Peter Boody (unedited – not in CALLED TO SERVE)
Peter Boody is 69 years old and says he is retired, but in reality he continues to be in business selling antique books and paper, which he has done for the past 35 years. When his wife died seven years ago he decided to abandon his plan of a quiet retirement in Maine selling enough books on eBay to get by and instead he reconnected with an old friend, Barbara Smith, from Northampton, MA They are now married and Peter lives part of the year in Northampton, and part in Maine.
Back in the fall of 1960 I was going to school in Chicago at George Williams College. At that point I was working on a career in YMCA work. George Williams College was a school where a lot of people worked their way through college so I had jobs in central services and a settlement house. About two years after I got there I met a woman from Ohio and we ended up getting married. Before we got married I had a confession to make to her and that confession was that I had never registered for the draft. With her support I went back to my draft board and said basically, whoops, forgot about that.
My decision not to register had been based on some personal experience with someone in high school who was a draft resister at that time. His father had been in the Merchant Marines and was lost at sea in World War II. At that time he wasn’t considered a veteran and they received no benefits when he died. It wasn’t until recently that the Merchant Marines were eligible for veteran’s benefits. Charlie Harrison conscientiously registered and then refused to serve. In solidarity with him and his father I chose not to register, but was in the closeted order of opposition. I didn’t make a big deal about it, but he did and ended up spending nearly 4 years in jail. I felt very guilty when I went back to the draft board and decided to make amends. I was getting married and taking on a commitment. I didn’t want to start off badly. When it had been just me, it was O.K. There was risk involved, I knew, but nobody had ever asked me for proof of registration up to that point. President Kennedy evidently had said married men were exempted from the draft. I found that out when I registered. I told them why I was registering and they told me, “You won’t have to worry about the draft.” One of the strengths of the draft system is that it’s locally controlled. Nobody’s ever going to tell them who the draft penalizes. I guess it’s a positive thing that they don’t have to hear about the rest of the draft.
After Kennedy was assassinated and shortly after Lyndon Johnson took office, they rescinded the bit about married men because there was the sense that they needed to increase the numbers. Then I knew that my number was up. By that point I was working for the YMCA in Baltimore, I had graduated from George Williams in Chicago and in the spring of ’65 I went out to Baltimore. I was 1-A at that time. I had talked a little bit about my status with the people at the Y, which was interesting because two years later the YMCA was very active in draft resistance. At that time it was still very traditional. All my life I’ve been on the cusp, the old music, the old ways, the old customs. All my life I’ve been in that change. I was not a baby boomer. I was born in 1941. I lived through World War II. I had experience with that and with people who were influenced by that. I knew that eventually I was going to get a call and at that point in time it affected the way I was working and feeling.
I became very much a nihilist; I didn’t really take my job seriously at this point. I was starting to get interested in going to old bookstores and trash picking. I don’t know if I was more anxious as much as I didn’t take anything seriously. There was no sense of permanency. I thought that sooner or later I would be swept up in this thing. I had started to think that I could resist the way my friend Charlie Harrison did and go to jail or go to Canada. Even then there were a few people who crossed the border and that sounded attractive in a certain way. My wife and I also considered the possibility of her becoming pregnant. That was another way out of it; they never drafted married men with children unless they were doctors or people they needed the occupation for.
Needless to say we didn’t get pregnant and because of my attitude towards my work at the time I got fired from my job just after Christmas in January ’66. I was there less than a full year. I was beginning to interview for another Y position and would have probably taken the job in Dover, Delaware when I was offered that job, but in early march of ’66 I had gotten my draft number.
In retrospect I don’t think I knew anything about what was going on. Back then people still didn’t even know how to pronounce Vietnam. People couldn’t even agree on what language they spoke. The old timers were talking and comparing it to Korea like it had a north and south, too. I feel like I dropped the ball on not knowing more, but nobody really knew anything. All we knew was the U.S. was advising and training a local army. The politics were that it was still very remote. There wasn’t that much of an interest yet.
I got my draft notice in that period of time. It was a transition time. In early March I went back to Wakefield, Massachusetts where my draft board was and where I grew up. I don’t know what week it was, but I do remember it was 5:30 in the morning, being at the draft board and then taking a bus to the Boston Naval Station, which was the induction center. That’s where my life almost changed another time.
They had all these men there and this was a depressing place. They weren’t really set up for the influx of people they were beginning to get at this time, either at the induction center or soon after when I was in basic training. They were starting to build these concrete barracks, but we were still using the old wooden barracks used in World War II. There we were, all theses inductees, lined up in this old naval air station and all of a sudden the door opens and these Marines walk in. They had some sort of quota from the inductees to go into the Marines and they started counting down the lines and saying, “You’re a marine, you’re a marine, you’re a marine,” and they were heading towards me and I knew I didn’t want to be a Marine because I knew a little about them by that point. I was 24 then and these other guys were 17 or 18. They were kids. I was over 200 lbs. I wasn’t in good shape. I had a pretty good attitude about everything, but physically I was pretty scared about everything. They stopped three guys down from me and they had filled their quota. Those guys left and who knows what happened to them.
The rest of us raised our hands and became members of the U.S. Army. At that point I was relieved that I was going to be in the Army and not the Marines so that really clouded my initial feelings about it. There were a couple of other men who were older, but most were quite young. I was sent down to Fort Dix in New Jersey. My wife was back in Baltimore, teaching school. Soon after we got to Fort Dix I was presented with another option.
