A few summers ago, my family and I packed up our household in preparation to move a mile down the road. Among my horde of haphazard papers, I found an old catalog and application from McGill University in Canada. Its envelope was postmarked Montreal, 22 Feb ’72, and addressed to me at California State College, in the little Pennsylvania coal town of California, where I was then enrolled as a freshman. This faded brown package is the only extant artifact of my brush with the Vietnam War.
For boys of my generation, Vietnam had been there all along, like some lethal recessive gene inching its way into our futures. When and how I became conscious of it, I can’t say. Its television images seemed to play on the backdrop of my adolescence: a dreary black-and-white junglescape; dreamlike chaos; soldiers in camouflage being dragged by buddies; machine-gun fire; explosions; and an odd foreshadowing vocabulary: Saigon, Hue, Khe Sanh, Tet, Danang, Cam Ranh, Quang Tri, DMZ, Dak To, Ho Chi Minh. What were these things? By the time I knew, they were indelibly seared into my consciousness. My future had arrived, and, like most of my pals, I was politically vacuous. When I graduated from high school, I packed up and went to college. My parents were picking up the tab.
The United States draft lottery for boys born in 1953, such as myself, took place during the first weeks of 1972. All 365 days of the year were dropped into the proverbial hat. The boys born on the first 150 or so dates plucked from the hat were sure to be drafted. Those with high numbers, two hundred or above, were safe: no draft, no war. No military of any kind. The ones who caught a seventy-five or lower could count on being sent to Vietnam. Student deferments had been abolished. I copped a thirty-three. I was eighteen, home in Pittsburgh for the holidays, having successfully completed my first college semester. (I had made the dean’s list.) At the time, there were 140,000 American soldiers still fighting in Vietnam.
I was alone when I heard the news over the radio. My mother and father were at their jobs as seamstress and steelworker. My sister was married. I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t anything. But I knew I was changed, as if God had hit me over the head with something big and irrevocable, and I would never be the same. It only vaguely occurred to me that I could die. More than anything else, this event signaled in bold letters that I was no longer a child; that the charmed existence I had enjoyed thus far — and that I had figured would last forever — was now a thing of the past. I sat around the house reading and drinking coffee (a privilege of being an adult) until it was time to hitchhike down to meet my girlfriend, who was still in high school.
I sat waiting for her on the steps of Sacred Heart gym, the place where I had learned to play basketball, where I had taken my first shower, where in eighth grade I had noticed the first black hairs blooming out of my chest. I smoked cigarettes (I kept my smoking hidden from my parents) and listened to the hoops ringing with the girls’ practice free throws. It was snowing. The sky was grayish purple. All the automobiles had their lights on, though it was only three o’clock. A gloomy day, the kind of Pittsburgh day I loved: a day when any minute the sky could unload enough snow to slow things to a crawl, and then to a halt, and by nightfall there would be the feeling that time had stopped and nothing bad could ever happen.
The moment she saw me, my girlfriend started crying and threw herself into my arms. Like everyone else, she had heard the news. On the covers of her books she’d magic-markered peace signs. She wore dangly earrings, love beads, and tiny skirts. She was only sixteen and fully intended to marry me.
“We’ll go to Canada,” she said.
At that moment, her plan suited me. I had no intention of entering the armed forces. In fact, I had no intentions whatsoever.
That night at supper, my mother broke down and sobbed, though we never talked about my number. I realized how different, nearly tragic, I had become in the eyes of others. I had always wanted to be different — indeed, had always thought of myself as so — but not like this.
When I returned to California State in mid-January, reactions varied. Some offered sympathy and commiseration. Others told me I was a dead man. Quite a few asked me what I was going to do. I had no idea.
My girlfriend and I feverishly wrote letters back and forth. Our first plan was that I would apply for conscientious-objector status. If that didn’t work, our backup was Canada. We would get married, and I would enter a Canadian university. Then, according to our plan, I would proceed to law school and become a lawyer who specialized in defending the poor and downtrodden. Chiseled into my mind was an unyielding picture of the future: I would grow a mustache, wear three-piece suits, and work from home in a giant oak-paneled study, where my gleaming, cuddly children would feel free to play until my wife called us to meals in the sunroom. It could be done, my girlfriend and I assured each other.
