I Have Been Drafted by Gary Benton
In 1971, I was having some problems deciding on what to do with the remainder of my life. I knew it was only a matter of time before I was drafted into the Viet Nam war. I decided, with no little help from the draft, that I should take the bull by the horns and join the service of my choice. I figured I might as well get my military service over with, because in my family college was not an option. I came from a family of veteran’s and we expected each man to do his patriotic duty and serve.
I took the entrance exams given by each branch of service and passed with flying colors. After some long and serious thought, I selected the Air Force. The following week my draft number was selected and it was 11. By that time however, I was in basic training and more concerned about survival than anything else. Basic started rough, or so a boy off the street thought, and didn’t stop until the bus drove out the gate many weeks later. Being a red neck from the hills didn’t make the situation any easier.
The first morning of basic I woke up at about four, got up, showered, shaved, and got dressed. This was normal getting’ up time back on the farm. I made my bed, or so I thought, and sat on the corner of it wondering what time the show would start; I didn’t have long to wait. At about 4:30 a.m. the Training Instructor (T.I.) showed up. I am sorry to say that on my first day, I made him extremely mad and ruined his day, or so he said.
He marched right smartly up to the foot of my bed (I learned later it is called a rack), put his hands on his hips, leaned forward and screamed with all of his might, “Maggot! What are you doing out of bed this time of the morning? Don’t you realize the United States government wants you well rested? The military says you are to be in bed from 9 p.m. until 4:30 a.m. Now what are you doing up?”
I noticed as he screamed his face was a dark red and he was spitting a lot. He reminded me of Uncle Clyde when he had been hitting the moonshine on Saturday nights. Of course, the T.I. used just a few more verbs, the real action type, and adjectives during the conversation, but I have forgotten them.
Before I could even respond he quickly added, “Now, get your butt back in that rack and don’t get up until I tell you to.”
I crawled back into the bed and started worrying about the sergeant. At the rate he was going, I figured he would have a stroke or heart attack if he didn’t learn to control his temper. I began to wonder if mayhap he had come from a divorced family. But, before I had the opportunity to really figure out his problem it was time to get up again and I know I had not been back in bed for more than twenty minutes. Suddenly the lights came on, a trashcan was kicked down the center aisle of the barracks, and the T.I. was yelling bad things about everyone and their ancestors.
Since I hadn’t been issued a uniform yet, I quickly got up and stood at attention in my bib-overalls. I discovered my choice of clothing was a huge mistake. I would have caught less flack if I had been standing in front of my rack bare butt naked.
The T.I. straight walked up to me, leaned forward, placed his nose almost against mine and said in a low, but firm voice, “On behalf of the Commanding General, I’d like to welcome you, Jethro, to basic military training.”
I was confused, because my name was Gary, not Jethro. It was then I broke rule number two, I spoke without the sergeant’s permission.
“ Excuse me Sar-gant, but my name is Gary Benton, not Jethro.”
The sergeants hands flew up, his head went back, his face turned bright red, his legs bowed and he laughed like an insane man as he screamed, “It’s Jethro now, boy! And don’t you ever talk to me again without first asking permission to speak!”
He then turned away from me and started down the line, obviously looking at the sorry group of boys he’d been given to turn into men. My mind was overwhelmed, if I couldn’t talk to him, how was I supposed to ask permission to speak? It all seemed very confusing to me to say the least. I finally suspected the man really didn’t want us to talk to him.
I learned a great deal during basic training. I learned about my fellow men, exotic foods, and even how to be a good leader. I thought, overall it was a pretty good and easy life. Now, I guess, I surprised most of my fellow trainees during basic training. See, I’d never had it so well, plenty of food, lots of clothes, central heating, got to sleep in, money, places to spend that money (once a few weeks of training was over anyways) and a nice haircut. So, I guess they had a hard time understanding why I was so happy to be there.
However, I almost lost my grandpa as a friend when I wrote and told him the military had issued me five pairs of shoes; two pairs of boots, one pair of dress shoes, one pair of gym shoes, and a pair of shower shoes. When he wrote back, he called me a liar, or a thief, “’cause there ain’t no body in the world got five pairs of shoes, ‘less they stole ’em.” I decided real quickly not to tell him about the clothes and money because he wouldn’t believe that either.
