SEPTEMBER 2021

Definitely Not Dressed to Kill

“Had I anticipated parading through any part of Brooklyn in my underwear, I might have not chosen my pale blue boxer shorts.  But there I was, wearing only leather loafers, dark ankle-length socks, and broadcloth boxers.  To complete my ludicrous ensemble, a bright yellow motorcycle helmet hung from my arm, like a flower basket.  It was filled with socket wrenches.  This was how it had been ordained I would meet my fate.”




In July and August, we looked through AH’s Hicksville lens to watch the first Baby Boomers grow up.  This month, we’ll see how the magnitude of the Boomer cohort overwhelmed Selective Service, and made difficult times worse.  Along the way, we’ll focus on my own summer of 1968.

Introduction

Neither of us felt like saying anything about anything – the morning sun on our shoulders was too hot.  As we walked, we heard nothing but the sound of distant traffic up on the Verrazzano, an almost-white noise.  My eye caught sight of a black-hulled freighter that was just leaving the harbor.

Perspiration began to soak the doctor’s shirt.  That would not happen to me, because I was practically naked.  Had I anticipated parading through any part of Brooklyn in my underwear, I might have not chosen my pale blue boxer shorts.  But there I was, wearing only leather loafers, dark ankle-length socks, and broadcloth boxers.  To complete my ludicrous ensemble, a bright yellow motorcycle helmet hung from my arm, like a flower basket.  It was filled with socket wrenches.  This was how it had been ordained I would meet my fate.

He was fretting, still concentrating on the letter in his clipboard.  He forced a little cough and spoke, sounding more weary than authoritative.  “It’s the last building in the row.  Now remember, you don’t say anything unless he asks.”

“Don’t worry; I won’t.”


***

Background

It was 1968, and I was stuck with a draft classification that prevented my getting a decent job, or going to graduate school, or, for that matter, getting drafted.  I kept thinking back to the HHS Guidance Offices, where this part of my life had been planned.  Since 1964, I had been adapting and living those plans – and at the moment, they needed some good Plan B content.  How could my plans offer me no reassurance about the choices to be made once the draft preempted things?



 

 

author’s Selective Service
Registration Certificate

Wow, my Body Mass Index was only 18!

collection of Ronald A. Wencer


Bank of Hicksville building on Broadway,
now repurposed

In 1964, one registered for the draft at an
office in this building.

Google Maps, Street View

 

No one was at fault; it was just part of being a leading-edge Baby Boomer.  The first Boomer cohort had overwhelmed America ’s schools; now it was overwhelming Selective Service.  You’d think that would have happened in 1964, when we all turned eighteen, but no.  That year, a good percentage of us went on to college, and Selective Service had saved lots of time and money by giving many of us student deferments in lieu of physicals.  Four years later, most of those deferments were expiring, and the Army was especially hungry for new draftees.  Selective Service had until the end of the year to find 300,000 of them.  That meant about 400,000 physicals – one man in four would fail the physical.

And so, we were reclassified, and labeled provisionally eligible for the draft (we weren’t really eligible; you had to pass your physical exam before they could say that).

Of course, in the real world, on the streets we walked and in the places we went, the word provisional meant nothing.  Graduate schools would not provisionally admit us; corporations would not provisionally add us to payrolls.  Businesses were getting annoyed.  The year before, they had hired new graduates, given them on-the-job training, sent them on professional courses, and then watched as they were drafted.  This year, employers refused to even speak with applicants who had our draft classification.

Thus, as summer took hold, many of us were not looking ahead to graduate school after all, or beginning that career-starting job we had expected.  For us, even summer jobs might be out of the question: undergraduates and graduates both were competing for them this year.  We were in limbo.


***

Coping, albeit not Very Well

There had been ways to avoid getting snagged like that.  I could have tried to get a job that came with a draft deferment, like police officer, or elementary school teacher, but I did not.  Choosing a career just to avoid military service was not right for me.  I decided to enlist instead.

