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On the third floor of Phillips Brooks House here is a tiny room littered with printed forms in triplicate. It is the home of Cambridge Local Board 17; last week Local Board 17 issued this writer a pair of MTA tickets and told him to report to the Boston Army Base for his pre-induction physical.
There are two long blocks of buildings at the Army Base, stubby buildings stained black from the smoke of South Boston. One floor of one section of these buildings has been equipped for the processing of inductees; I arrived on that floor at 10 a.m. with a group of about 30 of my contemporaries. We were given a sheaf of papers and seated at two long tables, each sectioned off into cubicles with plywood screens. At the far end of the tables there was a sergeant sitting at a low desk. He was reading a newspaper.
At 20 minutes past ten another sergeant relieved the first, inheriting the newspaper. The second sergeant read through the sports section, put down the paper, and stood up. He smiled for a minute, then he started to explain the forms.
"You fellas may wonder why I give you all these explanations," said the Sergeant. "I know you guys understand all this, but you can't be sure, so I gotta speak down to the lowest level." He leaned over confidentially. "Idiot level."
We filled out forms, with the sergeant giving his instructions in a clipped, quiet voice. "Print your name in Space 12," he said; "now sign it in space 14." There were medical forms ("Have you ever been pregnant?") and a battery of psychological questions ("Do you often have trouble getting to sleep?-Check One: Often, Seldom, Never.") Then another sergeant came in and gave us our tests.
He held up a test booklet and waved it. "Most of you guys go to Harvard, and you'll probably find this pretty easy. Some of you may get a 100. But if any of you guys are smart enough to think you can get out by flunking the test you're wrong. We know how much you know, and even if you flunk it you pass." It was a forty-minute test, with simple two pints plus four pints arithmetic problems and the flexible figures of spatial relations. The sergeants, corrected the test immediately. The group average seemed to be something over 90.
We picked up our papers, with the test results neatly entered at the top, and the sergeants led our prospective platoon to a small door at the far end of the floor. "O. K., men," said the sergeant, "split up into groups of six." We split up. "First group go in." It was a small room, with the numbers one through six painted on one wall and a civilian leaning against another. "Line up under the numbers!" shouted the civilian. "Turn around! Cover your left ears! First man, repeat after me: One! Four! Twelve! Three!" The first man shouted back the numbers. "Second man! Three! Two! Twelve! Seven! The civilian checked off some spaces on a long mimeographed sheet clipped to our papers and sent us off to another door.
This one led to a bright room with coat racks down the middle and a private leaning against them. "Take off everything but shoes, socks, and shorts," said the private. "Place all your valuables in the small cloth bag." He pointed to a cardboard carton of small cloth bags. "Make sure you do not misplace either the papers or your valuables." We undressed, picked up our bags, and lined up to get weighed.
The Army Base runs its physicals through a maze of zig-zag cloth screens, numbered into stations. Station Number One included a chair, a plain table, and a doctor who held a slit lamp and a tongue depressor. "Open your mouth," said the doctor. "Head up. Turn it left. Turn it right. Now let me look at those cars." He clicked on the light. "Ah, very interesting." The doctor checked off more spaces on the mimeographed sheet and smiled. "Station Two," he said.
Station Two was an eye test; Station Three checked hearts and blood pressures. We were through them in five minutes, laughing a little now at each other with our baggy shorts and cloth bags. Station Four screened a dentist's chair and a strong light. Its doctor was wielding another tongue 'depressor and checking off teeth on the sheet. There was a long line waiting in front of the chair; the doctor was sweating by the time I got to it. He looked in my mouth. "Take that out." I have a wire brace fixed on my lower teeth. "Can't" I said. The doctor shrugged his shoulders and picked up my form. I watched him cross out seven lower teeth. "Next man," said the doctor, as he wrote something on the sheet. I looked at it as I moved to Station Five. "Fixed Bridge" it said, alongside of the missing teeth.
Station Five was marked "Urinalysis." There was a short man there, sitting behind a small table and grinning pleasantly; opposite him, on a long bench, sat a group of men fingering their cloth bags and staring uncomfortably across the room. An empty jar rested on the table, and the short man occasionally looked up and tapped it with a glass rod.
There were, two men in Station Six, a doctor and another private. "Strip," said the private. We piled our shoes and socks and shorts on the floor, and put the little cloth bags on top of them.
"Stand up," said the doctor. "Raise your arms over your head-then straight out-now bend down. Stand up again." He pointed to me. "Appendicitis scar fully hardened." The private pencilled more checks on my sheet. The doctor started to say something else, then the boy behind me hit the floor.
He had been standing in the line before Station Four, a thin dark boy twitching his papers. He was lying on his back now, flat in front of the dentist's chair, with the other men in his line circling nervously around him. The private and the doctor walked over and looked at the man, and came back shaking their heads. "They usually don't pass out until they see the blood," said the doctor. The line was moving again by the time the boy on the ground looked up and blinked.
The sign outside of Station Seven said "Neuro-Psychiatrist." I sat down on a rough wooden bench beside some more screens, then someone said "next man" and I walked around the screen and sat down opposite the psychiatrist. He asked me my name, address, and field of concentration, and what I had done the previous summer. Then he checked off some more spaces on the sheet and said "fine, fine." I heard him say "next man" as I moved up to Station Eight.
Station Eight drew and tested blood. There were two men behind its screen, and they chanted "next victim" at frequent intervals. There were only a few more spaces on my sheet now; one of the men filled them in and pointed to a desk beneath a window with a line of men standing in front of it. The line moved quickly; I was soon at the desk.
The man behind it took my mimeographed sheet and ran his finger down the column of checks, and I noticed now for the first time that they all seemed to line up under each other. He looked up at me and then carefully inked a rubber stamp. It thudded loudly as it hit the mimeographed sheet. I leaned over to read the imprint. It said "ACCEPTED."
As I was getting dressed the private who had been leaning on the coat rack when we had started walked over and looked at my sheet. "Made it, ch?" He smiled. "I hope you haven't lost your meal ticket." I had been issued a meal ticket, worth 90 cents at the Army Base cafeteria; I hadn't lost it. "That ticket is a good deal," said the private. "That's not for mess hall crud, that's for real food." I thanked him, put on my tie, turned in my forms, and went down to the cafeteria. Ninety cents at the Army Base buys coffee, a lukewarm turkey sandwich, and some chemically yellow lemon meringnopic.
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