“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.” - Cormac McCarthy, “Blood Meridian”
I dreamed of the West from the time I was a boy. My obsession might have come from my father, who took his rest by reclining on the couch and watching Randolph Scott and John Wayne ride their horses across our gray, flickering TV screen. I knew before I was ten that any road west was certain to one day make me happy.
My first trip in that direction from Michigan was with my friend Butch, just home from Vietnam. Even with our long, tangled hair, we had quickly gotten rides across Illinois, Iowa, and most of Nebraska in that summer of ’69. I had carried a post card with me that had a picture of the Grand Canyon at sunrise and kept showing it to Butch when he got silent. My hope was the imagery might give him motivation.
We were one evening at an abandoned truck stop in Western Nebraska. The building and rusting gas pumps suggested there was once a decent amount of economic activity along that stretch of the old Lincoln Highway, U.S. 30, but the windows were broken, weeds grew through cracks in the pavement, and the roof sagged. The roadside restaurant and gas stop had probably lost all commerce when Interstate 80 was laid out seven miles south
Butch and I went around back and found soft grass under a tree and unrolled our sleeping bags. We were tired enough from the sun and wind in the bed of a pickup truck for four hours earlier and I expected to be asleep before nightfall. Just as I was fading, an older man walked up and dropped his canvas duffel near my feet.
“Y’all don’t mind if I sleep here, do ya,” he asked. “Seems like you found the only spot without rocks.”
“No,” I said. “Of course not.”
Butch rolled over and sized up the interloper, clearly making sure he did not appear threatening or the type to rob us as we slept. The man was grimly thin, with sunken cheeks and missing teeth, and jeans that were shining with dirt and grease. White hair lay flat and sticky against his head and a bald spot showed sweat as he laid out his bag. Weariness seemed to emanate from his pores.
“What you boys doin’ out here in the middle of nothin’?” he asked.
“Trying to get to the Grand Canyon,” I said.
“And get some sleep,” Butch mumbled under his breath as he turned his back.
I showed the stranger my postcard with the photo of the sunset over the Toroweap Formation in the canyon, and he stared at it silently, I thought, for an uncomfortable length of time.
“Never been there.” He returned the card. “Reckon I’m not gonna make it, either. Always wanted to go, though.”
“Why can’t you get there?” I asked.
“Too old. That simple. Gotta get up north to Washington for the apple harvest to pick some crop and make a little money. I’m not gonna be able to keep movin’ around like this. People don’t pick up scraggly old guys hitchin’ anymore. Besides, my back can’t take much more. I’m gonna need to find me a VA hospital to take care of me.”
“They don’t pick up us scraggly young guys, either,” I said. “That’s why we’re out here. Anyway, you don’t look so old to me.”
“It’s in my eyes and my legs, mostly. I’ve got the South Pacific and Korea behind me. I don’t even know what it took from me, but it got somethin’.”
“But you got to be a part of saving the world, right?”
He laughed. “All I saved was my ass. Look, kid, I don’t wanna talk anymore. I need to get some sleep like your pal over there.”
“Sure. Sure. Sorry.”
Even way out in Western Nebraska where the High Plains become sand hills and the prairie lifts slowly to meet the Rockies, there were remnants of war. Butch and the drifter who had joined us were sleeping off more than just their road miles. Night was coming in from the east and the sky was turning navy and orange and birds made the only sounds along with a few lost motorists trying to find their way back to Interstate 80. I struggled to get comfortable and sleep. I thought about Butch, though, and I hoped the air and open land might be a balm for his hidden wounds, but I knew as soon as he got home from the war that he was seriously injured, psychologically. He was not the same person I had grown up with.
Butch’s house was on the edge of a cluster of modest dwellings that were occupied by a Dixie Diaspora, families up from the South after the war to find jobs in the car and steel factories. We lived in the shadow of a facility known as the Tank Plant, a vast structure that had expeditiously rolled out Sherman Tanks during World War II and had been converted to a Fisher Body assembly line. The car plant loomed over a young man’s future as a psychological constraint on other possibilities and dreams. I always assumed the reason Butch went to Vietnam was because he knew if he did not his existence might never be much bigger to him than the distance from his house to the Tank Plant. Most of us figured we were going to get jobs on assembly lines making cars and trucks and that we would have families and little houses and two weeks of vacation every year until we were too old to keep wanting.