The various branches of the armed forces offered enlistees a choice of programs – but some like-minded friends had been cautioned by their recruiters that no choice of specialty could be guaranteed at this time.  Too many Boomers were enlisting at once.  I decided not to choose a specialty, but rather to enlist in a branch that would assess my abilities, and then put me where I seemed likely to fit.  I chose the Air Force.

The experience of being recruited proved very enlightening and enjoyable.  I wish I had room here to discuss it, but instead, I’ll say only what follows.

I had multiple interviews, and I was tested in five areas of capability.

I was chosen for the pilot / navigator program.

I took a Flight Physical at McGuire AFB in New Jersey .

I failed it.

I was blown away by the reason given for rejecting me.

I had (and still have) a hereditary skin condition which requires no medical attention.  It is not a “naughty disease.”  From time to time, a coin-sized reddened area spontaneously develops somewhere on my torso.  It lingers for some weeks or months, and then it fades away.  At any given time, I may have no “spot,” one, two, or – rarely – more.  The spots do not itch, ooze, or otherwise get in my way.  In adolescence, when the condition first appeared, it was diagnosed by a dermatologist.  Prior to the Flight Physical, I got a letter from his office which explained the condition.  I had given a copy of the letter to the Air Force doctors who examined me.

I believe that, when told why I had been rejected, I responded in these words: “You mean that I’m unqualified to drop bombs on the enemy because I’ve got a spot the size of a dime on my belly?  That the enemy can’t fire rockets back at me, because it would be unfair to shoot down somebody who has a rash?  Foolish me – I thought we were trying to win a war.”

Failing to restrain a smile, the presiding officer apologized: “Sorry; that’s the way it is.”

As long as the ice had been broken, I asked if he could offer any opinion about my prospects for enlisting in other branches of the service.  Off the record, he said that I’d likely be rejected, because so many of us were enlisting at once that all of the armed forces could afford to be “picky.”  He volunteered that Selective Service, on the other hand, could not afford to be picky – they had quotas to meet, and they probably were prepared to overlook a number of minor ailments.

I did not want to continue in limbo any longer than I had to.  The following day, I called Selective Service to see if I get a physical as soon as possible.  Once they realized I was not a crank, I got a straight answer: No.  As it turned out, I would have to wait until autumn before I got to stroll around Fort Hamilton in my underwear.


***

Go West, Young Man – just Go East First

My family had left Hicksville for Queens in 1966, and I had dutifully notified Selective Service of that change.  I had heard that there were Draft Boards in Queens , but somehow I was not transferred to any of them.  Eventually, a letter appeared in my mailbox in Flushing , which instructed me to report quite early one morning to Great Neck.

On that day, I rode my Honda CB160 to the address given, secured it with a chain in the parking lot, and boarded a bus that was filling with fellow guests of Local Board No. 3.  Some old friends from Hicksville happened to be among them.  On my lap were things I did not wish to leave unattended in the parking lot, including my helmet, and a new set of wrenches.  I carried them because when my bike failed to cooperate, I needed them to beat it into submission.




Unidentified Long Islanders ready to board one of
the blue-and-white buses used by Selective Service

Newsday, date to be added

The bus crossed the widths of Queens and Brooklyn, and deposited us near the shore at Fort Hamilton .  Together with other busloads of young men, we shuffled into a rat’s nest of a complex, where we each were assigned a locker for the day.  We had to strip down to our under shorts, socks, and shoes.  Except for any valuables (like socket wrenches) and things that didn’t fit in the locker (like motorcycle helmets), we were to leave the room carrying nothing but our personalized clipboards of blank medical forms.

We were given no description of what lay ahead, other than being instructed to always follow the painted stripe.  At the start, it was painted on the floor, but we were told that as we moved around the complex, it sometimes would instead be found on a wall, or on the ceiling.


