Laughing At Death: Rumors of a Plan to Beat the Universe, Vietnam, 1970

Entropy – the Universe’s Black Widow. The Arrow of Time – the one-way street we’re all headed down to the bitter end without a chance of escape – the enemy we fight every moment of our lives. It’s human nature to try and beat the slow decay and natural destruction that permeates our lives. We always lose, though some last longer than others. Maybe they fight harder. Maybe it’s the luck of the draw. Good genes, bad genes. Accidents. Disease. Lottery-induced call-ups to war. Life is one slippery crapshoot. Before you know it, you’re six feet under.

I am reminded of Stephen Crane, the eighteenth century writer who wrote the novel The Red Badge of Courage in 1894, about the American Civil War. He was also an esteemed poet of his day. An excerpt from his book of poems, War is Kind:

A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
“A sense of obligation.”

A pretty stark indictment of our dilemma. The Universe owes us jack-diddly shit. No wonder we’re so paranoid and uptight as a species, even on good days. Still, we think we can squash the Black Widow in its web, turn the Arrow of Time back on itself. It’s one of the reasons I smoke pot. For me, weed stretches time, stringing together rich and satisfying experiences outside the everyday stresses of living – my aggression melts into serenity or laughter, goodwill or pacifism. No wonder the military industrial complex outlaws it. With a good hit, I’m able to put myself in a floating bubble that I feel protects me from the Universe, even if it’s only for a moment or a few hours. This is one of the ways I am able to taunt Death, give him the bird three times over and upside down. When it came to consider the problem of the draft and Vietnam, I’d have a toke (or two, or three) and try to figure out what I could do. Needed to look at it from a calm and mannered POV. Maybe my outlook was directly proportional to the amount I was smoking, but still, why couldn’t I beat the lottery and stay out of the Army? There had to be a way. After all, David slew Goliath. Why couldn’t I?

Endings die slowly or quickly, devolving into chaos. Before I knew it, I was standing on the doorstep of January 1, 1970. The end of 1969 was a freight train barreling away behind me, vanishing down the tracks. Sad to see it go. 1969 was a good year. But by now the Arrow of Time was slinging me closer to the faraway, beat-em-up fun of Southeast Asia. And no closer to a fix for my problem. Sitting in the jungle and waiting for a firefight, would I name my rifle Gertrude the Gun, or my bayonet Bobo Bayonet? Billy Bullets or Henry the Helmet? Bobby the Boots on the Ground? Or Freddie the Freeloading Fatigues? Oh yeah, and a good time would be had by all.

I had a student deferment (as long as you stayed in school and weren’t kicked out, you were safe), but my grades weren’t looking good and weren’t getting better. I was hanging on to C’s, drifting down into D’s. In no time I might be courting F’s. Another year and a half remained until I was supposed to graduate in June, 1971 -if I could keep from flunking out. I had to come up with a game plan to hoodwink Selective Service, and fast. The Universe was calling.


Related – Vietnam 1969: The Draft, The Lottery…THROWBACK THURSDAY: When Will We


Of course, I knew several ways to thwart the government. All of it common knowledge. One recourse was to draft-dodge my way to Canada, but I wasn’t entirely ready to cut myself off from my family and friends to go someplace faraway, where I didn’t know anyone. Who knew how long the war would last? And, when and if it ever ended, could I return home? Another option: I could apply for conscientious objector status. When it came down to it, though, I didn’t quite fit this category. While I didn’t believe in killing another human being, I was a confirmed atheist. That alone would never pass the muster – a hoop too far to jump through. And then there was always the chance the fighting would end by the time I graduated. A big if. The Vietnam war machine was blazing full guns ahead, firing on all cylinders. The massive antiwar marches seemed to not make a difference in the Pentagon’s planning for their war du Jour, even though, in January 1967, Lyndon Johnson was forced to abandon his run for reelection. We all thought we were making real progress – that maybe, just maybe, we had a chance stop the war. But then Tricky Dick and his sidekick, Spiro Agnew, slithered into power and blew all of that away. Just what we needed. More strongmen. But hey, war is kind.

One night in February 1970, when I was feeling as though I’d never find a way out of my predicament, Haggis Altoona, our friend and dealer extraordinaire, decided to take Sven and I under his wing. The three of us were sitting at the bar of the Blue Spruce on Evans Ave, drinking ten cent beers in 12 ounce glasses. Ten bucks and we each got a hundred brews. Haggis got up and motioned us to come out with him to the parking lot. As we leaned our butts against Trusty Truck, Haggis lit up a fat one, Acapulco Gold – one of my five-star favorites. As we passed the joint around, he told us he had been given 4-F status by the Selective Service. He was twenty-three years old and had never once had a serious medical problem. Was in perfect health – a strapping lad from Nebraska, raised and worked on the farm, got high on the farm. I thought he’d probably live to be one hundred, if not more. He told us he had duped the government – and you can, too. We leaned close. We were all ears. He said it would take some doing, and we were all bad actors, but that’s what it took. Balls and more balls. This wouldn’t be for the faint of heart. But with discipline and aplomb it could be done. Said he’d coach us every step of the way. He had the plan to beat the Draft and turn the Arrow of Time on its head. We could send the Universe and its Black Widow, Entropy, back to their black hole -if we did what he told us to do. I took another deep hit, the Gold winding its way through my lungs and up through my nose. I was laughing at Death. Then, he let us in on the secret.

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