Our friendship had happened partly because we had similar fathers. Butch’s dad worked construction and was a big Italian immigrant with tangles of veins crossing his rounded biceps. Carrying bricks and bundles of two-by-fours and heavy power tools and steel beams had made him strong but also angry. Everyone called him Sonny, but no one knew why, and they were all afraid to ask how he got the nickname. When he came home at night, Sonny expected a hot meal to be on the table and his five sons to be sitting around waiting for him and if this did not happen there were often painful consequences.
Sonny usually drank two or three quarts of beer with his dinner and by the time he was finished he was drunk and mad, usually about what he described as “wasting almost five years of my life in a goddamned war I didn’t want to fight.” He frequently curled a fist and hit whichever son was nearest for some obscure failure or he called over his wife and knocked her in the nose or the eye. One of the brothers always caught their mom before she fell but they never confronted Sonny because they knew how badly they might be beaten. Butch’s mom spoke broken English with a strong accent from the old country and worked twelve to sixteen hours every day preparing cafeteria food at an elementary school. She sometimes showed up with a black eye or a swollen lip, but nobody ever asked her to explain how she was hurt.
“I’m going to kill him some day,” Butch said.
We were shooting baskets on a playground by the school where his mother worked.
“You’d have to sneak up on him or he’d kill you,” I said.
“I don’t care. I can’t let him hit her anymore.”
“It’s pretty awful.”
“I know. But what are we supposed to do? We’re the kids.”
Butch’s shoulders were muscled and strong from dribbling the basketball and he had a nice outside shot. He was unable to jump like a top player, but he was always capable of creating a high-percentage opportunity on the court and even with bowlegs he moved quickly to the basket. When he entered high school, my friend played for the varsity team as sixth man, but he rarely got on the hardwood because the coaches favored the sons of the rich auto executives. Butch loved basketball, though, and was better than all but one of the starting five players. His hair was long, however, and his clothes were from thrift shops and the coaches thought he looked like he ought to be mowing greens at Warwick Country Club.
I first got worried about Butch when basketball stopped making him happy because there was nothing else that mattered to him other than his mother. There were no girlfriends or movie dates because he did not have money except when he caddied at the golf course but he used that cash to buy school clothes and lunches. Basketball usually got Butch through our silver cold winters and practice gave him a reason to stay away from home and Sonny’s beery fists. Every time I saw my friend during his last year in high school up in Michigan, he was listless and uninterested in almost everything.
By late spring Butch and I were not spending much time together, but I saw him sometimes after I had finished running laps at track practice. His brother had told me that Butch had decided to let things just happen to him because he had no plans or any real goals other than to get out of his present circumstances. I knew what that meant for guys our age and I confronted Butch the next time I saw him walking by the athletics field.
“I heard what you’re doing, Butch.”
“I’m not doing anything,” he said.
“Which means you are doing something.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about you waiting for the draft. It’s stupid.”
“Hey, maybe I won’t get drafted. Ya never know.”
“Yes, you do. No student deferment and you’re going into the army, and you know it.”
“So, what, man? What does it matter? There’s nothing here for me. Might as well go kill some time.”
“Yeah or kill yourself in a stupid war. What’s wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with everything? That’s what’s wrong with me.”
The transition he made from boot camp into the jungle seemed to take little more than the time it required to fly across the ocean. How could he have been prepared by whatever he learned in Kentucky? The first grunt Butch met when he joined his platoon was dead the second day; they all had walked into the bush on a search and destroy mission. Less than seven weeks later Butch was the only surviving member of his fourteen-man platoon, and he got new orders to walk point for another outfit. All around him his comrades were falling in firefights but not even the mosquitoes or leeches seemed to touch my friend. He got used to the mortuary team coming into his hooch about once a week to take out the personal belongings of another fallen soldier that he had probably not known more than a week or two.
