FROM THE NEWS-LEDGER — FEB 19, 2014 —
A few weeks ago, I was out golfing with some of my college fraternity brothers and while waiting for our turn to tee off on the back-nine, one of them said to me, “I hear you ended up going to Vietnam. What was that like?”
“Oh,” I said, “there was good and bad in it like everything else I guess. So, you didn’t have to go?”
“No, thankfully I injured my knee playing basketball about a year before I was drafted and I didn’t pass the physical. And I can still remember how happy I was about that on the bus ride back to Sacramento.”
As our conversation continued, I found myself thinking back to the long ago day that I took my Army physical. The year was 1968 and there were anti-war demonstrators all over the place as the bus I was in crawled up to the United States Army Induction Center in Oakland, California, where I and hundreds of other young men were scheduled to receive our Army physicals.
When I was finally allowed to get off the bus, I soon found myself among a dozen or so of the more vocal demonstrators. They were carrying assorted signs and chanting, among other things, “Hell no, we won’t go!” As I tried my best to push and shove my way into the building, the guy in front of me suddenly took a swipe at one of the demonstrators and shouted a number of unprintable epithets at her.
“Damn commie!” he concluded, spitting in her direction.
Once inside, we were quickly formed into groups and told to follow one of the painted lines on the concrete floor. My group’s line was yellow and we soon found ourselves at Station One, Processing.
“My name’s Ken,” said my new, commie-hating companion, offering his hand for me to shake. “What’s yours?”
After I told him my name he asked me where I was from. Before I could answer, we were herded into a large room full of ancient classroom desks and told to take a seat and keep the noise down. On each of the desks was a large stack of papers and a soldier with a no-nonsense voice began explaining how we were supposed to fill them out.
Everyone except Ken, who was seated in front of me, seemed to take this task very seriously. He messed around with a few of the papers, but left the rest of them untouched.
“You better hurry up,” I finally suggested to him.
“No sweat,” he said confidently, “I won’t be getting past the general examination room, which is the next station.”
“How do you know that?” I asked with interest.
“I’ve been here before,” he explained, “and more than once, too.”
“Yeah, I’m an old pro at flunking my physical.”
I wanted to ask him how one manages to do that, but we were suddenly ordered to gather up all our paperwork and begin following the yellow line again.
Sure enough, just as Ken had said, the next station turned out to be a large, cold examination room where we were told to strip down to our shorts and form a big circle. I thought it was a little strange that everyone but Ken took off their socks and I decided to bring it to his attention.
“I don’t want to gross everyone out,” he explained matter-of-factly.
Then a single, obviously bored-to-death doctor in a white coat stepped into the room and began strolling around the inside of the circle. On his first trip around the room, he haphazardly checked everyone’s eyes, throats and necks. Then he reversed his direction and began examining feet. One of the young men he passed yelled out, “Hey, I’m missing a toe here! Doesn’t that make me 4-F?”
“Afraid not,” said the doctor without even bothering to look up as he continued inspecting feet.
When he finally came to me and Ken, he angrily ordered Ken to remove his socks. Ken quickly complied, and I’m absolutely sure that everyone within view of those feet will never forget that sight for as long as they live.
Ken had the worst case of athlete’s foot I, and apparently the doctor, too, had ever seen!
“That’s disgusting!” exclaimed the shocked physician.
“I know, sir,” said Ken proudly.
“Young man,” shouted the doctor, “you get those socks back on those feet and immediately report to processing for a new physical date. And I don’t want to see you back here again until that mess is completely cleared up! Do you understand me?”
As Ken threw back on his socks, he happily explained to me and a couple of the other guys (to whom he was already a cult-hero) how he had actually been cultivating his athlete’s foot fungus for months. He apparently had been wearing the same pair of soggy, disease-infested gym socks to bed each and every night, often with a heating pad strapped around each foot.
“Ain’t nobody sending this dude to Vietnam,” he said with a smile as he began shaking hands with some of his fellow draftees.
“Get the hell out of here!” shouted the doctor from across the room.
“Damn it! Now I’m going to have to find a way to get past all those worthless, hippie scum-of-the-earth commie demonstrators again,” were the last words I heard Ken say.
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