The sergeant was always asking me silly questions. He would stand there, his hands on his hips, the brim of his round hat touching my nose and yell questions like; did you ever get electricity in your neck of the woods yet? You never had it so good have ya boy? Why did you come all the way from the hills to make my life a mess? Does your momma know you’re an idiot?
But, I had quickly learned that while he often asked me questions, if I answered them he got mad. This was difficult for me to adjust to and caused me more than one chewing out. Those of us raised in the hills, why, we are taught as young pups to always answer an elder or a person in a position of authority. Only, he didn’t want an answer.
As I look back, I think he was suffering from a terrible amount of stress and stain because of his job. He seemed to always be up tight, stressed out, and it would take only the smallest infraction of some unknown rule to send him off the deep end. He probably would have been nice guy, if he’d held a less stressful job. I think he might have made a good preacher, because he had a strong voice and could really deliver a message. Only he’d have to clean his language up before he walked behind a pulpit.
Every day the sergeant would have mail call. Most of the time mail call was in the barracks, but it could be held wherever and whenever the T.I. decided to do it. I never received anything because my parents and family knew I’d be too busy to write, so they had decided to wait until I graduated from charm school. Besides most of my family didn’t write very well to start with and I didn’t want the added stress of attempting to read one of their letters. Anyway, as I was saying, all the trainees would be in a semi circle in front of the T.I. and as he called off last names first and first names last. The letter would fly through the air to the addressee.
One day we were having mail call outside. I was standing nearby watching all the commotion and daydreaming, when he yelled “Jethro!” and tossed a letter toward me. With a quiet “plop” it landed in a mud hole in front of my boots.
It was just my luck. Second letter since I got here and it ends up in a hole full of muddy water. After fishing it out and wiping the mud off the front I noticed it was from my draft board. I opened it with trembling hands.
“Greetings.. report on.. report to.. you have.. ” I was in shock. The letter said… I had been drafted. Now my family has never had a rocket scientist in the family, but what kind of an idiot would send a draft notice to someone in basic training? Looked to me like my mailing address should have given the guy an idea that I wasn’t here on a vacation. I had to talk to someone and get this problem ironed out. The sergeant had said, more than once, that he was more important to me than my girlfriend and momma. I quickly decided I’d go to him. He’d know what to do for sure.
Blam! Blam! Blam! The doorframe shook as I knocked on it near the metal tag that read SSgt Lewis.
“This better be important boy!” A well known voice yelled out to me.
“Sir! Request permission to speak to the sar-gant on an important matter, sir!” I yelled at the top of my voice.
“Enter.” was all he said in a somewhat lower but still very firm voice.
I quickly entered, saluted, and spent about five minutes explaining the letter. I even handed the letter to him so he could read it. He took the letter, smiled, and quickly tore it into a thousand pieces. He then stood, threw his coffee cup against the far wall. I was amazed as I watched the coffee run down the white cinder blocked wall.
He leaned over his desk, his face turned red once more, and started speaking to me in a very low voice, “Benton, you’re in a swamp full of alligators and you’re worried about a little problem back home? Son, listen to me, and listen well, be more worried about me than you ever could be about that stupid draft board clerk. YOU ARE IN THE MILITARY BOY! THEY CAN’T TOUCH YOU! NOW GET YOUR UGLY FACE OUT OF MY OFFICE!”
By the time he gotten to the last two sentences he was more red-faced and screaming louder than ever before. I quickly did my about face movement and made a fast retreat. At that moment, all I wanted was to be out of there and now!
Well, the war has been over for more than thirty-five years and it has been longer than that since I graduated from basic training. But, ya know, I am still a bit concerned about not answering that draft notice. I understand how the Government works and I don’t want to be retired, living in the back hills, and have a government man drive on my place.
I can just see him get out of his car, walk to my rocking chair, and say to me…”Mr. Benton, you are late. Please pack your clothes and come with me, you’ve been drafted.”
With my luck, there will be a short, muscular, and red-faced staff sergeant, yelling at everyone when I get off the bus. And, I know for sure he’ll remember “his Jethro.”