A tour was only nine months in Vietnam but if you were in the bush with an M-16 it felt like a thousand years, and you thought that it would never end. Butch said he never considered time when he was in the jungle, but I did not believe that story. He said that he got shot at usually two or three times every week and he made it sound like stopping for gas on his old motorcycle. Maybe that was the way everyone dealt with their fears, but I know Butch did not psychoanalyze himself. He did not have that kind of personality.
“I once saw a guy cut right in half by bullets,” he said.
“What? What are you talking about?”
We were camped that night on Little Thompson Creek in Colorado when he made that statement, and we were on our way to the Grand Canyon. Butch had been sitting on the grass bank and watching the water for what seemed to be a very long time and I went over to make sure he was okay. He had not even moved his head.
“It was just the bullets,” he said. “There were so many of the VC in the tree line and we had no idea. I don’t even remember the guy’s name. We never wanted to know their names until they’d been around a while.”
“Butch, man, don’t think about this crap,” I said. “We’re up in the mountains. It’s over for you.”
His face had hardened with anger when he looked up at me.
“Don’t ever say that. It won’t ever be over for me. But it’s over for that guy, whoever in the hell he was and wherever he was from.”
“Sorry, man. I’m just trying to get you to move on.”
“He was a black dude, but he had soft straight hair. That’s what I remember about him. I never saw that before. The ambush came from behind us. They let us walk past their position and then opened up. When I turned around, I saw the top half of him fall off the bottom half. His legs just stood there for a few seconds and then collapsed. There was just a cloud of like bloody mist in the air right where he had been standing. Strange, man. Very, very strange. When dust-offs came with the black bags, there were two distinct pieces of him they zippered away. His face just had this blank look like nobody could ever comprehend what had just happened to him, including him. I just never knew who he was. I guess he was somebody, though.”
“Let’s get out of here early in the morning,” I said. “We’ve got a better chance of catching a ride up Trail Ridge Road if we’re out there early.”
Butch did not know why every soldier that had joined his platoons had died and he was sitting in the Rocky Mountains and breathing fresh air. Every battlefield survivor is supposed to carry some of this with them the rest of their lives and the burden can eventually become debilitating. Butch even felt bad about his Purple Heart. The day before his tour had ended, he had been playing basketball on a base in Saigon when a stoned grunt had walked onto the court with his M-16. He demanded to be allowed into the game but was completely ignored by all ten of the players until he fired his gun into the air.
“I’m playin’.” He had finally acquired their attention with his weapon. “The honky leaves.”
The thought had not occurred to Butch that he was the only white player on the asphalt court but there had even been a few times when he was the only white soldier in his platoon. Blacks serving in Vietnam were almost 40 percent of the troop total, even though they were only about 13 percent of the U.S. male population. A lack of work and educational opportunities caused by discrimination left young black males reduced to draft victims or enlistees hoping to learn skills in the military and survive combat.
Race usually was not a consideration, though, when you were walking the bush. You thought about who had the strength to do what was necessary to kill the enemy before they killed you. Racial tension existed throughout the army but not when you were engaged in a firefight and living through an ambush. Skin color seemed even more utterly insignificant in combat and now, on his last day, just playing a game of full court basketball, Butch’s life was threatened for being the wrong color.
“Ain’t nobody going nowhere but you, little brother,” said the player holding the ball. “You need to put that gun down and go clear your head.”
“Nuh-uh. Honky goes and I play, or I start shooting at y’all instead of in the air.”
The M-16 had been hanging from his hand with the barrel pointed downward but he raised it in the direction of the basketball players and smiled.
“You a crazy mother fucker.”
“I show you how crazy, brother.”