***

Fort Hamilton

The stripe first led to a wide room, where a row of doctors awaited us.  Except for the underwear part, we looked like newly-arrived airline passengers, waiting to be called by the next available customs agent.  One doctor beckoned me.  He looked unhappy, as if he were expecting a tough day.  I would prove him right.  After checking that all my blank forms were in my clipboard, he looked quizzically at the full-length surgical scar on my forearm (a souvenir of my having once simultaneously incurred compound fractures of both its bones).  I took from my helmet a letter from the orthopedic surgeon who had repaired the arm; the doctor read it and seemed satisfied.

Then he stared at my lone red spot.  “What’s this?”  I gave him the letter from the dermatologist.  He read it, asked some irrelevant questions, and began to look uncertain.  He read the letter again.   Clearly, he did not comprehend.  He frowned and read the letter a third time.  Suddenly, an idea struck.  He stood up decisively, clutched my clipboard to his chest, and said, “Come with me; I want a second opinion.  And when we see the other doctor, DON’T TELL HIM ANYTHING.”

In a minute we were outside, walking on hot pavement, passing buildings and people.  I wondered if he himself had been drafted.  Was he worried about later, when he might have to explain to his superiors why he had left his post and the stripe behind?  It dawned on me that not one of the people we were passing was walking around in his – or her – underwear.  I began to feel conspicuous.


***

Another Doctor





View of Fort Hamilton; the red circle highlights the building
to which we walked to meet the “Other Doctor”

wnyc.org/story/verrazano-narrows-bridge-most-princely/

We entered a small building and climbed up to the second floor.  Without knocking, he opened a door, and led me into a room where another doctor was examining a patient.  Neither of them seemed surprised by the rude intrusion.

“Take a look at this.  What is it?”  The new doctor looked me over, coldly, critically, top-to-bottom, as if he were deciding whether or not to buy a new suit.  Then he focused on the red spot, thinking.  When he offered his diagnosis, it sounded almost exactly like the one written in the letter I had brought along.

“You’re certain?”

“Yes.”

Now the first doctor frowned even harder.  He looked at me, and said, “This Dr. Orfuss, the guy who wrote your letter... he isn’t a dermatologist is he?  I mean, he’s just a GP, right?”  Before I could answer, the new doctor jumped in.

“Orfuss?  Is that ABRAHAM J. ORFUSS?  The one who’s done the work at Bellevue?”

“I guess so.”

“He’s world famous!  I’ve never met any of his patients before.”  Excited, the new doctor extended his arm and shook my hand; I was a dermatological celebrity.  The first doctor groaned, slouched, and almost dropped the clipboard.  He glared at me.

 

Abraham J. Orfuss
(from the 1937 Yearbook of the Long Island College of Medicine)

Diplomate of the American Board of Dermatology,
member of the American Academy of Dermatology and Syphilology;
President of the Manhattan Dermatological Society,
member of various other regional Dermatological Societies;
Professor of Clinical Dermatology at NYU School of Medicine;
 Dermatologist at University Hospital, Goldwater Memorial,
and Bellevue Hospital,

and evidently a very good man to have in your corner

We went back outside, and headed towards the painted stripe.  Once again, neither of us said anything about anything, but I was laughing very hard inside.  Back at the stripe, he took a broad red marker and wrote a few big cryptic letters across the cover page of my clipboard.  I had been disqualified at the starting line – but I still had to go through the motions of running the race.


***

In the Maze

The stripe meandered down and up staircases, around corners, into and through rooms dark and bright – and even “in my ladies’ chamber.”  I was climbing a staircase, my eyes fixed on the faded painted stripe above me.  It turned left at the landing, and there was a gap.  It resumed a few feet away, and went through a doorway, from which I could see that it went straight through the room and out the other side.  As I walked in, I heard typewriters, lots of them.  On either side of me were rows of straight-faced women, facing the aisle in which I walked.  They must have sat there all week long, week after week, as a stream of young men clad only in their underwear paraded through.  How droll.

