Doing Time on the Group W Bench by
5
(6 Stories)

Prompted By War & Remembrance

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I trust I do not appear to dishonor those who actually served in our armed forces, especially during wartime, but this is about as close as I come to a personal war story.  And, no, it hardly reflects any glory — pro-war or anti-war — on moi.

I was on the Group W Bench... This was the place where all those mother rapers, father stabbers and father rapers who were considered morally unfit to join the Army and kill people were made to sit, possibly forever

I pulled a really low number in the draft lottery in college (45; funny how every guy I know still remembers his) and was summoned for a draft physical my senior year. We had the choice of taking the physical in either our college town or hometown.  As to the former, the Boston induction center was the target of a lot of anti-war protests and it was also generally known that, presumably in retaliation, the guys coming in for physicals were not treated too kindly by the Army staff there.   So I opted for my hometown of New Haven instead.

Apparently, the Yalies hadn’t been quite as disruptive and, in fact, my father was a prominent surgeon in New Haven, so that the Army staff was fairly courteous and, in fact, most of the doctors knew my father and were as pleasant to me as they could be.  Of course, much as I would have appreciated this connection in other contexts (such as getting a restaurant reservation or avoiding a speeding ticket), it was totally wasted on me on this occasion.  And it was still a pretty miserable long day of trudging around in one’s underwear with a bunch of equally morose (and occasionally hostile)  guys while being poked, prodded and questioned.

At the end of this aforementioned P, P and Q, we were herded back into the large room where we started the festivities and a young officer handed us a form to fill out. Shades of the McCarthy HUAC hearings! It was one of these “Are you now or have you ever been a member of…” lists of a huge group of ostensibly subversive organizations and signed by Attorney General John Mitchell, who was not exactly Mr. Popularity on college campuses those days.  Absurdly, the list seemed not to have been updated since the McCarthy era, and had on it names of obscure, presumably “pinko”  groups such as the Lithuanian Zionist Freedom Fighters or some such.  Conversely, I don’t think it even included SDS or the Progressive Labor Party.

Accordingly, I dutifully (and truthfully) checked the box that said that I was not a member of any of these groups and signed it.  That should have been the end of it.  However, the form also had a space at the bottom for “comments,” and, in a combination of youthful immaturity and weary anger at the whole process, I thought to myself, “Comments?  You want comments?  I’ll give you some f*cking comments!” and proceeded to write a brief diatribe on how offended I was to have to fill out such an anti-First Amendment form over the signature of an Attorney General whom I considered to be a major cog in an evil war machine and violator of human rights, etc., etc.  Then I turned in the form to the young officer at the front desk and returned to my seat.  I noticed that he seemed to be reading it and noticeably bristled.

After all the forms were collected, the officer started calling out names one by one and telling the named guys that they were free to get dressed (we were still in our underwear) and leave. He continued doing paperwork at his desk and, after about half an hour, I noticed that there were only a few of us left sitting there and nothing more seemed to be happening in the “You are free to get dressed and leave” department.  And then it suddenly hit me.  I was on the Group W Bench, made famous by Arlo Guthrie in “Alice’s Restaurant.”  This was the place where all those mother rapers, father stabbers and father rapers who were considered morally unfit to join the Army and kill people were made to sit, possibly forever.

Well, that was not what I wanted to do; I just wanted to get dressed and leave.  Plus, I was admitted to law school and anxious to go and had already heard of law students who had been active in anti-war activities being given a hard time about their bar admission by the Character and Fitness Committee.  (Ironically, a year later, this was the very subject of our IL moot court competition.)

So I went up to the officer and asked him if the reason I was still sitting there in my underwear while everyone else was leaving was due to what I had written in the comments section of the form, and he said yes.  I then said that, as I am sure he had noticed, I had indicated that I was not a member of any of these organizations, so why didn’t he just give me a new form so I could again check that box and sign without leaving any comments and then I would be free to go.

