Thursday, January 26, 2012

How I Was Allergic to the Draft

The Anti-War Protest at Columbia University

In early 1970, the Vietnam War was still raging, and my college student draft deferment was ending. I had a low enough lottery number to be pretty certain that I would be called up once I graduated from Columbia University that spring. Lik3e many of us on the left, I was vehemently opposed to the War. I’d been arrested during the 1968 SDS Strike, and at an anti-ROTC demonstration the following year, and had been certain that I’d have to choose jail or Canada that summer. That is, until I discovered that I was "allergic to the Army!" Here's the full story:

In truth, my allergy was a psychosomatic response to the stress of my second arrest, overnight jailing in New York’s infamous Tombs holding pens, and my trial for allegedly conspiring to disrupt the ROTC event by hurling homemade stink bombs at the recruiters. The truth was, I had conspired, but not to throw any bombs.

I was part of as a small group of SDS-types who were involved in what was called "guerilla theater." We liked staging public protest events. When we heard that the military was going to hold recruitment interviews on campus, we knew that we had to do something in protest. We got together in my slum apartment on 108th Street, and came up with the idea of holding a “die-in” (complete with soundtrack of guns and helicopters and clouds of harmless stage smoke) on the front steps of Casa Italiana, where the recruiters would be housed.

I was a critical part of the team. As an engineer at the student radio station WKCR, I had a key to the steam tunnels – as we had cables running to most campus buildings. It was my job to to hide the smoke pots and tape player and speaker in the basement that night, and sneak into the building in the morning to set them off at the designated time.

Of course, the building was locked up tight, front and back doors – and so was the steam tunnel. The administration was wiser than we thought! We had to give up on our grand theatrical event, and agreed to just show up and chant slogans along with everyone else. The next day, I joined the hundred or so students protesters on a cold winter morning. Then, from behind where I was standing, two bricks came sailing over my head and crashed on the front steps of the building. Soon, a horrible stench began to drift towards the crowd. Taped to the bricks were tubes of butyric acid, which when released, stunk of some horrible mix of rotten eggs and vomit. I watched the cops rush in to the coughing protesters, and was surprised to realize that three of them, in a flying wedge formation, were heading straight for me!

MKy Arrest and Trial

Grabbed by the collar, I was hauled off to a police car, and driven downtown to the basement of the Criminal Courts Building. When I got there, I discovered that I was being charged as the mastermind of the stink bomb attack: possession of noxious chemicals, reckless endangerment, obstruction of governmental operations, resisting arrest, and conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor (a felony charge with a 3 to 5-year sentence). Had they just rushed in the direction of the brick-tosser? Or, had the NYPD “red squad” a picture (or a least a description) of me beforehand? It wasn't too big a stretch to suspect that someone in our little activist band was a police informer who was setting us up for arrest.

I was released without bail, as I was in my last year of college, and was not likely to flee before graduating. At my arraignment was a volunteer law student from the New York Lawyers Guild, a left-leaning collective that had stepped up to defend anti-war protesters. The DA wanted to "plea bargain" the charges down to disorderly conduct and resisting, with me agreeing to a significant fine and two year's probation. I refused. I knew I was innocent of all the charges, and if we had "conspired," it was to put on a performance, something that we could defend as "free speech." Of course, if I was found guilty, I'd have a good chance of a serious jail term and a felony on my record. I was pretty scared, but I really wanted them to prove the conspiracy charge, and expose their informant in the process.

Three months later, my trial began. It was before a three-judge panel, a classic Hollywood movie mix of New York ethnicities: a reserved Protestant, a florid Irish Catholic and wise-cracking Jew. My defense was handled by a young lawyer who was taking on his first case. He was supervised by Mary Kaufman, a former Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal prosecutor, and well-known defender of radicals, from suspected Communists called before the House Un-American Activites Committee in the 1950s, to civil rights and anti-war protesters in the 1960s and 70s.

Our whole defense was based on proving that I was too small and too weak to have tossed any brick from the back of the crowd that would have even come near the front of the building. We had blown-up photos showing me in the crowd, wearing a very distinctive striped jacket, with the blur of the flying brick clearly above my head. Proving that I didn’t throw anything would clear me of all the possession and obstruction charges, leaving the DA to put their spy on the stand – and thus revealing his identity. This was a great plan except for the fact that my lawyer couldn't introduce evidence with the proper legal language. He kept angering the judges, who warned Mary that they were "not running a training school," and that her client (me) risked having his evidence thrown out if she didn't take her student in hand. We eventually got this figured out, and the young man went on to become a well-know defense attorney in his own right -- but that's another story.

We had my professors testify that I was not an advocate of violent protest. We also had my gym coach testify that while he hated my politics, there was no way "a short non-athlete" like myself could have jumped up the three feet needed to toss the brick over the heads of the crowd. My lawyer, trying to get the judges' sympathy, said something like "the defendant looks just like a little leprechaun in his orange and green jacket." This line of argument did not go over well with the Irish judge! He responded angrily with a long diatribe about “how leprechauns always obeyed the laws.”

