Gary Goss (unedited – not in CALLED TO SERVE)
Gary is a Northampton, MA resident married to an ESL teacher at the local high school. He has held numerous jobs over his career including running a restaurant, selling movie memorabilia and producing a T.V. cooking show for children. He has two sons.
I was in college from 1964 to1968. In 1968 it was really starting to be the height of the war and the draft became really scary. I was an anti-war activist. I went to all the protests and the marches. I was very active. I was also president of my college class at Rutgers and I actually remember I got Dick Gregory to come as a guest speaker and I got put on probation because he said something like, “Burn, motherfucker.” It was definitely the best of times and the worst of times because there was so much excitement and so much happening yet it was scary as shit because of the possibility of being drafted.
I grew up in Newark and we lived in the Jewish Black section. My father had a store in Paterson. Everyone outside of Newark went to college. It was all rich people from places like Maplewood and South Orange, but people from Newark tended not to go to college. From 1964 to 1968 the demographics of Newark changed drastically. I graduated high school in ’64. I taught in my high school in ’68. While I was there in the early ‘60’s it was 2/3 white and 1/3 black, but by ’68 it was 99% black. If you were from Newark you were very likely to go into the draft because Newark had a minority population, a poor population, and the rest of Essex County was rich. If you somehow managed to go to college and graduate, if you didn’t have a deferment when you got out, you were going. What I had to do was I had to figure out what to do about the draft. I decided I would do everything I could to get out.
The first thing that I did to make sure I wouldn’t have to go was I applied to law school and I went to law school for a day, actually at Rutgers Law School. I very quickly found out I wasn’t going to get a deferment at law school. So I applied to medical school because that was deferrable and then I decided that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to be a doctor and I didn’t want to go to medical school. The next thing I did, just like every other Jew or person who was part of the intelligentsia – I was poor, not typical, but I was from an intellectual group of people and knew what the fuck was going on – I tried to get out with a medical deferment. I first got a deferment for having a tooth problem. I had a doctor write a bullshit story about a bad tooth and I got a deferment for a few months. When that no longer was working I remember going for the physical. They told me to drop my pants to be examined. I saw these two guys I knew and they didn’t have underwear on and those guys – I remember thinking that they were smart – were given a deferment because they said they were gay. I knew they weren’t gay, so I thought that I should have done that, too. After the deferment ran out and I had the physical I became a teacher in Newark because if you taught in Newark, in a tough area, it was deferrable, but because it was Essex County and they needed men to fill their quota, that deferment went away. It wasn’t enough. You had to be in medical school and I wasn’t. My choices had become to leave the country, go to jail, or join up.
My parents didn’t really know much about what was going on with the draft and the war. My family was incredibly unintellectual, but they were supportive of anything I felt I needed to do to stay out of the army. I had a Jewish mother who didn’t want her boy to go into the army no matter what. It wasn’t so much because she didn’t believe in the war. She knew that there was some question about it, but it was mostly because she didn’t want her boy to go and get killed. For me, too, from the time I was four or five years old, I remember thinking about how I would never want anything like that. I remember even having daydreams of going underwater with a straw so I could breathe underwater and hide or play dead so I would not have to kill anybody.
I decided that I couldn’t, I wouldn’t go to jail. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t confine myself. One thing that I think people have to realize about those times is that even though the war was scary it was an incredible time for our culture – everybody started to smoke dope, people were political, people were screwing around with everybody. It was incredible and wonderful and yet very scary, too. I don’t know if people know who didn’t live through it appreciate how good a time it was. The music was great. Everything was just changing. It was a time of real change. I didn’t want to miss any of it and being in jail would mean being apart from what was happening.
I also decided I didn’t want to go to Canada. I thought really hard about going and I almost did go. Instead what I did was I joined the army. I went into the army. I joined the reserves because my idea was that, “Well, I’ll only be in the reserves. I probably won’t be called up to active duty.” This was an agonizing decision. I was an anti-war activist and here I am joining the army and I joined the army so that I wouldn’t go to Vietnam.
I enlisted and the day after I enlisted I went crazy realizing what I had done. I couldn’t believe I did it. I had chickened out. I did everything I didn’t believe in. So, I decided to get out. What I did was, before my unit became activated or started basic training, I started doing everything that was against regulations. The first week when I came in and they said you can’t have a mustache, that’s against whatever, I grew a mustache. You can’t have sideburns, I grew sideburns. You can’t have long hair – I did everything I could to cause trouble. When they would give me a gun, I wouldn’t hold it. I wouldn’t shoot the gun. I got harassed. People wanted to beat the shit out of me. They wanted to kill me, but the reason that nothing ever happened to me was because I was a basketball player. I was one of the best basketball players in the army and I was on their basketball team and the guys on the team protected me. They weren’t going to fuck around with me.
