How "Alice's Restaurant" Saved My Life
or, The Draft Board and Me

(For this piece, it helps to know the song, "Alice's Restaurant," by Arlo Guthrie (Woody Guthrie's son).  You can find the lyrics at:  It's a great story from 1967.  With Arlo's voice and guitar work, it's worlds better.  You can hear it here: )

    “Alice’s Restaurant” saved my live, one summer day in 1970.
     Lined up with a hundred other young guys in underwear to be examined by the draft board for our fitness to commit carnage, I knew I was unfit. But how to convince those uniformed guys who loomed over our future?
     They told us if we screwed around on the written test, We’ll keep you here for three days and make your life miserable.  Damn!  And me just a skinny eighteen-year-old standing there half-naked.  The other guys all huddled in line and kept silent or whispered, as if this were school and for talking we might get sent to the office.  (Although one black guy wearing a woman’s girdle seemed on top of things.)  I thought, Guys, they don’t own us yet.
     They gave us each a cup to pee in.  I couldn’t pee, so I held out my cup and asked to get some from guys around me.  You’d think I suggested pissing on the Pope or something—you can’t do that! someone said.  But a sensible guy with extra urine donated it to me.
     Then we filed into a room where they put a needle in your vein to get a vial of blood.  And I thought, You can get anything you want in Alice’s restaurant. When it was my turn for the needle—forgive me, Arlo, I simplified the line.  I said: No.
     —What do you mean, no?
     —I won’t do it.  I won’t give any blood.
     —But you got to!
     —I won’t.
     This was a big guy in a uniform I was talking to, and he got mad.  (And I got scared.)  But I held firm.  He called in reinforcements.  Another officer came in, and they both told me I was required to surrender some blood—it was just a little, they said, and it wouldn’t hurt much.  (Not this little bit here, I thought, but the other end of this transaction . . .)
     The backup guy clamped onto my arm, said You come with me, and pulled me out of the room.  He dragged me down the hallway (clamped onto my arm, I guess so I wouldn’t make a break for it in my jockies).  We went into an office where another uniform sat behind a desk.  My escort told him what I’d done.  That man wrote in big letters across a form: REGISTRANT UN-COOPERATIVE.  I wondered if that was meant to make me feel bad.  Then one of them said, Now get your clothes on and get the hell out of here.  Which meant they wouldn’t give me the bus-ride home.  I had to hitch-hike.  Outside in the warm sun, downtown Newark, New Jersey never looked so good.  While those other guys—
     Some time later they mailed my classification card.  I’d been hoping for a 1Y, the equivalent of having asthma. But they gave me better than that: 4F, the same as if I had no feet.


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