inchon, Johnny had
spent every dime that he was allowed to draw against his wages. He
begged an emergency loan of $50 from the Chief Cook and mailed it
with an application for admission to the University of Washington.
Johnny was a terrible student. During high school he was in the
bottom half of his graduating class. The only reason the UW let him
in was high scores on the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test).
Johnny figured he was home freeonce he started at the UW and got the
II-S defermentand he spent more time partying than studying.
The final nail in the coffin of his GPA was the grade Johnny got in
Philosophy 450, a class called Epistemology. The '450' meant that it
was a senior level course, and Johnny was barely a sophomore who'd
taken only an introductory philosophy course before then. But he
liked philosophy. 'I'm just as philosophical as any senior,' he
thought cockily as he signed up for the course.
Epistemology is the study of how we perceive "reality" and acquire
knowledge. At least that's what Johnny thought it was. He didn't
really know because the class was scheduled for Monday, Wednesday and
Friday mornings at 8:30.
The final exam for Philosophy 450 was in early December. Johnny
realized that he hadn't read any of the assigned books and started
getting a bit nervous. He spent 72 hours before the exam in non-stop
reading, popping "bennies" to stay awake. On the morning of the final
exam, during a rare sunny day, Johnny sauntered in to Parrington Hall
with Benzedrine-fueled confidence.
The exam was a single essay question, written on the chalkboard by
the professor, for which the students were given three hours to
answer: "How do we know that what we think we know reflects the
reality of what really is?"
Three days without sleep made Johnny impatient to show he knew the
answer to that question. He wrote fast, rapidly rattling off
epistemological theories, concluding that we don't know what reality
really is. "For that reason," he continued writing, "I have no
guarantee that the professor for this course actually exists.
Therefore, to continue this essay is pointless." Johnny got out of
his seat, 15 minutes into the three-hour exam, and jauntily strode up
to the desk where the professor sat, to turn in his exam.
"Brilliant!" he thought. "I'll get an A for sure. Those suckers will
be stuck here for another couple of hours." Some of the philosophy
students raised their heads incredulously as Johnny strolled out to
enjoy the December sunshine.
The exam essays were returned a week later after being graded by the
professor. On Johnny's, in angry red ink and in large font, was
written: D - - - BULLSHIT!
After getting over his surprise that a college professor would use
such crude language, Johnny realized that a D grade meant his GPA
would fall below 2.0. Johnny knew this was going to be a problem that
might require some sucking up to the draft board. A few days later he
was shocked to find out that he'd lost his II-S deferment so soon.
Johnny did not have a friendly relationship with his draft board, and
that might have had something to do with how quickly his physical was
scheduledmere days after grades were reported for the latest
Earlier, when still secure in his deferment, Johnny had read
something by a member of the Youth International Party (the original
'Yippies') suggesting that students and others send telephone books
to their draft boards because the Selective Service Act forbade the
draft boards from discarding anything sent to the file of a potential
draftee. Johnny sent his draft board a ham sandwich. The Yippies were
right. The local draft board didn't throw away the ham sandwich. But
no one at the draft board ate it either. Instead they sent it back by
"Gross!" Johnny exclaimed when opening the package with a Selective
Service System return address. The sandwich was a moldy goo by the
time it was sent back. After losing his II-S deferment, Johnny had
good reason to be apprehensive that some members of his draft board
might remember the ham sandwich and want to send him to Vietnam immediately.
In the early days of the Vietnam war, before the anti-war movement
heated up, it was easy to be disqualified from the army. A friend of
Johnny's had been deemed not fit for induction due to a bad driving
record. Johnny was a contender, or so he thought, for that category.
The Norton P-11 was so fast that staying within the speed limit was
almost impossible. He had a long string of traffic tickets,
culminating in a conviction for reckless driving earlier that year
when he'd tried to outrun UW cops on his motorcycle, while he was
trying to save the 25-cent campus parking charge by not paying. His
driver's license was suspended after the reckless driving conviction.
(Read "Reckless Driving" at wafreepress.org/article/090906law-merriam.shtml.)
Unwilling to stop riding his motorcycle, Johnny created a fictitious
identity so he could get another license. He first applied for a
social security card in a fake name, chosen at random off a billboard
for Johnnie Walker whisky. He also got a library card in the same
name, "John X. Walker".
