I am not entirely comfortable telling this story but it is very much part of my growing up on the West Side. My dad died in August 1970 after several months of serious illness. I pretty much went through this on my own.
After graduating Stuyvesant in June 1966, just shy of 17, I went on to my father’s alma mater, City College (CCNY). As I turned 18 I registered for the draft as the law required. It was mostly routine.
The previous year I shared my room with September, a sweet little cat. Playful except for the day we were playing and she forgot to let go of my hands as I tossed her on the bed. She left two scratches, which scarred, one below each thumb. This is relevant because the clerk doing registration at the draft board typed “scars on both wrists” on my draft card.
I, like all of my friends, received a student deferment, “2S”, for my four year program. I never thought, as my fourth year ended in 1970, that I would be called to the infamous Whitehall Street building for a physical examination before induction; I was headed to a fifth year of college. There were no 2S deferments renewals to be had.
Whitehall Street was not an imposing structure but was a scary place. So many went in one door a civilian and out the other with orders to report for training. I did not want that outcome. During all the demonstrations and conversations I always envisioned the same personal outcome, a body bag. I was sure I would die in Vietnam and I would not go for a cause like that war. In fact, when I wrote my conscientious objector application I understood my personal beliefs came before my fears and that I could not kill another human being.
The walls at Whitehall had signs everywhere that had the same message, if you think that you have not gotten a fair shake, say something.
As I stepped through the physical exam process I clutched the letter from the CCNY psychologist which was supposed to help me be unacceptable for military service. I was in good health and got to the psychiatric with flying colors. When the doctor asked questions after reading the letter I answered them fully and completely and honestly. I passed there too.
The last step in the process was to sign a document that stated I had not supported a list of political groups, which I had. I refused. The burly sergeant tried to bully me into signing but I kept insisting that i couldn’t. He referred me to the fingerprint lady in the next room.
The nice older lady carried on conversation while completing paperwork and taking my prints. I complained about the psychiatrist who didn’t listen and didn’t understand. As this went on, the commandant of Whitehall Street walked by the office and this kind woman called out “Sir” and when he entered her office said to him “this young man doesn’t think he has been treated fairly.”
Sticking to the words on the signs, the commandant told me to report to his office where he listened to my complaint and told me that the best he could do was offer me another psychiatrist “report tomorrow morning at 0700.”
The next day brought a change in things. I was monosyllabic and the psychiatrist deferred me for six months. Yup, there’s more, but that will come in another post.