Confessions of a Vietnam War Draft Dodger (I)

I think it’s time that I finally write and deal with this chapter of my life, Vietnam and me. This has been haunting me from time to time and that war has certainly changed my life even though I didn’t participate, I purposely avoided it. This is the story that I’m sure many others did as well but I have never spoken to one. Some were conscientious objectors, refugees in Canada or Sweden or even worse in prison. I did it in a very silent way keeping my thoughts to myself and by not participating in any anti-war demonstrations.

Vietnam was an issue that divided America especially in the families. My father believed in this war (he later changed his mind) and my opposition was a source of many discussions which usually led to quarrels. Four years earlier I had made my final decision to avoid the draft, I wrote him a letter which explicitly expressed my viewpoint about this dark chapter of American history. This was written in 1967

Now that I’m in the autumn of my life (born in 1946), approaching winter, I want to write this story hoping that others can read it and also say no to war. At the time of writing there are many who are running away from war and hopefully can find a place in this world where they can find love, peace and work. While I was growing up in the States, I never really understood or accepted the “American Way of Life. “ It seemed to be a harsh world, keeping up with the Jones earning the “buck “, buying a house to repaint it every four years. My father would spend his precious two weeks of vacation painting a side before scraping it and priming it. Mowing the grass or having a vegetable garden didn’t appeal to me, I thought a simpler lifestyle would be the answer for me. However, hanging over my head was the sword of Damocles ready to cut my head off because there was a draft which registered every male American. However, those with political pull like Clinton and Bush were not fighting in Vietnam.

What was this? Why could they avoid Vietnam and others like myself had to serve. When I graduated from High School I was 17 and the only way to stay out of the army, was to attend college. However, I felt too young with 17 and started to look at another year of High School but as a postgraduate in a boarding school. I had a gut feeling that I was too immature to start college at this age and I wanted another year of High School subjects to prepare me for higher education. I always thought boarding schools were better than most public and I was right. I wanted a real learning experience and it was great.

There was an intensive interaction not only with the teachers but with the students as well. I thoroughly enjoyed the learning process, we had small classes never larger than 6-8 students and great teachers, many who had already retired but their ability to teach was incredible, we were here to learn but we also had to pay for it which had a positive effect as well especially for those who were coming from low income families. Mr Gowen, my Physics teacher could explain and teach his subject matter. He was well over the retirement age, a fragile human being with a lot of patience. I liked him and he as well as others gave me an excellent start for higher education. Although it was a very strict and disciplined lifestyle, I didn’t care, I wanted to learn and to wrestle. I didn’t care about women and alcohol, the others did and some hid their bottles in the most bizarre places. However, there was a lady whose job was to “snoop” and make sure that our beds were made and rooms were cleaned. This had never been a problem for me, I always liked an orderly room.

It was here that I truly became aware of class difference. There were “richies” here, I was the poor kid but I was a happy one!

My parents weren’t amused with my decision to go to Cheshire Academy. It would cost them a lot of money but I was a wrestler and good enough to wrestle for their team on an athletic scholarship. However, I would have to wash dishes twice a day and this was all right with me. Wasn’t it the American dream to start as a dishwasher and end up as a ……………?

Wrestling was my asset, a great passion and school of life parallel to the conventional forms of education. I started wrestling when I was 13 and when I graduated from High School I had won several tournaments and was voted the Outstanding Wrestler of The Year. I loved this sport and as of writing I am still wrestling at a German club. I am coaching a young wrestler demonstrating my moves and how to get points in a fast way. Anyway my status of being a successful wrestler at Cheshire Academy boosted my status there, I ended up winning the Connecticut State Private School Championship by beating the top seeded champion in a very close match that I am thankful for winning because my friend Dave coached me from the side lines and said stand up and escape. I did and won by this last point in the final 15 seconds of the match.