What I did next, which is the reason why I’m telling you this story, is I found a doctor, a psychiatrist. I think I was the second person to go see her. Her name was Anita Stevens – I can say her name now because I’m sure she’s dead – she was the consulting psychiatrist for General Hershey, who was the head of the selective service. She worked for him, but she was against the war. She was an Austrian psychiatrist, very rich, who had her office on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. I remember going there for the first time. She was gorgeous. I immediately fell in love with this woman. I found out about her from an anti-war meeting in the Village. Somebody said, “There’s a woman who will write a letter. That letter will have a lot of weight because of who she is.” I already knew if you got a letter from any doctor that said certain things you could probably get out anyway.
So I went to her and I said, “I gotta get out. What can you do?” And she said, “Well, you can’t lie. I won’t lie, but I’ll exaggerate.” So I said, “Well, I’m gay.” I said, “I don’t care what you do. I don’t really give a shit. I don’t care if I get a dishonorable discharge. Anything.” It didn’t matter at all to me. At first I was a little worried about getting a dishonorable discharge and then I started thinking – we’re always told to be afraid of that, but nobody ever looked at what kind of discharge you got anyway, unless you were in some kind of government job. She said, “Well, are you gay?” And I said, “No.” She said, “Then don’t do that one.” So we went through a number of things and then she said, “Well how about drugs?” And I said, “Hey, you know, I did everything. I was the first in the neighborhood to try the latest”. So she said, “Did you ever take LSD?” And I said, “Yes, I did.” And she said, “Okay.” So she wrote a letter saying that I was on a permanent LSD trip, and that I was seeing things and hallucinating. I figured I had taken LSD a few times so it wasn’t a complete lie. She charged $50 or maybe it was $200 for the letter. I don’t remember. I brought the letter to the reserve unit, to the commander. I gave it to him and they took the letter. I stayed on the base and went back the next day to see the commander. When I went back, came up to me and put his arm around me and said, “You can’t be here anymore. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we can’t have anybody on drugs.” Apparently, they never had heard of LSD. Never even heard of it!
I was sent home and told not to come in anymore, but I was still considered to be in the reserves. The army didn’t know what to do with me, because they had never had an example of this. One other thing is that the army was doing experiments with LSD, but no one would talk about it and nobody seemed to know anything about it. They sent me then to be examined by a psychiatrist, an army psychiatrist, at a base right across the Verrazano Bridge in Brooklyn. I go in and this guy, a doctor, interviewed me. He was Swiss or Danish. He was in the army so that he could become a doctor in the United States. I told him my story and I told him that I took LSD and he said, “I took LSD. So what?” He had a Swiss accent and I was a wreck. I was really nervous when he said that. He then said, “Look, you’re not on any permanent trip, but I’m against the war. I’m in the army because I have to be in the army. So I’ll get you out.” I don’t know what he did, but he told me I was going to get a dishonorable discharge because there was nothing he could do about it, but he said, “We’ll do the best we can. Maybe we can get you a general discharge, but I doubt it.”
It was incredible. I was just thrilled. He scared me when he said, “So what,” but when he said, “I’m against the war,” and later, “I’ve heard of Anita Stevens,” it was a tremendous relief. All my friends in the service knew that I was trying to get out. They knew that something was up, but it worked out that I had so many good friends in there, because nobody didn’t like me. There were just some redneck people who were like, “You’re fucking against the war.” I was a jock, so I got along with everybody, except the stupid fuckers, but any of the black guys in there, they admired it. And then it turned out with my birthday being March 23rd, had I managed to stay out until the lottery, I would have been number 252 and none of this would have ever happened.
I never got a letter from this second doctor. A few months later I got my discharge in the mail and I got an honorable discharge by mistake, a clerical error. The way I know it was a mistake is that I was told I was definitely not getting an honorable discharge. But I got one and I was entitled to benefits. I didn’t want anything from them and I never did anything about it.
The neat thing about my whole story is not my getting out, but Anita Stevens. I asked for her help because I was very active in the anti-war movement; I was politically active, I was active in school. When I ran for president at Rutgers I remember my campaign was to get out of the Vietnam War and to get a prom at the Plaza hotel in New York. Quite a combo. So what I did after I got out was I asked Anita Stevens if I could use her name and get her name out to others and she said yes. I asked her how much can I get your name out, and she said, you can give it to anyone. So I gave her name out to hundreds of people through mailings and through secret meetings with people. It was done very, very carefully. Everybody had to be really serious. I did not tell anyone who was already in the army though. It was almost impossible to do what I did. Once you’re in, to get out was really hard. They told me I’d never get out, but because it was drugs that they never knew anything about it could happen. I remember one day, right before I got out, this guy had his arm around me and he said, “You know, I feel really sorry for you,” and I said to myself, “Fuck you, you asshole. You don’t have to feel sorry for me. I’m not going to be here anymore.” He then said something negative, and I said to him, “I wouldn’t feel sorry for me. I’m not coming back.”
