In June of 1969 I graduated from High School. My two best friends and myself, had just turned, or were about to turn nineteen years of age, as we sat that evening on the stools we had recently adopted, at a bar then known as Tony’s Char-Rich Lounge.
Earlier that summer, Pat and I had each been hired into jobs which had us working second-shift at Warner-Swasey, an east-Cleveland factory, training as turret-lathe operators. We thought at the time, it was a good idea, since we could drive together and spend our days at the beach, until it was time to go in. The strategy didn’t pan out very well after the first week however, as the prospect of leaving the beach and our friends in the middle of a sun-drenched afternoon to make our way all the way downtown to punch a time clock and stand in front of a turret-lathe until one-o’clock the following morning for seven dollars and ninety cents an hour just seemed, well, stupid. Within a couple of weeks we both had lined up other jobs that more suited our interests and pretty much sailed through the rest of the summer, working, getting to the beach when we could, and generally trying to imagine what life was all about, now that we were kind of out in the world, although each of us still lived in the home of our respective families.
During that time life was relatively carefree. We worked, went home, had dinner, cleaned up and shortly thereafter would meet at the Shell station, our default gathering spot where our buddy Bruce was the manager and allowed us the use of the tools and garage to do whatever work on our cars was needed at the time, in exchange for a six-pack or two, which by the end of the evening we had all shared, and after which we made our ritual “cruise” through the Big Boy parking lots, followed by an hour or so of just driving around. Sometimes we talked. Sometimes we just drove in silence. We always had to stop to get gas, each of us chipping in to bring the tank back to half. After that it was back to Shell, our parked cars, and then home.
It went on like that for most of the summer. A few parties, weekends at the beach and a lot of beer drinking. By September the routine had become rather tedious and we all were looking for something to do. Unsure just what it was we were looking for, none of us had a clue.
I decided to take on a second job. I went back to my first place of employment and asked Mr. Mack if he had any need for a second-shift dishwasher. Mr. Mack was my first real boss. He and his wife owned the local Perkins Pancake House and received me with a friendly welcome as he looked up from what appeared to be the same enormous pile of paperwork on his desk that was there the last time I saw him, as I knocked on the door.
“Jay, how good to see you after all this time”. It’d been five years since I left the store.
“Hey Mr. Mack” I said, pleased that he recognized me after all that time.
“What brings you to my door?” he queried.
“Mr. Mack, I need a part time job and I was hoping you might need someone to run the dishwasher a few nights a week.”
He turned in his chair and grabbed the labor schedule from the same rack it had occupied when I was a bus-boy back in nineteen sixty four. It took about a minute before he looked up and said:
“How many nights can you be available?”
Not expecting his response, I stammered a moment and finally coughed up “four, if you’ve got’em”.
“How about Monday through Wednesday to eleven, and Sunday till closing, but you have to be in by four on Sunday?”
I smiled and agreed to the hours.
“When can I start” I eagerly asked.
“If you could be here Monday at seven, Darren can run you through the routine and Tuesday, you’re on your own. Daren leaves for boot camp in a week.”
Oblivious to the boot-camp reference contained in his comment, I replied: “That’s great Mr. Mack, thanks. I’ll see you on Monday.”
“Good to have you back, Jay. See you on Monday.”
I exited the restaurant through the kitchen area and walked towards my car feeling very pleased that I found something productive to do with my evenings. Not that I wasn’t working hard enough at my new job with the telephone company as an apprentice linesman, I just needed something else to do. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was searching for a way to distance myself from my home environment. Some practical way to exert a bit of control in my life.
At last — I had the means and the opportunity to remove myself, even if temporarily, from the sphere of my alcoholic father’s influence. Sure, it was work, and it made for a few long days. But I was out of the house, making money and enjoying my free time when I had it. And as long as I was working two jobs, there wasn’t much left to his perpetual claim that I was a shiftless lay-about. Eight hours a day at the telephone company and another four day a week job washing dishes at Perkins, and that myth was dispelled. Besides, I actually liked the dish-washing job. It was a mindless, steady, and motion intensive task. No thinking involved, just doing. The time flew. It was ok.
A routine developed quickly and it was satisfying. I had little contact with anyone at home, which was fine with me and when I had the time to spend with my friends, I had money in my pocket for whatever showed up. My attention was diverted, and life was moving along. There were of course the intermittent conflicts with my father which were unavoidable no matter how many jobs I may have had or how many hours I may have worked in a single week. I was still living in his house, and they were just part of the landscape. Being the eldest child in an alcohol-abusive household, as is often the case, I became the default target of his scorn. It began for me just before I entered kindergarten, and just before I turned five years old. There was an event which I think, started it all, though it is much too complicated to include here. However, something changed. I was always in trouble. It was not that I changed, at four years old, into some incorrigible juvenile delinquent. Not that I was even aware what that could even mean. It just showed up that no matter what I did seemed to irritate him and get me punished. The abuse began as physical and there was no shortage of it, usually taking the form of the removal of his belt from his trousers with one hand, while dragging me to the bathroom to bend me over the tub and applying that belt to my bare bottom. Whatever the offense, the punishment was some version of the belt. There was also a library of developed phrases available to be hurled in my direction, I suppose to supplement his rage which as time wore on, and to this day I cannot forget. The one most often spoken, informed me he couldn’t wait until I was eighteen and old enough to join the military and get the hell out of his house. There were others which were a bit more personal. They tended towards things like questioning my morals, my ethics, my tendency to fabricate versions of the truth in a way that had me appear innocent of whatever charge was being aimed my way.
