Confessions of a Vietnam War Draft Dodger (III)

Leaving Cleveland, Ohio

I left Cleveland on a rainy day taking a Greyhound bus to my parent’s house in Cazenovia, New York. They had been informed of my plans and of my pending physical examination in several days. It was the last time I saw them for 10 years.

I had to be in Syracuse on an early Monday morning around 6 am. It was a sunny day and we met where there was a huge parking space. I saw Army vehicles and we could park our cars next to them. There were a lot of cars, practically everyone came by car and I saw many different ones as well as motorcycles. I parked my parent’s car and saw armed MPs standing around looking ominous and very serious. This is it I thought, here we go. Suddenly, a Sargent ordered us to board the army buses and slowly we did. I sat down next to another recruit who was quite talkative. I just listened and nodded my head from time to time. I didn’t feel like talking. He was proud to serve his country and “defend “it (how can he if he’s in Vietnam I thought).

It was about a 40 minute ride to an Army base. I had never heard about this base or even knew that it had existed.

Leaving the bus we followed a Master Sargent who informed us that we are now under military law. We were to do what we were now “ordered “to do. We went to a building that looked like a gym room and we were ordered to strip down to our underwear and put our clothes and belongings into lockers. I kept my folder always next to me as it contained copies of my letters, appeal etc. This was not going to be put into a locker. When I saw the film Hair years later, my situation was actually the same!

We were told to form several lines and I placed myself in the middle. Then the Sargent said we’ll be doing some physical exercises. I tried to be as “natural“ as possible but it wasn’t very easy faking it. I had even practiced to get a feeling of this corset but bending forward and backwards were quite restrictive movements. I couldn’t touch my toes like the others and felt a bit embarrassed knowing that such movements were so natural to me but I had to act like an invalid, even with a white corset. However, it was survival and I played my act as well as I could making sure that I wouldn’t be a member of the army.

The next test was a vision test which I didn’t fake. I have been very fortunate with my eyesight and never had to wear glasses; even today I don’t need them. It was another story with the hearing test. I have cauliflower ears which reduce hearing but I did my best only to hear what I wanted to.

The last test was an intelligence test and I was honest. After all I had a Master Degree in Education and was a teacher.

When the tests were over about 1 and 1/2 hours had passed. Everyone was still in their underwear but like me, many were sweating. It was hot in this room and there was no fresh air. I didn’t feel well and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. We were told to get dressed and then a Sargent came to me and said I have to talk to some doctors. I knew this would come and I started to profusely sweat. This time it was a cold sweat, smelling bad not like when I was sweating and enjoying the thrill of a wrestling match taking down my opponent and scoring two points. This is it I thought.

It was a small room and I saw 3 officers sitting above me! They were actually looking down at me like the judge does in a courthouse. Good tactic I thought, make me look up at them. They said I could sit (today I would stand) and I did.

“We are reviewing your case and noticed that there aren’t any X-rays.” “Where are they? “ I was surprised as my doctor told me that I didn’t need them and now I did! It seemed like time had stood still and in my case it certainly did. I was quiet for a while. I didn’t look at my watch or at the clock on the wall. I realized that my answer would certainly seal my fate. They were pointing a “gun “at me and it was “where are the X-rays!” What will I say?

Suddenly I knew. I replied “My doctor told me they wouldn’t be needed but I’m sure you have an X-ray machine here on the base. Why don’t you take some? “I was even surprised that I had said this! Somehow out of the clear blue sky these thoughts became words that were spoken with resolution and conviction.

Now I was pointing the gun to them! Now there was silence in the room. They were looking at each other and some time passed before the middle doctor said “Off course we have one.” I replied, “Take them!” and felt really good.

I was told that the X-rays would be taken, evaluated and that I would be notified of the results. They told me I was under military law and that I would have to be home for the results. They didn’t mention anything about leaving the country but I knew that my plane was leaving New York later in the evening on the way to Luxembourg and that I would be now a fugitive of the law.

 

“All right, follow the corporal“ he said and he pressed a button. The corporal came and we walked to another room where there was a small infirmary and I saw the X- ray machine very similar to one in Cleveland. I started stripping down for the examination. Several X-rays were taken and I redressed. I followed a corporal to the parking lot where candidates where slowing boarding their buses. It seemed to be even a longer trip back to our meeting point. As I started my parent’s car I knew this would be my last time in the Syracuse area. It was to this day of writing.

