I spent the afternoon Tuesday doing laundry, watering shrubbery, keeping an eye on Claudius the cat, and reading The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, the library's Big Read selection this year.
Apart from The Names of the Dead, by Stewart O'Nan, which I read a couple of years ago, when I read lots of O'Nan after reading Last Night at the Lobster, it has been a long time since I visited Vietnam in fiction. In the '80's I read a number of novels in the first wave of serious Vietnam fiction: Fields of Fire (1978) by James Webb, The 13th Valley (1982) by John Del Vecchio, and others. The Things They Carried (1990), is a kind of meta-war story, a story about war stories. It has an astonishing 826 customer reviews at Amazon.
I'm sure I've quoted Samuel Johnson before on this, "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea." So it surprises me that O'Brien characterizes his obedience to the draft as an act of cowardice. The courageous choice, he writes, would have been to go to Canada, and been thought a coward by his family and neighbors. Maybe, but how many great novels are there about avoiding the draft in Canada? I can't think of any.
Things is set in 1968, when I was fourteen. Vietnam for me and my friends was our big brothers' war. I didn't have an older brother, but my friend Jimmy Roberts's brother Kenny joined the Marines, went to Vietnam, and came home. On the national stage, 1968 was when all hell broke loose, but I had problems of my own, the problems of a fourteen-year-old.
Fast-forward to the autumn of 1971, at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I had taken a mescaline-fueled magic carpet ride straight out of school to the Krishna Consciousness Temple. I was walking along up University Avenue in my saffron robe, with my shaven head, when a guy offered me a ride back to the temple. He introduced himself as Scott Camil, an anti-war activist, and asked about one of the devotees, Joe.
I remember Joe as a man with a ready smile and a wrestler's build. Camil told me that Joe was a draft resister, and that he disapproved of Joe's joining the Krishnas. Joe, he said, also had a way with women. "A waste of a good man."
One morning in late 1971 I was sitting on the temple roof, having climbed out a second-story window, when I saw Joe coming down the sidewalk. A black sedan pulled up beside him, and two men in suits bundled him into it. That was the last we saw of Joe.
On my eighteenth birthday, February 7, 1972, I reported to the Selective Service office in Gainesville to register for the military draft, wearing my Krishna ensemble. A year later, when I turned nineteen, I was back in school, at Valencia Community College in Orlando. Your nineteenth year was your year of eligibility for the draft. My draft lottery number was 47, which a few years earlier would have guaranteed my receiving a draft notice.
But it was 1973. "Vietnamization", the handing over of the war to ARVN forces, was in progress. I would have gone. I sure didn't want to go to prison. I was unathletic, and I wore glasses. I figured I'd probably be made some kind of clerk. But I never got an induction notice. So that was it. No glory at all, and no lifetime of obsessing about having been in a war.