Three blasts from the past


Published: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 10:43 p.m.

Gee, I feel like I'm reliving my youth. All of a sudden, old issues are new issues. And, hey, I know this stuff. Been there, done that.

In Congress, they are talking about bringing conscription back. In Tallahassee, they are trying to revive the Equal Rights Amendment. And were those really peace marchers converging on the D.C. Swamp last weekend?

Pinch me. Either I'm dreaming or I'm a kid again.

Oh, I know, all that draft stuff is just political hot air. It's not going anywhere. U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has a notion that if Americans were forced by conscript to send their sons and daughters off to war, they'd think twice about tolerating GWB's military adventurism.

It's not a bad idea -- Nixon ended the draft to try to get the anti-war movement off his back -- but it'll never happen in today's political milieu.

For one thing, the Pentagon doesn't want a lot of slovenly draftees gumming up its high-tech works. Modern warfare, it seems, requires more video-game jockeys and fewer candidates for cannon fodder.

Draftees may have won World War II, but they fell out of favor after the Vietnam debacle. Now the draft has become this quaint American institution that requires lip service only. When you turn 18, you sign a paper and get a draft card. Then you get on with your life.

Listen, when I became eligible for the draft they packed me off to a processing center in Miami, where doctors did rude things to my body and grim-faced bureaucrats asked me pointed questions about my choice of, er, recreational substances. I told them I had a weak ankle, and they said "So?"

The other thing about the draft in 1967, the year I graduated from high school, was that it was a pretty much an either-or proposition; either you were going to college or you were going off to participate in what we euphemistically referred to as "Mr. Johnson's war."

Anyway, it's been a long time, and the statute of limitations must have run out by now, so I guess I can finally confess to my deliberate violation of federal law.

Yup, I burned my draft card.

I remember it vividly. It happened on the day after I enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

OK, so I wasn't exactly headed for the Canadian border at the time, although the Great Lakes boot camp is sort of in the vicinity of Canada.

I was pretty sure that I wasn't going to need the thing any more, and I'd always wanted to commit that subversive act of social protest. So I figured what the heck. It's not like they were going to arrest me or anything.

"Hell no, I won't go," I probably said, or words to that effect.

Then I lit it up.

Then I went.

Listen, I wasn't going to let them draft me for three years. I beat the system. I enlisted for four.

The only other thing I remember about the draft is that when I finally got out of the Navy and went to college, all the younger guys kept bragging about their favorable lottery numbers.

Lottery numbers! Why, they didn't have a lottery back in my day, kid. LBJ's war had been rather more labor-intensive.

Anyway, the draft may be gone, but the peace movement is back.

Last weekend they were marching by the tens of thousands in Washington D.C. and elsewhere demanding that Dubya give peace a chance (alas, Dubya was out of town and didn't get the message).

My involvement in the peace movement was brief but memorable, in a sort of blundering, Forest Gump way. It happened in 1971 on the day after I mustered out of the U.S. Navy, in Charleston, S.C., and headed north to visit relatives in Pennsylvania.

On impulse I decided to stop off in Washington, D.C. for a quick tour; check out the White House, maybe climb to the top of the Washington Monument. So I pulled off I-95 and drove into the District....

....smack into the worst traffic jam I'd ever encountered.

Cars were backed up everywhere. Cops on every street corner. I never got out of my car, and it was hours before I was able to inch my way back onto the Interstate.

It wasn't until the next day that I learned I had unwittingly driven into a city paralyzed by the infamous May Day demonstrations.

Elsewhere in the city, protestors were getting tear-gassed and arrested. But I submit that those of us who grimly suffered gridlock contributed just as much to the cause as the front-line flower troops. It was hell, folks.

Speaking of demonstrations, I was in Tallahassee on a glorious Sunday in the spring of 1982, when then-Gov. Bob Graham led 10,000 pro-ERA marchers up the Appalachee Parkway to the state capitol.

It was a day for optimism; the culmination of more than a decade's struggle to get the Equal Rights Amendment written into the U.S. Constitution.

And it was close. Florida was one of the last states whose ratification was needed to get the deed done. And Graham, armed with a Harris Poll showing strong public support for the amendment in the Sunshine State, was about to call the Legislature into special session.

"By any measure, however you look at these results, however you slice them, however you examine them, there is a solid vote of endorsement for an idea whose time has come," Graham said later.

Alas, one state senator from Gainesville had been reading other polls.

George Kirkpatrick ran for election on an anti-ERA platform, because his polls told him that even though the amendment was wildly popular in "liberal" Gainesville, it was deemed the work of the devil in the more conservative communities that dominated the district. Out in the hinterlands, they feared mass bra-burnings and other un-American acts should the ERA come to pass.

Apparently, George was reading the right polls. Kirkpatrick lost Gainesville big time but took the district. And he dutifully went off to help kill the ERA in the Senate.

Before he did, Gainesville activists held an 11th hour vigil to try to show Kirkpatrick the error of his ways. Poor George complained about being "harassed," by libbers and grumbled, "It's like living in a communist country." (The secret to Kirkpatrick's political success is that he was a world-class whiner. He made sure we always felt his pain).

Anyway, Kirkpatrick stood up under the pressure and did the "right" (as in far right) thing, thereby saving the Republic from all manner of evils; like equal pay for equal work and women playing football and such.

Well, the good news for the revivalists who now hope to put the ERA into the Florida Constitution is that George Kirkpatrick is gone, complements of term limits.

The bad news is that if he were still in the Legislature, Kirkpatrick would look like a liberal compared to the crowd that runs Tallahassee today.

So we won't get a new draft. And the ERA is probably still a no-starter. And who knows whether or not the new peace movement will stay the course?

Still, it's nice to know that the lost causes of my youth are back. Heck, if I hang around long enough, the Dolphins may even make it back to the Super Bowl.

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