The college community, and even more so the staff of the Crimson, the college paper for which I was a photographer, were overwhelmingly opposed to the war in Vietnam and found repugnant the compulsory drafting of young men for military service. When the lottery drawing occurred in Washington, D.C., capsules with birthdays inside were drawn one by one from a metal drum to determine the order in which young men were to be called up. Each birthday as it was announced was entered into the Associated Press news feed. The editors and staff at the Crimson crowded en masse in the newsroom and watched the long column of birthdays as it came out of our AP ticker tape machine. We were all on student deferments from the draft, so we were all affected. One editor got number four and stormed cursing out of the paper; another was up in the three hundred and fifties. My number was fifty-four, which meant I was certain to be called for service.
How to deal with being drafted into the army, sent to boot camp, and then sent to fight in Vietnam? One friend was thin and lost weight to get a 4F, or “unfit” classification; another painted a Vietcong flag on his chest, went crazy at his physical, and told us that he’d been kicked out and warned not to come back. I went through the process over several years of researching and preparing an application for deferment as a conscientious objector, ready to do alternative service as opposed to joining the military.
I was awarded CO status by my Pennsylvania draft board by a vote of two-to-one. I was glad not to be facing service in Vietnam, but it was an unsettling reminder of how unfair the system was: I was, and still am, sure that I squeaked by in getting the deferment not on religious grounds but because I had letters of support from the most establishment people I could find: my roommate Andy Day’s father, who was headmaster at Exeter but more potently had been a paratrooper during the D-Day Invasion of Normandy; my cousin General Billy Biddle, who was a regimental commander at D Day and later Commander of the Occupying Forces in Japan; and a Philadelphia attorney who had served as head of the Pennsylvania State Appeal Board for draftees who were unhappy with their classifications.
In my well-meaning eagerness to be helpful, I decided that I should find alternative service working with Native Americans, then commonly referred to as Indians. Even though the draft ended and I was not ultimately required to do any service, I spent the better part of a year in Phoenix working at a national Indian organization and hanging out with Indians and Chicanos. I got hooked up with a Navajo named Gus Greymountain, a smart and empathetic barroom brawler, ex-marine, ex-con, fighter and fucker who took me to Indian bars because he could. I was in a near-constant state of culture shock. One of our crew was a Maricopa Indian named Manfred who’d been in prison for going out and killing the first white man he’d found. Of course, he might have been pulling my leg. My experience of these Indians’ humor was a never-ending flow of set up and insult. EG: there was a once a gorilla named Baltimore Jack whose story became legend with the Indians. The gorilla had been brought to the Phoenix zoo to mate with their female, but he failed to make babies and then died of pneumonia. They called each other Baltimore Jack for fun, and when I arrived from Boston (or Philadelphia or someplace near Baltimore) the name got stuck on me. I was never able to find the joke funny, but I tried to respond in kind.
We were once driving through the high desert, me at the wheel of a pickup truck, Gus and Manfred and a white guy named Butch all lined up in the front seat, drugs, alcohol, and guns lined up in the well on the passenger side. Everyone was in a quiet lull, but my mind was at work, and I made a stab at humor. “I’ll tell you one thing I’ve learned about you guys who’ve been in prison,” I said jauntily. Silence. “You all fart clean as a whistle.” Silence. But this time it was a murderous silence. Manfred said, “That’s not funny,” and Gus answered him, “Aw, c’mon, he got you.” I felt like the decision whether to leave me for dead teeter-tottered for a moment, then passed. I didn’t try much more humor after that.