Scholar to soldier. Sort of.
I was the first in my family to go to college, so winning a National Merit Scholarship was a pretty big deal. I would have gotten a full ride, if my father's lower-middle-class income had been just a few dollars less. But nooooooo. According to the hardship tables, we qualified for only a pittance - $100 a year.
However, my parents were dazzled by the fact that their firstborn could be a Merit Scholar. So they bit the bullet, took out a second mortgage, and covered my out-of-state tuition.
That lasted for several months, until they heard that I had joined some demonstrations against the Vietnam War.
They thought the war was peachy. And I could never figure out why they wanted their boy to come home in a body bag.
Come to think of it, that may be the root of a few familial problems since then.
So that's when the money dried up. I took on a couple of jobs, after classes. But they weren't enough. Things were getting desperate. My draft card said 1-A, and my lottery number turned out to be 33. That year, Uncle Sam was hell-bent on drafting every male teenager with a number under 125. None of us could quite wrap our brains around the surreal image of some fat, decrepit old guy on TV, reaching into a large glass container to pull out a blue plastic capsule that contained a potential death sentence.
I knew a few vets, and I saw what the war had done to them. It wasn't pretty. Some of them came home with missing parts. Body parts. Mind parts. Some of my friends never came home at all.
So I seriously considered emigrating to Canada. I studied the qualifications for becoming a Conscientious Objector. I also thought about going to jail.
Then I got a really stupid idea.
I could get a draft deferment *and* a full scholarship... if I joined the Air Force Reserve Officers' Training Corps. The only Air Force officers in harm's way were flying jets, and my eyesight was too crappy to qualify for jet school. So I bit the bullet and suffered through six weeks of basic training during the summer. After returning to campus, I struggled through twice-a-week ROTC classes.
Have you ever heard of cognitive dissonance? I got pretty weird. Even for me.
I grew my hair down to my shoulders and bought a short-hair wig for ROTC classes. I wrote anti-war articles for the school newspaper. I was tear-gassed in public demonstrations.
But I dutifully showed up at the ROTC classes. Twice a week. I knew they were the only things between me and a body bag. Life went on that way for several years.
At some point, my ROTC instructor attended a weekend track meet in which I was competing. I didn't know he was there. When I won a medal in the mile, my shoulder-length hair was flowing freely in the wind.
A few days later, just before my next ROTC class, the instructor confronted me in the hallway. He was a Captain. He was also a prick, but I would have hated him anyway. We argued military history and tactics during every class, and I was usually able to point out the flaws in his reasoning. He was a sore loser.
As I stood at attention in the hallway, the Captain looked at my head very carefully. He walked all the way around me, smirking.
"You know, I saw someone who looked a lot like you at a track meet this past weekend. Do you have a twin?"
So the jig was up. "That was me, sir."
"Did you get a haircut since then?"
I could tell that he wanted to rip the short-hair wig right off my head. But he was also aware that I was wound up pretty tight. He knew that I was ready--and perhaps even a little eager--to break his jaw. So he bit the bullet, and submitted paperwork instead.
The Air Force had no rules about wigs, but the Captain submitted paperwork anyway. I got a copy, a few days later. He wanted ROTC to discharge me "for the good of the service."
However, the military had paid for most of my schooling. And I had signed a contract, giving them certain rights. For example, if I failed to qualify for my ROTC commission, they had the option of drafting me for 4 years of slavery as a non-officer grunt.
But during my years of cognitive dissonance, the world had moved on, like it always does: Nixon had started his crime spree, and the war was winding down.
In short, the Air Force didn't really need another troublemaker. So when I graduated, they gave me a nice parting gift (Honorable Discharge) instead.
And I spent the next several years trying to get back to normal. Whatever that is.
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