To the officer’s credit — and I don’t think he was being snarky — he asked me if I felt comfortable doing that without compromising my principles.  I remember my response verbatim: “Well sir, as to my principles, I am mainly a devout pragmatist.  And right now my principles tell me that, more than anything else, I just want to get my clothes back on and get out of here.” With that soliloquy, he ripped up and threw out my old form in a wastebasket (I watched him do that carefully).  He then gave me a new form and I filled it out and signed it — sans comments —  and he immediately told me I was free to go.  I broke several land speed records in leaving and dressing and going out the door and ending one of the weirdest days of my life.  (Well, a very sympathetic girlfriend made it better later, but that’s not for sharing.)

By way of postscript, having passed my physical and being classified 1-S and having draft number 45, I went off to law school that September (this was ’71) and wondered if I would be called up.  It never happened to me and I am not aware of any other full-time graduate students who were called up.  I think the dirty little secret  of the SSS was that, despite graduate school deferments ostensibly being abolished, so long as you were a full time student in good standing, you were not going to be called up; there was enough cannon fodder elsewhere, especially in the inner cities and the farmlands, and let’s not antagonize all those upper middle class parents by pulling their boys out of school and sending them off to a nasty war.

 

Profile photo of John Shutkin jshutkin


Characterizations: funny, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Profile photo of Suzy Suzy says:

    John, this is a great story! Who knew you were right up there with Arlo Guthrie because of your radical comments on the subversive organizations form. I love it! But are you sure you weren’t a member of the Lithuanian Zionist Freedom Fighters? Your story makes the last paragraph of my story inaccurate, because I said “All the guys I knew either managed to get 4-F status, became conscientious objectors, or, after the lottery was instituted, had good lottery numbers.” But I’m not gonna change it.

    • Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin says:

      Thanks much, Suzy. But you are forgetting my genealogical roots: I was a member of the UKRAINIAN Zionist Freedom Fighters — which, for some reason, wasn’t on Mitchell’s list. And the reason that you didn’t know about all of us guys with low lottery numbers is we didn’t want anyone listening to us praying and crying ourselves to sleep every night.

  2. Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman says:

    It’s rare that I can characterize a story as both “funny” and “moving,” but this one qualifies. I loved how you look back on your own youthful earnestness with both horror and admiration.

    Your comments about the Boston vs New Haven recruiting centers make me wonder if you’ve seen the Kevin Rafferty’s documentary about the 1968 Harvard-Yale game, “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29.” Ostensibly about a football game, it’s really about cultural attitudes of the time—Harvard players who embraced the counterculture, Yale players who were still Old Guard. Recommended.

    • Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin says:

      Thanks very much, John. And yes; I’ve seen and enjoyed “Harvard Beats Yale..” — and one day will probably write about The Game itself here and having the two worst seats in Harvard Stadium for it. I am not so sure about its allegorical implications, but it was sure fun to relive the moment, at least from my side of the field — literally. Also I like the fact that, coincidentally, my now-wife was also there on the Yale side with her then Yale boyfriend (later first husband) and she was a good friend of Meryl Streep’s at Vassar and thus knew all about Meryl’s boyfriend, a Yale linebacker, who talks about her (Meryl, that is) in the film. That said, I am beginning to view that Game as being the equivalent of Woodstock: everyone claims to have been there.

      • Profile photo of Suzy Suzy says:

        Well, John S., as you know, I was there too, and I’m sure my seat was just as bad as yours, if not worse. Not that I was paying much attention to the game, at least until the last 3 minutes. . . .

        • Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin says:

          Well, Suzy, mine were in the temporary bleachers behind the end zone (you know, the end zone where all of the action in the last 42 seconds did not happen), in Row 1, seats 1 and 2 (i.e., the very bottom corner of the bleachers). On the bright side, my date — in obvious gratitude for the wonderful seats, charming company and bone-chilling weather — invited me to be one of her escorts (with her brother) at her Catholic debutante ball over Christmas vacation.

      • Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman says:

        I was in those same bleachers—on the row W bench, I think—so I will compete with you for worst seats. Nonetheless we can unapologetically say “we were there.”

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