The next step was registering for the draft, using the social
security and library cards as proof of identity. No one really wanted
to register for the draftat the time a lot of guys were publicly
burning their draft cardsso Johnny had no problem getting one.
Together with the other ID cards, the draft card easily got Johnny an
application for a driver's license.
Most requests for fake licenses involved minors wanting to be 21 so
they could get into bars. Johnny was 19 at the time and chose a
birthdate for his alias two days from his own, in the same year, for
ease of memory about his age if ever challenged. The female
bureaucrat at the licensing bureau thought Johnny was a good boy who
wasn't trying to dodge the draft and wasn't trying to get into bars
early. After the driving test she cheerfully handed him a brand-new
license in the name of John X. Walker.
A year later, in an ironic twist of fate, the birthdate for John X.
Walker drew #228 in the draft lottery. Johnny's alias would not have
Johnny's buddy, Willie Maybee, had gotten a draft deferment two years
earlier by saying he was a homosexual. Wanting to cover all his
bases, Johnny told Willie he'd buy him a pitcher of beer at the Comet
Tavern if he'd swear out an affidavit stating that Johnny, too, was a
"homo". Willie jumped at the offer of free beer and they appeared in
front of a notary public to both sign a statement about being sexual deviants.
Finally, Johnny set out to prove that he was physically, as well as
morally, unfit for the army. One of his classes during fall quarter
was Psychology 210, Human Sexual Behavior. Scheduled for the evening
in the newly-constructed Kane Hall, Johnny almost always attended that class.
One evening during a break Johnny was outside smoking cigarettes and
telling dirty jokes with one of his classmates who also had a student
deferment. The guy told him about an anti-war doctor at Group Health
who helped young men stay out of Vietnam.
"Yeah, man, my cousin couldn't afford college and this doctor said he
was at medical risk of dying if he went in the army. It worked, man!"
Johnny resolved to see this doctor after he got the bad news from his
draft board. Johnny still had a Group Health ID card from high
school, when his aunt and uncle paid for his medical coverage. He had
to pay $10 for an appointment with the doctor his classmate told him about.
The doctor was simpatico and asked Johnny a string of leading
questions until he found an answer he liked: "I see that you have
flat feet. Do they ever hurt?" "Well, sure, if I'm on my feet long
enough." Johnny thought that flat feet meant the army would make him
an MP (military policeman). Instead, the doctor typed up a quick
letter stating that flat feet would cause acute pain if Johnny was
made to stand for more than 20 minutes at a time.
Johnny rode up to the induction center at the corner of 15th Avenue
West and W. Wheeler promptly at 8:00. He toed out the kickstand and
parked his P-11 as close as he could to the front door, lest a hasty
departure become necessary.
He was part of a group of about 30 young men reporting for the
pre-induction physical. They were directed into a space resembling a
large classroom, with small unibody desks having a writing board
attached to the seat, and given a questionnaire to fill out before
the actual examination started. "Damn!" Johnny thought when looking
at the questionnaire. "There are no questions about being queer or
being a traffic scofflaw."
The Army had apparently modified its criteria for draftees after too
many had marked any available box to get disqualified. The times were
such that males were using any trick in the book to get disqualified.
Young guys in San Francisco were dropping acid and showing up naked
at the induction centers down there. The only boxes to check on
Johnny's form were mundane background questions.
The last page of the questionnaire required affirmation that he had
never been a member of any group on the Attorney General's List of
Subversive Organizations. Johnny wrote in the signature space that he
refused to sign because the question violated his Constitutional
right to freedom of association.
After Johnny handed in the questionnaire, a young Specialist 4 in
uniform came into the room and addressed the group. "I know that most
of you guys don't want to be here," he said in the understatement of
the year. The Specialist was about the same age as his audience and
was clearly uncomfortable. In a "them and us" atmosphereyouth versus
the Establishmenthe was on the wrong side of the fence and he knew it.
"I'm handing out a multiple-choice test to measure intelligence. It's
not hard to pass, and you guys with student deferments need to know
that if you flunk this test you'll get drafted immediately."
