Still Learning How to Fly ~ Chapter Five: "Welcome to Adulthood" (Pt.3)

Ken Painter By Ken Painter, 27th Sep 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Biography & Autobiography

In today's installment which concludes Chapter 5, I am drafted, and the Viet Nam War is still dragging on! Yikes!!


Working in a factory setting was a great experience for me for a lot of reasons. First of all I got to experience what my dad had gone through his entire life. Not great, but not all bad. And the pay was fair. I believe I was making something like $3.25 an hour to start, almost double that of my former janitorial part-time job. But all was not rosy.

It was a hot job, and I started out in the summertime and on the 2nd shift, the hottest shift. I began my life there as a die caster pouring hot, molten aluminum in a movable tube which is then quickly shot into a precast die forming whatever machine or automobile part it’s supposed to be such as a chain housing or a piston, etc. I did all of these that first summer as I was learning, but I was kind of slow, and I knew that I really wasn’t cut out to be a good die caster, so when an opportunity opened to bid on an inspection job and I had a few months seniority, I bit, and I got it. I was much better at inspecting for flaws than casting, and it was there I would remain.

The three machines I would inspect on the 2nd shift were located in the hottest part of the plant right near the boilers which melted the zinc and aluminum, and during the summer it would get up to 140 degrees in my part of the shop. I would frequently take salt pills to help replace what I was losing through the pores of my skin. But I didn’t really care, because I really felt a certain sense of pride from honest work, and I found myself losing weight. All of this helped me find a little more pride in myself.

By the fall of 1971, I had moved back to my parents' home from The Pad. My experiment had run it’s course, and my hours on the 2nd shift seemed to be conflicting with everything, so I just finally decided to move back in with Mom and Dad. I’d been gone for over six months though, and it had been a good vacation, one much needed for all of us. But by late fall I found myself contemplating a much bigger problem, one that had always been in the back of my mind since I’d left school, but like Scarlett O’Hara, I’d decided not to worry about it until tomorrow. Well, tomorrow was here!

My college deferment had run out, of course, and the Viet Nam War was still dragging on. In those days we’d all been assigned a draft lottery number based upon our birthday, and so for some guys, they had reason to rejoice. Please understand why birthdays have always been a sore spot with me. My lottery number was 29! And every year the Army was usually drafting up through about 170 - 180. Now I was well aware of all of this beforehand, but just what I thought I was going to do about it, I didn’t have a clue. I did not have a plan. But one day in November I received a letter from the draft board. "Greetings," it read. And then it gave me instructions about reporting for my induction physical at Fort Wayne in Detroit on a date during the 2nd week in December, 1971, and my Selective Service number, 20-39-51-462. I still recall my number, because in my stunned state over the next two weeks I went on to write a song about it, and that number is part of the chorus which remains an indelible part of my long-term memory. No Alzheimer’s here yet. I was instructed not to bring any extra clothing, because when I passed my physical I would be transported immediately to my Basic Training Facility in Fort Knox, Kentucky. I wondered if they’d let me take a peek at the gold.

Well, I will not lie. I’m from Michigan, and I live about 80 miles from a foreign country, Canada, and back at that time I’d heard of many who had made the trek over the Ambassador Bridge or through the tunnel into Windsor, Ontario. I just hated what the war had become, and I’d heard all of John’s stories about it, and none of it was good. And so I gave this an afternoon of deep soul-searching. In the end though what I could not do was break my dad’s heart. Even after all the neglect at home, it was still home, and he was a World War II vet, and whatever was going to happen to me I was willing to leave in God’s hands. If I went into the Army, I reasoned, a couple of things would happen. One, I’d lose more weight. This would not hurt. I could use some more toughening up. Two, they would soon realize that I was too damn clumsy to carry a gun, and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it. Some people just are not born to carry and shoot guns, and I’m one of them! And three, I could type and had an A.A. degree, and perhaps that would be enough to get me a desk job somewhere writing reports. I didn’t know, but I was throwing it to God and trusting it would all work itself out.

I also reasoned that by going and doing a good job and getting honorably discharged, I’d be eligible for the GI Bill, and this would take care of my money problems for the rest of my schooling. So I had further incentive for not cutting out for Canada. And so I made my plans to be drafted.

