I wonder what is the subset of poor souls who read my blog but have not heard nor seen Alice's Restaurant? If by any chance you, by some freak of history, are such a person; I would strongly suggest you have missed one of the great culture experiences of our time, nay of any time and you should endeavor to hear and see AR as soon as possible. You may immediately hear a contemporary rendition with film clips by clicking on that there link. Doing so will delay your enjoyment of my words by about 18 minutes but will be well worth the journey. In the alternative you will, even without the clip, be able to follow my story below but perhaps not catch all of the whitful nuance.
My story, much like the original is not about Alice's Restaurant, which is not the name of the restaurant anyway. No, my story is about the draft, which by no small coincidence is what Alice's Restaurant is about. You may remember this exchange from about midway in the song and the movie.
"Kid, see the psychiatrist, room 604."
And I went up there, I said, "Shrink, I want to kill. I mean, I wanna, I wanna kill. Kill. I wanna, I wanna see, I wanna se blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth. Eat dead burnt bodies, I mean kill, Kill, Kill, Kill." And I started jumpin' up and down yelling, "KILL, KILL," and he started jumpin' up and down with me and we was both jumping up and down yelling, "KILL, KILL." And the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me, said, "You're our boy."
Now that's not my favorite exchange in the tale, story, movie or song; no that comes much earlier and goes like this: Twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used in as evidence against us. But like I said this is a story about the draft, my personal story about being nearly drafted and not as you might have thought a story about Alice or the restaurant, so I should probably get to my story. But you can still chose to hear the whole original AR with that link up there or you could read the lyrics or even come back later and do both. In any case I should get on with My Alice's Restaurant Story.
Back in the late fall of 1967 I dropped out of college. I left college on a Thursday, I remember this because on the following Wednesday, a mere six days later, I received a notice to report for my draft physical. Back in those days there was a lot of political pressure not to allow college students to avoid the draft my hanging around a campus without actually advancing towards a degree. Many college registrars felt compelled to vigorously inform the selective service of any change in student status and many recruiting centers acted with haste to fill their body quota.
So this is the story of one cold December 22nd, 1967; when I was selected to have my classifying pre-induction general physical and screening at the army's Fort Wayne facility in Detroit, Michigan. The bus was scheduled to leave the Ann Arbor bus station promptly at 7 a.m. on one amazingly cold winter morning. A snow storm two days before had left piles of now plowed snow all along the roads from my home nine miles away, the dark morning had shards of icy snow whipping on the wind.
Our bus was full but just as it started to roll there was a thump on the door, the driver let one more passenger/victim/future cannon fodder on and said:
"Find a seat somewhere, we're full up today."
The slight and clearly confused new arrival wore a huge winter parka with a wildly fur-lined hood. He took a quick glance down the four rows of faces and sat down on the steps by the door.
"Suit yourself," said the driver and we were off into the still dark morning heading for Detroit an hour away.
Slowly we all warmed up and woke up and conversations began. As it turned out only about half of the bus were there for our first physical. Others were being called back because they failed previously and as many as ten or twelve were there to actually be inducted into the military, they would not be returning with us to Ann Arbor that evening. No, they were off to war. Vietnam did come up in conversation and several of our crew were eager to get there, the dissenting opinion was not aired in the early morning light. Our last minute arrival stayed fully cocooned in his ginormous parka and did not participate in the chatter.
We arrived at Fort Wayne and entered under an newly installed archway that read: "Induction Center". I felt somehow that the day would not go well. Our busload was moved to a classroom to take a screening test prior to our physical. A sergeant stood at the podium and instructed each entering group to find seats and fill out the basic information on the form with the pencil provided. Then we were to color in the dots beneath the letters and numbers. These instructions were repeated each time a new group entered the room and a immediately dislikable private strode about the room in his pressed green uniform and checked our work.
I was in my second year of college, so under years of education I had put 14. The private glanced at my info. sheet and said:
"Fourteen, you know that means you've had two years of college."
I decided at that point I would go with silence as my default mode when dealing with anyone in uniform.
"What you couldn't keep your grades up even to avoid vietnam?"
Nope, I was going with silence. He moved on. Seated two seats in front of me was the parka wearing introvert and he was clearly struggling with the concept of coloring in the boxes under the letters of his name. The private prick in green pounced. He berated the kid and it became obvious fairly quickly the kid was not faking it. He either had taken one too many tabs of acid this morning or he was just not right in the head. In any case he was a helpless target for the asshole in green and the sergeant, not twenty feet away, showed no interest in ending the torment.
I briefly considered intervening but we were in land of the military. We had already been told several times that they could keep us overnight for any reason at any time, we would be told that at least a dozen times during the course the day. I decided that hero was not the wisest course of action while inside of a military induction center. We took our test. The tests were immediately graded, the 90%+ who passed were moved out to begin our physicals and the remaining group, including parka boy, were told they would now take another test and if they were trying to fake a failing grade they would be discovered and kept overnight. The last I saw of parka boy, he was being taunted again by the evil green private.
The details of the next five hours spent in shoes, socks and underwear are a story for another time. I'll make a note to put that story in the queue, it's funny but distracting from todays Alice's Restaurant theme. You basically process through 22 physical stations and get a check mark at each one. Near the end your file gets reviewed and you are sent to a final guy who tells you your immediate fate. Mine was to get dressed and follow the signs.
I got dressed, checked the boarding board and discovered my bus was 1-2 hours from departure. So I followed the signs for the lunch room. I found myself walking down a long hallway, near the far end were a couple of people I could not make out until I got closer. Facing me was parka boy now moaning, crying and shaking violently; with his back to me was the same private prick still berating and taunting the kid. I look behind me and saw no one, I was alone in his massively long hallway with parka boy and the evil green military incarnate.
Now remember I am nineteen at this time and had just been poked, prodded, injected, selected and rejected for five hours. I made a somewhat irrational decision, I was now ten feet from the evil green tyrant, I raised my left arm to throw a forearm shiver at the private's head. I figured that between my arm and the concrete wall, he was going down and out. What would happen next, well I hadn't worked that part out. My adrenaline spiked and ...
At that moment a large dark green uniform pushed past me, I had not heard him coming and only had an instant to notice a lot of scrambled egg yellow on his shoulder. He spun the private around with one hand and with the other he grabbed his name tag and ripped it and half of the front of his shirt off. The major or general or whatever put his arm around parka boy and took him through a nearby door. The whole scene took less than twenty seconds.
I was now alone with the private who had turned as white as his cotton t-shirt that was exposed through the huge hole that the officer had torn in his shirt. He was using the wall for support or he would have been curled up in a ball on the floor. I leaned in close to his ear and whispered three syllables very slowly: Vi - et - nam.
Now that is a great finish to the story I know but there was one more scene. When our bus was finally loaded several hours later, as we pulled away from the induction center into the dark winter evening, I looked up to a second floor window and there brightly illuminated was parka boy standing on an exam table with three white coated doctors around him. He was waving his arms and jumping up and down; and although I couldn't hear him, I was was sure he was shouting: "I wanna kill! Kill! Kill!"
"You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant, excepting Alice."