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Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
The Viet Nam Generation Big Book
Volume 5 Number 1-4

March 1994

This text, made available by the Sixties Project, is copyright (c) 1996 by Viet Nam Generation, Inc., or the author, all rights reserved. This text may be used, printed, and archived in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright law. This text may not be archived, printed, or redistributed in any form for a fee, without the consent of the copyright holder. This notice must accompany any redistribution of the text. The Sixties Project, sponsored by Viet Nam Generation Inc. and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, is a collective of humanities scholars working together on the Internet to use electronic resources to provide routes of collaboration and make available primary and secondary sources for researchers, students, teachers, writers and librarians interested in the 1960s.

Soldiers in the Holy Land: A Memoir

Dennis Bartel, Baltimore, MD

Dear Mary,

You know how travel can loosen your tongue. When you're far away in a foreign country you'll talk about things that at home would get choked back down the moment they came up. But traveling--well, that's different, especially when your travels bring you into the arms of one so attentive as you, my sweet. So way out here in the Land of Milk and Honey your kind touch and gentle prodding has set my tongue wagging about the ordeal that long ago slammed the lid on my youth and that has since silently contorted me like one of the gnarled olive trees we've sat under on these rocky Galilee hillsides.

To speak plainly (for really at heart I am plain), I'm talking about going to prison after refusing to be drafted. I don't mean to sound hifalutin or self-righteous. I'll admit, I've washed myself of guilt in the private waters of self-righteousness a time or two, or two-thousand, but I wouldn't want to subject you, dear one, to that embarrassing display. The facts are simple. It happened in 1970, and at the time I didn't feel very righteous about it.

At the end of high school I won the lottery. My birthday was drawn third. Back then you were probably too young to have paid much attention to somber matters like America hand-picking her infantry, or to have felt the silent ripple of fear that ran through the hearts of Majority families like mine. But I paid attention, I felt it, because for someone like me number three in the lottery meant only one thing: I was going to Vietnam.

It was nothing less than expected of me. My father, a man of few words and strong opinions, had been a Marine in The War and fought the Japanese on three islands in the East China Sea, Okinawa included. My brother and only sibling Andy had already served a tour in Nam--a name he uses readily to this day but blanches when I use it. So you might say, and Dad did say it, that our family had a history of doing its duty in defense of our country.

Nevertheless, the first thing I did was begin looking into the usual legal options of evasion and compromise. I found out fast that they were not much open to me. Ours was a working class home, and even if we'd had a mind to, there was no way we could have mustered the influence (a la the Honorables Quayle and Clinton) to keep me beyond the long arm of the Selective Service. The question of a college deferment was moot. Except for my straight A's in baseball I had not been a good student and therefore was not headed for no Stanford or USC, or even to any of the L.A. commuter schools that, I was told, were little more than amusements along the freeway where the education you got was no more enriching than what could be had at other off-ramp amusements, say, Disneyland off the Santa Ana or Winchell's Donuts off the San Diego or Golf N'Stuff off the 605. Not that I, who had struggled for a 1.8 GPA, was in a position to condescend to any form of higher education. But I was afraid that these colleges were just extensions of high school, and besides (this was the real point), the people I knew who had enrolled at Cerritos Jr. College or L.A. City College, etc., hoping to win a precious deferment were yanked into the Army quicker than you could say Ho Chi Minh. Finally, I considered the National Guard, but at the time that domestic branch of the U.S. Armed Forces was being deployed on campuses across the land, and only two months earlier had marched into one in Ohio and fired into a crowd of protesters. Four dead. I would have none of that.

Instead, when I said No it had to be no completely. By swift elimination my options were made clear. Either I left the country with familial scorn upon my head and without hope that my government would ever allow me to return, or I went to prison--besides of course the option I would not choose.

So now, my adorable, sympathetic sunshine, you've caught me with my defenses down and asked why I chose as I did. And you deserve an answer. It's just that I doubt I can give you one that will satisfy your wide-eyed Catholic convictions of right and wrong. Was I filled with moral outrage at Nixon's War, at Kent State, at the secret bombing of Cambodia and the blanket bombing of Hanoi, at my government's wrongful extension of Manifest Destiny into Southeast Asia? Was there any moral outrage in me at all? No. Despite (or because of) Andy's near-death experiences, Vietnam meant nothing to me except possible death. I never protested. I viewed protesters as privileged college kids with nothing at stake, who, if not exactly getting what they deserved, were fools to place themselves in front of soldiers with loaded weapons and shout obscenities. I was not afforded, nor would I have accepted, the moniker given to my fellow draft refuseniks who wore their hair long and shouted slogans from the windows of occupied college buildings, that of Conscientious Objector. Where matters of Vietnam were concerned, I had no conscience. I had only the instinct to survive, and that, in the eyes of my government, was not enough.