Without delay, I sent off to McGill University in Canada for a catalog and application materials. Then, on a weekend home, I took a bus downtown to the Federal Building and picked up a form outlining procedures for obtaining CO status. The clerk who handed it to me said that all I had to do was write a statement.
To my mind, I embodied all of the qualities of a conscientious objector: A CO is against war for moral reasons, and I believed this war was immoral. Everyone said so, especially those with whom I had, at least rhetorically, aligned myself. Also, I was not a violent person. I did not believe in killing. And I certainly had the clothes to be a CO. That day, I was wearing a purple shirt, white-and-blue-striped bell-bottoms, work boots, and an army jacket, in the pocket of which was Sartre’s The Age of Reason. My shoulder-length hair flowed from under a navy blue watch cap. I brimmed with confidence. Until I read the form:
To be classified as a conscientious objector you must be opposed to war in any form. Your objection must be based on moral or ethical beliefs, or beliefs which are commonly accepted as religious. Your beliefs must influence your life as the belief in God influences the life of one who is a traditionally religious conscientious objector. To qualify, your conscience must be spurred by deeply held moral, ethical, or religious beliefs which would give you no peace if you allowed yourself to become a combatant member of the armed forces.
There were also a number of questions addressing the applicant’s “core of belief.” It was like applying for the priesthood. To simply write, “War and killing are bad” — which in 1972 was a bit of a cliché — would not be enough. And that’s all I had in my arsenal. I needed an ideology, and there in the cold hallway outside the draft board, I realized, with a touch of panic, that I thoroughly lacked one.
Looking for reassurance, I caught a bus to the Friends Peace Center in Oakland. I explained to a long-haired, bearded counselor, whose job it was to coach people like me in such matters, that I had a bad draft number and wanted to shoot for a CO.
He gave me a withering look and asked what I would do if I walked in the door of my home and found someone raping my mother.
I knew what the correct answer was. The true pacifist would somehow persuade the offender, in a completely nonviolent manner, to stop his assault. As I visualized the scenario, however, I saw myself reaching for the big knife my mother used to slice eggplant and stabbing the culprit as many times as I had to — maybe even a few extra times for good measure.
I replied vaguely that I’d do whatever it took to protect my mother.
“You are probably not a CO,” he said. I was still welcome, of course, to submit a statement to my draft board, but first I needed to spend some time reflecting on my commitment to peace and nonviolence.
I thanked him and walked out into the winter air. It was a dark, bitter day: snow, wind, slush. I stuck out my thumb. No one would stop. I started walking. How disrespectful, how egotistical, to think that I could be a CO just by writing a statement. Really, I wasn’t “opposed to war in any form.” I thought U.S. involvement in World War II had been as moral as it gets. I was born in 1953, into the Republican presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, eight years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The Korean War Armistice was signed when I was just seven days old. Joseph McCarthy had everyone suspecting the neighbors of being Communists. All the adults I knew had talked about World War II as if it had happened the day before. And I was, after all, a boy — with a beloved arsenal of toy guns — who, like other little boys, adored any film with sword- or gunplay. It was good clean fun. If anyone had asked me just a few years before I started college who my favorite actor was, I probably would have volunteered John Wayne. I had loved The Green Berets, propagandist pap through and through.
In truth, I had always thought of myself, in some pit of my subconscious, as a soldier. Before I had ever heard of the war in Vietnam, I had lived through the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. I’d grown up during the height of the Cold War. Khrushchev, Castro — their names were dirty words. My entire existence was paramilitary, my psyche pocked with trenches and foxholes. Damn it, I was a boy, and there was nothing better and braver and truer and more blessed in the eyes of God and country than a soldier. Girls had babies. Boys went to war. Period. What was it our football coach told us? Make them piss blood.
Apparently, I was not against killing and violence. I would have loved being a war hero. The reason I didn’t want to go to war was quite simple: I was afraid. As for my “belief in God,” well, I hadn’t consulted him. At the sobering announcement that my number was thirty-three, I had prayed for miraculous deliverance, but it had been an eternity since I had gone to Mass or received the sacraments. I had no “deeply held moral, ethical, or religious beliefs.” I wasn’t even sure what I believed anymore.
So I went back to California State and waited to hear from McGill. Lurking in my mail was a summons from the draft board. I was classified 1-A and was to report to the Federal Building for my preinduction physical.
I did not tell my parents about the letter. I might even have thrown it away; I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that I did not report for that physical.