I drove home and said good-bye to my mother and took the Greyhound Bus from Cazenovia to Albany and then to New York City. I was very pensive thinking that I am a fugitive of law, I was what the army denoted AWOL (away without leave). I was determined to find my own way in life and not be a “pawn in the game “(Bob Dylan). When I arrived at the Greyhound Bus Terminal in New York City I found a shuttle bus to J.F. Kennedy Airport. I didn’t want to wait in New York. I was never fond of this city, it was the center of capitalism and later it would be a target. I took the next bus and had several hours of waiting time. I had a small suitcase and today I would have a backpack and even less ballast. I still had my corset which I hung around my suitcase. I wasn’t ready to dump it. It must have looked strange but I didn’t care. However, I had to put it on and in those days passengers weren’t x-rayed so I could just walk through with my corset. Later I took it off. I had to go to the toilet to do this and stored it in the compartment above me.

We took off on time and I was glad. It had been a very long day and I was more than drowsy. I decided to drink the wine served for dinner and I was able to sleep for a while. I didn’t feel like talking to my fellow passengers, I had done enough talking and just wanted to be alone for several hours. I wasn’t afraid, I knew I had followed my heart and conscience but I was apprehensive. I didn’t have that much money and wanted to work. I knew Lydia would help me for a while but she had 2 children to raise and I wanted to be working again. I felt I could teach English but I knew that working permits would be necessary. Now I was the refugee or immigrant.

My plane landed in Reykjavic and I knew that there was an American military airbase next to it. Kaflavik was granted to the U.S. during the Second World War and played a major role for bombers against Germany. I saw the base as we were landing and thought where there isn’t U.S. military presence today. What a waste of the taxpayers monies, they could be used in education instead of the military. After refuelling I was on my way to Luxembourg. Loftleider Airlines used turbo propellers which were slow, noisy but they were the cheapest flights to Europe. The hippy airlines it was called, fine with me I had time and on this second leg to Luxembourg I felt like talking. My neighbour was returning to Germany, he was working in Detroit but spent his holidays in Europe! I thought that he certainly felt at home in Europe and earned his money in the States. Interesting! He was a skilled worker as he had had an apprenticeship in Germany. Then I dozed off again.

Breakfast was served and I made sure to eat everything and take some reserves which I did. I had a long train ride to Basel and knew I would get hungry so I just took what I could. I also had some bottled water, I can be without food for a long time but thirst is horrible for me. Sweating off the last pounds of a wrestling weigh-in was a learning lesson in itself. Being hungry wasn’t a problem for me but being thirsty was.

When I landed in Luxembourg the sun was shining and after going through customs I took a shuttle bus to the railway station where I bought a ticket to Basel. It would be a 5 hour trip and I had enough food and drink to tide me over. My thoughts were meandering, still under military law I was actually a deserter if accepted and would be subject to arrest as well as deportation out of Switzerland. Sure, Sweden was plan B and I really hoped I had tricked them and that I could start a new life in Switzerland. We were going to try it but I wasn’t Swiss.

When I arrived in Basel Lydia was there to pick me up. What a great feeling and just holding her in my arms swept away fears and doubts. She was working part-time in the mornings at Ciba-Geigy and her day was completely filled up being a mother. I started looking in the newspapers for jobs and suddenly found out that doors were being closed for foreigner like me seeking employment. Why? This was the Schwarzenbach Initiative which was a political issue limiting jobs for those like me. I had some job opportunities teaching English but no one wanted to make a commitment concerning employment until the initiative was voted. This was in several months which made matters difficult for us. I was an extra cost and had always earned my keep, now it was different. I knew that even if I were free, my chances of getting a job would be practically zero.

I was remorse and after one very long week filled up with job interviews- I went directly to institutions instead of writing them, this was very non- Swiss but I was hungry to work. Sometimes I could directly talk to HR or make an appointment. This was good for me as at least I was taking action.

Finally my letter arrived, thank you Jaime, but my nerves were literally “shot “! I couldn’t open it, I held it in my hands trembling, thinking, wondering, hoping etc. Here I am and I didn’t dare open it until Lydia came home. I recalled another Bob Dylan song titled “ I Pity the Poor Immigrant “ and thought about all the others who were on the road searching for freedom and peace of mind. Yes, now I could be that immigrant or even worse, a fugitive of the law. I knew that I had made the right decision and Mohammed Ali also resisted and said he didn’t have anything against the Vietnamese. He was stripped of his title and lost his boxing license resulting in unemployment and deep despair. He even threw away his Olympic medal, what a great champion and man. Mohammed Ali was my hero during this terrible time of my life.

Lydia came home and I showed her the letter. “I can’t open it,” I said. “I’ll do it,“ Lydia replied.

Ever so gently she took a letter opener and slowly slit the envelope. She held it and then came a cry of joy. “You’re free! “What,” I screamed! I grabbed the letter and saw that I was ineligible for the army and would be granted a 4F status. I did it, I tricked them and felt just wonderful.

I’m going to find a job!

About the author:
Robert Butler
Schützenweg 28
4123 Allschwil – Switzerland
robert.butler@sitfit.ch

email

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