So after a blurred summer of threats and curses shouted in my face by my father whose voice grew so hoarse he finally gave way to silence and to slapping me, and the smoldering contempt of my brother, and Mom's unassuagable weeping, and not one but two visits to our suburban living room by good Pastor Bryant, with his large forehead and pelt of gray hair, who accepted cup after cup of coffee from my haggard mother and led the family (even Dad) in good Baptist prayers, and after a visit from my high school counselor, an old man with wet melancholy (rummy) eyes in whose outer office I had spent many an afternoon waiting to be disciplined with yet another term of detention for my latest indiscretion against the behavioral codes of my school (our little dog snarled at him and had to be carried out of the room by Mom), and after a trip of inquiry to the draft board where a pair of eyeball-to-eyeball officials gave me their Tales of Grim Prison Reality, awkwardly smoking cigarettes and never raising their voices above a menacing whisper, my refusal remained steadfast, and at a prearranged time I was arrested by Federal Marshals at my home in the presence of my stoic father and my weepy mother, shackled and escorted to a local detention center, strip-searched and issued an olive drab uniform (the sort I imagined they wore at boot camp), found guilty of a felony eight days later (the system moved quicker in those balmy Nixonian days), herded with twelve other prisoners into a bus with bars on the windows and an ancient urinous stench rising from the floor boards, and transported for six hours to state prison, The Big House, where with my government's seal of approval I was deposited in an eleven by eight-and-one-half high-ceilinged cinder block cell, in which to remain for two years.

Mary, perhaps your generous nature leads you to envision scenes of me living a martyred imprisonment, writing letters from jail in defense of civil disobedience or some such crap. The truth is, I was not a prisoner of conscience and I did not behave like one. Nor was I treated like one. I was treated like every other inmate, that is, as a stupid, petty criminal, as if I had stolen a pirate-patched Impala and cruised up and down the Pacific Coast Highway until I ran a red light and hit a bicyclist, paralyzing him from the waist down; or B&Eed four homes in the same rich La Jolla neighborhood until I went for a fifth and hit one with an alarm system linked to the police; or held up the same South Gate Rockview drive-in dairy where I'd regularly bought groceries for eight months; or raped a neighborhood girl whose questionable reputation made her appear to me an available object on which to vent some frustration; or in a jealous rage stabbed a man repeatedly in the groin with a pocket knife after he'd stolen my girl friend. These were all crimes of my fellow inmates, told to me by them.

My crime was refusal. I was not in their league, and under prison code (which believe me, sweet thing, is stricter even than penal code) I was a nonentity, a prisoner without a pedigree. Mostly I was left alone. Lord knows I was never raped. I was beaten up only once, and that was just a short round of fisticuffs started on the packed-dirt exercise yard by a beetle-browed arsonist with a beard so thin his chin showed through. It's not that he had a fight to pick with me in particular. I doubt he even knew my name. He just needed to fight. It was broken up by a swarm of guards after they let him spend some heat on me.

For a long time I sat in my cell wearing a cloak of boredom, picking my nose obsessively. But in fact prison was not a complete waste of time. For one thing, I was put to work in the laundry room. Back home, aside from tossing my dirty clothes in the wicker hamper in the service porch for Mom to deal with, I had never come near laundry. Now I became versed in the humbling trinity of washing-drying-folding.

When the TMers came to the prison at my government's instigation I went through their goofy daisy-strewn ceremony, accepted my own personal secret mantra (eine), and learned to meditate. I meditated in my cell for two months until the inmate across from me took umbrage and began loudly harassing me every time he spotted me sitting on my folding metal chair with my eyes closed. I switched to doing sit-ups on the concrete floor and got as high as 550 in two sets.

Moreover, I learned to make the best use of a small space. I learned how to redirect my sexual energy, and how to discretely spill it in semiprivate quarters. And I began to read books, something I obviously had not done in high school. Thereafter I remained in a state of delighted astonishment. The time passed. I was released.

But I'm afraid I've strayed like a lost dog, haven't I, Mary? Because it doesn't really matter what happened to me in prison. At least it doesn't matter tonight as I try to explain why I chose to be sent there in the first place.

The reasons were clear to others at the time. I would not accept the responsibility that comes with adulthood. I would not do my duty by my country. I was selfish. I was a coward. All these were true. But in the years since emerging from prison on a gray and green overcast Sunday morning in September (greeted by my parents who looked at once grim and thankful), I have added one more reason to the list.

In high school there was a guy in the grade ahead of me, Wayne, a friend of mine, sort of. He was on the baseball team; played first base. Like the prototypical first baseman he lacked mobility in the field but could sometimes hit for power. The Dick Stuart of the Norwalk-La Mirada School District. He was gangly and unsure of himself physically. A boy in a man's body. He loved the game.

I sensed that Wayne, like me, was as yet only a partly formed human creature. The next step in life might be the one that formed his adult character. Wayne was not old enough or wise enough to take the instruments of self-determination in hand and form his own character. Like most high school kids, he was simply wondering what would happen next, and willing to get on with the business of life, whatever that was.