When the materials for McGill arrived in late February of 1972, I was a month into my second semester and doing well. In addition to my classes, I was on the dorm council and the varsity track team, and I had even published, anonymously, a poem called “This Disgruntled Noise” (my first-ever publication) in the campus literary magazine.
Living in the welter of new theories and ideas that college offered, I began to sense what a mechanized, futile place the world was, how technology subverts humanity at every turn, how instead of souls people now had appliances. In my beloved, imagined poverty, I fueled all-nighters with instant coffee whitened with Pream. I even started smoking a corncob pipe stuffed with synthetically flavored tobacco. I’d sit at my desk, puffing away by candlelight, a stick of incense embedded in the candle wax, and write poems that, I was sure, would one day bring me fame. My dorm buddies, mostly tough kids from one-horse steel towns in the Monongahela Valley, eyed me with respect. To them I was cool and intense: an egghead, a real silver-plated bookworm who would still chip in, even on school nights, for a couple of quarts of Iron City beer.
My favorite teacher was Connie Mack Rea, a former pro-baseball player and direct descendant of legendary baseball pioneer Connie Mack. A tall, enigmatic, ruggedly handsome man with a clipped mustache, Professor Rea called us “Mr.” or “Miss.” He wore elaborately knitted sweaters, expensive sports jackets, and pointy, tooled-leather cowboy boots. His air was aristocratic, vain, wry, condescending, perhaps even tragic, as if he were nursing some secret wound about which he’d remain eternally silent.
There was a word Mr. Rea used frequently, though far from casually; a word I had heard kicked around in high school and that had come to have, among my friends and me, a superficial chic: existentialism. I never really knew what it meant, but I would mouth it occasionally as if it were a kind of password. Even now I have to consult Webster’s to get my bearings. Pinning that philosophical concept down is like trying to scoop mercury. Mr. Rea described it as the primal core of individuality, the insideness of you and you alone that no one — not physicians, priests, parents, or lovers — could get to, because your unique experience placed you in a category of one.
No wonder I had been feeling so misunderstood all my life. By God, I had been born an existentialist! And never had I felt more misunderstood than at the moment my birth date had betrayed me. How could anyone know how I felt? What it was like to look into my own personal abyss? Heck, even I didn’t know what it was like, and it was my abyss.
Mr. Rea had us read Albert Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus,” an essay of just over a thousand words that seemed to sum it all up: Step out of line and, like Sisyphus, you are given a rock that, every time you finally roll it up the mountain, rolls back down. The gods, Camus writes, “had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”
Existentialism seemed the perfect philosophy for a fellow in my spot. The notion that life is meaningless, at best a cruel joke, made perfect sense. I was ready to sign on, though I was far from a nihilist. In fact, I was hopelessly ambitious. I had goals. I studied like mad to get all A’s in my courses. Existentialists don’t give a damn about A’s. Absurdist heroes don’t study. Goals are mere illusions. But I liked being different, and even though I didn’t clearly understand it at the time, existentialism supplied me with a kind of defense mechanism.
Meanwhile, sitting prominently on my dorm-room desk for all to see was my application from McGill, waiting to be filled out and sent back to Montreal.
My year at California State ended in May of 1972. The United States had mined Haiphong Harbor and stepped up its bombing of North Vietnam. It looked as though the war would never end. I still had not reported for my induction physical.
I never applied to McGill. I guess I never really intended to. The enormity of leaving home, family, friends, and country to begin study at a Canadian university had finally sunk in. Besides, I didn’t have a car; I didn’t have any money; I didn’t speak French; I hadn’t even talked to my parents about it. What I had done was transfer my existential A’s from California State to the University of Pittsburgh, less than five miles from the house where I’d grown up. I would be living at home again after a year of absolute freedom.
Mere days before fall classes began at Pitt, I received another notice for my induction physical. This time the language was explicit: Get down there pronto, or get in serious trouble. Period.
I don’t know how the idea of joining the ROTC — which would furnish me with an instant deferment — popped into my head. Someone must have suggested it to me. The very thought of the ROTC, and what I regarded as its Mickey Mouse lockstep idiocy, repelled me. The stupid uniforms, the drills, the nauseating caricatured patriotism, the lack of cynicism — it all seemed designed to thwart existentialism at every turn. But I needed a deferment in a hurry. The Selective Service was breathing down my neck. I was close to treason.
