Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

The Gift Of America’s Independence

Posted on: July 4, 2011

I don’t have to think too hard to recall July 4th parades down East Ridgewood Avenue and the hotdogs and hamburgers and fireworks.

And I don’t have to think at all to remember listening to my Woodstock album; specifically, Jimi Hendrix’s version of the Star Spangled Banner replete with dive-bombers and explosions.  It was the Vietnam era and there was a lot of music protesting the War.  That didn’t matter to my father.  He heard the strains of this music, flew up the stairs, through my closed door, planted his feet in the middle of my room and said with force, “You will never play that in my house again!”

The need for soldiers then was great.  The number of volunteers were few.  President Kennedy had instituted a draft and, along with it, a number of restrictions: least preference to married men with children; greatest preference to single men, and many shades in between.  By 1969, when these restrictions had become impossible to work with, a lottery was instituted in which preference was given to almost no one.  Your birthdate was assigned a random number from 1 to 365.  The draft lottery number was affixed to your draft card.  The closer the number was to 1, the likelier you were to be drafted.

I was a lost youth at the age of 17.  I knew the potential within me but couldn’t figure out how to exploit it.  I had left home and was struggling to find a place in the world.  Buildings were burning down around me; the race riots.  Bras were being burned; women’s liberation.  Assassinations.  Counter-culture.  Crime.  This was a turbulent time in American history.  I watched it all close up as if a reporter without a notepad.  Someday, I thought, these experiences would become useful.

My draft card arrived.  Number 46.  I was going to Vietnam.

I was required to have a physical conducted at some humongous military building in Newark, New Jersey.  Two thoughts always come to mind about draft physicals.  Arlo Guthrie captured the indignities and ironies about this particular brand of processing in his 1967 epic spoken song, Alice’s Restaurant.  The other thought is about the abstract depiction of the draft physical in the 2007 movie, Across The Universe.  If you’ve never experienced a military physical, these two cultural references will give you a strong sense for what they were like.

My own experience paralleled both the song and the movie.  I was poked and prodded six ways from Sunday.  I was asked questions repeatedly as if I had never answered them before.  I was a small piece of meat in a very large market where the only thing that mattered was a ‘1-A’ stamped on your draft card.  They needed to throw your meat onto a C-130 and get you to Saigon pronto.

Everything about your body is explored in these physicals.  One such thing is your nose.  Mine was discovered to have a deviated septum.  So they gave me a bus ticket and orders to see a doctor in West Orange who specialized in such things.  I remember clearly the exaggerated features of his face; particularly his bulbous nose.  He was a Jewish man who was, quite frankly, tired of examining American boys who would be sent to war.  After prodding inside my nostrils, he almost sneered as he said, “You can’t go to Vietnam wid a nose like dat!”  And he marked my paper 4-F.  I was now unqualified to fight because the inside of my nose was a little crooked.

A lot happened between then and 1976.  I did some growing up.  The war ended, though not easily.  I got rhinoplasty to correct the deviation of my schnoz.  I got married and we became pregnant.  I needed medical benefits and some direction in my life.  So I volunteered for, and was accepted by, the U.S. Air Force.  Here, I knew, I could explore the gifts and talents inside me.

There are millions of men and women alive today who have served in the Armed Forces, each with his or her own bucket of stories.  Mine have to do with being a non-conformist in a world that required conformity.  I made a conscious decision to do things the Air Force way, and while there were hiccups in my execution, this turned out to be a decision well-made.  My six years of service were among the best years of my life.  I determined early on that I would get everything from this experience that I could, give 110% back to the Air Force, and then parlay my skills in the real world.  I’ve shared some of my stories in previous posts: here and here.

My gifts and training were in journalism and writing.  These were applied in radio broadcasting and in television production.  I had great success in an environment that rarely rewarded the individual; only the collective…that’s the military way.  I got to chronicle all manner of events in places most people never think of.  I got to work with good people all fixed with the same purpose.

One of my early tasks was coverage of military ceremonies, a dull prospect, I thought at first.  Standing behind a television camera shooting General so-and-so who was extolling the virtues of this military unit or that; or of the homecoming of soldiers and airmen who’d served overseas; of the president’s visits to our base; of the funerals of the fallen.

Each of these ceremonies had one thing in common: the raising of the colors and playing of our national anthem.  In years past, the flag was just a symbol to me, and the anthem was just a contorted piece of music.  Now I found it difficult to focus because my eyes fogged up almost every time I experienced this part of each ceremony.

The feeling remains strong these many years later.  I’m a civilian now, but I still feel the urge to stand at attention and salute when the Star Spangled Banner is played.  I feel the urge to tell someone, anyone, how deeply I appreciate our men and women who have served, and about the gift that America is for each of us.

I feel the urge to thank God for my country.

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