Wayne was drafted. He went through basic training at Fort Ord, and before being shipped overseas returned home for a week. Instead of keeping to himself and his family, Wayne, always a self-effacing boy with a bowl haircut who kept to the fringe of any circle of friends that happened to let him in, telephoned all his old high school chums and invited them to a good-bye party that he was throwing for himself. I remember it was the first time I'd even spoken to him on the phone, and when I first heard his excited voice I had to think for a few seconds who it could be.

The party took place in his parents' home. It couldn't have been more unlike the socially-debilitated Wayne I had known, the Wayne who'd been not just cheery but afraid--yes afraid--to even talk with girls. At the front door he greeted everyone (girls included) with a wide-open face, a military buzz cut and a handshake. He made sure you had a drink in your hand inside of a minute. His parents never made an appearance and after a few hours things got pretty soggy and free-spirited. I remember seeing a guy in his underwear using the living room couch as a trampoline. The music--Stones, Beatles, Cream--pounded out rockin' evasions louder and louder as the night wore on. There were makeout clinches in the dark hall outside the bathroom. Mary my sweet, had we been there together that night reveling in our teenage glory I too would have taken you by the hand and gone looking for a dark corner.

On the kitchen ceiling was the oddest thing: a sloppily rigged-up fluorescent light. It gave the room the feel of a school cafeteria. Sometime after midnight a guy vomited on the floor. The mess, glistening in the florescence, stayed there several minutes before Wayne, amazingly, got the poor sick bastard by the ear and stuck his nose in it until he agreed to clean it up. There was no fight. Wayne was firm but good-natured about it. I tell you, Mary, that night Wayne was not the same shy kid I had slung baseballs to from deep in the hole at short. At times his PFC voice could be heard booming above the music. I saw him dancing with several girls, and giving each of them a long smooch.

Near sunrise, just before the party broke up, I found myself standing with Wayne on the back porch, both of us loaded on Sloe Gin and Coors (a lethal combination). He was propped flush against the wall, his back rigid. His chin was a coarse mix of pinkish acne and sandpaper stubble. I was trying to talk with him about our days out on the diamond, of his long stretch off the bag that saved many an out, of his towering shots to left. But Wayne didn't want to talk baseball. There was a look of inflamed confidence in his drunken eyes, of having found his true nature, or, as I suspected even then, of having been issued his true nature. He looked out at the ripening moon that hung above the garage in the dawn's gathering gray and spoke passionately, if a little slurred, of "greasing gooks." He thrust his beer bottle forward and squinted down the long shaft of his arm as if it were a rifle. Peering into the sights he scanned the backyard for VC. He was looking forward to it. He was sure of himself. "Pow pow pow." He had put away childish things, like baseball, and become a man. (I never heard from him again and to this day don't know if he came back alive.)

So now I've gone and tried to get fancy again, tossing around biblical paraphrases, no less. But the point is, Mary, I believed the same would happen to me. My self-will was no greater. I believed that I would not be so strong of spine as to keep from bending in the stiff wind of military discipline. Beyond my few idiosyncratic twitches, I would have become the same kind of man, for the Army demands it.

Of course I figured all this out long ago, simple as it is, but since coming to Israel my simple conclusions have resurfaced with renewed clarity. And why? Because of all the IDF soldiers we see. My God, they're thick as locusts. They've overrun the Holy Land. They're in cities, towns and settlements. They're on buses and beaches. They're along roadsides hitching rides and in markets muscling their way to the front of the line.

You said it best, dear one, even with rifles on their shoulders, many of them look like children. I also happen to think that many others look like insolent teenagers who have been forbidden by their parents to talk back. That is what they are after all, teenagers, drafted right after high school, men and women, everyone but the most devout. The men get three years compulsory, the women get two. They sling their weapons around amongst the citizenry like they've never heard the words "accidental homicide." But you're right, just as many of them look like children, many of them are children. I've seen a young woman licking a soft ice cream, with lavishly fussed-over hair in tight ringlets, and a pink and gray stuffed elephant pinned to the pants pocket of her olive drab uniform. I've seen a young man who has yet to start shaving wearing paratrooper wings over his breast pocket and a Bart Simpson key chain attached to his belt. Their faces, despite the military makeover, are those of innocents. Mary, in your tender way, you are appalled by them, "toting their guns."

Of course among the horde there are also many true soldiers--hardass grunts standing straight and silent as cypress trees. They are slightly older, twenty, twenty-one, and not to be messed with. They've had their maturity hastened and become what the others--the children, the insolent teenagers--will become to one measure or another, for the Israel Defense Force demands it.

If it must be said, I'll say it: Israel, surrounded on three sides by enemies and on the fourth by the sea, would not be here today were it not for her soldiers. And yet, I believe that something has been taken from these young men and women, that they will emerge from their years of service inevitably changed in ways that they may or may not have chosen, if given a choice.

Something was taken from me too, my angelic child, as I sat in my cell serving the penalty for my crime. But it wasn't this.

Yours in confession....

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