I gave notice at Diecast. My boss was sad to see me go. I had a good work report there, and I even worked up through the Friday before I was due to report on Wednesday of the week following. Didn’t I want to take some time off? For what? To go where? I’m really okay. And I was.

The day before I was scheduled to report at that Greyhound Station in Jackson for the ride to Detroit, I received a registered letter from the draft board which read in part:

“Do not report for your induction physical at Fort Wayne in Detroit on December . . ., 1971. There has been a small fire at the examining station . . . . . . . . ,” and the letter went on to explain a few minor details surrounding that fire, why we weren’t able to report, and how they would contact us at a later date in January of 1972 when they’d would like us to report.

There are several things to note here. One, I swear to God that I had nothing whatsoever to do with that fire! I really didn’t. But I had to admit, timing is everything. And it’s everything because my eligibility year ran out with the end of 1971, and by that I mean if my lottery number of 29 was not drafted by December 31st when it was in the pool, then it would fall back behind next year’s numbers, and I wouldn’t be eligible to be drafted until they drafted everybody who was in the pool that year with numbers 1 - 365 then work their way back to me and number 29. And that just wasn’t happening. I had to wait until April 1st of 1972 of that year to be certain of this though, because Congress in it’s usual slowness had stalled in it’s indecision to renew the Selective Service, but when it did the Army began drafting with the number 1 beyond me, and I never heard from my draft board again until I turned 24 years old, and they had reclassified me as too old for service, and this after the war had concluded.

I had trusted in God to work it out for me. I learned so much from this experience, and the Army lost nothing in not having me in its clutches, I guarantee. And Diecast was very happy to rehire me, and they even gave me back my seniority writing it all off as just a few days off. Neat. Who could ask for more?

Betrayal and Life's Lessons

Since I’d met Mike and his family I’d found myself more of a traveler. I owed all of this to Mike and his gas-saving Datsun. Between the time of that Gray October Day and the spring of 1972 during my year off from school and Mike’s 3rd year of college at Michigan State where he’d continued on and commuted to each day, we managed to squeeze in time around our schedules to drive off somewhere and pitch a tent or find a cheap motel and see something new. We’d been to Nashville and Washington, D.C., and, of course the obligatory Florida, but on the Florida trip we managed to squeeze more in the little car with us. We also spent some time up at his family’s summer cottage at Gunn Lake between Ludington and Manistee, God’s Country. But I found myself getting around a bit, and for a guy who’d only been out of the state of Michigan once prior to the age of 18, and that to Bryan, Ohio just south of the state line to visit an old friend of my grandma Bess’s, it was all turning my head so to speak.

Mike was not my only friend, though he had certainly become my closest. During my freshmen year at JCC I’d also taken to occasionally hanging around with a friend from my old high school, Bruce. We’d never been close, but now we found ourselves having a few classes together, and so we’d became closer. Bruce had even taken to driving out to our new house on M-50, and we’d go driving around in his hot car, and he’d find great delight in trying to get me carsick with his fancy driving. It wouldn’t take much. And we’d just hang out and have a good time together. He was so easy to get along with.

At some point during and after the draft board had let me go, Bruce and I had begun talking about a dream we held of moving to California. Bruce hadn’t continued college beyond the 2nd year, and the draft was no longer a problem for him either, so we were both unattached. Why not? And the more we talked, the more the dream grew. We began making plans.

At some point in all of this, of course, I told Mike, and he asked if he could be included. I said certainly, though I was surprised because it would mean his leaving at the end of his 3rd year of college. But three sharing rent was better than two. Bruce was agreeable. But then Mike got to thinking about his decision and he pulled a switcheroo on me, and he said he really wanted to go, but he didn’t want the three of us in an apartment, only him and me. Bruce would have to get his own. Well, stupid me, I should have said no, that it was a completely unacceptable arrangement. This had been Bruce’s idea along with mine to begin with, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was weak and ineffectual. Mike was my best friend even if he was manipulating me, plus what I was not allowing myself to understand was the crush I had on him.

When I tried to explain this arrangement to Bruce to his eternal credit he didn‘t get mad, but he did get very hurt, and he left my house, and we didn’t speak for years I‘m embarrassed to report. I had done something I didn’t know I was capable of; I had betrayed a friendship. I knew it then when I looked in Bruce’s eyes that day, and I vowed in my heart never to do it again.

And I learned.

We never did make it to California.