I was called in for an interview and they said, “We see that you’re a college graduate. How would you like to become an officer?” I thought that that might be a good idea. I said, “Well, what kind of officer school do you have quotas for?” They said, “Right now we’re looking for OCS candidates for the Corps of Engineers because we don’t have enough engineers.” I said yes even though I knew it would be four years before I was appointed to OCS. But I also knew at that time that they’d put you on a different track from the start. The basic training is the same, but the advanced training would be different.
The basic training everyone got trained at. They did a good job. They had a lot of interesting experiences and I went from 200 lbs. to 158 lbs. in eight weeks. I kept up. I knew what they could and couldn’t do. When we first got there they all wanted us to have shaving cups and straight edged razors for our kits and I and other people protested against that stuff. We said we’re citizens; we don’t have the money to pay for this kind of stuff so with all due respect we’d like to stick with the disposable Gillettes. I spoke up a lot, but I was also older than most other people. I had that kind of attitude, but it wasn’t smart allecky. There was also this stuff that I didn’t want to do like the overnight stuff so I knew those days when there were things like that that were coming up, I’d volunteer for certain duties like KP. When I got assigned to KP I always volunteered to do pots and pans and nobody liked to do those so they’d leave me alone. I carved a space for myself that made it okay. I offered a lot of counseling; a lot of hand-holding. I passed out Bibles to people and encouraged them to contact people back home. People wanted something to hold onto. I wasn’t proselytizing or anything; it was just a way to help some people out.
Then I went to advanced training after basic training. By being on the track for OCS, I was actually a training sergeant. I had the stripes and I could march people around. I even had a private bedroom. It was kind of a neat deal. About halfway through that I asked for an appointment with the officer in charge of training and said, “You know I’m going to have to drop out of this OCS track because I’m having a problem with my wife. She’s going to cause a big stink if I have to stay here for four years and I’m not going to be a good officer with that hanging over me.”
I was put back on the regular track except I was still on the track to become an engineer. Then I hung around the fort afterwards for more training. Engineering training is fascinating, we build bridges, and it’s actually kind of fun.
Eventually I was sent to Vietnam. I was there before the Tet offensive. I developed a number of close friends there, families that I would go visit by myself. I would take time out and go visit them. I regret that I didn’t learn the language. I would take my weapon with me. I did see some things that disturbed me as to our attitude towards the civilians. We had a schedule of payments that we had to make. We had a list of things that told how much we paid for each thing we destroyed; we even had a schedule of payments if one of our cars accidentally killed a civilian. There was a different cost for a child as compared to an adult. That bothered me. I did see some abuse. I saw some GI’s with a bunch of kids swarming around. These men would lose patience and one time I saw a man hang a child upside down above a well. Another time men would see children begging on the road and they would throw C-rations (The C-Ration, or Type C ration, was an individual canned, pre-cooked, or prepared wet ration intended to be issued to U.S. military land forces when fresh food – A-ration – or packaged unprepared food – B-Ration – prepared in mess halls or field kitchens was impractical or not available, and when a survival ration – K-ration or D-ration – was insufficient)at them. These were radicalizing moments in my life that I didn’t realize at the time.
While in Vietnam, I didn’t see much that made sense. We saw some cavalry guys who came from the field and the first few months we worked on a clothing exchange center. These guys would come in from the field for a change of clothes and a shower and then they’d fly out on a helicopter and that’s about as close as we got to the conflict. I knew that there was some risk to my job, because sometimes we had to get a report out and it had to be in by the next day. If it was four o’clock in the evening, you’d get in the jeep and take this guy with you. I would tell the sergeant that it would be dark by the time we got back. It was definitely kind of scary driving around by ourselves in the dark.
At the same time, it was kind of interesting watching what was going on. We would watch these women carrying sacks of rice up the highway. They would get to a certain point and they would turn up into the hill. Everyone knew they were going up to feed the North Vietnamese up in that hill, but that was a no fire zone. The rules didn’t make any sense. I was very skeptical from themstart.
In the meantime I was accumulating stripes. By the time I left I had five and that was in two years. I could go to the NCO club at the veterans club along with the lifetime members who only had three stripes after 15 years. They hated me. I didn’t go there after I realized that they didn’t really like me getting so many stripes so fast.
I stayed in Vietnam an extra month so I could get an early out. I came back just before Christmas in ’67. I turned 25 in Vietnam and stayed there my whole 25th year. When I got home, that was when I was really surprised; nobody wanted to know anything. I had gone back to Waverly, Ohio, to where my wife had moved and this Methodist church then asked me to talk about my Vietnam experiences, but really nobody wanted to know about it. I think they wanted to know about the war they thought they knew about, where the front line advances.
Lately I have been reading a lot of Vietnamese poetry and literature. I keep trying to fill in the gaps. It is a fascinating mix of oral tradition, Chinese influence and culture. A lot of the poetry is written in the form of puzzles that can be read in two or three different ways. (Peter picks up the book he is currently reading and quotes,) “It is hard for westerners to fathom a culture where poetry figures so prominently. Not just in the lives of the educated, but in the lives of farmers as well.” (VIETNAM REVISITED, from “The Nimrod International Journal”, Spring/Summer 2004, Tulsa University) I am trying to understand how our country went to war in a place with a culture that is so much richer than ours in terms of its history and it was so pervasive. That is why I took such pleasure in being with the Vietnamese people.