Out of this new turn I constructed yet another romanticized vision of myself: the dashing army officer and his lovely wife. After graduation, the United States government would pay for my law school. I’d repay them with a few years of service, then retreat back to the counterculture with the carload of money I’d saved. It seemed like a smart plan. I simply added this vision, with an asterisk and a footnote, to the earlier one of myself in the paneled office with the wife and kids.
My Pitt ID card, fall of 1972, shows a fellow who, with his long brown hair resting on his shoulders, looks nothing like a brand-new ROTC cadet. But sliding into the ROTC was simple. All I did was take the elevator up to one of the spooky marble floors in the Cathedral of Learning — interestingly enough, the same floor where gay men were rumored to meet in one of the restrooms — and talk for a few minutes to the campus commander, a jolly old, craggy colonel with medals and cigarette ashes spread all over his olive uniform. He was delighted to have me. My grades were superior; I seemed like an honorable, serious young man. I’d make a fine officer. We shook hands repeatedly. I signed a few forms.
Then the colonel took me to an adjacent room where I met two lean, young, handsome, cigarette-smoking officers who taught in the program: one black, one white, both Vietnam combat vets, immaculately clipped, pressed, starched, and decorated. Like a magazine ad for the nation’s armies, their very presence denied that there could ever be a moment’s mayhem on the globe while men like them stood guard. They welcomed me to the ranks and squashed my hand in theirs. I figured I could handle ROTC. No one had even mentioned my hair. Across the Atlantic, the Paris Peace Talks languished.
Later that day, along with my two ROTC courses — U.S. Defense Establishment and Survey of American Military Theory — I registered for African-American History, Comparative Literature in Twentieth-Century Narrative, Seminar in Van Gogh, Dramatic Literature, and (of course) Existentialism.
That first semester at Pitt, I majored in being two people at once. Foremost, I was a fire-breathing liberal student, ingesting books, scholarship, and the world around him, frequently without even chewing. I trotted euphorically from class to class, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger whispering cryptically in my ear. Leaning out of my seat in philosophy, coffee in one hand, pen in the other, a Newport dangling existentially out of my mouth, I recorded every word the professor uttered. I understood existentialism even less than I had the year before, but at least I had its vocabulary down pat.
I read; I studied; I went to see Fellini movies. I proved that, with a little synthesis, one could get A after A simply by stringing together one brilliant quote after another. It was even possible to delude yourself into thinking that you had thought of these things. Books were like drugs. If someone mentioned a title, I wrote it down and combed the city until it was mine, even if I didn’t always get around to reading it. I developed an additional vision of my future self: working in a modest little office where all I had to do was read books and no one ever checked on me. What I really wanted to be was a writer, but I figured I could fit that in when I wasn’t in a courtroom rescuing (free of charge, of course) some helpless victim — that is, after I had paid the United States government back with four years of my life.
The other me was the ROTC cadet. Though I was a model student in my other classes, I was mediocre to poor in my military-science courses, which didn’t count toward my grade-point average. I daydreamed, cut classes, and exuded a less-than-positive attitude. I didn’t like my teachers, the white guy and the black guy. Their pedagogy tended to spill over into personal accounts of battle in Vietnam: “greasing gooks,” “dust-offs,” “KIAs,” and so on. In fact, my sudden proximity to the military only galvanized my antipathy toward it. I didn’t like my crew-cut fellow cadets either. They didn’t seem like tough army guys — more like the pasty types who sit on their porches all summer playing Risk and paging through The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Nerdy, sexist, and giggly, they were clean and unctuous and certain about everything. Not an existentialist among them.
On occasion, all cadets were required to assemble at Pitt Stadium for full-dress drills. On such days, the other cadets wore their uniforms, festooned with nifty patches and insignia, around campus. I kept mine crammed into a duffel bag. Then I donned it, pitifully rumpled, in the privacy of the locker room before stepping onto the stadium AstroTurf for the hour and a half of marching, screaming, and saluting. How idiotic I looked in that hateful uniform, the heavy officer’s cap clamped over my long hair. After drills I’d hustle back to the locker room, climb into my bell-bottoms and T-shirt, and wad that uniform back into the bag, tamping it down with my Portable Nietzsche.
One day, the white officer told me that he’d like to see me in his office later that afternoon. I showed up with a copy of André Breton’s famous surrealist novel Nadja, which we’d been tackling in comparative literature. To cap it off, I had just finished watching, mere minutes before, Buñuel’s deranged film Un Chien Andalou. I was fairly thrumming with unnatural juxtapositions and combinations. Life’s decided lack of meaning had never been more manifest.