As I moved around the complex, I’d occasionally see familiar faces from Hicksville.  More often, I’d see strangers who were hoping for Section 8’s (i.e., classified as mentally unfit for service).  At least two of them wore clear “space helmets.”  Another, with a glazed-over, look-at-me grin, steadied with one hand a 30” diameter inflated red ball, the stem of which appeared to have been glued into his navel.  The examiners ignored the space helmets, the big red ball, and any number of other ploys.


***

If at first you don’t succeed, Fail, Fail Again

It was only when my blood pressure was checked that I became aware of something genuinely odd.  As I handed the technician my file, he saw the big red letters and chuckled.  With the cuff inflated on my arm, he mockingly said, “It’s amazing that you haven’t dropped dead in that chair!  Look at that blood pressure!  What is it, 300?  Nah, I’d better make it a little lower, maybe 260 or 245.”  He saw that I was confused.  “Don’t sweat it buddy.  Here’s your clipboard, and have a good day.”

Having never in my life experienced blood pressure higher than 130, I knew he has lying, and giving me another reason to fail my physical.  Why?  I share my thoughts about this in the Appendix to this article.

At the end of that day, my draft status finally resolved, I donned my jeans and shirt at the locker, and shook Fort Hamilton’s dust from my loafers.  My Honda would be waiting for me in Great Neck, and I could ride it into the life I now could resume.


***

A Post Script





In October 1968, I finally received a Notice of Classification Card
that reflected my failing the physical at Fort Hamilton.  I was I-Y,
which was far enough down the list to let me apply for a real job.

More than three years later, I received the card shown above.

The upshot of my “lost summer of 1968” was a Plan B.  I began an interim career in Information Technology, which (I thought) ended a few years later, so that I could study full-time for a second degree, as I had originally intended.  Once I had earned it, however, I realized that it made more sense for me to return to IT, which then became my career.

If pressed, I suppose that I could feel resentment about being subjected to my lost summer of 1968, which need not have happened.  Roughly 25% of the Selective Service’s physicals in that era resulted in rejections.  Had all early Boomers been given physicals in 1964, perhaps 100,000 men would have been filtered out at that time, and processing the remainder in 1968 would have been easier and quicker.  I would have been one of the 100,000, and I would not have been languishing that summer.  I would have been following my plan.

But I can’t think that way for more than a split second, because I had had things too easy.  I knew men who went to Vietnam and did not return; I knew others who were forever changed by the experience.  I have since met more of the latter.  I feel grateful to have known such people and, frankly, I also am grateful that I am not one of them.  I was lucky in 1968.


***

Appendix: I Caught Hypertension at my Draft Physical

I assume that in 1968, Selective Service guidelines identified a limit for systolic blood pressure, above which men could not be drafted due to hypertension.  For purposes of discussion, let’s say that the number was 141.  That is, if an otherwise healthy man had a reading of 142, he would be rejected due to hypertension.  On the other hand....

You know, 142, or even 143, is pretty damned close to acceptable, especially when so many men are needed.  That’s only minor hypertension, right?  Let’s overlook it and draft these fellows anyway.  Of course, if we draft them, their files can’t show that they were over the limit, so we’ll have to write down that their systolic reading was around 138 or 139.  No one else is watching when they’re tested, so no one will know that the number we write down is not the same number we saw on the blood pressure manometer.  We can do it.

Wait a minute.  They keep statistics of how many of the men who come in have different conditions.  If it looks like we’re always below the normal number of people with hypertension, somebody will catch on.  Hmmmm.... I’ve got it!  Lots of guys have already failed the physical before we check their blood pressure.  What we can do is give those people hypertension on paper.  Same as before, only for these we write down a higher false reading instead of a lower one.  That way, the total numbers will look right.  Yeah, that’s it.

I suspect that thinking like that was the reason I got my bogus hypertension.


*****