While Johnny was filling in the boxes on the intelligence test, which
he prudently decided to pass, another young guy came through the door
to the room. He was short and stocky with a crew-cut and a bad
complexion. "Is this where you join the Marines?" he asked. "No," the
Specialist said. "That's down the hall to your right."
The group was then split up and taken through a series of rooms where
different tests were administered. Johnny was first taken to a room
where an Army Specialist in his late 20s stood stiffly next to a
chamber the size of four phone booths.
Johnny was directed into the chamber and told to put on headphones
for a hearing test. "Pick up that button holder on the end of the
cord," the Specialist directed. "Tones will be sent to each side of
the headphones. Push the button with your thumb as soon as you hear
the tone in that ear."
When the Specialist closed the door of the hearing test chamber,
Johnny felt a rush in his stomach like he was going down really fast
in an elevator. He also started feeling slightly dizzy, like he'd
just stepped off a merry-go-round. The hash brownies were starting to
have an effect and his present straits suddenly struck him as
somewhat humorous. "There's no way I'm going back to Vietnam," Johnny
thought, "even if these bozos pass me on all the tests. This could be fun!"
He decided that there was no risk from the pre-induction physical: if
he didn't flunk it as planned he'd simply run outside, jump on his
Norton and then either ride to Canada or become John X. Walker, his
alias who had a high draft lottery number.
Johnny heard the first tone start dimly in the right headphone and
slowly increase in volume. He waited three seconds before
acknowledging that he heard it. After another tone started he counted
"one-mississippi, two-mississippi, three-mississippi," before
pressing the button. And so on. Johnny did the same thing for tones
to his left ear.
The Specialist scowled when looking at the results after Johnny came
out of the hearing booth. "Do the test again!" Johnny dutifully went
back into the booth for a repeat of the hearing test.
"One-mississippi, two-mississippi, three-mississippi." He delayed
pressing the acknowlegment button exactly as he had for the first test.
The Specialist seemed more agitated when Johnny re-emerged from the
booth. "You passed!" he shouted as he angrily marked a box on the
clipboard he was holding.
Johnny was next herded into a small room for an eye examination. Two
soldiers were in that room for some reason. One of them directed
Johnny to sit on a stool and rest his forehead against some sort of
large viewing machine.
"Read the lowest line you can with your right eye," the second
"OK," Johnny said, "turn the machine on."
"Are you refusing to cooperate?" the first soldier asked. Lots of
guys must have been trying to flunk the eye test.
"No, man, it's just that I'm near-sighted and only have one contact
lens. I lost my right contact at a party and don't have the money to
buy a new one." Johnny was actually telling the truth. He really did
only have one contact lens. He did his best on the eye exam but the
right eye could only have tested at a result near blindness.
"You pass!" The second soldier was almost yelling.
Johnny went cattle-like down the hall to the lab area. He wrote
"Robert McNamara" on the masking tape to label one's name on the
beaker for his urine sample. The blood samples for Johnny's group
were lined up on a shelf as the potential inductees were herded out
of the lab. On the way out Johnny peeled the masking tape with his
name off his blood tube and switched it with another tube that he'd
grabbed at random. "I hope this guy has the clap or some genetic
disease," Johnny thought as he replaced the vials.
Johnny's group was reassembled and mustered into a larger room, where
they were told to strip down to their underwear. Then they were
ordered to line up into two squads, one facing the other at opposite
sides of the room, by what appeared to be a drill Sergeant in full
dress uniform. The Sergeant was backed up by two Corporals with
swagger sticks dangling from their belts.
"Ten-hut" the Sergeant barked. The 30 inductees, including Johnny,
all complied, snapping to attention. "Drop shorts!" Johnny was amazed
that he along with everybody else exposed their privates without
hesitation, simply in obedience to a barked command. "So that's how
Hitler could take over an entire country," Johnny thought.
"About face! Bend over and grab ankles!" Johnny was amazed again as
both squads did as told. He looked through his legs at 15 gaping
assholes on the other side of the room pointed at 15 gaping assholes
on Johnny's side. The Corporals marched along either side of the
room, each inspecting their respective assigned assholes for
hemorrhoids or other visible problems. No touching was involved so
Johnny, for one, retained his anal virginity.