Just before he pulled the trigger on the automatic weapon, he teetered to the gun side, losing his balance possibly from whatever drug he had taken or smoked. In that moment, all ten of them on the court realized they were about to become targets and they broke for a nearby row of vehicles and the shelter of a Quonset hut. Butch, maybe instinctively, went for a clump of green undergrowth because the jungle had never failed to provide him the cover to keep him alive and unharmed. As he left his feet to dive into the undergrowth, Butch felt a sting in his ass.
“Before I even hit the ground, I was almost smiling,” he said. “All that time in combat without even a damned scratch and I get shot in the ass playing basketball on my last day in country. Then I just started laughing. It hurt like hell, but I couldn’t stop laughing.”
He was the only troop injured and was given his purple heart at the National Guard armory after he got back home to Michigan. The local commander made a big ceremony of the presentation and Butch smiled his square, white teeth the entire time and everyone thought he was so proud, but he was just laughing at the absurdity of being shot in the ass while playing basketball and getting an award for service.
The only time he ever talked about Vietnam was when he ran into a person spouting nonsense about patriotism and stopping the commies and how America had to lead the way for freedom and democracy for the rest of the world. I knew those types made him angry, but I had not seen him confront one of them until we became stranded out in Western Nebraska.
There were a lot of discontented young Americans on the road in the sixties and early seventies. They did not seem afraid of the future, but they were trying to figure out how it might be ignored and still find happiness. I never met anyone my age that was interested in the war or thought that it was important to America, and the friends that had been drafted like Butch came back bitter and cynical about the waste. Roads were crowded with hitchers because that was not considered dangerous when the other option was carrying an automatic weapon in a jungle full of silent Viet Cong lying in wait.
In Big Springs, Nebraska, before I-80 climbs slowly toward Wyoming, a trucker dropped us off at a gas station and motel and we grabbed Cokes before walking back down to the on ramp. The temperature was 105 degrees on the thermometer when we left the truck stop, and we were sweating and thirsty by the time we had covered the 300 yards to the bridge over the divided highway. There were about two dozen people hanging signs off the side of the overpass with the names of their destinations written as boldly as they had been able to manage with crayons or dry markers. I did not know how this might turn into a ride from a passing motorist but as we approached the highway, we saw a new sedan stop and the driver jumped out and hollered back out at the crowd of dusty travelers.
“Hey, San Francisco, I got room for one.”
A thin girl with an orange pack and brown and pink tee shirt went racing down the access road, tossed her gear into the trunk that had already been popped open, slid in a rear seat and barely got the door closed before the car was merging back into the stream of tractor trailers with their great cargoes, and Chevys and Fords pulling pop up campers for families bound for national parks and summer vacations.
Butch and I did not understand why the hitchers were up on the overpass and not at roadside with their thumbs out, but we quickly decided to take advantage of their lack of insight. In less than fifteen minutes, though, a Nebraska Highway Patrol cruiser rolled to a stop very close to our feet.
“Afternoon, gentleman.” The officer had not lingered behind the wheel to call in our descriptions on the radio. I suspected he did not view us as a threat to his safety.
“Um, hello,” I said.
“What are you doing out here?”
“Trying to get a ride down toward the Grand Canyon.”
“Well, you’re breaking the law doin’ it and I’m gonna write ya both a ticket before I send you on your way.”
“What law did we break?” My voice quivered. I was nervous. He was a big man, and his gun was in a shining leather holster and the sun glinted off a small part of the chamber that was exposed. A ticket was also likely to cost more money than I had in my possession, and I had never been inside of a jail.
“We don’t allow hitchhikers on the super-highway,” he said. “So, I want the two of you off of our Interstate right now by the nearest available exit.”
Butch had been silent and picked up his pack and walked past the trooper before he was told to stop. The level of the officer’s voice startled me as I was lifting my gear. Butch turned around to look back at the lawman but still did not speak.
“I said ‘nearest possible,’ didn’t I?” he asked. “You know what that means? That means that fence right there. You go over it into that field and work your way back up to the local road through the corn. I didn’t say you could just waltz back the way you came. Now get off our highway.”
