To many of you out there, the draft is what seeps through improperly caulked windows, or a gust of sudden wind that sometimes can bring on pneumonia (or so it’s been said).
In 1968, when I was a clever 20-year old just starting my career as an advertising copywriter, the draft was how the armed forces recruited able-bodied (and less clever) young men to serve their country. And get killed, or injured or, at the very least, very fucked up, in some unheard-of-then place known as Viet Nam. (Nam, for those more familiar.)
Looking back at the advanced age of not quite 69 years old, I very much remember my early 20s for a variety of reasons. One exhilarating reason was that I was hired, as a kid, by an ad agency known as Doyle Dane Bernbach—a dream of a first job as I started writing award-winning advertising for Volkswagen, Sony, El Al Airlines and other accounts that DDB, as it was known, put on the map.
I had quit college to join the agency in 1968. The only downside of that was I no longer had a 2-S student deferment. I would be turned into a 1-A classification, meaning, depressingly: “you’re in the army now!”
There was absolutely no way I was going to be drafted. Not when my career was taking off. Not when the service, when you are drafted, is a two-year stint and one was almost definitely assured to wind up in this crazy, exotic, jungle-like horror zone suddenly very well-known, as US casualties in Viet Nam were posted daily on the front page of the New York Times. No. Not me.
As I said, I’m a clever guy, anyway, I was, (anyway, I think I still am) so I sat and I thought: how could I get out of this mess? Friends of mine were doing the most extreme things. Morris Cohen decided to not shower, and to urinate and defecate in his pants and to not change clothes for the two weeks that led up to his physical. Joey Chabbott shot himself in the shin a week before his physical notice. Larry Natkin took excessive tabs of LSD days before he had to appear and showed up (his sympathetic mother drove him) so out of it that he never got past the guard at the front door. 4-F. The three of them. Out of harm’s way, and in a word, if it is a word: undraftable.
Me, a gentle, closeted, lapsed Orthodox Jew, couldn’t fathom any of those extreme measures. But I hit on my own way(s) out. First, I tried rabbinical training after work at a synagogue in Brooklyn. If you attended four nights a week, you qualified for a 4-D divinity student deferment. I tried it for a couple of months, but found it excruciatingly dull.
The new fall term at Brooklyn College was about to begin and, living in Brooklyn with my folks at the time, and having spent a year at that school two years prior, I felt I could get back in on a night school program, as long as I carried 12 credits. So I did and was given back my 2-S status. Thing is, that also meant four nights a week after my nine-to-five job.
Looking back, I don’t know how I did all that. And then, in the middle of all that, I had another alternate plan. I can’t express enough that there was no way I was going to Nam.
I mentioned before that I was closeted. Well, I was. I knew I was gay deep down, but was still dating women (parental pressure) and (unsuccessfully) sleeping with them. At 20, I had not had sex with a man yet, but all my masturbatory fantasies revolved around men—a well-built science teacher in high school, a well-endowed classmate who sat next to me and always thrust his crotch out while seated in my Yeshiva grammar school. And other, eyes-shut-tight fantasies, picturing, imagining, and getting me off nicely on my own. I could come up with lots of sexy scenarios, but was a long way from participating in the real thing.
So, I thought, I’d see a shrink and talk about being gay—the struggles, my religious family dynamic. I would make up sexual stories with guys to prove my homosexuality. And me, in my fear, thought I would need a year of a history with the doctor to signify some permanence because if I went to see the shrink a week or a month prior to my physical, it might appear suspicious. One year of therapy, I reasoned, that seemed reasonably believable.
School at night, the shrink once every two weeks, the job, and good thing the doctor’s office was only two blocks from my office. It was a lot to handle, but I was looking forward, anxiously, to the prize: The No Viet Nam!
I would go lunchtimes to the doctor for a full year, while attending Brooklyn College at night. Don’t ask me how I pulled all this together—a year of bi-weekly lying sessions, of making up getting and giving blowjobs, but not talking about fucking, as I told him I was not yet that advanced, and, at that point, it somehow frightened me. Oral was my made-up thing. Kissing, sucking, with guys I’d pick up on the streets of Manhattan around the East 50s, and have sex at their places. The lying came easily to me. It was what I really wanted to do.
The shrink bought the stories—why wouldn’t he? But if he thought about it, when would I even have the time for all these extra-curricular activities?
“I’m sexually active mostly on the weekends,” I threw in for further plausibility. “Also easier for me to take the subway to what I found to be the cruising spots in Manhattan from Brooklyn."
The most dreaded of all moments was shortly after I left Brooklyn College two terms later and my status went back to the horrifying 1-A. And, shortly after that, in the mail, comes a letter, the notice, accompanied with two subway tokens to get me to and from the physical. It was the time of the 20-cent tokens, the Y in the stamped NYC was a cut-out Y. I guess to make it harder for counterfeiters to produce them, or, since they were as thin as a dime, it would prevent the use of a dime, thereby saving the passenger 10 cents. They could have gotten on for half the price, like I can now, with my retirement MetroCard. Half price: $1.3750, currently.