The next stop was to be interviewed by an Army doctor. Someone in
Johnny's group grabbed his arm before he went into the small office.
Johnny recognized him from his Chem 151 lab class at the UW but
didn't know his name. "Hey man, there's this military police guy
that's been chasing around trying to find you." "Thanks for the tip."
Johnny ducked into the doctor's office, still in his underwear.
"Mr. Horizon?" A very bored-looking Major with medical insignia on
his uniform sat behind a large desk in the small room. "I see that
you don't consider yourself fit to be inducted."
"That's correct, sir. I'm a homosexual, sir. I also have a problem
with authority figures. I've gotten so many traffic tickets that I
lost my license, sir. I don't think I'm emotionally qualified to be a
"That may all be true, but of more concern is this letter from your
doctor about flat feet. Take off your socks." Johnny did as he was
told. The Major took a cursory look at Johnny's soles. "Not much of
an arch but I wouldn't expect the pain diagnosed by your doctor." The
Major returned to his desk. "Nevertheless, I'll defer to his judgment
and classify you as 4-F, physically disqualified for induction."
"Thank you, sir! Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Johnny almost did
cartwheels leaving the Major's office. But before he could run down
the hall to get his clothes, he felt a vice-like grip on his right arm.
"Come with me." Johnny looked up to an MP who stood about 6'4" and
reminded him of Chuck Connors on "The Rifleman" TV show. "The
Lieutenant wants to see you."
"See me for what?"
"I've got my orders." The military policeman took him to a small
office at the other end of the hall and thrust him onto a wooden
chair in front of another desk. Behind the desksmaller than the
doctor/Major'ssat a Lieutenant about Johnny's size and a few years
older. He had a military haircut and a slight mustache. The MP
saluted and closed the door as he left the room.
"You refused to sign the Attorney General's List of Subversive
Organizations. That means there's going to be a background check on
you by the FBI and the CID." (The CID is the Army's Criminal
Investigation Division). The Lieutenant stared blankly at Johnny. He
didn't look like he really wanted to go on a big anti-Commie crusade.
"Well," Johhny said cockily, "I don't know about the FBI but the CID
can't touch me. I'm a civilian."
"Inductees are part of the Army," the Lieutenant tried to correct Johnny.
"I'm not in the Army. I just got a 4-F!"
"What!" The Lieutenant looked at Johnny incredulously. After it sunk
in, he picked up the telephone on his desk. Someone confirmed
Johnny's classification. He hung up the phone. "You know," the
Lieutenant waxed philosophical, "you look just like my cousin in Ohio..."
"I hope your cousin gets a 4-F, too!" Johnny jumped up and ran for
his clothes. A few minutes later he hopped onto his Norton and left
the induction center like a cool breeze.
Willie Maybee's sister, Candace, had a baby the same day as the
pre-induction physical. Johnny thought he should go pay his respects
and maybe bring a present. But he had hardly any money left. Trying
to stay in school until he could get a job over Christmas vacation
had reduced his savings to less than $20. After food stamps were used
up each month, Johnny's diet consisted primarily of noodles, rice and
Johnny rode up Capitol Hill to a grocery store he knew about on 12th
Avenue East. The Chinese owner never asked for ID and only cared if
the bills were crisp. Johnny found a bottle of Andre champagne on
special for 99 cents. His next stop was close by, on Harvard Avenue
East. He rode there and parked the P-11 in front of the house rented
by Candace and her husband, Jon.
Candace had a boy and named him Jesse. Jesse's skin was all crinkly
and folded, like a fat kid who'd lost a lot of weight really fast.
"Here." Johnny handed Candace the bottle of champagne. "You and Jon
can't drink this until Jesse is 21 and he drinks it with you."
"We won't." Candace and Jon piously promised not to open the cheap
champagne for 21 years.
"I've got to go look for a job." Johnny secretly thought all babies
were ugly and wanted to leave. He said goodbye, left the house and
kicked his motorcyle to life.
"I wonder how many days that champagne will last?" Johnny said to
himself as he rode to his union hall at 1st & Wall. He went there to
see if any ships were in port with empty berths. Three days later
Johnny signed on a grain ship bound for Iran, where the Shah was
still in power. That's yet another story.