The expression on Butch’s face made me glad he was no longer carrying an M-16. He still did not speak as we both climbed the fence line that had barbs on the top wire. My jeans caught as I slipped my leg over and I fell on top of my pack. Butch waited, still silent, as I got up and slapped the dust off and then we moved along the edge of the cornrows for about a half mile before we came up through a ditch in front of the truck stop where the fence wire was loose, and we slipped through with little effort. The trooper had watched us and had backed up to the local road and was waiting.
“All right boys, get in the back of the cruiser and I’ll get your information to write these tickets.”
The tag pinned to his shirt said he was a sergeant and I remember his first name was Lawrence, but I forgot everything else when he passed our tickets into the back seat and told us we had been fined $50 each for hitchhiking on a federally maintained highway. I had less than $70 and I did not know how much cash Butch was carrying but I did not think he had enough to pay his fine.
“You can each put your money in the envelope and seal it and leave it with me and I’ll pay the court come Monday morning,” Officer Lawrence said, “Or you can spend a few days sleeping in the Big Springs jail until you can get in front of a judge. Your choice.”
“I ain’t givin’ you a dime,” Butch said.
The cop looked in the mirror. He had not mistaken the anger in Butch’s voice. “It ain’t me, son; it’s this county. We enforce the law.”
“I’m not your son, either.”
I was worried. I had never seen Butch get angry because he had a tolerance that made him able to walk off when conflicts arose but the demeanor of this lone state trooper out in the high plains of Western Nebraska had made my friend seem momentarily unstable.
“What you are right now,” the officer said, “is a lawbreaker and you can pay your fine or I can lock you up until Monday.”
“Put us in jail, then,” Butch said.
“Wait a minute.” I did not want to spend another minute in Big Springs, Nebraska. “How about we count out our money, put it in these county envelopes with our signed tickets, and you can drive us down to the courthouse and watch us drop them in the mailbox? That way you are sure the county got its money, and my buddy doesn’t have to worry about his cash not making it to the judge’s desk, or wherever it’s supposed to end up.”
“I suppose you’re the smart one,” Officer Lawrence said, and he dropped the big Ford into drive, and we were at the courthouse steps in a few minutes. Butch had $54 and my total was $71. Sergeant Gary watched us put the cash in the pre-addressed envelopes with the government postage guarantee in the corner and followed us to the blue mailbox on the corner.
“All right,” he said. “You two get back in the car.”
“Why? Where are we going?”
“I’m taking you out to the edge of town. Dropping you off at the county line. Don’t want your type in Big Springs. You can walk out to the Lincoln Highway. There’s an old gas station out there where the Greyhound stops. Maybe you’ve got yourself enough money left to get on out of Nebraska when it comes through. I hope so.”
Butch was quiet again when we jammed our packs between us in the back seat and Sergeant Lawrence drove north on an old two-lane that had been poorly patched with tar and gravel. Ten minutes outside of town no crops were growing and the horizon in every direction was filled with bleak desolation.
“How far do we have to walk to that bus station?” Butch asked.
“Oh, not too far,” Officer Lawrence looked in the mirror and smirked. “Maybe five or six miles.”
Butch slapped his hand down on the leather of the front seat.
“That’s pure bullshit,” he yelled. “Bullshit. It’s over hundred degrees out there and we don’t have any water.”
“Hold on there,” Lawrence said. “You need to calm down unless you want some time in jail.”
“Who the hell do you think you are?” Butch was visibly twitching around his eyes, and I saw the veins in his neck pulsing.
“You’re starting to push it too far with me, pal.”
“Push it? Push what?”
“I’ll tell ya what you’re pushing if you want to know. You’re pushing it with your long, stinky hair and your damned Jesus sandals and dirty clothes and your whole hippie attitude. Why don’t you boys do something productive and get a job and help this country out instead of just running around all over and causing problems? We got boys over in Vietnam dying to protect your hippie freedoms. You ought to have some respect.”
Butch exploded. “Help this country out? How about you help this country out, you fuck?”
He reached into his shirt and pulled out the dog tags he had decided to wear until he died to remind him of his lost friends. Butch jerked the chain around his neck until it broke and leaned over the seat with the metal ovals in his palm.
