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Maggot Days: The Wheels on the Bus
By Gerald R. Gioglio
Next stop: Basic Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Nobody talked. There was absolute silence on the bus, except for the occasional melancholy sigh or muffled sob—a mausoleum on wheels, a charter bus to the unfathomable. I took a seat about midway that gave me a good view of the rest of the bus. As others entered, I saw that most of the men were my age or younger, kids 18-20 years old with a sprinkling of guys somewhat older, but no older than 26, the cutoff for induction into the Army.
For the most part, eyes were lowered, brows tense, lips taut, arms often crossed over rib cages, holding in the pain, trying to ignore the fear, holding back the tears lest someone notice. Once seated, some seemed numb, temporary catatonia in a thoroughly schizophrenic situation. Nobody seemed "at ease," a phrase we would come to know all too well in the next few days.
I could not help but wonder; who were these guys? What were they feeling? Seeing? Thinking? How did they perceive the draft and being drafted? Did they see it as some sort of essential public duty? Was it considered a masculine rite of passage? Did they suspect their two years in the army would predominantly feature "fun," "travel," and "adventure?"
Was it possible that some equated conscription with some modern version of "indentured servitude"—that is, surrendering both freedom and earning power in return for public admiration, status and perhaps jobs in the future? Did they see conscription as something to be avoided at all costs, but ultimately accepted when that fateful "greetings" letter arrived? How many had applied for exemptions or deferments prior to being called to military service? How many were denied legitimate claims for exemption or did not know they qualified for one?
Were any of them questioning the morality or politics of the war? How many were truly opposed to this war? Who among them had serious doubts about the war, their willingness to fight it, or believed that the country was truly threatened by the Vietnamese? Who would stand up against it—and how could this be done? I asked these questions about others even as they continued to spin around in my soul and in my head.
Willingly or unwillingly we all left home. We all left loved ones, perhaps parents, spouses, girlfriends. Some left jobs. Some left school. Perhaps some accepted the draft to avoid jail time. Whatever our thoughts, experiences or perspectives, I came to understand this: all were leaving behind the past—there was then and this was now. Indeed, there was only now. The future was uncertain. In reality, for some, that future would not last much longer.
And yet, nobody believed that...even when they had to.
As we left the city and cruised the New Jersey Turnpike some guys myself included, started staring blankly out the windows—sadly arriving smack-dab in the middle of what combat veterans call "the thousand yard stare." This was basic training for those who would come to see the worst of man's inhumanity toward man, both in the becoming and for some, in the doing.
Some guys slept as the scenery changed from urban to suburban into what was left of rural southern New Jersey, toward the interior, past the green and open space of the Pine Barrens to Fort Dix. I took to watching the cars go by and gazing into the windows at the people going about their daily routines. The words to the popular Simon and Garfunkel song America came to mind, "They've all come to look for America." Indeed. So were we. But unlike the song, many of us on the bus were "empty and aching" knowing perfectly well just why.
If other drivers noticed us at all, the chances are they thought we were on an excursion to some entertainment or sports venue. Nobody who saw us really cared, indeed, except for the boys on our bus the only people on the entire length of the Turnpike who gave a damn about that behemoth barreling along at 60 mph were those of us who were on it. Why should it be otherwise? Yet, in that minute it just seemed like it should...
Now and again a car would go by and I would be blessed with a snapshot of girls in mini-skirts or shorts speeding to points unknown, bare legs snapping me back to some of what was grand and glorious in the world. "The manifest miracle of women" Jeff Porteous, a prisoner of conscience I would come to know, once said.
When I sat back I noticed that some of the guys had loosened up a bit, snippets of hushed conversation rose above the din of tires reverberating over sun-soaked asphalt. I heard no laughing, but the sighs and sobs had stopped as men settled in. Guys behind me were spreading a rumor that ten percent of us were going to be separated out and sent to Parris Island to train as Marines. A couple of guys reacted to this with something like, "Bullshit. If they choose me I'm walking away. It ain't gonna' happen." I found this remarkable, if not encouraging. I thought, wouldn't it be something if many of us just said "No" to the Marines? Clearly, I was not alone in having doubts about the war and what we were being forced to do.
At this point in our journey, guys were letting their guard down if not finding some comfort in our shared discomfort. Small talk could be heard like, "Where are you from?" "How old are you?" So much of it was the stuff of everyday life, folks taking the chance to get out of themselves. Still, we rolled on. This reprieve proving to be false and short-lived... as we would soon discover.
Author's note: This and future Maggot Days submissions are part of a book-in-progress on social justice, especially during the Vietnam War. Feedback or suggestions welcomed at email@example.com or on the VVAW Facebook page.
Gerald R. Gioglio, OFS is a VVAW member, Secular Franciscan and author of Days of Decision: an Oral History of Conscientious Objectors in the Military during the Vietnam War.