Anyway…(quite a segue, that, and hardly necessary, but somehow connected. I will go on with the story now.)
It was 1969 by now, I was firmly established as the hot, still new and very young copywriter sailing upward with a raise, a promotion, and only 21! I couldn’t believe it myself. I never achieved much in any class or school except in the one copywriting class at the School of Visual Arts that allowed me to create a fairly polished portfolio of speculative ads, in a simulated leather case. I went on one interview, and got the job!
A year and a half from then, the bomb of a letter arrives informing me that I was to report to Fort Hamilton Parkway Brooklyn’s induction center for a full physical.
I steeled myself for what was ahead of me that autumn morning. I kept the two tokens in my jewelry box with my tie clasps and my cufflinks—maybe I would turn those tokens into cuff links some day? but this day, I was driving to the center in my mother’s wide-as-a-boat 1962 blue Pontiac Bonneville. And, in my pocket, I checked dozens of times to make sure it was still there, the letter with the shrink’s very official letterhead, the contents, brisk as a swift kick to the gut: “This is to certify that Hyman C. Abady is homosexual and therefore unfit for military duty.” Period. End of story. And signed, illegibly, but nevertheless signed, by the doctor. (Ultimately, my hero.)
As soon as I entered the place, I waved the letter like a flag at the first official person I saw.
“I got this note,” I said. “From a shrink. It says…”
“Easy now, son,” the guard at the door said. “You’ll get your chance. Meantime, in that room over there? Clothes off. There’s a locker for your valuables, and you get to wear your key in a band around your wrist.”
That key, that key suspended from a stretch-y band, was very much like something you would get in a gay bathhouse, or so I’ve heard, but have not by then had ever been to, but told the shrink I had spent plenty of Saturday nights at one. “St. Marks’s Baths,” I remember recounting. How on Earth did I know that? Probably from reading The Advocate and The New York Native, gay publications of the times that, miraculously, my mother never found hidden in the back of a dresser drawer tucked behind my sweaters.
I didn’t dare part with the letter as I stripped and walked out into a room of naked young men. I folded the letter to a size that fit in my clenched fist, but as soon as the physical part of the physical—balls crushed, ass cheeks spread (it may as well have been a gay bath house)—I kept referring to my letter.
“You’ll get your chance with that at the end of the physical when you meet with our psychiatrist,” one of the medical examiners told me without looking up.
I acquiesced. Went through all of the physical. Passed with flying colors. And then, at the very end, I was told to get dressed and then I would get to see their resident shrink.
“Sit,” he said.
I sat. And unfolded my letter, now wet with sweat, but entirely legible.
“Here,” I said. “It’s from the psychiatrist I’ve been seeing. For just about a year, now…” I said and handed him the note.
He looked at it, looked up at me, and looked back at the note.
“Well, that’s rather clear-cut,” he said, folding it back up. “No question about this,”
“Does that mean I’m 4-F?” I asked, my heart beating so loud I was sure he could hear it.
“Son, you’re 4-Z!” he replied. “You may go home now.” And he placed the letter in a desk drawer.
There is no classification: 4-Z. It’s just that he wanted to be perfectly clear that I was as far off the mark of someone they wanted as a soldier. Uncle Sam definitely did not want me.
For a moment, I appeared disappointed, to add to the ‘scam’. I wanted to be even more credible. Minutes later, I was gratefully back in the boat-y Bonneville. And could not entirely express my relief at how, after all my fears, all my ruses, all my attempts to keep Viet Nam, and perhaps death, away, how it all worked. And there you have it. Over in less than 30 minutes, after a couple of years, anxious and worried.
I never made the free tokens into cufflinks. I didn’t even care that my record of homosexuality was in a file somewhere. My chosen career, advertising, even in the late 60s, was very liberal-minded.
November 12, 1969, a date forever etched in my memory, the date of the physical. I was suddenly a free man, spared of what so many guys were not spared of, and also what my friend Dennis D’Amico’s fate would be years later, a contemporary, another ad guy, a straight man who had no choice but to serve and wound up …different…and died at 50 of throat cancer. (He never smoked.)
Amazingly, in early 1970, hardly six months or so after I got myself out, the lottery system was introduced and made the draft obsolete. You were assigned a number that aligned to your birthdate. Out of curiosity, gloriously 4-F or –Z, I looked at that list of numbers (also on the front page of the New York Times) and it turned out, I had a very high number, something over 300, and would have gotten out that way. But six months earlier, there was not even a hint of that new arrangement for recruitment. I got out my way. I worked very hard to get out my way. And never looked back.
My career kept surging. I was not dead and very much alive. I came out of that closet six years later, and all those fake stories I told the shrink became my reality. Sex with men. Even bath houses. And, ultimately, love, and then marriage to a man 47 years later.
People tell me what a cool place Viet Nam is now to visit.