Stories From My Father: Mastitis

My father never set out to be a draft dodger. He was certainly involved in anti-war protests and if asked probably would have said that he opposed the war, like many men of the era, but he didn’t plan to specifically avoid the draft. When his number came up, which he knew it would, he was prepared. He came, after all, from a Navy family, and while he had no interest in actively volunteering for service, he wasn’t necessarily opposed to the idea.

When I think about it—when I first became aware of the war—it’s funny how you can become aware and not be aware, you know what I mean? I have a vivid memory of working at the train station during the graveyard shift, I’d show at midnight, you know, leave at around eight when the…the trains for…we lived near Fort Dix, the trains for the Fort Dix induction center were leaving. I remember one sunny perfect morning, a large group of young men, their mothers, girlfriends—these were eighteen to twenty year old guys, all looking pretty macho, strong…their mothers were crying, some of their girlfriends were sobbing—and I thought ‘some of these people will not see that guy again. This is it—this is the final goodbye.’ This preceded my opposition to the war…in retrospect, I wonder why I didn’t put two and two together right then…

The first draft notice came when he was out of the country. It moldered on his bed, where a roommate tossed it, for several weeks until his return. He worked his way through the pile of mail waiting for him and noted that even if it had been on top, he still wouldn’t have made his reporting date, because he was in a small town in Germany at the time, learning about cheesemaking. He tossed it in the garbage, not sure what else to do with it, since he certainly wasn’t going to go out of his way to point out that he’d missed his date with destiny.

What happened to the second notice was blamed on the mail carrier, although to be fair, it might have been a mail thrower back at the regional sorting centre. Whatever the case, it was delivered a day after his appointment, and my father again tossed it, shrugging his shoulders. He figured that if they wanted him that badly, they’d probably send another one. His roommates warned him that they might send an MP instead, and he figured he’d cross that bridge when he came to it.

When the third notice arrived, it came in time for him to call the recruiter. He was living on a goat farm in rural Oregon at the time, and he explained that the day of the appointment was inconvenient because all the roommates would be gone. He had to stay, he explained to the recruiter, because if the goats weren’t milked, they could develop mastitis. The recruiter wanted to know what mastitis was and my father explained. There was a long pause on the other end of the phone, but the appointment was rescheduled. My father assured him it was an unusual event, usually other people were around and he could go into town without a problem.

With each notice came a new reason not to attend, and all of them really were legitimate. But with the fifth, he became 1A delinquent. The government was starting to get a little riled up about his refusal to report for induction, even though he wasn’t refusing so much as falling through the cracks. There was the time he got on the wrong bus, for example, and ended up in Klamath Falls, calling the recruiter from the payphone to explain. The notices kept coming, and coming, and coming, and one night his roommates warned him that the FBI was probably tracking him.

As a college student at the University of Chicago, my father had seen, firsthand, the results of overzealous law enforcement and dubious FBI involvement. Terrified, he called the regional FBI office to explain the situation. The agent on the other end of the line sounded incredulous, and eventually assured him that, no, they didn’t have a file on him, and if they opened one, it would probably be a low investigative priority. After all, my father had talked to the recruiter on multiple occasions, it wasn’t like he’d dropped off the face of the earth. ‘We know where to find you,’ the agent said, and hung up.

When I was growing up it was just something you did. My parents were in the Second World War. So were a lot of other folks. Lots of people served. Maybe I thought now it was something you did hoping you wouldn’t get killed. Within the first couple months at college…the first person I knew closely died, Billy Gould, in a useless expedition. I guess I was getting kind of angry. I knew we shouldn’t be over there, and now my friends were during for nothing.

My father never did make it to his induction appointment. Eventually, after about 13 notices, they sent another, informing him that he had been reclassified to 3H. When he called the recruiter, he was just as puzzled about what it meant as everyone else was. He had to look it up, and return with the information that it meant ‘physically or mentally unfit to report for induction.’ His friends all thought it was a great accomplishment.

‘I never meant for that to happen,’ my father said.