Three weeks later on Memorial Day of 1972, Mike and I were on the way home in my ‘66 Chevy BelAir coupe driving 55 mph. We’d been out to visit his grandma, and we were traveling north on M-50 less than two miles from my house when my right front tire hit a standing puddle of water in the middle of the road left from an earlier rainstorm that day. When I hit that puddle my car pulled immediately to the right a bit just enough to veer about a foot off onto the sandy shoulder of the road. As I steadied the car and steered to pull it gently back to the left and onto the road I felt an immediate snap and the steering wheel went limp and unresponsive in my hands while the car veered off the left side of M-50 into a culvert and rolled over before I blacked out.

I revived almost immediately to find Mike out cold in the seat next to me and the windshield lying crinkled on the dashboard with the wipers extended perpendicular on top of it pointing straight at us from where the car had come to rest right side up nestled against the trunk of a tree. Thank God, our seat belts had held us in place as the car rolled over. I reached in front of me and turned the ignition off, and then I turned to Mike and started tapping his arm and rubbing it, and he began coming to life. We unbuckled and walked out of the car. Just a few nicks for each of us.

The car was totaled though. Two broken tie-rods! What are the odds of that?

And a week later we got the news that Michigan State would not have transferred Mike’s 3rd year credits to any California college anyway.

I had gotten the message that God was trying to tell me I wasn’t supposed to be going anywhere. I hadn’t been saved from the draft to go running off to California. Okay, I got it. I’m going back to school. In Michigan.

I recall sitting down at her kitchen table and talking to Mike’s mom about it. She asked what did I want to do. I said, Theater Arts, but that would never fly at home, and I'd never get a job here with it. That’s one of the reasons for going to California. Okay, what else? Teaching. I knew I could teach, but I couldn't be a coach, so I would to have to do it at the elementary level. And with that we agreed, and I had a plan. Within weeks I was accepted at both Michigan State University and Western Michigan University though I opted for MSU for the fall semester as an Elementary Education major. And suddenly I found myself excited about life again.

My only other problem then was wheels. I’d just lost my means of transportation, and we’d had to double up at home for the time just to get me back and forth to work. If I was to be a commuter student to college, I’d need reliable transportation. I figured a new vehicle was still cheaper than living on campus. While my parents were not contributing toward my tuition and books, they were letting me live at home rent-free and paying for my food, so that was their contribution to my higher education. My transportation was on me, and I’d need to dip into my savings for it. Mike’s mom, Doty and I went out to the Ford dealer and I picked out a brand new ½ ton pickup with nothing on it but a radio and floor mats, but it was mine. And since I put about 1/3 down and financed the rest for 18 months I didn’t need a co-signer. And so the young college student established credit with Ford Motor Credit Company.

I continued working at Diecast throughout that summer of ‘72, but when I began at Michigan State as a junior in the fall I was more than ready to go back. I was almost possessed. I missed school. I missed learning. I’d played around a little, I’d dreamed a little, I’d worked a lot at hard physical labor which was both a good and bad thing. I’d learned to respect it, but I also knew I didn’t want to do that kind of work for the next 40 years. My mind was suited for much better pursuits. Dear God, please help me find them.

(This concludes Chapter 5. In the next installment, I'm off to Michigan State!)

Link to next installment . . .

Link to last installment . . .

Link to beginning of book . . .


Autobiography, Memoir, Memoirs, Memories, Non Fiction, Nonfiction, Serial, Series, True Experience, True Experiences, True Life, True Stories

Meet the author

author avatar Ken Painter
Retired Chicago public school teacher. Singer, songwriter, musician, author, & opinionated old curmudgeon. Married to my husband & living in Colorado, USA. Also a father & grandfather.

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author avatar MarilynDavisatTIERS
27th Sep 2013 (#)

Good Morning, Ken......still following the long and winding road, sorry Beatles. ~Marilyn

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author avatar Ken Painter
27th Sep 2013 (#)

Thanks Marilyn! You have no idea!! As this narrative winds on and on and one, it really is a very long and winding road indeed! Truth is way stranger than fiction. I could never have made this stuff up. Thanks for reading. ~ Ken

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author avatar Ken Painter
27th Sep 2013 (#)

Thanks Marilyn! You have no idea!! As this narrative winds on and on and one, it really is a very long and winding road indeed! Truth is way stranger than fiction. I could never have made this stuff up. Thanks for reading. ~ Ken

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