Sunday, May 12, 2013

The day Gert had my back

My dad began morphing into Kasper Guttman at the Selective Service office in Portage, Wis.   We'd driven there to appeal a notice I received lifting my student draft deferment after I flunked out of college for the third time.  The notice said I'd be re-classified 1-A unless I could persuade the local draft board otherwise.

It was spring 1963. U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was growing. Our role was still classified as advisory, but more and more American troops and war materials were showing up in that distant land every day. I was more annoyed than worried.  I didn't especially want to be a soldier, but the prospect of adventure had a vague attraction.  My dad was dead set against my being drafted.

We'd talked a little about my strategy on the hour-long drive from Columbus. Were I enrolled in a community college I might get to keep my deferment. Trouble was, I was tired of school.  I had lousy study habits.  I had graduated with honors from high school, but it was a small school and the coursework wasn't rigorous. I hadn't developed enough self-discipline to cope with the independence, academic demands and social distractions of a major university. Maybe I could handle a smaller college, something more like my high school.

Are you enrolled?” The woman behind the desk was the only person in the small office. Her hair was gray, but she was no sweet, cheek-pinching grandma. No smile, no friendly greeting, flat voice. All business, this bureaucrat.


My dad took over. “Not yet,” he said, “But he intends to apply as soon as possible.” There was some question as to whether my academic status might prevent me from enrolling in any college. We hadn't looked into that yet.

The woman's eyes never left mine. She asked another question or two, and each time my dad responded before I could say a word. Finally, she turned from me and addressed my dad. “Who is the applicant here, you or him?” She motioned with her head back at me, her voice arched with sarcasm.

Our little session was over.  My dad abruptly stood. “Thank you,” he snapped, then, to me, “Let's go.” We did.

Just outside the office, loudly enough so the woman could hear him through the glass door, my dad told me not to worry, that he had some kind of legal leverage over one of the draft board members. A slap in the face couldn't have hurt me more than those words. I was stunned, but not so much that I couldn't feel the unfamiliar emotion that was born at that moment somewhere inside my heart. It started as a spark of disbelief and quickly burst into disillusionment. Despite the frailties I had come to see in my dad – and there was a fair bill of particulars, considering his lawyerly self-loathing arrogance – my sense of his personal honor had never been in doubt. Seeing him now in a Sydney Greenstreet role, the kind of wheeling dealing villain who did what he had to do to get what he wanted no matter how foul or who might get hurt, The Maltese Falcon's Kasper Guttman, was my first unsentimental glimpse of the man I had once wanted to be.

We drove home in silence. Next day I told my mother I was going to enlist in the Army. That evening, my dad tried to talk me out of it, hurling the usual clichés about throwing my life away and how dare I do this to them. I didn't budge. Then he played his trump card.

You realize you're killing your mother with this, don't you? Your mother is dying a little every minute because of this.” 

My anger was more controlled than I believe it had ever been. It was hard and cold and determined. I looked at my mother, who sat in a separate chair next to his.

Are you, Gert? Are you dying a little every minute because I've decided to join the Army?” Our eyes locked. Ordinarily she'd have glanced at her husband before answering a question so clearly defiant of his authority. Instead she smiled, shook her head slightly and murmured, “No.”

Lloyd & Gert, R.I.P.