I remember the room, though I was there for just ten minutes, fifty years ago.
The army sergeant unlocked the classroom door as late afternoon sun, strained through aluminum blinds, glared at the linoleum floor. Fifty guys, in our teens through twenties, trooped in and headed for desks that filled the space.
We’d been bussed in from induction centers around Philadelphia. Though some of us had recently graduated college, most had just finished high school. No longer cloaked by student deferments, we shuffled in our skivvies through the Army Induction Center on North Broad Street, exposed to the Vietnam war’s draft apparatus.
The sergeant, wine-barrel chested and buzz cut, had been sent by the army’s Office of Central Casting and, true to script, barked as we filed in: “Take a pencil from Corporal Doyle. Take a Loyalty Oath from Corporal Klein.”
The Vietnam War consumed the mind of every draft-age American male in the 1960s and ’70s. Nothing, not college, career, love, marriage, or sex, played a larger role in young men’s lives.
Vietnam black-shadowed my two-year run-up to graduation as I took classes from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) about alternatives to fighting in Vietnam. Their overarching thesis, repeated at every meeting, was, “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”
I did not want to.
But the implications of this message were complex. No, I didn’t have to go; with luck, I could evade the draft. But if luck were not with me, I could finish with a run to Canada, or a five-year stint in jail.
There were many paths to evading the draft. I tried one: sending my draft board a certified letter, asking for an interview with its medical officer regarding my health, an interview that by their own regulations they had to grant. As the AFSC suggested might happen, the board never replied, leaving me with a legal card to play if other evasion tactics failed.
In the exam room where a doctor was giving cursory physicals, a kid pointed out his flat feet. The MD tried unsuccessfully to run a letter opener under the guy’s arches, took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes and said, “These are the flattest feet I’ve ever seen. You’re not going to ’Nam.”
The kid smiled, turned. As he walked by me, I said, “Boy did you get lucky.”
“Lucky, my foot. These dogs pain me every day of my life.”
I hoped the doctor would hear a hay fever rasp in his stethoscope when he pressed it to my chest. But allergy season was over, and he ended the physical with, “You’re good to go, young man.”
“But doctor, I requested an interview with my draft board’s medical officer. They never even.…”
“Tell it to the judge, kid.”
The AFSC said if the Army accepted a man’s claim to be a sole surviving son, divinity student, or conscientious objector, they could order him to alternative service – work at a V.A. hospital, for instance. I was none of these. With the doctor’s curt dismissal of the draft board letter, my last tactic to evade the draft was refusing to sign the army’s Loyalty Oath.
“Refusing to sign” as the AFSC called it, would put army intelligence on my trail. The two security officers tasked with investigating me would review my FBI record and talk to friends, teachers, neighbors. If they determined I was not a security risk, the army would take me into their ranks without my signature on the oath. But in those days, with so many guys refusing to sign, it took two years before two agents were available for an investigation. Maybe they’d let me go.
Signing the oath affirmed I was not a member of any organization advocating overthrowing the government by force, violence, or other unlawful means. I had no problem with that. I was then and am now a supporter of our government, even through disagreements I’ve had with it, including our involvement in this war. Occupying a country on the other side of the globe, napalming it down to the rice paddies while killing tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, was immoral.
I took a desk in the last row of the classroom. The sergeant bellowed, “Listen up, men. Does everyone have a pencil?”
If you had a hand, you had a pencil. We “yes-sirred” him.
“Does everyone have a document that says ‘Loyalty Oath’ at the top?”
If you had an index finger and an opposing thumb, you had the oath. We “yes-sirred” again.
“Hold the pencil in your right hand.”
I thought, What if you’re left-handed? but knew this was not a good moment to ask; silence hushed the room.
“Now sign your name on the dotted line at the bottom.”
The scratching of forty-nine pencils scripting names filled the quiet.
When the room went silent, the sergeant asked, “Has everyone signed the Loyalty Oath?”
A short beat, and then from the back, a lone voice, “No sir.”
Forty-nine heads turned around to look at me.
“Will you sign the loyalty oath, mister?”
“No sir, I will not.”
A low murmur.
Now in a louder voice, “Underneath the dotted line, write a statement saying you are refusing to sign, and then sign the statement.”
The AFSC had warned us of this ruse. You were not to put your name anywhere on this piece of paper.
“No sir, I will not.”
A few “holy shits” skittered across the room.
“What is your name, mister?”
He looked at his clipboard. “Acekoff?”
Rarely had my name been mispronounced so badly.
“Do you know what I can do to you if you don’t sign this paper, Mr. Acekoff?”
“You can keep me here for seventy-two hours and then you’ve got to let me go.”
“Is that so?”
“That is the law, sir.”
“Men, hand me your Loyalty Oaths as you exit the room. Dismissed.”
I was the last to leave, and held my breath as the sergeant glared at me.
An hour later, my years of draft evasion efforts came to a head. I joined a line of guys at a desk where a lone sergeant sat. As each boy stepped up, he told the officer his name; the sergeant told the kid his draft status.
A status of 1-A meant you were available for military service and would be called up for boot camp soon. Most guys here were 1-A.
4-F, a permanent deferment, made you ineligible for the army. Mr. Flat-feet, limping from a day of standing, had been designated 4-F.
1-Y was a temporary deferment. You could be called to duty only for a national emergency, such as war with China, something most of us believed would never happen. Very few guys were getting 1-Y’s.
“What’s your name, mister?” the sergeant asked.
He looked down at his roster. “Victor Ayscough?” He had pronounced my last name perfectly.
“You’re 1-Y, Ayscough. Next.”
I stumbled from the desk, dazed, laughing. One of the guys who had been in the classroom approached me. “Hey man, can you help? They gave me a 1-A.”
“Call the American Friends Service Committee as soon as you can. And good luck.”
I took a bus home, ran a hot tub, raided my dad’s liquor cabinet, and poured myself a double Scotch-rocks, though I’d never drunk hard liquor. I downed it in three gagging gulps, eased into the tub and, slipping a rolled towel behind my neck, closed my eyes.
It was dark when cold water woke me to a thudding headache. My Vietnam was over.
Victor Ayscough lives off the grid on a California rancho with his wife. [His submission arrived via snail-mail. –ed.] They raise chickens, hogs, goats and llamas, and grow corn, strawberries, and cannabis. This is his first time in pixels and in print.