I had another great teacher at Cheshire. He taught us English composition and although he was mocked by many because he had thick lips (he was called the lip), I became interested in writing better. I knew that college would mean term papers and with his help and interest, I was able to formulate and write my thoughts in a simple but coherent fashion. I didn’t want a profound vocabulary, every day vocabulary was all right for me. I just wanted to write his essays for training and his assistance were valuable assets when I had to write and type term papers. In those days we had to research our information, footnote it and then type it. I was fortunate enough to learn typing in High School.

The Draft and Uncle Stebbins

It was here at Cheshire Academy in 1965 that I realized that America was getting itself deeper into war with North Vietnam. I started listening to folk music and the voices of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez slowly made me think about my potential “role” in this war. It was quite simple, either you volunteered, were drafted or became ineligible for military service. The easiest way of being ineligible was to continue further education which I did or marry! However, I knew that this was only a temporary way out, permanent would be the only solution.

I had an uncle called Stebbins who was a professional soldier. He was a First Star General who served under General McArthur in the Pacific Theater.

In fact he was the Aide de Camp to McArthur and was very fond of him. My uncle was an instructor at West Point Academy and asked me if I wanted to be admitted! It would have been a great option for my parents as my education would be paid by the government, 1 child less to pay for. I listened to his offer but rejected. He was quite disappointed but I knew that these West Pointers didn’t have much guerrilla war experience like their Sergeants did and that there were some shot in the back because they weren’t thinking of their own men, just orders from above. However, the possibility of wrestling for West Point would have interested me. They were strong believers in wrestling and one of my wrestling books was written by The Coast Guard Academy Coach.

Uncle Stebbins was disappointed when I said no. I secretly felt he always wanted someone in the family to follow his steps. He didn’t have a son but a daughter. He became a successful banker and was an avid Harley Davidson biker who often took trips with his fellow bikers. He was a small arms weapons fan and once showed me his collection. There were several Japanese weapons which he treasured, each one had its special story. . Although the education and wrestling possibilities at West Point were first class, I knew I had made the right decision. I would have to find another way to be permanently rejected by the military.

I had to get accepted by a college or university to avoid the draft and I applied to several colleges. I was accepted by two, Baldwin Wallace College and Wilkes College. I knew the Wilkes College wrestling coach as I had met him at a summer wrestling camp. He opened the admissions door for me but I didn’t want to be in Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania. It was a depressive area, a poor coal mining region. . I opted for Baldwin Wallace College which wrestled in the small College Conference Wrestling Division.(I won the Ohio Conference Wrestling Division in 1967.)

I knew that college would grant me another four years of being draft free. However, as the war escalated and the U.S. committed itself more and more, I began to realize that I would be drafted after my college days were over. It was during my junior year abroad program in Switzerland that I could look how the world was judging the U.S involvement in the Vietnam War. There were many demonstrations in Europe and that was in 1967-68. In fact I was in Paris in spring 1968 and experienced student riots against De Gaulle. Daniel Cohn-Bendit was one of their leaders. I had the feeling that a future home could be in Europe but I knew that this can only be if I’m ineligible for the draft. I was looking for options and a friend of mine suggested homosexuality. He openly admitted and his draft board rejected him. I didn’t feel comfortable with this thought because, firstly I wasn’t, and secondly, teaching in the primary school level interested me. I had been influenced by the Summerhill philosophy and A.S. Neill broadened my mind about teaching and I thought if I ever leave the U.S.; perhaps I could look at Summerhill and teach there. I needed a teaching degree and read in a flyer that The Cleveland Board of Education was offering a three year Master’s Degree in Education as well as teaching jobs in the inner city. There was a need for male teachers as no one wanted to be with the poor.

Teaching in the inner city interested me and I even wanted to live there but was advised by a resident not to. It wouldn’t be understood, so I lived close to it where the working class and low middle class resided. I felt very comfortable living in Cleveland Heights, an area called Coventry. Later my girlfriend’s children went to school there and were the only white children. I knew the Principal of the school and he told me that this was an enrichment for his school! My landlord was an Afro-American and he lived downstairs. I liked it here.

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