I was old enough to serve in the Vietnam War, but I didn’t. When I thought I was flunking out of Springfield Junior College in December 1965, about a year before it changed its name to Springfield College in Illinois. I visited the Air Force recruiter’s office on west Adams, a few doors west from K-Mart downtown. He was sympathetic to my plight: that I could not live at home after flunking out of school, and for all I knew, Dad (especially) and Mom would feel the same. Only problem was there were 39 enlistees-to-be on a waiting list ahead of me. As number 40, I would not even be able to leave for basic training at Lackland AFB until April.
I even visited a testing center on Fifth Street near The Music Shop between Adams and Monroe where I took some aptitude tests intended to determine my Mode of Service (MOS) options: where I had aptitudes that lent themselves to types of service. A week after the afternoon of tests, I learned I could be trained as an air traffic contrioller, a photo interpreter or . . . . I can’t remember the third. I knew that the air controller MOS sounded good since I could probably use those skills after I had served my six-year enlistment. Things looked good if I could survive my parents after leaving college in abject, ignomonious failure.
My girlfriend (these were years when I had girlfriends) Anita, a talented floutist who duetted with me on guitar at her north side Presbyterian church on a December, was also a cheerleader at SJC. I was not a basketball fan, so on a Saturday night between Christmas and New Years, I picked her up after a big game. WIth her were three nunns in search of a ride back to the convent. It would be the first and only time four celebate (at the time) human beings would occupy a car I was driving. And if your wondering, I was, still, but the floutist had some history. But she was terrific while we lasted.
One of the nunns was Sister Rita, my Spanish teacher. “Well Senor Conger, I look forward to seeing you back in a few days.”
“What? Sister, I thought I was flunking out, based on the grades I’m prestty sure I’m getting.”,
“Have you received anything from school that says you are?”
“No. I just sure as heck would have bet I’m flunking out.”
“You’re on my class list for second semester. Your parents would have known by now if you weren’t going to be with us, so I hope to see you again soon.”
<>So Monday morning, I was fast to my Air Force recruiter, feeling like a traitor, and explained that despite all indications otherwise, I was NOT flunking out. Could I possibly be removed from the list? He grinned and explained since I had not been inducted into the Air Force, it would be no problem coming off the list. “I have 15 more eager beavers wanting to take yoru place!”
Flash forward five months. Things are going okay at school, but I received a dreaded “Greetings” letter ordering me to report to the Greyhound bus station on Sixth at Jefferson (where the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is today) at 5:00 a.m. in two Saturdays for a free ride to the St. Louis Selective Service Induction Center for a free physical exam and placement on a list of draftees.I will spare you the details of the experience. It was no different from thousands of trips taken by thousands of young men in the spring of 1966, except that I flunked my physical. A serious right eye deficiency was deected. If the enemy shot out my right eye, I could not continue using my left eye, and that would compromise the combat effectiveness of those around me.
They also diagnosed me with a hiatal hernia which could spell trouble if I ever did any heavy lifting. I didn’t even how I had a hernia, though the subject had come up in conversations I heard in the periphery with Mom and Dr. Eveloff. I just didn’t ask them about it because at age YOUNG, I didn’t want to know. Several who had departed their parents’ homes to travel south with me stayed for additional testing the next day. Some left the next day for Fort Leonard Wood for basic training in the U.S. Army. I returned that night to my warm home.
Every six months for about three years, Selective Service sent me queries asking if my hernia had been surgically repaired and advising me to submit a phisician’s statement confirming my current status. This I did religiously.
Flash forrward to the summer 1985, I had produced my fourth successful air show “Official Souvenir Program,” the third for the upstart Springfield Air Rendezvous, and I was touring Springfield “watering holes” with Steven Venters, who had produced the excellent cover art for the ’85 publication. Steve was a veteran of the Vietnam war and a terrific bloke, about my age. At the new Boone’s Saloon at Spring at Edwards, we ran into some friends of his, all Viet War veterans.
In the course of the conversation which followed I shared the story revealed in the preceding paragraphs and confessed to feeling pretty bad for missing the war. In my state of mind, affected by perhaps more beer than the law considered street legal, I felt I had cheated my generation. GUILTY. ASHAMED.
And I was overwhelmed by the reaction of the guys. They were glad to meet me, said they harbored no ill will. After all, I HAD almost enlisted in the Air Force. My physical problems would have been discovered by their physicians as they were discovered by Selective Service a few months later. They told me my guilt over having not engaged the war overseas didn’t matter to them, and I was okay by them.
If anyone wonders why I have never carried banners denouncing the men and women who serve the cause of freedom in American military uniforms, now you know. I believe real Americans can serve their country in many ways. And to this day, everytime I meet individuals I know to be a veteran of our services, I thank them for their contribution to my life.
I hope you will do the same.
Live long . . . . . . and proper.
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