As for Anita Stevens, she eventually got out, too. She knew that she was going eventually to get caught, so she got out over a thousand people. I’m pretty sure. I forget the total. At some point tk hey did catch onto her and I think she was deported. What happened was several of us set it up so that she knew she was going to be in trouble and she knew that she was going to need money. She started doing twenty people an hour at $500 a shot. I’m not totally sure about this. Either I was $50 and it went to $200 or I was $200 and it went to $500. I think it might have been 50 to 200, so she was making $4000 an hour. She hired someone to talk to you, to screen you, somebody to sit down and write the letter. You’d then go into her, she’d sign the letter and you’d leave. It was a line-up. It was great. She was a hero. She saved thousands of people’s lives. I was glad that I had something to do with it, but she was just incredible. So I got out and nothing ever came of it. I went in in ’68 and I got out in ’69, the end of ’69. I had gotten an honorable discharge, which I still have. I had a lot of friends who were killed in Vietnam, a lot of friends. A lot of people in my unit were killed.
There’s a real difference between those my age and the people who were three or four years younger than me. It was a whole other group of people, too. It was a whole other time. In my time, if you had long hair, you smoked dope and you were against the war. Four years later if you had long hair it just meant that you might be doing drugs and it looked cool. It didn’t necessarily mean your politics were so liberal.
What’s going on now in Iraq is just as horrible to me as Vietnam. I can’t imagine participating. I was so disappointed in myself for having enlisted. I considered being a conscientious objector, but I think the road was too hard for me to do that. I did pursue it for a little while. I went to Quaker meetings. I knew that if I went in I would be possibly fighting in a war I didn’t believe in. The idea of killing someone you don’t know is totally foreign to me.
I want to be clear about how I felt and feel about what happened to me. I use the word disappointed, but I wasn’t disappointed in what I did at the end. I was proud of what I did at the end. I was disappointed that I went in. I think what I did to get out took a lot of balls because no one was doing it – you couldn’t get out once you were in and I took a lot of flack. I thought I might get the shit beat out of me, but I have to say that I was never afraid for my life. Even though I was a skinny Jew, I wasn’t afraid. I knew I would be O.K. I enlisted because I didn’t feel that I had any other better options. I was definitely not the type to go to jail. I really didn’t want to leave the country for lots of reasons, one being I was in love. I didn’t want to leave my family. I knew how strongly I was against the war, but one of my friends said, “You know you can join this year, that’s what we’re doing. We’re not being drafted. We’re not going to go over. It’s the easiest thing to do.” I had done every physical thing I could try to do to get deferred with my teeth. I tried other things and it just didn’t work. I guess I wasn’t ballsy enough at the time to just say that I was a homosexual and lie and try to get out. But the day I did this, the day I saw Anita Stevens, I became myself again. I think people probably don’t understand it today, but it was frightening to think that you might go over because if you went over… My thought was that if I went over, I wasn’t going to come back. Almost every kid that went to my high school went to college, and the few that didn’t went to Vietnam. This is my 40th high school reunion year and I can’t think of anyone who went into the army except for the few who I think got killed.
When I look back over the years, I realize what happened fit right into the type of person I was. I don’t think that it could have happened any other way. My circumstances told me that that was what I had to do. My closest friends around me, radicals, had other ways of getting out that I didn’t. One went to medical school. Another one got a 4-F for something. The only thing I think I could have done differently, which would have still been kind of in line with who I am, but wouldn’t have been in line with what anyone was doing who I was associated with, was to leave the country. I was in New York City. I was going to NYU. I was going to graduate school. I didn’t want to go away, so I joined and I rebelled. Before the reserve meetings I would be sitting there smoking a joint. People would see me and I would want them to see me. I would do anything that would be confrontational so that I would piss them off. They weren’t punishing me because I was treated a little special because of basketball, but more because they were a little wary of what I was doing. I think I scared them a little. They weren’t used to having anybody be so rebellious. Once you’re in the army and you do stuff like that they’ll throw you in jail, and once I decided I couldn’t stay in the army, which was the day I enlisted, it didn’t matter to me what the hell happened. If they told me they were going to throw me in jail I would have left and deserted. But not once was I busted for any of these behaviors. Never. I smoked a few times where people would see me, but I didn’t go out of my way to smoke dope in front of people that I would offend. A lot of people were really against anybody smoking dope. I did it when I thought an officer would be coming through. I would smoke right before I would go in to a meeting and I would reek of dope. I realized that nobody knew what it smelled like. That’s the one thing about the early days of smoking dope. You didn’t even have to be paranoid about anything because the police, nobody had any idea what it smelled like. My friends would always be paranoid and I’d say, “Look, in a few years we can be paranoid. Not now. Nobody knows.” There was nobody else doing anything like that. There was nobody smoking dope. Nobody in my unit had ever smoked dope except some of the black guys. No one else had ever smoked. My friends weren’t so in favor of me smoking dope, but they all did it eventually. I was just early.
If I had not been able to get out the way I did through Anita Stevens’ letter and the interview with the army doctor, I would have stayed in if nothing happened to my unit. As soon as my unit was activated and I found out later that it was, I would have never gone to Vietnam. I would never have taken part in it. I would have deserted. I would have been a fugitive. At that time anyway, I wouldn’t have cared. I would have cared, but I would have done it. I definitely would have. I would have left the country. Once I realized the mistake I had made, that I should have gone to Canada, I would have done anything by that point. I would never have cared about being on the run as long as I would have had to be.