“You see that, pal? You know what those are? Maybe not, because you haven’t been over there to try dying for your country. I have. I saw all those boys dying to protect my hippie freedoms. Maybe 50 of ‘em were in my unit. Not a one of ‘em died so assholes like you could run around and treat people like shit. So just fuck you.”
If a pistol had been lowered at us from the front seat I would not have been surprised. Instead, the cruiser slowed and rolled to a stop on the gravel shoulder, and we heard only two words, “Get out.”
We did, and gladly.
* * *
When protest marches began each spring in Washington, I found a way to travel east from Michigan and become a part of the crowds moving up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. One year I hitchhiked and another spring we squeezed five of us into a friend’s old coupe and went out across the Pennsylvania Turnpike and down into DC. We camped out in Potomac Park and there were thousands of tents and trucks and people with fire pits and loudspeakers. When I went for a run past the Lincoln Memorial, I passed a couple of people sitting at a folding card table on metal chairs and they had a hand-written sign taped to the front that said, “Pink Sunshine - $1.00.” I did not know if this was a bargain. A hundred yards later a man appearing to be in his forties was sitting beneath a tree with a sign that read, “Another unemployed carpenter for peace.”
A big concert was held at the Washington Monument the night before the May Day March. In the campground, I watched the sun dropping down onto the historic river and wondered what General Washington might think of the country he had helped to found if he were able to see rising marijuana smoke and angry masses of young people petitioning their government. A girl came by our campsite with a bottle of sweet wine and asked me if I wanted to walk up to the concert and we passed the bottle back and forth as we went in that direction. She was already a bit drunk and said she had been smoking weed most of the day.
“But I don’t give a shit, ya know?” she said. “They killed my fucking big brother for no reason. Just because of their communism paranoia. I hate Nixon. I hate his fucking war.”
“Jesus, I’m sorry. That’s pretty awful.”
“Yeah, well, I’m staying stoned and fucked up until he comes home.”
“But I thought you said he was.......”
“Doesn’t matter. Long as I’m messed up, I can convince myself he’s coming home. My dad won’t talk, and my mom has Donny’s picture on the counter in the kitchen and she talks to him all day long like he’s there. We’re all fucked up.”
“I’m sorry. Don’t know what to say.”
“Nothing to say. I came up here from Georgia to feel like I’m doing something, you know, just being here in the street, being a number.”
“Yeah, seems like the only thing we can do, I suppose. Not sure how it makes a difference. Doesn’t look like anything more than another concert with a big, stoned crowd.”
“Yeah, but they’ll notice us, and we’ll be on the news and tomorrow we’ll shut down Pennsylvania Avenue and that motherfucker president will know how many people hate him.”
“I think he should know by now.”
The crowd grew dense, and we were jumbled around and banged shoulders with others as we approached the rise to the monument. She slipped away and I made no effort to stay with her. The sadness she carried was probably constant in every moment of her life and everyone around her suffered because that was what she intended. She was pretty with big round eyes and narrow, square shoulders but her darkness was visible in the sunlight.
Before nightfall all of us were singing along with Country Joe and the Fish and his refrain, “One, two, three, four, what are we fightin’ for, don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.” Everyone laughed and cheered but I saw fear in the eyes of young men like me and they grew serious with Peter, Paul, and Mary’s verses of, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” We all went a bit crazy with our discontent, though, after Dylan took the stage and put every thought and emotion we had into words. We were the young who had grown up saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag every morning in school and we had those damnable and unforgettable drills to practice hiding under our desks to avoid being burned to death by a nuclear attack. All of us were raised to believe America was a good force that fought against all that was bad and our president was a truthful and honorable man, but we no longer believed much of what we had been taught.
Marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, the next morning did not seem to have much personal value. There were news cameras and reporters with notepads, but I did not think they had any chance to capture the collective sense of what we all felt or were thinking. One of the protest marchers I noticed had grown tired or was stoned and had sat down next to a sidewalk light pole and was facing the street when a cop came out of a building and walked straight toward him as he pulled out his baton. When the officer swung and hit the unsuspecting kid in the back of the head, I thought the cracking skull sounded like a baseball bat breaking at the handle on a bad pitch. Blood spurted into the air and still everyone kept walking toward the White House as the longhaired teenager fell over onto the pavement. The policeman and his friends just headed up the sidewalk with the protestors. Nothing changed that day, of course; the world and the war wagged on, and we went back to our college dorm rooms and minimum wage jobs.
The war, though, had even got inside Abbott Hall back in East Lansing. I became eligible for the draft lottery the previous December and every male student born the same year had their birth date painted on a little ball and dropped into a hopper that spun the numbers. Usually, mornings in the dorm basement TV room were quiet but the day of the drawing, as Christmas vacation approached and a gentle snow fell across our beautiful campus, we were all solemn and worried as we gaped at hazy black and white television screens. The TV room in the basement was always too cold and we rarely watched anything other than football down there because of the chill air.
When the draft lottery started, we saw a man in a suit reach into a clear plastic orb and take out a ping-pong ball with a date written onto the side. He announced the first one and I heard someone across the room scream. This was Larry; a diminutive trumpeter in the “Fabulous Spartan Marching Band.” No one had ever heard him express himself barely above a breathy whisper as if he were saving his lungs for his instrument but now his birthday had connected him to an improbable destiny and if the military needed more soldiers, every boy in the country born on the same day as Larry would be the first to get called up. As the numbers got bigger, the chances of being drafted inversely decreased. I pulled 32, which meant that after I got my degree, I was certain to be inducted and sent to basic training and on to Southeast Asia. I was unable to go more than a few minutes without thinking about my impending fate. Generally, the draft lottery inducted young men with numbers up to 175.
The TV room emptied slowly as students learned of their military value. A few were sitting in corner chairs and sobbing. They had drawn very low numbers like Larry and I and were practically scheduled to be in uniform shortly after graduation ceremonies. My mother was from Canada, though, and I had planned to leave for Newfoundland when I got my induction notice. I did not believe any of the nonsense about communism being a threat to America or the “Domino Theory” and had been reading a lot of anti-war literature. All through my high school years, I had walked factory worker neighborhoods and handed out pamphlets informing people about the politics of the Vietnam War and how to resist. No one I knew had ever taken up the cause of resistance.
I did not want to live in Canada because it was colder than Michigan, but I figured it was much better than dying in the jungle for no apparent reason. As the months went by, I kept trying to envision myself leaving home and taking the Canadian National train up to North Sydney, Nova Scotia to catch the ferry across to Port aux Basques. My entire youth had been spent dreaming of the Southwestern U.S. and big vistas and constant sunlight and I did not like the idea of the foggy banks of Newfoundland and the snow tunnels down George Street in the winter. I kept hearing the opening verses of a song by a folk group that had performed in the student union - James and the Good Brothers:
“I hitchhiked up from Michigan, ain’t never goin’ home again
and my girlfriend might meet me here another time.
And everything I left behind just to find some peace of mind,
My body’s cold and hungry but it’s mine.
It’s rainin’ and my clothes are wet and I wish I had a cigarette
And my old boots feel tighter than they were before.
And every time a car goes by I realize the reason why
I may not see my old friends any more.
But I’ll never be a loser ‘cause I got nothin’ to lose
So leave how I live and die for god to choose.”
Regardless of my great trepidation, Vietnam and Canada did not get me because the draft ended just before I graduated from the university. The Paris Peace Talks had begun a month before I had earned my diploma and I walked out into the world mostly unafraid. Fear changes perspectives and when your father is large and powerful and often angry, and you live in his house as a boy and there is also a war waiting for you, then little else can be as frightening. I was freed to take chances that my friends from comfortable households might never even consider. Our troubled family and divided country began to feel like a form of grace for me. I should have been afraid to stand beside the highway with my thumb out imploring strangers to give me a ride.
But I was not, and a thousand roads were opening in front of me.