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As close as we ever came to the Navy

  • 02 July 2014

We would drift by the Navy recruiting offices on our bicycles when we were small, and in our ragged old cars when we were older, but we would never approach on foot, in case a grizzled tar emerged and sentenced us to submarine duty in the Black Sea.

Occasionally we would see the tall young recruiter staring out through the door of the office, and sometimes we would spot him in the bakery, but never did we see him anywhere else in town, nor did we ever see him arrive in the morning or leave at night; some of us thought that he lived in the recruiting office, with a hammock slung in the back to remind him fondly of his days at sea.

When we were ten and 12, the thought of joining the Navy was savoury, as it smacked of salt and adventure and ships and exotic girls in faraway ports. When we were 14 and 16 the thought of joining the Navy was still alluring, as a way to startle and dismay our fathers, who had been in the Army or the Marines, some of them surviving wars against Germany and Japan and China.

But when we were 17 and 18, the thought of joining the Navy was both fascinating and chilling, for the war in Vietnam was still seething, and all of us had registered for the draft, as required by law. We crowded around a television one night in March to watch the draft lottery, and some had crowed when their numbers were drawn near the end, and others like me were stunned and frightened when our numbers were drawn early.

All the rest of my life I will remember hearing my number called first among all my friends, and the way they turned to me with complicated messages written on their faces, and the way one boy laughed and started to rag me and then stopped as abruptly as if someone had punched him, which maybe someone had.

The war was winding down then, and automatic inductions had been suspended, and some of us were headed to college and so would almost surely be granted deferments, but still we had to register for the draft, and be assigned induction order, and obtain a draft card from the local draft board.

None of us or our parents or any of the ostensible informed authorities in our city or state or nation