Confessions of a Vietnam War Draft Dodger (II)

Acceptance at Cleveland State University

I applied for this program and was accepted; thrilled because it would be another form of higher education that enabled me to be draft free. Males were missing in the inner city, no wonder, they were fighting against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army! New teachers were “recruited “and I was one of them, really great news for me because a lottery system with numbers had been in effect. Those who had low numbers drawn, were drafted. Later this was going to be my “fate“.

At our first orientation meeting at Cleveland State University I noticed that I was in the minority, there were few whites in this program but they had the same reason like me, get out of the Vietnam War. I met one fellow, he was married and didn’t have to worry about the draft. We had similar ideas about education and we even made a film about alternative education in the East. My cousin’s husband had an alternative school in New Hampshire that we filmed as well as Herb Snitzer’s Lewis Waldham, an American version of Neill’s Summerhill. This school certainly reflected the spirit of the times, the hippy revolution and the protests against the Vietnam War. I knew that I couldn’t apply Neill’s principles of education in a public school but I taught my kids reading their own material by taking photos of their environment and they would tell me what they saw. I used their own words as their key words and although it was sight reading, they were able to relate to their own text instead of what the Cleveland Board of Education provided. For example, when they saw action photos, “Glenn is swinging “, I wrote the words on flash cards and started with sight reading as well as the letters of the alphabet. I was fortunate to know a woman working at a photo shop and she enlarged my photos free of charge. That was perfect! Of course I also had to teach Cleveland’s reading curriculum but was able to “smuggle “it into the daily program. When I showed my own reading material to a professor at Cleveland State he got very supportive and believed my method of teaching reading was certainly better related to inner city children instead of the Dick and Jane books of white suburbia.

After a summer full of courses at Cleveland State it was time to teach at Washington-Irving Elementary School. It was co-teaching with Gwen, a fine lady from the South that I got along with. We were also close neighbors, she was living in East Cleveland and my apartment was directly located at the border of East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights. Sometimes I took her to Cleveland State but like everyone else, she needed her own car. Public transportation was really scarce at that time.

I usually arrived at Washington-Irving Elementary School around 8:15, a half an hour before school started. I noticed that Vassie was always the first one, waiting to get in. As the weather turned colder, I saw that she was wearing the same light jacket and found out that she had to leave the house before 8! I couldn’t sleep that night and decided to be there at 8 for her as long as I was teaching her. She was extremely happy and one of her drawings is next to my bed today thanking me that I “saved her”. Vassie, you are always with me!

Unfortunately, Gwen was asked to take over another class as a teacher got seriously ill and why have two in a classroom, the Cleveland Board was asking itself. I regretted this but was going to do my best. I also felt happy at Cleveland State although we had classes from 5pm to 9pm four days a week. I came home exhausted, had to do my daily lesson planning and never retired before midnight. However, I was grateful, no Nam and my girlfriend (now wife) from Switzerland came to live with me. These were dynamic times and I sometimes asked myself, how did you do it? I did and was determined that my 31 first graders would be able to read, write and do arithmetic before leaving my class. My grades at Cleveland State were good, I felt I was learning and questioning the system as well. I was convinced that my reading program was contributing as the class was reading their own words and saw themselves as the protagonists of their little stories. It was fun for me and I met one father whose daughter was in my class. Tom was quite a man, big, good looking but didn’t like to work. He’d rather smoke grass and talk about the system, the “man” who was doing everything. I hit it off with Tom and spent time with his family and wife. We usually left Cleveland going out into the country to fish and picnic over the weekends.. Sometimes we went to flea markets and several times to pop concerts. We saw Santana and the Guess Who played in Cleveland.

Christmas was coming and I had the idea to have a Christmas party at my apartment. I discussed it with my neighbour who knew someone at the local television station and they were interested! They were looking for a small report about Christmas but I needed the support of my Principal. She agreed and transportation was provided. She even came along to be on television and this suited her own political needs as she had always promised the community a new school building. My own classroom was actually located outside of the school in a pavilion which was all right with me. I was pretty much left alone and could pursue my own reading program without fear.

My principal would also be interviewed which was just fine. Our Santa (Tom) could also say a few words and when the bus arrived and all the kids went upstairs for a party, I was a bit nervous. However, the kids behaved well and everyone had a great time opening their presents as they were filmed. I also had a bongo player who contributed to our party. Later I saw the broadcast and was complimented by many of my colleagues the next day. It was about time that our school received some publicity, inner city schools were not priorities at all in the system. I just smiled and felt great. These kids were on a bus, out of their district, saw another part of town and they were on television! Suddenly my colleagues were talking more to me and when I was asked to be their union representative, I said yes. In fact, later during the year we were striking against a pay cut, 10 % less salary! This was the first time in Cleveland history that teachers were striking. I had to motivate my fellow teachers and I held a meeting convincing everyone that we have to strike to defend our rights. Our salaries were poor to begin with as the school year was 9 months long, we were paid only for this time, the other 3 months weren’t paid which resulted that many had to find another form of employment during the long summer holiday. This infuriated me and when I tell this to foreigners, they can’t believe it. A wrestling friend of mine, a Physical Education teacher, Dick Martin, had a summer job painting houses. He was three time Ohio Conference wrestling champion whose best takedown skill was the duck under. He would tie up with you and suddenly he’d be behind you by pushing up the elbow and ducking under it as well as coming around. It was a move many of his opponents knew would come but Dick was able to fool them all. He was such a smooth wrestler. Unfortunately the ladder he was standing on while painting a house, fell into electrical power lines which immediately killed him. Such a great loss!

