If you’ve got a fever of 104, that’s pretty serious. If, in 1969, you got a draft number of 104, that was pretty scary. I did. And it was.
The Vietnam War draft lottery was held on December 1—the first since 1942. They wrote the days of the year on little slips of paper, put the slips in little capsules, put the capsules in a big glass tumbler and pulled them out.
It was expected that the first 195 numbers would be called for active duty, most likely in that growing quagmire of Southeast Asia. June 19—my birthdate—was the 104th capsule pulled.
I was still attending Boston University. My 2-S student classification kept me untouchable until graduation six months away. Then, President Richard Nixon would have his way with me.
But not if my father had anything to say about it.
“There’s only room for one hero in this family,” he announced. “And that’s me.”
Melvin Katz landed on Normandy’s Utah Beach and fought in France, Belgium and Germany with the 207th Engineer Combat Battalion. Their job was to build roads and bridges for the First Army to cross over, then hang back and blow them up so the Germans couldn’t use them as well.
As a result of his close proximity to high explosives for the remainder of the war, my father lost his hearing. When he came home, he gave up plans to pursue a law degree. For many years after, he had trouble getting work at all. Until he died, he was a 100 percent service-connected Disabled American Veteran in the greatest generation.
As for my graduation, I never had one. That is, I graduated, but the Commencement ceremonies were called off as a result of the killing of four students at Kent State on May 4, 1970 and a student strike at BU. We were told during Finals Week to close our books, pack our bags and leave the campus immediately; our diplomas would be mailed to us.
When I flew into Miami International Airport, my parents were waiting for me. And so was my draft notice. I was instructed to report for the dreaded physical on June 18—the day before my birthday.
Mel and Sally went right to work to keep me out of a war that was now seen by many—not just bleeding-heart East Coast Liberals—as senseless, with no end in sight.
“We need doctors’ letters,” my mother said. “Maybe Jonny’s childhood rheumatic fever will do it.”
She called up an old family physician up in New York, where we’d all been born and raised until we moved to Florida—ironically, on D-Day 1967.
As you see here, the doctor (name removed) neatly summed up my condition.
However, we still needed something more recent and local. Again, my mother came to the rescue.
“I read about this ‘Friends Society,’ or something like that, and how they help people against the war.”
The American Friends Service Committee was a Quaker-founded organization. One of its missions at the time was to help conscientious objectors find alternatives to military service. They also provided referrals to “friendly doctors” with anti-war leaning.
I was examined thoroughly by a Miami Beach physician, whose super-detailed letter made it sound like I was going to explode any minute.
But would these be enough to get me classified 4-F, unsuitable for active duty? I had no choice but to submit to the physical and hope for the worst.
I reported as ordered to the Armed Forces Examining and Induction Station in Coral Gables. It was every bit the way Arlo Guthrie described it in his epic recording, “Alice’s Restaurant.” I was about to be injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and—maybe—selected!
First thing was to hand in my letters. Second thing was to strip down to underpants. Third thing was to get in line with the other strippers.
There were 25 of us potential inductees, and I was standing right in the middle: a 135-pound weakling, petrified to the bone and almost naked to the bone. And on either side of me, apparently recruited from a nearby high school football team, were a dozen brutes in briefs, none of them weighing less than 200 pounds, and each of them just itching to go kick some Commie butt.
Moving table to table, we got checked out head to toe. Yes, we even did the coughing thing. And when they took my blood pressure, the examiner wrote down 190/90. Maybe the Miami Beach doctor was right: I was going to explode.
When it was all over, we were directed to the lobby, where I sat staring out the window. I imagined it was maybe my last glimpse of American soil.
In my head I was humming the immortal lyrics of Country Joe McDonald:
And it’s 1-2-3, what’re we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam …
After an interminable 20 minutes, someone tapped on my shoulder. I looked around to see a tall, middle-aged Army officer.
“Jon, I’m Captain Roberts, Station Commander.” I tried to stand but was hunched over in fear. Was he about to put me on a military transport?
“I looked at the letters you brought and the results of your physical. Go on home, son; we’re not that desperate. You’ll get your 4-F card in a couple of weeks.”
He sort of smiled, turned on his heels and briskly left the room.
There was a phone booth in the corner. Half in a daze, I called home and gave the news to my younger sister Holly, who relayed it to my dad. Holly later told me that he cried. The hero of the Battle of the Bulge broke down.
Soon after, I received confirmation in the mail that I was “found not acceptable for induction under current standards.”
I began what would be a fifty-year career in advertising. I was able to work in my chosen field—something my father was denied. He never complained about wearing bulky hearing aids strapped to his chest for the rest of his life. He felt it was a trade-off for helping send Hitler to Hell.
I have the highest respect, admiration and gratitude for those in service, then and now. Particularly those who went over in my place. They were much braver than me and deserved better from their country. I am a longtime supporter of the Disabled American Veterans, and have contributed clothes, cars and cash to numerous veterans’ organizations.
But this is one exam I’m glad I flunked.