On the Road

 

“….I received official notification in the mail that I was to report to Fort Jackson, South Carolina in a few weeks for a physical examination and some testing.
 
My father woke me up that fateful day around 5 a.m., and after a breakfast of eggs, bacon, grits and toast and not much conversation, he drove me uptown and dropped me off at the Greyhound bus station.
 
It was well before dawn on a cool November morning. Winter was coming. You could feel it in the air. We said our goodbyes, and my father drove away.
 
Inside the bus station, several people were curled up in their seats still sleeping. The stale smell of cigarettes hung in the air and no one seemed happy or in very much of a hurry. A line was forming next to one of the buses. I got in it. It was all guys like me–except  most of them were black. No one in the line said much. They all seemed lost in their own private thoughts. I boarded, along with about fifty other young guys, none of whom I knew, and we began the two-hour bus trip up to Columbia, South Carolina.
 
The other white guys on the bus seemed to be from “the other side of the tracks”–a rougher breed than I would have ordinarily cared to associate with. I didn’t talk much. I just stared dazedly out the window of the bus, trying to pretend the whole thing wasn’t really happening. At any moment, I expected to see my Mother’s big silver Cadillac pull up alongside the bus and then force it off the road. Then the driver would have to let me out, I’d get in the car with my mother and we would drive away. The rest of them would have to go on to Fort Jackson without me.
 
As we crossed the bridge from Savannah into South Carolina, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the little fireworks stand where I had once gone to buy firecrackers on the back of a light blue Lambretta motor scooter driven by Jerry, the kid who had once almost strangled me to death, six or seven years earlier. Then we passed the large expanse of salt marsh bordering the river, and I thought back to a time, not that many years before, when as a kid, I had ridden in the back seat of the family car, on this same two-lane road with my parents sitting in the front seat, my Dad driving and my mother making chicken-salad sandwiches, on our way to spend a Sunday at the beach at Hilton Head. 

The guy across the aisle from me was eagerly discussing strategies for getting automatically rejected by the doctors who examined potential recruits. Although I wasn’t exactly the patriotic type, it would never have occurred to me to purposely try and sabotage the physical exam as a means of disqualifying oneself for military service. He was a tall skinny blonde kid, about my age. His face had a number of what can only be described as large pustulating boils on it. I had seen pimples on kids’ faces before, but his were of a whole new magnitude. I was shocked when he proudly bragged to his seat-mate that he had actually done this to himself, by dipping a needle into his own excrement and then using it to puncture the skin on his forehead, cheeks and chin.

We arrived at Fort Jackson to a less-than-ceremonious welcome and were quickly and rudely herded into a drab yellow wooden building and subjected to a cursory physical examination. In a large room, we stood side by side, in just our underwear, while someone, purportedly a medical doctor, and wearing a rubber glove, went down the line placing his fingers in every young crotch, and asking each of us to “cough”.

 
Before administering the written part of the test, however, a man stood in the front of the room and asked what I thought was a rather strange question:
 
“Is anyone here a communist, or an anarchist, or has anyone here ever been a member of any organization or political party that advocates the overthrow of the United States government?”
 
I looked around the room. To my great relief no one raised a hand. The test was quite easy and since it didn’t involve solving any algebraic equations, I passed with flying colors.”

We returned home uneventfully by bus later that afternoon and I spent my remaining days of freedom playing golf by climbing over a fence on the sixth hole of the Bacon Park Golf Course and my nights learning more about how to become a man by studying Playboy Magazine.

 
 
Yet, I was actually surprised, when the letter addressed to me, arrived, just before Christmas. “From the President of The United States: “Greeting! You have been selected by your fellow citizens to be inducted into the armed services of the United States and are hereby ordered to report for induction at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, no later than 8 a.m. on the morning of February, 22, 1966.”
 
To be honest, I felt a little like the Illinois man from one Lincoln story: when he was confronted by a local citizens’ committee with the prospect of being tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail, he announced, “If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, I’d just as soon it happened to someone else.”

On the morning of Tuesday, February 22, I awoke around 4:30 a.m., dressed myself in khaki pants, a bland collarless shirt and threw on an olive green leather jacket, into the inside pocket of which I had placed, as a precaution, a folding knife with a bone handle and a 3-inch, hooked blade. I took it for protection, keeping in mind my previous trip to Fort Jackson.

 
As my father drove out of our neighborhood, and turned right onto Paulsen Street, I experienced a slight feeling of déjà vu as we passed through the pre-dawn streets of Savannah, no doubt, due in part to having made the identical trip only a  month or so before.
 
Arriving at the bus station, this time, though, my anxiety was somewhat relieved to discover an old acquaintance from high school, Carl Youmans, also waiting for the bus. Carl was a rather small, thin young man with dark, wavy, almost greasy hair, flashing blue eyes and freckles. Aside from Carl and I, I think almost all the other young men on our bus were black. Although Carl was somewhat athletic–I remembered he had been on the track team, he struck me as too small somehow, too thin, and much too nice of a guy to be transformed into a government killer. I thought it far more likely that guys like me and Carl were the types who got killed by the enemy, rather than the other way around. But, truthfully, at this point, I was more concerned about just making it through that first day.

Fresh off the bus at the induction station and still dressed in our civilian clothes, the sixty of us were led directly into a small wooden building. It was empty, except for what looked to be a large wooden table about waist-high that occupied the center of the room. Silently, each man with his own thoughts, we filed in through the only door and then circled around the table until everyone was in the room. We turned to face the empty table.

 
I glanced across the room at the odd assortment of young men. They reminded me of the type of people you might see filing out of football game in a strange town. When we were all inside, someone closed the door behind us. An unusual feature of this table was that it had a “lip”, as if someone had nailed 2” X 6” boards all the way around its perimeter, so that it resembled nothing more than a very large shallow box supported upon wooden legs. “All right…” said someone in authority, “…anyone who has any guns, knives, or weapons of any kind, please place them on the table at this time…..”
 
I thought to myself, “…guns…?” What do they think we are—a bunch of common criminals?”
 
Just then I remembered that, in fact, I, myself, had stuck a knife in my inside jacket pocket. While I was pondering this embarrassing realization, there was much shuffling of feet and reaching into pockets all around the room, accompanied by the kinds of sounds that heavy metal objects make when placed upon a wooden table.
 
It seemed as though everyone in the room had been armed with something, as pistols, knives of various kinds, and even a pair of brass knuckles rattled out onto the table.
 
“Your personal property will follow you wherever you are stationed in this man’s army…” said a loud, authoritative, but disembodied voice from somewhere across the room.
 
I remember thinking, “…that’s good, I would kind of like to get my knife back when I leave the service. It was a present from a friend.”
 
Needless to say, I never saw that knife again.
 
 

SC ROAD

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