Which brings me back to the evening of the lottery. As Pat, Ray and myself were sitting there waiting for the event to begin, we each were finishing our first round of beers, and ordered a second. We ordered round number three just as New York state Representative Alexander Pirnie, the lottery’s equivalent of Pat Sajak, had just opened the seventieth blue plastic capsule containing the date December 21rst. So far they had opened seventy birthdates, and not one of the three of us had been called. Tony delivered the three fresh ice cold beers we asked for just as the announcer said:
“Number seventy-one; September 10” …
… just as we were about to toast one another with a friendly clink of our bottle-necks accompanied by a hearty hoorah, the trailing voice that had just spoken sunk in. He had just announced my birthday. I was number seventy-one, and with no college deferment to hang on to, the reality of the moment hit. I was on my way to Viet-Nam one way or another. We each smiled and downed that third beer as a condolence of sorts, in a single gulp, replacing the empties on the bar with a bang, followed by huge CO2 inspired belches all three within seconds of one another causing everyone seated at the bar to laugh and raise their bottles in a sort of community salute. Pat’s number came up in the ninety-sixth capsule and Ray’s number appeared, finally as number two-hundred-forty.
I woke the next morning and called my boss at the telephone company to inform him that I was not going to be in that day.
“Yes Tom” I said, “I’ll be in tomorrow, just like always. I have some personal business to tend to today, but I’ll be there tomorrow, don’t worry”
By the time I fell asleep the night before, I decided I would enlist, rather than wait for that dreaded “Greetings from the United States Government” letter from the draft board. By four-o’clock that afternoon I completed the necessary paperwork and signed the contract which officially enlisted me into the United States Navy. Later that evening I was in the kitchen, my arms folded across my chest while leaning aggressively against the same kitchen counter where, over the years of my childhood, I had washed an endless number of pots, pans and after dinner dishes, waiting anxiously for my dad to arrive, as I knew he would somewhere very close to eight-twenty, his regularly scheduled lunch time visit. He had forty-five minutes to drive home from the factory, throw back a couple shots of Seagram’s Seven followed by two beers, get back in the car and drive back, and he did it with precision. Five days a week.
I heard the car in the driveway and braced myself. As he entered through the kitchen door, I said hello.
“What’re you doing here?” he snapped, “I thought you were supposed to be at work by now”
“I’m going in a little late tonight, I have something I need to tell you.”
“Well, make it quick, I haven’t got a lot of time” he responded, as he opened the refrigerator and grabbed his first beer, then opened it.
“You know the lottery was last night, right?” I continued.
“What lottery, what’re you talking about?” pouring his first shot.
“The Draft Lottery. It was on all the channels last night” I reported.
With the second shot filling the small glass, he looked up and said “Yeah, so” like a question.
“Well, I came up number seventy-one, and since you decided I wasn’t smart enough to send me to college, remember that, there is no deferment available?”
I paused to let what I was about to say really sink in.
“Well, with a number that low, it’s certain I’ll be drafted, so I decided to enlist instead. As of four o’clock this afternoon, I am an official enlistee of the United States Navy. And by the way, I volunteered for Viet-Nam duty as soon as I complete boot-camp”
It was the look of shock and surprise I was after. And I got it in spades. But he didn’t really let on. He poured a third shot, opened the second beer, and started to tell me that I couldn’t do any of this without his permission as he put the freshly opened beer to his lips. It was then I reminded him I turned eighteen a little over a year ago and I no longer required his permission. Slowly, he put down the bottle onto the kitchen table, bent over and rested on both hands for a moment, then stood, turned, and faced me.
As he did so, I peered into his eyes, and for the first time in years, they appeared tender.
He said “You don’t have to do this, you don’t have to go.”
I said “For fifteen years, you’ve been telling me that you couldn’t wait until I was old enough to join the service and get the hell out of your house. Have you any idea how many hundreds of times you’ve said that to me? Well, you win. I’m convinced. In three weeks I leave for boot-camp and within six months I’ll be somewhere in South Viet-Nam. You Win! I’m gone, finish your beer.”
With that I walked out, got into my car and drove straight to my part-time job. Slightly more than six months later, I landed with my battalion at Ben Hoa, Republic of Viet-Nam, all trained and full of piss and vinegar, with an M-60 machine gun slung from my right shoulder, ready, I thought for whatever.