The white officer rose when I came in, squashed my hand in his, smiled warmly, and motioned for me to sit. Then he sat back down, propped his feet on his desk, and lit a cigarette. For a protracted moment, he simply beamed at me, and I did my best to beam back. His office walls were spread with plaques, citations, and action photos of him and other soldiers. On his desk were pictures of his wife and two small sons, both boys dressed in army uniforms. Above his head, the American flag drooped.
“What’s with the hair?” he asked, still smiling.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You some kind of hippie?”
“Do you think you’re tough?”
He was almost done with his cigarette now, still smiling, smoke now shrouding both of us. We were apparently making a surrealist movie, but no one had bothered telling me. He was certainly following the format: a series of non sequiturs. I felt like the eyeball slit by the razor in Buñuel’s opening scene. In keeping with the surreal tenor of things, I considered launching into a bout of meaningless laughter. Perhaps I could get drummed out for mental instability — what they called a “Section 8” on McHale’s Navy. But I was too pissed to laugh. I was angry about the whole thing: my lottery number, the war, the ROTC, the fact that I had to sit there and take shit from this martinet on whom I could smell the violence and apocalyptic fever of war. Maybe that was his game: to get me angry, to motivate me.
“I don’t want to come down too hard on you, but you have to get more involved. These cadets are a great group of guys, and you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities. And fun.” He stood up. “What do you say?” That smile was still nailed to his face.
“Yeah,” I said.
He tilted his head and kind of smirked.
“Yes, sir,” I amended.
“There you go.”
He stuck out his hand, and I squeezed back as hard as I could.
“And how about a haircut?” Then he winked.
News from Paris, where Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho had been tussling over an armistice for nearly three years, was by turns hopeful and grim. America, after years of fighting in Vietnam, remained pessimistic, and so did I. The only hope for peace rested with George McGovern, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972. Like Eugene McCarthy before him, he had underpinned his campaign with the promise of unilateral withdrawal of American troops from Southeast Asia. On November 7, voting for the first time in a presidential election, I prayerfully cast my vote for McGovern, an act of high treason for an ROTC cadet. I watched the election returns with my parents, both lifelong Democrats, for as long as I could bear it. Nixon by a landslide. Absolute murder.
A few days later, my parents received a letter from the colonel informing them that on November 15, during a public ceremony at the university, I would be one of several ROTC cadets receiving an award for “outstanding academic performance.” The letter went on to say that
the United States Army possesses more complicated equipment than ever before, and must employ increasingly complex personnel to intelligently maintain and manage these resources. It is particularly important that we find responsible young leaders for this task — men, who, like your son, have demonstrated intellectual abilities noticeably above their contemporaries. In qualifying for this award, your son has demonstrated such competence. We are quite proud to have him in the Cadet Battalion.
My parents were pleased, ridiculously so. I wanted to attack them, or at least point out that I was being “honored” for having achieved superior grades not in my military-science classes, but in those classes that championed radical politics, subversive thinking, civil disobedience, and revolution. Had I been able to intercept the letter, I would have ripped it to bits, incinerated it, spat and stomped upon it. It was a carbon, and not even on letterhead. The colonel hadn’t even signed it. There was no telling who had written it. Its pompous rhetoric was precisely why I was in a pickle. “Increasingly complex personnel.” What was I — a robot? “Responsible young leaders.” Please! Who the hell was he talking about? “Battalion.” God! I wasn’t going to any damn ceremony.
Incredulous, my parents watched me flop and rant. They thought I was having a nervous breakdown. When I got around to calmly considering my position (I was being extorted, of course), I knew I had to suck it up and accept the award. Not only that. After seeing myself in the mirror in full uniform with the long hair — looking more like Tiny Tim than General Custer — I headed for the barber shop. By my standards, the haircut was a massacre, but by the army’s, it counted for little. My hair still covered my neck and ears. I was desolate. My girlfriend assured me it was “cute.” My mother said grudgingly, “It looks nice.” My father neglected to comment.
