Throwback Thursday: The Vietnam Physical

Denver Military Entrance Processing Station

I entered the Military Entrance Station in downtown Denver at seven o’clock on a rainy Saturday morning. It was May 8, 1971, and I felt like a train ready to jump the tracks and leave my wreckage scattered by the wayside. Vietnam was lurking ahead of me, an ambush waiting to happen. I had to change course. Or at least get off the train. Trouble was, the train was speeding out of control around a curve and I wondered: Could I hold on?


For most of us, Vietnam wasn’t anyone’s idea of fun or patriotism or serving one’s country for the good of all. It was a rotten appendage of the government, cooked up in a stewpot of deception perpetrated by Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Concocted to supposedly stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, using The Domino Theory: When one country falls, they all fall in succession. The Pentagon Papers put that whole assumption on its back and crushed it with the printed word.

Across The Universe (2007)

Odysseus in Vietnam

I didn’t want to go, and most I knew didn’t. Those that did go and fight, I honor them, but that doesn’t make the Vietnam War right. Today, the military is glorified. Back then The Pentagon didn’t make use of the advertising machine it uses now. Ronald Ray Guns in the eighties rehabilitated of the military, made it Madison Avenue’s darling, persuading able-bodied men and women to go to war. Like the Sirens in the Odyssey trying to lure Odysseus with their singing, so they could wreck the ship of state on the rocks of The Pentagon.

Number 36

The plan Haggis hatched at the end of 1970 was to be my course correction. In the draft lottery my number was drawn at 36, which meant I would be inducted into the armed services and most likely go to Vietnam after I finished college. If I dropped out early they’d grab me. So I did my best to stay in school and hope the war would end before I graduated. The battlefields of history are strewn with the dead who thought like this. Witness WW1. When the war broke out, the common wisdom was it would be over in a few short weeks. It lasted nearly five long brutal years, giving rise to The Lost Generation and the birth of a new nihilism befitting the age.


I was given a 1S student deferment. The Sword of Damocles was hanging over my head. I could feel its point touching my crown, ready to draw blood. Would I be able, though, to implement Haggis’s plan and make my exit from this perilous situation? I was on the last leg of the plan and only needed to fail my physical—and fail spectacularly. I needed a big fat 4F in the worst way.

The Vietnam Physical
Across The Universe (2007)Acros

Already Sven Hamsun, my friend, had made it happen. He wasn’t going to Vietnam. At least for now, anyway. Following the plan Haggis devised, he flunked his physical the week before and received his 1Y, which meant you were only qualified for military service in a time of national emergency. Still, six months down the road he was scheduled for another draft physical. One last time. If he failed on the second try he’d be classified 4-F. The pressure was on me in more ways than one.

The Halls of Naked Power

The Processing Station looked like most federal centers you’d find in a large city. A massive stone edifice that spilled over an entire city block housing the bureaucratic machinery of those that want to take us to war. When I walked through the front doors—there was no screening in those days, no one would think to carry an assault rifle or a bomb inside—a series of placards showed me the way to my doom. I walked through a labyrinth of corridors and came to a desk manned by two military doctors in a white lab coats. I checked in. They had my name (I was hoping they wouldn’t). One gave me a sheet of paper printed with all the various exams I would undertake in my physical. I was then given directions to a cavernous bathroom where I disrobed with a troop of other unlucky lottery winners. Was told to keep my underwear on. No running naked through the halls.

Haggis’s Foolproof Plan for the Foolish

Haggis concocted a plan that was deceptively simple, but hard to implement without killing yourself. Six months before my physical, he coached Sven and I on how to beat the draft. But we had to do exactly as he said. We’d start out slow and build toward the end of the six months, the climax, when we were to take the physical. On New Year’s Eve we started our regimen, if you want to call it that. At first it was easy and fun, but as the months rolled by it got to be torture. Trying to stay on a six-month bender was harder than I ever imagined. Too much of anything will make you hate the anything, until you can’t stand it any longer and have to quit doing what you’re doing. I nearly gave it up many times and said the Hell with it, but Haggis propped me up and kept me going. If it weren’t for him, I’d be floating face-planted in some rice paddy somewhere in wilds of Southeast Asia.

Related – Vietnam 1969: The Draft, The Lottery

Haggis’s scheme was the same one he used to get out of the draft a year ago. Elevate your blood pressure to the point that the military didn’t want you. He gave us an old-fashioned blood pressure machine to test ourselves. He taught us some simple mind techniques coupled with lots of alcohol and pot. Our grades suffered because we were out all night long for six months straight. Little sleep, too much stimulus, and trying to put scary thoughts into our minds did the trick. Every time I took my blood pressure it skyrocketed through the roof. I felt, though, like keeling over at any moment and expiring in a puddle of blood. I was uptight and strung out, a taut wire ready to break. But it was better than going to Vietnam. Absurdity piled on absurdity. Was the cure worse than the disease?

The Vietnam Physical
Across The Universe (2007)


Stations were set up in various rooms. There must have been close to two hundred of us there for our big day. We’d stumble in long lines from one station to another and have our hearing checked, then onto the next one where our knees were given the once over, then onto another and so on and so forth: eyes examined, our buttholes poked, say ahhh, whatever. Finally, the blood pressure desk loomed ahead me. I was near the back of the line and asked to go to the bathroom. Once there I dropped down and did fifty push-ups, blowing up my heart rate, until it seemed my pulse was going to break through my skin and cause an earthquake. I was drenched in sweat when I reached the blood pressure station.

Blood Pressure Madness

The doctor took my checklist and put on his desk. He told me to sit down. Rest your arm on the desk, he told me. My six-month bender had me shaking in withdrawal, the whirlies were upon me—I couldn’t sit still. He told me to calm down as he wrapped the cuff around my arm. My arm pumped up and down as if it had had a life all its own. I couldn’t control it. Again, he told me sternly to calm down. When he finally got the cuff on my upper arm, he started squeezing the ball, tightening the wrap around my arm. Immediately, I put Haggis’s plan into another phase, thinking of myself in a horrific car accident and being pinned underneath the wreckage as the car burned on top of me. I could smell my death going up in the smoke. My arm started acting up again. He told me to stop. He looked at his reading on the gauge. His eyes seemed to pop out of his head. He said he was going to take another reading. Must be something wrong with the gauge, he said. He rewrapped me and, after staring at the reading he sat back and told me I had the blood pressure of an eighty-year-old man with severe heart problems. 186 over 150. You should be dead, he said.

Sent Home with my Tail Between my Legs

He sent me home with an appointment to see a clinician at the Health Department, one I never kept. A week later, I was calming down and I got my 1Y classification in the mail. There was no going out to celebrate. I was sick and stayed home, off the alcohol and pot for the foreseeable future. I felt like my body was going to take off and leave me. But I’d have to gear up again one more time. In six months I’d have to do it all over again. The train would soon arrive at the station and I’d have to get on one more time. Could I survive it? Was the cure worse than the disease?

Next up: The Pentagon Papers


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