There were few empty seats at Cain Park last August. My guess is that of the three thousand or so that heard Gary Puckett encourage military veterans to rise, only sixty stood up. I was one of them.

Veterans Day:

Except for the few who did serve, my friends never mention it. Except for, well…NO ONE…my family just scoffs. It matters not. I know, as Ermine does…and Fenton, and Himmel…that we went. Not to a war, perhaps, but we went. Not ‘cause we wanted to, of course, but we went. 

And it counted.

My son thinks it’s funny. “You’re not a veteran, Dad,” he notes perjoratively.  “Michael,’ I remind, “There’s a difference between eligibility for V.A. benefits and being a ‘veteran’.”  “Wanna bet?”

Gary knows. He gets it. He was there. We sat, just a few years back, at a Long Island Chanukah party, bonding over latkes: “When were you at Fort Sam? he inquired.  “First week of March, ’72 ‘til I separated May 12.” “Oh,” he surmised, “I was gone by then.”

“Did you get to Boystown?”

My kids don’t care. None of them! Why should they? Theirs is a world devoid of conscription.  Only zealots enlist. No one, lest he cares to, ever dons uniform. As such, with sheepskins in hand, two of mine fled east and the other west—each, without interruption, pursuing dreams…

(Not that I actually had dreams back then. Or desires. Not really. What I DIDN’T want, though, was to extract a half-year out of my life and head for parts unknown to be with people unknown). Do you know what it’s like being the only Jew in Louisiana? To be there fresh out of college at the precise moment your friends are moving upward and onward? Some things you hate to miss, from times you never get back. Like tasting life’s freedoms those first days off campus. Fair it wasn’t: there I was sleeping in a barracks in the Pelican State while there they were, Bobby and Stuart: selling Highlights, laughing and sharing a duplex off Northern Boulevard in The Empire State.

I lost six months and a fiancé for our country and the only one who noticed was a time-worn rock star? Heck, even the lady by my side that evening…even she, (I’d learn later), thought I’d stood for the joke.

We didn’t joke back then—by a long shot. These were, alas, days of protests (none of which, I’ll admit, I even considered attending but for the time word spread that Woody was on “The Oval”).  We worried, wondering what we’d do if we got a bad number.

This was the Nixon era. (Picture Romney minus smile, Hawaiian tropic and Brylcreem). Packing a Lane Ave apartment, guys huddled, eyeing in black and white the televised lottery sealing our fates. Birthday by birthday dates were recited. At #79, I stood sure to go. For others—almost all of them—they never looked back. Even then, ducking in the Reserves was no certainty. One had to hop in, quickly…before your letter in your mailbox read “Greetings…”

I jumped.

They handed me my B.S. in December, ’71. Dragging feet, I’d orchestrated an extra quarter, but finally the bell had rung. Within weeks I was in Fort Polk. Didn’t stop; didn’t pass Go; didn’t even, for that matter, read my enlistment papers. It never occurred to me.

Until January 27, 1991….at Stuart’s house…at a Super Bowl party.

“Is your wife upset?” he asked me in the midst of his bash.                                                                                                                                                            “Why?”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   “Marilyn’s concerned,” he said. “They can call me ‘til fall.”

(Who knew? Who knew that the document executed with glee on Hauserman Road some decades before held a twenty year commitment? Surely not I).

“I thought it was six years and out, “ I implored, quite aghast, what with The Gulf War raging .                                                                                      “B!”, he exclaimed, face beet red and laughing. “B!”

He wasn’t joking that day, nor did we laugh much that year, even as pals urged “…Not to worry…they don’t want you….”

A quarter-century passed…well, just less.

I was sitting with Baskin, just recently, reminiscing. We’d been close at school, not only having roomed together with H on West Maynard, but indeed Dick had ushered my wedding. In those years, so precious and few, he was integral to my life.

“Can you imagine?” I petitioned him, “I stood up before all those people at Cain Park and she actually thought I was joking…that I’d never been in the army?”
“Wait a minute, B,” he shot back, “YOU were in the Army?”

HE wasn’t joking.

“I was lived with you, dammit… then I disappeared. Didn’t you wonder?”

Pausing in silence, he offered no answer.  To this day I’m not sure he believed.

There’s a lesson here, succinct and clear.  If my kids aren’t impressed, why should Dick be? Perhaps my son’s right: perhaps I’m not really a veteran.   I can live with that—if need be—. I truly can.  

But please don’t tell Gary.

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