Thank God it was an evening affair, so I had the cover of darkness to conceal me in my uniform. As I walked onstage with my most unsoldierly hair to receive my award — a rectangle of heavy-stock paper with “Certificate of Achievement” scrolled across the top — a hush came over the audience, and I imagined that heads shook in disapprobation. The colonel mispronounced my name. (It had also been misspelled on the certificate.) The other cadets glowered at me. My inability to conform had become insupportable. I couldn’t stand much more. Yet as much as I despised them, I secretly craved their approval. My unconscious, formed when I was a boy in the fifties, still told me that the cut of a man is measured by whether he can soldier or not.
As a photographer snapped pictures and the relatives applauded — my proud, confused, probably embarrassed parents among them — the stage lights grilled me like an inquisitor, revealing every flaw I possessed. I couldn’t make out the audience for the glare, but I knew they were out there in the dark, crouched in ambush like the Vietcong, and this was perhaps my last moment on earth. Maybe I would, for one searing second, see or know just one thing clearly before the lights went down and the hall emptied forever.
But I saw nothing, only sensed the hollow place inside me where my soul should have been. Then that space began to fill with the ghosts of those boys who had gone to Vietnam, terrified and exhausted, tripping along jungle trails, scared kids my age who had stepped up for me, who’d had their lives blasted to pieces fighting in my place. There they marched, with the grit of my forebears, who had never sidestepped wars. Above all, I was ashamed. I was not worthy of the uniform I wore. I lacked the conviction to be a CO. Even as an existentialist I was an impostor, nothing more than a pampered dilettante.
The applause coursed over me, wave after wave, until it finally chased me out the door. When my mother and father caught up, I was in the back seat of the car, like a child, tearing myself out of that uniform. My identity, like dandelion fluff, had blown off in a hundred directions. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had achieved existentialist status. And it was horrible.
I finished my first term at Pitt with a 3.6 grade-point average. I ended up with a B and a C in my two military-science classes. A week before Christmas, Nixon unleashed the most significant air attack since the war had started. On Christmas Day, as my family and I sat down to feast, American bombers dropped death by the ton over Hanoi and Haiphong. There seemed no reason to believe that the war would ever end.
When the new college term began in January, I signed up for only one military-science course: First Basic Army. I skipped the first few classes. I never wanted to walk into one of those classrooms or see any of those people again.
As a second-semester sophomore, I was forced to declare a major. I had always listed my major as political science, simply because it was considered an advantageous pre-law curriculum. Looking over my transcripts, I realized that, by the end of the year, I would have thirty hours in English and comparative literature: nearly enough to satisfy degree requirements. I had taken an introductory course in political science: nothing else. The next day, I declared myself an English major. I could still go to law school, but for the short run, I wouldn’t have to torture myself with courses I didn’t care about. I’d do what came naturally, with great joy and passion. Unabashed, I’d read books, and maybe even write a few someday, which is what I really wanted. I was still pushing that boulder up the mountain, but a little bit of my rock fell away when I admitted what I loved.
The large part of it, however, remained. I still hadn’t set foot in my ROTC class. I felt like a fugitive. AWOL. I had my beloved books, but they could not protect me from the draft. Canada crossed my mind again and again. I still had the application from McGill. On Monday — it was still very early in the term — I’d go back to ROTC classes, lie and beg forgiveness, take my medicine. Everything would be OK.
On Saturday, January 27, I was working for a flower shop, removing dead flowers from a synagogue. It was a miserable gray day: no sun; frigid, dirty snow banked high at the curbs; sickly flakes fluttering down. Feeling pretty sorry for myself, I turned on the radio of the flower shop’s 1969 Volkswagen microbus, which stank of dead cigars and funerals. John Lennon sang, “Half of what I say is meaningless,” from “Julia,” a song inspired by his mother. Right at the word meaningless, the song went dead, and an excited voice, clearly not Lennon’s, announced that peace accords had been formally signed in Paris. The Vietnam War was over. The United States would no longer enforce a draft.
I lingered for a moment, staring out the window, wondering whether what I had heard could possibly be true. It was. The radio, on every band, verified it again and again. The war was indeed over, and I would not have to go to Vietnam, or be in the army, or take an induction physical, or ever go to another ROTC class again.
How strange to receive such miraculous news in a frozen synagogue parking lot. I turned off the radio and nudged the microbus into first, skidding across the consecrated ice, Lennon’s lyrics lodged in my head like scripture. Navigating my dangerous hometown streets, I sang those same seven words over and over — ringed by a chorus of snowy dead soldiers no older than I.