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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Avoiding the Draft

When my dad was a kid, his dad, my grandpa Roscoe, was a farmer, a self-taught electrician, and an inventor. He was also a man with an unusually cruel sense of humor—though it was usually used to make a point of some kind.

As my dad tells a it, when he and his two brothers, Gene and Butch, approached draft age in the 1950s, they thought they had it made, as Roscoe was a member of the local draft board. Not only were they sure he'd never let his own son be drafted, but in strictly business terms, they assumed, Roscoe needed them around to work on the farm.

Well, they were wrong, and all three received draft notices.

Rather than get drafted and dumped into whatever branch of the military was chosen for them, they all enlisted in the Air Force.

My dad stayed in the service for over 20 years. And for the last ten years, he was a recruiter. Now, this meant he was a recruiter from the late 1960s through the mid-'70s, at the height of the Vietnam war. Not the best time to be trying to convince young men to join the service.

As he traveled to high schools and colleges around Wisconsin, he was verbally abused, threatened—even in one case hanged in effigy. Being his kid at the time, of course, and being too young to clearly understand the situation both in Vietnam and at home, I found these incidents troublesome.

I did, however, enjoy his stories about the lengths some people went to avoid getting drafted. Some smeared their underwear with peanut butter before going to the physical. Others showed up clutching teddy bears.

I remember he visited the home of one guy who wanted to enlist. This was commonplace—it gave the recruiter a chance to see what the enlistee's home life was like, as well as to talk to his parents about just what their son was getting himself into.

On this one visit, however, he was shown the boy's room, only to find that it was filled with toys. When it was clear he had no intention of giving them up, he was rejected.

But by far, the best "avoiding the draft" story I've ever heard came in an email from my friend Homer just a few days ago. I've heard similar stories, but never one that went quite this far:

"Back when I was weaseling my way out of the draft in 1970 or 71," he wrote, "I  eventually got my papers and had to report to the induction center in Oakland. I hadn't bathed or shaved for a week, had drawn all over  myself with a ball point pen ("love" on the knuckles of one hand, "fringe" on the other, an anchor on my chest with the chain disappearing into my public hair, etc) and had written "every day I  masturbate on a 'merican fag" along with an appropriate drawing on the   questionnaire I had to submit. This was support for a letter written by a shrink stating that I was depressed and almost certainly would  not make it through basic training. Needless to say, in Oakland in the early 70's, my cheap little dog and pony act did not cut ice—regardless, they were kind enough, or burned out enough, not to laugh  in my face. Finally, at the end of the day, after not stepping forward and raising my right hand (the symbolic gestures of acceptance), they pulled me aside; the final step was a chat with a guy from the FBI, who's job it was to inform me of the potential consequences of my act. He was the nicest person I dealt with all day."

But back to my dad for a second. When the draft was reinstated during the Reagan years, I was a 17 year-old punk. The end of the Cold War was still five or six years away. I was reminded every day in one way or another that war was right around the corner and, nuclear or not in nature, I didn't have much interest in being on the front lines. At least not on their terms.

Now, when you're the teenaged, punk rocking son of a man who's been in the military for over half his life, the draft is bound to cause a little friction in the rec room. Most of our arguments at the time, after all, concerned politics and religion, and rarely had they struck this close to home.

But that's when my dad surprised me. The day the registration card showed up, we both studiously avoided the subject at the dinner table.

"Look at it this way," my dad said without any provocation after my mom had gone to bed. "If you don't register, you won't get any financial aid—and if you want to go to Chicago, we'll need it."

"I know that, but—" I was naive enough to still think I could pay for college with what I was making working part-time at a bookstore.

"—Ah," he said, cutting me off, "That's not the important thing. I would like you to register, of course, and you don't want to. I understand that. "

"Yeah, but—"

"Listen," he said.

Then he told me exactly the same thing he'd told me when I was twelve, and all the other kids in the neighborhood were signing up for Little League. I was fretting about that, too. My dad had been a coach for a long time, and I saw what the parents of the other kids acted like. I didn't want to do it, but thought I was under some obligation.

"They won't WANT you," he said. And that was that.

I filled out the card and sent it in.

That was the first time I recognized just how clever a man my dad really was. Instead of yelling or bullying or forcing me in some way, he used the simplest logic. He appealed to my sense of reason. Just gave me two very simple reasons why it would be a good idea. Well, if not a GOOD idea, at least one that wouldn't work to my benefit.

And sure enough, the draft never came around. I never got called up, and the world didn't end. Yet.

But I have no doubt that had the real thing come around again, I would've done the same thing my pal Homer did, and whipped out that old ballpoint pen.