Here is my latest “homework” assignment for the memoir writing workshop:
One Sunday night as a child back in 1955, I sat in front of the family’s black and white television set and heard Davy Crocket, my latest hero, say “You should just figure out what is right, and then do it.”
Fifteen years later, I found myself walking through a dark hallway in the old limestone courthouse building in Evansville, Indiana. Since childhood, every time we had rounded it’s downtown square, I had peered up at the massive ornate stone Courthouse, with its tall columns, arched windows, and slender domed roof which featured a clock, but this was the first time I had ever been inside of the old building.
I glanced at each office door as I passed, my lone footsteps echoing through the tunnel-like hallway. Finally I saw the wooden door with its frosted glass window upon which was emblazoned in distinctive gold letters; Selective Service—the office I was looking for.
I stopped, considered the implications of the next hour, then tried to relax. I took a couple of deep breaths, as I wondered about what this day would bring, and how it might change my whole life.
For years, the war in Vietnam had been one of the major focuses of my life. Most American’s seemed not to pay much attention to the war, they just blindly supported the slaughter, but I was always glued to the nightly newscasts, and newspaper articles, trying to learn everything I could about it. The information was all there for everyone to see, if they bothered to take the time.
Nightly, I was appalled and morally outraged as I watched America torching the homes of peasant farmers, napalming the villages of impoverished women and children, dropping cluster bombs which speared deadly splinters over every square foot of an area the size of a football field, and the saturation spraying of poisonous pesticides over acres and acres of jungle.
I had listened to two different presidents lie about what was going on in Vietnam and why the United States had to be there fighting. I watched US troops smoking dope from gun barrels, picking up young Vietnamese prostitutes, talking about “fragging” (killing) the officers who were forcing them out into the jungle, and questioning why they were forced into that hell.
I listened weekly as the numbers of dead were tallied up and announced, how many hundreds of American servicemen had been killed that week, and how many Viet Cong slaughtered, but these reports never got around to mentioning how many thousands of Vietnamese civilians had been “collateral damaged”.
Like thousands of others my age, I had tried to do what I could to stop the war: I had written letters to the editor, I had marched in antiwar demonstrations in both my hometown and in Washington DC, and had spent hours counseling others about their rights under the Draft. I was a member of the War Resisters League, and the Mennonite Central Committee. It was all an exercise in futility, and now as I stood before this door, the war was not a distant thing, it was something that was about to touch my life and test my principles.
I reached for the door.
The Selective Service System of the United States was more commonly known as “The Draft.” It was set up by the Federal Government to fill the ranks of the military with young living bodies that were needed to replace the dead and mangled bodies that were being shipped back home from whatever war was going on at the time. In the 1960’s and 70’s the Selective Service needed young bodies to fill the meat grinder that was Vietnam.
At the age of 18, all males were required to fill out a questionnaire for the Selective Service. When I got mine, I filled out the small section indicating that I was a conscientious objector. This was something that most of my contemporaries didn’t even know about, but I had a family background that made me aware of conscientious objection to war.
My father, influenced by a pacifist minister at our family church, was a non-combatant conscientious objector during World War II. That meant he went into the military, but did not carry arms or kill people. As a result he worked in an army medical facility.
Throughout my childhood, my religious and pacifist grandmother constantly lectured us kids about the evil of war, and I knew that some of my ancestors had come to the United States to escape being forced into wars in Europe. So I had a family background to support my claim. I indicated that I was a total conscientious objector, one who refused to be a part of the military, but as an alternative, would work for two years doing some sort of community service.
My situation was somewhat more difficult though, because legally at the time, conscientious objection could only be based on religious belief, and I was an atheist. In the questionnaire I tried to show that my beliefs were the result of my early religious training, but I did not mentioning my atheism. I filled out the Selective Service form, signed it, put it in an envelope, and mailed it.
The Draft was set up with multiple classifications for those in their roster. All of the other classifications took preference over the scary “1-A’ classification that meant that you are available for military service. At the time I registered I was classified as “1-S’ which meant I was a student. I retained that classification until I graduated from University.
Immediately after graduation, I joined the Peace Corp so was given a “2-A” deferment, which was given to those doing work considered important to the government. When I dropped out of the Peace Corp after the training, I lost that deferment. I knew that the Draft Board would reclassify me, and when their letter arrived, I was upset to see that they had given me a “1-A-O” classification. This meant they considered me a non-combatant Conscientious Objector, one that would go into the military, but not bear arms.
