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By Leon Wengrzyn
"I'll go if you do," he said, looking at the building.
"I don't know man, this is scary as hell," I replied still clutching the steering wheel. "Are you sure you want to?" I asked him and myself at the same time.
"Come on, man" he said, crushing his cigarette and opening the car door. "We've been through this discussion enough. I don't want to get drafted so let's see what they say."
"Shit," I said getting out of the car too and standing next to him. Across the parking lot the huge gray building sat looking down at us. Above the entrance the sign read US NAVAL RESERVE AND MARINE CORP CENTER.
"Now let's get this straight," I said. "We're just inquiring about joining and what they got."
"Ask them if they have a buddy plan. You know, join together," he said.
You ask them," I retorted, "Christ, I don't know about joining. I just don't want to go to Vietnam. Maybe they got a deal where you can stay in the states if you join." I was beginning to stutter. I looked at him, thinking of all the years we've been friends. How we've done everything together and now here we are trying to figure out what we're doing next.
"Come on, man," he said in a more determined way, "let's check 'em out." I was glad he was taking lead in this effort but I wasn't so sure I wanted to be lead.
An impeccably dressed in white sailor with an arm full of gold stripes met us in the lobby. The shiny floors, the huge flags, the picture of the president and this stern looking military man just screamed for respect and obedience. It was mesmerizing and mortifying at the same time.
"We want to see about joining," my friend blurted in response to the inquiry of what we wanted.
I sensed an ever so slight grin on the sailor's face as he glared at both of us. "Have a seat," he commanded and disappeared behind a windowless door. My friend and I sat alone along the wall of the huge room, listening to the echo of the door closing.
"Shit," I said, immediately realizing that my voice echoed too. "Man, this is scarier than I thought," I whispered.
"Come on man," my friend whispered back, "they ain't done nothing to us yet." We looked around the room while the picture of the president glared back at us. The sailor re-appeared with a bundle of papers and some ink pens. He seemed a little softer now as he told us to fill out the forms. Then he was gone again.
My friend and I looked at each other but there was really nothing more to say. We went to work on the forms. Name, address, social security, employment history, schooling, nothing unusual until the part asking WHY DO YOU WANT TO JOIN THE NAVY? We must have seen the question at the same time because we saw the dilemma in each other's eyes.
"Shit, I don't want to join the Navy. I just want to get out of being drafted and sent to Vietnam. If I say I want to join, they got me," I said with a bit of panic.
My friend had to think hard on this one.
"Just put down that you are not sure you want to join but you want to know more about it," he said. I was impressed by his unusual logic.
"What are you gonna put down," I asked.
"I don't know," he replied.
"What" I echoed across the room, "you don't know" I echoed again.
The president's main sailor was right in front of us again. "Don't worry about that part," he commanded reading our thoughts. My heart was beating hard but I could swear I could hear my friends beating too.
"Follow me," the sailor said as he headed to the windowless door. We looked at each other as we stood up. "HOLY SHIT" my friend mouthed in silence as we went through the door.
He led us into what appeared as a small classroom. Long tables and chairs facing the front chalkboard. Overhead projector on one side. The sailor instructed us to sit at separate tables and put a few papers in front of each of us. Then he explained, "in order to evaluate your suitability for service in the US Navy, you are required to take an examination." Then much softer. "Don't worry, this test gives us information we need to assist you in your questions about whether naval service is right for you. When you are done, we can talk about all your questions. If you want to smoke, please use the scuttlebutt, that is, the ashtray." I looked at my friend and I could tell by his grimace that he was thinking the same thing I was. Damn, we left the cigarettes in the car.
"This is a timed test so begin now and I will return when your time is up," he continued.
I could hear the door close softly behind me as I picked up the pen and began. True or false, multiple choice, complete the sentence, etc., etc. At one point I looked at my friend but he was absorbed by his test. I was beginning to think this was a waste of time. The questions seemed so mundane and some so stupid.
Then the sailor was there again. This time I was relieved to see him. He gathered the papers and told us to sit tight and he would be back in a short while to talk to us.
"Man, I want a cigarette," my friend said as the sailor left.
"Shit, who would have thought you could smoke during a test. This ain't high school," I cried.
"Man, that test was really dumb. How did you do," he asked.
"I don't know. I didn't finish it all." Then we looked at each other in silence again. For all the experience we've had together in our lives, it seemed so unreal to be sitting here in this military classroom so unsure of ourselves and our future. I guess we really never had been faced with the questions of what the future would be for both of us, apart or together. I don't know if we were doing the right thing. Forces of life have grown so big and powerful that we bob along on an uncertain sea just trying to stay afloat. Funny how I'm starting to think in sailor terms.
The classroom door opened and the expressionless sailor motioned for my friend to follow him. "I'll be back for you in a few minutes," said the sailor. Now I sat alone. My gut feeling was that this did not feel right. I felt I was getting drawn in, but maybe that was a blessing, I surely didn't want to go to Vietnam.
It seemed like hardly any time had gone by and the sailor was back. I followed him down a corridor and into a private office. I sat in a plush chair. He sat behind his large desk with a picture of his loved ones and the usual trappings of an active business work place. My friend was not there.
"You did very well on your test," he began. "In fact, you are the 5th recruit to take the test today. Only three passed. The recruit who was #1 was a college graduate. The third place recruit has two years of college. You placed 2nd, so for your level of high school education, you did very well. There are a lot of naval programs that you can quality for if you choose to enlist." He leaned forward on his desk and gave a well-practiced look of confidence, concern, and congratulations.
I instinctively sat straight up from my usual slouch and said, "Well me and my friend were talking about joining on a buddy plan. Could we join together?" A reasonable statement and question I thought.
The sailor's eyes narrowed. "Your friend did not have a high enough score on his test to qualify for enlistment with the Navy. I suggested he inquire with the Army if he wants to enlist."
Now I can't describe to you how profound the recruiter's statement was to me. Never before had a higher power split our relationship so cleanly and completely. I qualify, he doesn't. The recruiter went on nailing the nails in the coffin of our innocent friendship. Officers Candidate School, Journalism School, Shore Duty in California, Write your own ticket, blah blah blah.
Then, almost kindly, "You don't have to decide right now. Go home and think it over. I'll call you in a few days."
I walked out past the picture of the president. He seemed to smile more now than glare. Outside, the parking lot looked darker. It seemed a lot of time had gone by. My friend was standing outside the car smoking a cigarette. I was glad to see him.
"What took you so long," he began, "I almost smoked the last cigarette." I took the last cigarette from him as he crushed the empty pack.
"Shit, they are trying to get me to join," I said conscious of how careful I was saying it.
"Are you gonna?"
"I dunno," I said.
"Come on man, join up. You don't want to go to Vietnam." I got behind the wheel. He got in.
"Screw it," I said, "let's go cruisin' while we still got the time".
Post script: We both went to Vietnam, me in the Navy and my friend in the Army. We are both 100% PTSD disabled and still best friends. He made E-5 and I never got past E-3.
Lee Wengrzyn is a member of VVAW who lives in Florida.