You Can Run…
By John Schulian
I went to graduate school in journalism at Northwestern, and the best thing about it was that it kept me out of the Army’s clutches for one more year. Other than that, I didn’t care much for the experience. I’d spent the summer before I went there playing ball and blacktopping roads, so I had a pretty good tan. No sooner had I started hunting for an apartment than some guy asked where I’d “summered.” “On the end of an idiot stick,” I told him. When the guy didn’t realize I was talking about a shovel, I knew I was in the wrong place. Nothing against Northwestern–it’s a great school and having a master’s from there definitely helped me get a job in Baltimore when I finished my two-year hitch in the Army. But Northwestern is also a haven for children of privilege, and I’m allergic to them. Always have been, always will be.
It was like I was watching a movie as one big car after another delivered a succession of beautiful coeds to campus, mothers and fathers bidding adieu to their little darlings. It didn’t take me long to realize that I had nothing in common with about 90 percent of my fellow grad students. Some were horse’s asses like a guy from Brown who wore a suit but no socks with his penny loafers. Some were budding drones who knew lots about government but couldn’t write a letter home. Some were lost causes like the guy who decided he’d rather join the Air Force. And then there was the professor who yelled at me for showing up early for a meeting. He was the biggest horse’s ass of all. But if he or anyone else on the faculty had taught anything I was interested in, I would have made myself pay attention. Unfortunately, the faculty in 1967-68 was fixated on covering courts and government and water and sewers, and I wanted to write about flesh-and-blood people, the more colorful the better. I got my best lesson in that when Jimmy Breslin blew into town to cover a Mafia trial for the Sun-Times. He wrote a piece about getting a tip on a racehorse from one of the defendants, Paul (The Waiter) Ricca, and the judge declared a mistrial. Now that was what I had in mind when I went to Northwestern.
Ultimately, I wound up spending almost all of spring quarter in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. I think it’s safe to say I had the best tan in grad school. I got my master’s, too. And 30 days after I returned home, the draft board reclassified me 1A. And 30 days after that, I reported to the Army induction center. My heart may have been God’s, but for the next two years, my ass belonged to Uncle Sam.
Hell, yes, I was afraid of going overseas, because overseas in those days usually meant Vietnam, and even though the women and the country were beautiful, it was no vacation for American troops. Most of them were REMFs (Rear Echelon Motherfuckers), but there were enough bombs going off in Saigon to kill you just as dead as you could get killed humping through the jungle.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s go back to the beginning of this particular chapter of my life. I wasn’t the least bit political when I was an undergrad from 1963 to 1967. Nor do I remember seeing that many kids at Utah sporting peace signs or even long hair. I know I didn’t have long hair; I leaned toward the short look favored by Peter Gunn, the TV detective. What can I tell you, I was just a kid in Bass Weejuns, khakis or Levi’s, and a button-down collar shirt. If there had been an anti-war rally to go to in Salt Lake, I would have looked completely out of place. Not that I had my head in the sand about Vietnam. I read Jonathan Schell’s “The Village of Ben Suc,” which gave me a good idea of how screwed up things were in Vietnam. But the Salt Lake papers were running wire service stories from the war, and they leaned on body counts and bombing runs, not trenchant analysis. Time magazine, which I read regularly, was foursquare behind the war, to the point that its New York editors were replacing the truth its correspondents found in Vietnam with lies and propaganda. David Halberstam of the New York Times was one of the few brave reporters on the scene who refused to buy the military’s bullshit, but I didn’t read the Times then. And the news about anti-war demonstrations elsewhere in the country seemed so far away. Sometimes everything seems far away when you’re in Utah.
I don’t know many guys from Salt Lake who wound up serving in Vietnam. One who did was a wonderfully funny guy I played football with; his reserve company got called to active duty, and the next thing he knew, he was building an airstrip and praying that a sniper didn’t draw a bead on him. He made it back in one piece, by the way. There was another kid-–he was two years behind me in high school-–who I heard got shot up pretty badly over there. Among guys my age, there was a stampede to get in the reserves -–Army, Marines, anything to avoid the draft. They were even going up to Idaho if they heard of openings there. If I’d stayed in Salt Lake, I probably would have joined them. But I was off at Northwestern and didn’t really start thinking about what I was going to do until winter quarter. I remember exploring officers candidate school in the Navy, but when they told me I’d have to sign up for four or five years, I said forget about it. I’d take my chances with the draft.