This story starts in my first year in college. It starts in the first week or so of that first year. That first week was crucial to my relationship with the draft. That relationship had to do with staying in college. If one could stay in college one could elude the draft for four years. But staying in college was directly affected by how one performed in one’s various classes. The one that seemed to upend the most first year students was English Composition.
I had qualified for Advanced English Composition. The very first and most obvious advantage of this appeared in the first moments of the first day that I had showed up for the first class. That was that there were substantially more young women in the class than there were young men.
There was a reason why an advanced English Composition class in 1960 would be light on male attendance.
1960 was, three years after the Sputnik crisis. In the attendant hysteria about the inadequacy of the United States’ pool of competent scientists and engineers, many of the males of my age group had put total emphasis on math and science in high school. To this emphasis they added the belief that they wouldn’t need to be able to write. The result had been a hoard of engineer candidates incapable of correct and lucid written self expression.
While I had taken all of the math and science that was offered at Central Catholic, I had never done well enough to allow myself to fall into delusions of being a scientist or an engineer. Therefore it had been necessary for me to take every subject seriously, even English. Nationwide I was in the minority.
There had been a reason why I had taken English seriously. That reason was Sister Justitia. She was so intimidating that she scared me into taking English seriously.
Sister Justitia was a nun of an order the name of which I had forgotten long before I had forgotten most other things. Sister Justitia was old. She was apparently British. It was thought that she was trained as a lawyer. And she was either mean or intense or intensely mean or intensely intense. The English language and its nineteenth century British practitioners were her life. And her mission in that life was to transfer her love of those things English to the formless lumps of human, American, sophomoric gray matter that were assigned to her annually. The class she taught was called English. In her annual attempt to transform her charges from ciphers to something more substantial she assigned a large reading list of novels by mostly nineteenth century, mostly British writers. There were a few Americans on the list but the real assignments were known to be Dickens and Trollope.
In a given quarter we were expected to read a certain number of these books and to write and submit book reports. These book reports were where things began to get dicey. All high school students had, by the time they had gotten to second year of high school, written and presented myriad book reports: “and then the hero said; and then the villain did; and then they all…”.
Sister Justitia’s book reports were not like that.
Sister Justitia’s book reports were intended to be works of literature in their own right, albeit based upon something we had been assigned to read.
Her reports required an analysis of what the writer was apparently saying and what he was really saying and what the basis for the difference might be. Her reports required a linkage of both of those factors – apparent versus actual viewpoint – to the historic milieu from which the given piece of literature had sprung. Her reports required the proffering of an opinion on the quality of the literature and the value of the message and an analysis of the effect, if any, that the work had had on the times in which it was written, on other writers from those times and on viewpoints from those times and also on later times, later writers and later viewpoints. Her reports, most demandingly, had to be in perfectly turned English sentences. (In between the reading and reports she hammered style, grammar and structure into our heads; a fragment was an automatic “F”.) “There is no such thing as great writing; there is only great rewriting, and rewriting,” she constantly reminded us. She told us tales of some of the great writers whose manuscripts were illegible to anyone but themselves once they were in finished form ready for final draft. To the end of assuring that we actually wrote, rewrote and rewrote we were required to submit our draft documents along with the finished submissions. The more illegible the drafts, the more credibility she placed on the potential value of the finished documents. And she had an uncanny ability, some of us discovered, to ferret out those who attempted draft manuscripts with synthetic writing and rewriting.
It was more or less a daily reign of terror.
Since I was so completely cowed by her intensity, her intelligence, and, to me, her dry sense of humor I just did what she told me to do. Between Sister Justitia’s lessons in style, grammar and structure and my attempted application of her dictated regimen, I not only began to produce finished documents of a quality substantially better than drivel, I discovered that I was beginning to learn how to write and how to think. And I enjoyed it.
I was to find more than enjoyment only two years later.
It was in my college English Composition class in 1960 that Sister Justitia made the positive impact on my life which resulted in an equally positive effect in Saigon nine years later. That positive effect can be summed up with the statement that, nine years after being taught to write and to think by Sister Justitia, and benefitting from that teaching in English Composition in 1960 by not flunking out of English Composition, and college, I was not in the infantry. I was in Vietnam, but I was not in the infantry.
The details of that fortuitous confluence follow.
Friday of our first week in English Composition we were assigned an in-class exercise to write a brief essay. When we were finished we could leave class for the weekend. I had written mine fairly quickly. By that time writing, rewriting and rewriting again had become such a part of my nature that I had acquired an odd disconnect between my thoughts and the words on the paper. The brain processes things at the speed of electricity. The hand processes things at a much slower pace. The gap between those two paces, I discovered, allowed me copious time for rewriting and rewriting again and again in my head before anything actually appeared on paper. That fact, coupled with the skeletal structure of English composition that had also been pounded into me by Sister Justitia, made what came out on paper the first time fairly decent prose. It wasn’t without faults, and it needed still some rewriting, but what could be a long laborious process for some people usually didn’t take me very long. So I felt pretty satisfied with that essay that I had written that Friday in English Comp. I had gotten it on paper fairly rapidly, had edited and rewritten it physically a couple of times – it had already been through the synapse lapse that provided multiple non-physical pre-paper rewrites – and had turned it in and gone off to the student union. I had gotten used to being given “Bs” by Sister Justitia and I had had no reason to expect anything different from that essay.
The weekend came and fled and Monday followed. I was in the English Composition class. Mrs. Miller was our instructor. She was an energetic woman, who talked fast, had lots of opinions which she was willing to share with anyone who was willing to listen, had a good sense of irony and humor and was just plain fun to have as a teacher. I had already come to those conclusions with only three classes from which to form them.
“I have read and graded your essays and they are just pitiful,” she had offered as an introductory remark. There were two “A minuses”, a “C” and the rest of you got “F”. “But don’t worry; you have ample time to recover, and it’s my job to see that you do.” Then she started handing them back to us.
Laos had for some time been in the process of morphing into Vietnam by the autumn of 1960, and Vietnam had appeared to be in a mid-morph state of shaping into being a massive consumer of young male conscripts.
I had been hoping, as I watched that metamorphosis macabre, that my yet to be completed years of college would turn out to be long enough in duration to keep me out of the fray. I had been hoping that whatever it was that was wrong over there that the United States seemed to feel compelled to throw money and human life at would have been taken care of by the time I graduated from college. I had not been able to conceive of the threat of the draft, and of carrying a gun through some unknown jungle, lasting for four more years. World War Two had barely lasted that long – at least for America.
But I had begun to have second thoughts by the morning of the return of the essay. Vietnam was beginning to appear to be a target at which the United States might be preparing to throw vast quantities of money and human – young male - life.
The talk was beginning to be of a long hard slog.
It was beginning to appear to me that even four years of college might not be going to provide me sufficient cover to avoid it.
Hearing, “I have read and graded your essays and they are just pitiful” had rung alarm bells about even the likelihood of my having four years to hope for Laos, newly morphed into Vietnam, to go away. If I had gotten an “F” on what I had believed to be at least an acceptable effort, it seemed to me that the likelihood of recovery would be slight. I could already see my grade report flunking me out of college; I could hear that drill sergeant; I even thought that I could hear the whistle of bullets and see and smell the nightmare of napalm.
Mrs. Miller handed me my essay. I took a moment before looking at it. Then I looked at it. Written on it was “A- Good Work!” For the moment at least I felt that I had been put back on the four year death avoidance plan.