My Hives. Meditation, and the Draft

In the end, most of the charges were thrown out, and all I faced was what the DA had originally offered: resisting arrest and disturbing the peace. Two of the three judges -- not the offended Irishman -- voted for acquittal, and I was a free man. Free, except for the fact that by the end of the trial, I had turned into a nervous wreck, and was beset with frightening bouts big red hives.

Whenever I saw authority figures in uniform come towards me – police, military guys on leave, even firemen (this was before there were women in the ranks), my skin would begin to turn red and swell up into massive welts. Sometimes, my entire face would blow-up, and I had to get to an emergency room before my throat constricted to the point where I couldn’t breathe. [Looking back, I think this fear was partially based on the fact that I knew that I actually had been conspiring to disrupt governmental operations, just that I was thinking of a more theatrical – and less smelly – technology! I knew I was guilty, and I was making sure that I was "punished" by my own inner-judge.]

I spent those months alternating between classes and the courtroom, between bouts of intense itching and drugged sleepiness from all the antihistamines I was taking; between the bravado of calling myself a political prisoner and the terror of being convicted and spending time in jail. In the midst of all this, two life-changing experiences came my way: my girlfriend dragged me to a meditation class, and I got my draft notice – my deferment was cancelled, my lottery number was already called, and I would have to appear for a pre-induction physical exam at Fort Hamilton Brooklyn in a few weeks. These two events turned out to be intimately linked.

In 1970, meditation was far from mainstream. The Beatles had returned from India, and “transcendental meditation” was just catching on among the counterculture. The incense, the flowers, the white robes, the quiet of the TM centers, only interrupted by the whispers of the accolades and the sound of the giggling Mararishi on videotape, was a far cry from my world of Ivy League intellectual rigor, New York left-wing cynicism, and self-imposed existential angst. You can imagine the scene: me, with my scraggly goatee and beret, carrying a bouquet of flowers and a ripe orange as my initiation gift – that plus $35 got you a mantram – into the foreign world of peace and love. But I did it for Martha, who promised me a great night of sweet delight if I overcame my pride and bowed my head before the framed photo of the Indian guru.

The good news was that the meditation practice actually worked in reducing my stress, and in the consequential attacks of hives. I even learned to recognize the onset of the release of stress chemicals into my bloodstream, and through mindful breathing and focusing on my mantra, reduce the rush to swelling.

The bad news was that these relaxation techniques almost worked too well. For I had discovered that if anything was going to keep me out of the Army, it was obsessive worrying about being in the Army. I learned this on the morning of my first visit to Fort Hamilton. Sitting on the bus as we drew closer to the camp gates, I began to itch and swell. By the time we arrived, all the other kids were surrounding me and begging me to tell them "what it was that I had taken," so that they could do the same. I only got as far as the first registration desk before the medics sent me home. I was told to return in two weeks with doctor’s letters explaining my allergies, and with a supply of antihistamines.

By the time the second visit rolled around, I was feeling pretty cocky. I had letters from my allergist and from my shrink, and an expectation that I would be in the midst of a full-scale histamine fit by the time my number was called to see the medical examiners. The only problem was that I was feeling too safe! Thinking that I would have hives, and the hives would keep me from the Army, was going to get me drafted! I went from inspection station to inspection station – weight, height, reflexes, “cough left, and cough right, bend over, open your mouth, close your mouth, take a number and wait on that bench” – anyone who has seen "Alice’s Restaurant" can imagine the scene.

Finally, my last stop: the shrink. I sat on a bench outside the little cubicle, my letters in my hand, and my heart beat in my ears. Waiting for the slightest sign of puffiness. “Where were the damn hives!” I thought to myself. The door opened and an older man with white hair, a florid Irish face, and a flag pin in his lapel (and this was before every politician was wearing one), called for the next inductee. It wasn’t my number; so I sat there listening to him berate the poor kid who preceded me into his office. He had a loud voice, and it was clear he didn’t approve of draft-dodgers coming to him with cooked up mental problems. I read my psychologist’s letter, thinking of what I would be doing next month in Canada.

Just then, the door opened and the two of them walked out. I was alone, in a dark hallway, waiting in front of an empty room. A few minutes later a young man walked briskly past me and into the cubicle vacated by my Irish nemesis. He had long hair, a tweed jacket, and a beard. After a moment or two, he called me in. We looked at each other as he read my letters. Then he said, “You know, I only work here three afternoons a week as part of my residency duties. I try to keep one kid a week out of Vietnam. This is your lucky day. Go home.”

Riding the bus back to the subway station, with tears of relief in my eyes, it took me a few minutes to notice that my eyes were swollen shut. The hives had returned, but I was a free man. My hives had kept me out of the Army, and learning how to meditate opened the door to a lifetime's journey of spiritual practice, energy work and self-healing.

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