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Meet the Soldier of Fortunate

John Pohl

When I graduated from university in 1969, I had already avoided being drafted into the

U.S. army for four years.

To continue getting a deferment from the army and avoiding the Vietnam war, I had a few

options. I could stay in Canada, but I didn’t want to cut myself off from my family. I could go to grad school, but I was sick of school, and anyways, I had finished with a C average. I could get married, but no bride was in sight.

But, I could join the Peace Corps, or its domestic equivalent, Volunteers in Service to

America, VISTA for short. It was part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

In January 1970, I flew to Denver for six weeks of training. Few of us had any actual skills ,

and the training consisted mostly of exposing ourselves to people who acted like they hated us for being white college know-nothing anglos. Black activists were especially scathing to our faces.

We put up with it. How could we quit? Vista was our last line of defence.

I was assigned to a community centre in Salt Lake City where I helped high school

dropouts prepare for their general equivalency diplomas. My specialty was math. Most of my students were just three or four years younger than me, so I had a lot of fun making up math problems that involved, for example, figuring out the number of bodies in car trunks. I realized that if you could define a math problem in logical terms – algebra - the answer was easy.

My roommate Vince and I also had a youth group that we took to meet what we hoped

would be people who would inspire them to look for a better future. My math students were part of this and so were some younger kids of 14 or 15. One memorable evening, we took about six or eight boys to the tour the city’s main police station. As it turned out, all their questions involved alcohol and marijuana.

Police headquarters was only a few blocks from the centre, so we walked. A long residential street led directly to the station. Garbage cans were set out for pickup the next morning. and the boys started kicking the cans and tipping some of them over. Laughing and shouting, we made our way to the station. As we entered the station, several police cars, sirens blaring and lights flashing, screamed past us, heading down the street our boys had just terrorized.

I had probably yelled at the kids to stop, but my maturity level wasn’t much higher than

these young and mostly decent boys. And that lack of judgment got me fired from VISTA after nine months, three months short of the year I had hoped to stay out of the army’s notice.

My crime was to go with Steve, a friendly neighbour, to Aspen, Colorado, in a car he took

without asking from the girlfriend who had just kicked him out of their apartment. We hid the car in the woods outside Aspen in case she had reported it stolen.

I left town without notifying my boss, justifying my dereliction as helping a friend to get a

job, which kind of matched the VISTA code. I returned a week later with the car and their dog, Kilo, and was reprimanded.

Then, as a joke, Vince got his girlfriend, a telephone operator, to call our boss “collect,”

supposedly from Caracas, Venezuela, on a Saturday to report our absence, but promised to be back on Monday. That was it. We were both fired.

A few months later, I was drafted. By 1971, the army was choosing its conscripts by lottery,

giving each day of the year a number according to the order it was picked out of a hat, or a barrel. My birth date came up 151, meaning there was a good chance I would be drafted – if I passed the army physical.

I looked into enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard, where I could train as a photographer on

boats that I hoped would never get closer to Vietnam than Puget Sound. The catch was that I had to sign up for four years, instead of the two that I would get as a draftee.

What were my chance of flunking the physical? One of my brothers got out with flat feet;

the other one didn’t show up for his test and nobody came after him.

But what if an enlistee was seen as eager to join and was given an easier medical? What if I enlisted when I didn’t have to?

Vince, who always thought he was sick, decided one day to go to a medical clinic at the

University if Utah, and I went with him. We’d lost our access to free medical care when we were fired, but nobody at the clinic knew that. Sitting in the waiting room, I finally had the bright idea:

I could ask a doctor how I would fare on the army physical.

The doctor who saw me was an anti-war activist, I learned later. He looked at me for a

minute in silence, then said: “have you ever heard of Abraham Lincoln?”

Because Lincoln was a president, his health records and those of his father had been

preserved, and they later helped to establish a condition known as Marfan’s Syndrome. People with certain physical attributes, including arms and legs that were out of proportion to their bodies, were apt to die of a burst aorta (or a bullet to the brain).

And the only way to prove Marfan’s was with an autopsy. But it could be indicated with

physical measurements, which the doctor proceeded to make. The relative lengths of my limbs were in a grey zone between Marfan’s and normal, but the doctor assured me that the army would not want to support for life a soldier who collapsed in basic training.

It was time to take the physical. But I now had a doctor’s letter, something rich kids were

said to pay hundreds of dollars to obtain.

But I still didn’t know if I would use my golden letter. I felt guilty that a poor man would go in my place. And there was a vestigial patriotism, bred into me from childhood and not easily ignored.

I went to the induction centre. There were two groups in the big room: naked guys and

Mormons, who were allowed to wear the one piece undergarment that supposedly was never removed in front of another person, even their wife.

If any among us naked heathens was itching to join the army, he kept quiet. All the talk was about preparations to fail the physical. One guy, who described his drug intake that morning, collapsed on the floor when the army doctors told us to stand up. He was excused and told he’d be called again.

I was too proud to want to fail, but at the end was a doctor who asked for any medical

documents. I produced my letter. I was free.

So I came to Canada without being a draft dodger. And to my first job in the newspaper

business, as a reporter/photographer at a weekly paper in Nova Scotia, the Shelburne Coast Guard.

I had joined the Coast Guard after all. And I was “enlisted” there for a little more than four years.

65 views4 comments


Jim Withers
Jim Withers

Just like Col. Bone Spurs.

John Pohl
John Pohl

Except I didn’t become a convicted felon


John, youve always been my favourite Marfan. Lovely yarn.

John Pohl
John Pohl

I’m actually a Martian, rejected by Ma and Pa Kent but who found love and affection from a kryptonite teddy bear.

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