This is not what I had indicated on my initial Draft Registration form, there I stated that I was a “1-O” Conscientious Objector, one who refused to be a part of the military, but would do alternative service. I quickly sent a letter back to the Selective Service stating that I was appealing the “1-A-O” classification. It wasn’t long before they got back to me and ordered me to appear before the local Draft Board, and that is what brought me to the Courthouse office I was now standing before.
I opened the heavy wooden door and entered the room. The secretary that sat at a desk inside asked what she could do for me, and after I had stated my purpose, she asked my name, told me to have a seat, and then disappeared behind another door. Upon reentering the room, she held the door open and said, “Mr. Marchant, the board is ready to see you now”.
The high ceilinged room was cramped and smaller than I imagined. It’s walls were lined with filing cabinets, leaving just enough space for the five older, stern-faced men, who sat around the large rectangular oak table. To me, the five looked like the rural farmers or the small business owners I had grown up seeing in the pews of our church. They were wore older suits and ties, and sported closely cropped haircuts. The secretary reentered the room and took a seat with her pad of paper to record the procedure. They told me sit down in the wooden chair in front of the table.
The five then proceeded to introduce themselves using a false friendliness that I immediately recognized from all the years I had worn my hair long in the very conservative Bible Belt of Southern Indiana. I could tell they had immediately stereotyped me as one of those despised “long haired hippies.” These five conservative “good old boys” who were being paid by the government to supply young bodies for the war, were not going to have much sympathy for my sincerely held moral beliefs.
The inquisition began:
“Why have you registered as a Conscientious Objector, Mr. Marchant?”
“I think it is morally wrong to kill other human beings and I do not want to be a part of any organization that does.” I was being careful not to be political in my answers or reference Vietnam. This meeting was about my moral beliefs, so I stuck strictly to that.
“Why would you not accept the 1-A-O classification? You would be helping others.”
“I would be in, supporting, the military, whose function is to kill other human beings. I don’t want to have any part in doing that.”
“Why would you not consider being a medic and help save lives?”
“Medics are part of the military, their job is to patch people up so the military can use them again.” was my reply.
Then, as I knew they would, the questions became more sly.
“Do you mean if you saw someone lying there bleeding and hurt, that you would not want to help him?”
“If I knew that by helping him that I would just be enabling the military to eventually reuse him to kill others, or to put him out there again to be killed, no, I wouldn’t want to help him.”
Then the questions became ridiculous.
“What if a man was trying to kill your mother, you mean you wouldn’t want to fight him off?
“Well,” I replied, “of course I would try to do whatever I could to save my mother, but I wouldn’t want to kill the perpetrator.”
This back and forth went on for some time. Their questions never really delved into my moral beliefs, they just kept throwing out situations, trying to trick me into saying I would kill someone. At the end of the session they asked me if I would like to say anything.
I took a breath, summoned up my courage and told them, “Look, I am willing to do alternative service as a 1-O conscientious objector, but I will not be a part of the military. If you try to induct me into the military, I will refuse, and go to jail.”
That was the end of the inquisition. The Draft Board told me they would send me the results of their decision in the mail.
For a week or so, the future of my life would remain undecided, but as I left the office and stood again in the dark hallway, I experienced one of the proudest moments of my life. I had stood by the things I believed in and didn’t waver, even if it might mean a jail sentence in the future. I had not cowered in the face of one of the strongest forces on Earth; the US Government.
There were no hearty handshakes, shouts of congratulations, or cheers. It was just me, alone in the hallway, full of an inner pride because I had figured out what the right thing to do was, and then I had done it. Davy Crockett would be proud.
When the letter did arrive, I was afraid to open it, but of course I did. I shook my head in disbelief as I read my local Draft Board’s decision. They had not changed the 1-A-O classification. I was initially devastated, until I got to the last paragraph of the letter. It said if I disagreed with the judgement, I could appeal the decision to the State Selective Service Board in Indianapolis. That is what I did.
Individuals don’t appear before the State Selective Service Board. Instead just your Selective Service file is sent to them and they read the facts in the file, they don’t get to see how long your hair is. Their decision was to grant me the 1-O status I was seeking. I was then assigned to work for two years in an Indianapolis Goodwill Store, but that is another story.
You Can see my paintings at: davidmarchant.ca