Our 3 day strike proved to be a success as we were offered a pay raise instead of a pay cut! That surprised us!

 

My Cleveland State University Master’s Program was progressing well and the Cleveland Board of Education kept me out of the draft. However, Nixon and Congress decided that people like me shouldn’t be draft free even though we were teaching in areas that many teachers didn’t want to work in. Now there was a national lottery system (1971) and everyone including me could be eligible. I felt sick and knew that I had better get informed about other ways of evading the draft. I knew where I could get some advice from the underground movement located at Case Western Reserve University. It was run by people like me protesting against the war. I wasn’t an active demonstrator marching down the streets but felt that my job as a teacher was far more important than marching in the jungles of Vietnam. The young man I talked to was a law student and he listed the options that were homosexuality, a criminal record, being married, or having a medical disability. I had been a very active wrestler and didn’t think of having a medical disability but then he mentioned if I have any sort of back pain. Back pain was an issue that could be used as a medical disability. I replied that I sometimes have some back pain but then he said I should fake it! Why not, I thought. He also told me that my draft board was quite lenient for those having “back pain “. That’s it I thought, I’ll take it and he said I should go to another law student about extradition from Europe, especially from Switzerland. My plan was to have an army physical examination but leave the same day to Europe, Switzerland and eventually to Sweden.

I made an appointment and had to go to a lawyer’s office in downtown Cleveland. There was another student and he said that I would need letters written by friends and family members stating that I had back pain and lost working time. Losing working time was a major issue and if my elementary school principle would sign such a letter, this would be a major plus point for me. I should also see an orthopaedic surgeon who would examine me and see if I had a “case “.

He also mentioned that Switzerland would allow the U.S. to extradite me but Sweden and Canada were the only 2 countries helping draft dodgers. Switzerland’s ties to the U.S. were too important and I would be expelled from Switzerland. Sweden here I come if this is the situation! I called up the recommended orthopaedic surgeon and made an appointment. I was examined and x rays were made. Indeed I could have a case he said but to really convince them, I need to wear a Bennet corset custom made for my back. This would cost me a small fortune but it made sense. I followed his advice and the corset was ordered.

I started writing testimonials on different typewriters (suggested by the lawyer) that people could sign attesting my back pain. My mother signed one and I was happy that my father’s earlier viewpoint of the war was slowly changing. He supported me now and many years later, he said that I had made the right decision. My friend Bill Brokaw signed, my roommate and others as well.

I convinced my elementary school principal to sign one too. I told her that I didn’t want to go to Vietnam but wanted to continue teaching here at Washington Irving Elementary School. This was my place to be. I think she had thought about the publicity she got from the television coverage. Later she left Washington Irving and became principal of new school outside the inner city area where Washington Irving was located.

My corset was finished and I tried wearing it at home. It hurt me and it was extremely white! I dirtied it by rubbing old rags on it so it wouldn’t look so new. I only wore it at home to “break it in “but knew that wearing it all day would create back problems than alleviate them! When the new lottery results were published some months after my preparations, I had drawn the number 33 which meant I would be drafted! I was shocked and realized I had better get my passport renewed again. I did and several days later I received a letter from the Oneida Draft Board informing me that I had to be in Syracuse, New York on a certain date and time for induction. We would be physically and mentally tested.

I phoned a travel agency to book a flight to Luxembourg. The “hippy “airline Loftleider flew to Iceland for a stopover and then to Europe. It was the cheapest flight available and I would depart from New York in the evening the same day I had my draft examination. My car had already been sold and I was sharing an apartment with 2 men so that wasn’t a problem at all. My roommate Jaime knew my problem and I had prepared a pre-stamped addressed envelope to be sent to me care of my girlfriend in Basel, Switzerland who had already returned to Switzerland. Jaimie promised me to mail this letter as quickly as possible and he did. Thank you Jaime!

I had a long talk with the Dean of our Master’s Program at Cleveland State University. I informed him of my draft problem and that he should send me my Diploma to Basel which he did as well. I was the first student to have completed the program and he was very impressed with my reading program that I initiated and also knew about my Christmas party! This was new to me and then he said that the Vietnam War was a huge loss for everyone involved and promised me that if I can safely return home, he would like me to continue my studies at Cleveland State working on a Doctor’s Degree with him. I felt elated and yet remorse because I knew that I would stay in Europe. I liked teaching kids and felt very comfortable and when the day was over, I felt I had accomplished something good and eagerly prepared the next day’s lessons.

I had a long talk with my roommate Jaime about my oncoming military physical examination. He wasn’t American but a green card holder which also qualified him for the draft. However, Jaime wouldn’t be drafted, he had a criminal record, disturbing the public peace and the fact that he was armed when arrested, didn’t help matters. He was also a gun freak and had several firearms in his room. I hate guns and believe there should be stricter gun control. In Europe they are banned except here in Switzerland where army weapons can be home or properly stored with the military. Rarely are Swiss military weapons involved with crime and if at all, they are used for suicides.

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