Monday, February 9, 2009

Induction Morning

At 0700 hours Tuesday morning, the 18th of November 1958, I reported to the induction center, on the south east side of town, not far from where I’d worked on the new docks for the Harbor Commission. I was happy the day had finally arrived, a bit excited about this next step, yet still a bit apprehensive, lest I fail my eye exam again. In reality, there was little chance that would happen again, since my eyes already had a going over, and otherwise, I was in perfect health.

But this morning, my eyes were propped open with toothpicks, not so much the result of a hangover, but a combination of too much to drink and too little sleep. Somehow, though I had bathed this morning, I still imagined I smelled like cigarette smoke and beer – much like one of Milwaukee’s larger brewery hospitality rooms. I soon realized it wasn’t me I smelled.

I could certainly appreciate the fact that I’d never had a real hangover (except once – but that’s a story in itself – as I climbed the stairs to that hot little room where they had us wait fill out what seemed like at least a ream of single spaced forms, while we waited for out physicals. Boy! Some of the other soon to be inductees had truly gone all out last night! “Draftees,” I thought and I was right. Seems that I wasn’t the only one who’d heard that if you drink enough of the right stuff the night before your physical, you might not pass certain upcoming physicals. To no avail, they suffered all morning, much of the time in that stuffy little room.

Sometime after mid-morning, we were told to enter the examining room and strip to our shorts. That brought everyone to life. Then they led the 2-3 gals who were with us into another room. So much for wishful dreaming...

The examination room was methodically, though diabolically laid out, with open booths placed within a 100x40 foot room, with an aisle down the middle of the two rows of booths and another aisle around the outside. The booths were open to the center aisle, but their identifying numbers were visible only from the outer aisle. When you exited one booth, a sign by its nonexistent door directed you to the next booth, indicated by the booth letter. Ha! The symbol was on the opposite side of the booth, opposite of where you had just exited, and of course, that booth was always at the opposite end of the examination room.

As we queued along the outer aisle, if you didn’t happen to notice that the booths on one side were A, C, E, G, I, etc. and along the opposite outer aisle, were the B, D, F, H booths in the opposite order – if there had been 26 booths, A would have been directly opposite Z – you were really in trouble a little later.

If you had a little bit of ingenuity, you would identify booth D as you left the outer aisle and entered booth B, or G when entering E. Those who didn’t figure it out, were running from outer wall to outer wall locating the next booth, and often ended up at the rear of a line when they might have been at the front. Similarly, those who didn’t decipher the maze, nearly didn’t finish their physicals in time for their first meal on Uncle Sam.

But, they didn’t miss the one o’clock appointment with the Captain who had us all raise our right hands and repeat after him: “I do solemnly swear ...”. He informed us that not saying the words would not mean we weren’t inducted – the assumption was that we would say the words. Funny thing, he seemed a decent sort all morning, but after that short ceremony, he let us see his real character!

Not much interesting happened during the medical examinations, until at the end, when we all gathered in our birthday suits in another large room. Several of the doctors sat at a table in front of us. Here, a doctor who had gathered the info on those of us who had so far completed the maze, herded us against the far wall, our backs to him. Now, we’ve all heard about the fictional hicks who actually spread their facial cheeks when asked to do so; well I can tell you they are not fictional. When we were told to bend over and spread our cheeks, two inductees put their fingers in their mouths and pulled.

Next the doctor formed us in a semicircle around the table and he walked by us checking for birthmarks and whatever else he needed to record. At the second fellow, he said “Tell me you’re flat footed when I get back to my desk and call your name.” He made an occasional joke, too.

And so it went – nothing unusual – until he came to me. He noted the pockmarks left with bouts of chicken pox and measles, the flat feet, and then he said: “You got three nipples; tell me afterward.” There was a slight pause, then everyone laughed. We all thought it was another joke, to keep us at ease.

Later, as he was going through the alphabetical roll call, but still above me in the alphabet, he suddenly looked up and asked “Where’s the kid with the three teats?” Before I could realize that he wasn’t kidding, he spotted me and realized he had yet to call my name. Years later, I read in the Milwaukee Journal’s Green Sheet that it wasn’t that uncommon for men to have three or five teats, or for women to have four. The article went on to explain that the additional equipment never reached normal size. In fact, they usually look like no more than a small mole or oversized freckle.

By then, it was noon and they shuttled those of us who were done with the physicals to a small, nearby Italian restaurant for a horrible wiener schnitzel dinner. I’m sure they wanted our last civilian meal to be at least as bad as our first military sampling.

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