What I do remember clearly was the sweat rolling down the back of my spine. I remember trying to sit upright in a straight-back wooden chair. But the sweat made it slippery – it was Boise in September, no air-conditioning – and I had the distinct feeling, while the white-coated MD leafed through my folder, that I was sliding irretrievably down and out of the seat. I’d right myself, then start sliding again, lubricated under my thighs and back.
The doctor wasn’t looking up. He was looking at the X-rays of my back, the one piece of (admittedly marginal) evidence I had hoped would grant me a medical deferment. But that was before the sergeant proctoring the written test had whispered “California Roadrunner” and shattered my game plan. That had happened an eternity ago, early in the day. Now I sat in a pool of looming humiliation, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
What a fool. I’d obviously invested too much, emotionally, into flunking the physical. But this setback didn’t mean I was going to Vietnam. I’d made up my mind about that. I wasn’t going. I still had a choice: refuse induction and see what happened (some resisters got to work in hospitals, some got jail time), or leave the country. Sweden? Canada? I liked Canada. I’d never been to Canada.
Probably nothing this organized was going through my brain as I sat and waited. In the bad dream the day had become I was probably hallucinating on the brass badge pinned to the captain’s lab coat, or the pointillist grain in the oak of his desk. I don’t remember thinking about the ethics of what I’d done. Was it wrong to refuse to participate, by hook or by crook, in an undeclared war? How does one behave morally in an immoral society?
I wasn’t thinking about the inequities of the system that existed before the lottery and the blanket ending of student deferments. That system had meant the disproportionate drafting of poor black men, people who didn’t assume college as a birthright. And those men had been fighting and dying in huge numbers while children of privilege remained in the shelter of academe.
No, and I certainly wasn’t musing on the possibility that four decades later I’d be arguing for a reinstatement of the draft, so that George W. Bush and the Congress of the United States might fear for their own children and think twice about their wars of choice.
“Mr. Shelton,” the captain began, and I jolted out of whatever reverie I was in. “I have some bad news.”
Oh, god. Here it comes. He’s being sarcastic even. Isn’t he?
He continued, “You will not be able to serve in the armed forces of the United States.” Did he say not serve? “The military can’t take the risk of your having an allergic reaction to an insect sting. It’s a matter of the safety of all the soldiers in your unit.”
The bee sting! That day when I was 13 and I stepped on a bee on Strany Dalberg’s front lawn, and my mom said I looked funny when I got home, all puffy around the neck, and took me to see Dr. Sinykin, and...
I couldn’t believe it. Relief flooded every pore. I tried to look sober. If not disappointed – I probably couldn’t have pulled that off – then at least appreciative of the seriousness of this news. How had Sgt. “We Know Who You Are” not passed along his intelligence? Didn’t matter. This was the final word. My new draft card would have a 1Y stamped on it. I floated out of that office and all the way back to Sun Valley on the bus the next day. In a final twist, it seemed my stand on conscience had been validated by a piece of luck.
On the drive home to Berkeley, I stopped for an hour to fish one of Hemingway’s favorite trout streams, Silver Creek. His alter ego Nick Adams had pulled himself up out of what was then called shell shock, in the short story Big Two-Hearted River. I waded into the slow, spring-fed water and cast a dry fly at the rings left by rising fish. I thought about whether or not the bee sting would have convinced my California draft board. I would never know, of course. But I would for sure have a warm place in my heart for Idaho, its farm boys, its absence of irony.
The rainbows in the creek were huge, the biggest I’d ever seen, a foot and a half long and built like Polaris submarines. They weren’t interested in my fly, or the next one I tried, or the next. In the super-clear water my legs created an invisible eddy, and two of the massive fish nosed up to the backs of my knees. I stopped casting – what was the point? – just stood there looking down at their pebble-colored backs. They hardly had to move a fin to hold there, in perfect, mocking indifference.