After reporting to the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station, acquiring my packet of initial paperwork, taking the fourth-grade level I.Q. test, and providing samples of urine and blood, I accompanied sixty or seventy other draftees into a large room to undergo the mass physical exam. This was just another of a dozen tedious, exasperating, sometimes humiliating experiences that all the young men present endured throughout the pre-induction process.
The AFEES assessments would determine each of our fates. Those who passed all the tests would be inducted into the Army and probably deployed to Vietnam. Those who flunked one or more tests would be rejected for military service. Being sized up for induction prompted the deepest dread I had ever felt in all my twenty years.
One possibility inspired a flicker of hope. I’d been underweight since early childhood and remained so thin past my teens that a friend had described me as “built like a two-by-four.” Middle and high school gym classes had been recurrent ordeals of derision and mockery. Now I found myself standing nude before five or six dozen other naked young men, almost all of them bigger, stronger, and more athletic than me. I calmed myself with reminders that scrawniness might well prove my salvation. My goal on the morning of October 1, 1970, was to look as unimpressive as possible.
What ensued as we lined up facing one another along the big examination room’s walls was a process I had witnessed time after time in school locker rooms: nude young males of many shapes and colors assessing one another’s bodies. For some, this focus may have included lustful speculation. For most, the attention presented opportunities for one-upmanship. Who was the biggest dude? Who had the buffest bod? Who—most importantly—had the biggest dick? Now, as the sixty or seventy of us stood in full view of one another, many leering or sneering, a murmur of mutters and guffaws rose and spread throughout the room like a toxic pall.
One man among us drew the most notice. I happened to be standing right across from him. He was ordinary in overall appearance—a not-handsome, not-athletic, not particularly strong-looking Caucasian of average height and slightly stocky build. One attribute, however, made him remarkable enough to draw everyone’s gaze. Although his penis seemed only somewhat larger than average, his scrotum and testicles were gigantic. They were so huge, in fact, that I questioned the sight my eyes were inflicting on me. If those were ears, he would have looked like Dumbo. If those were a nose, he would have resembled Pinocchio. If those were feet, he would have made Bugs Bunny seem as dainty as a ballerina. Any other body part subject to such disproportion would have prompted us to view this guy as a freak. I did, certainly. I have always regarded the male genitals as peculiar, risible, even bizarre. The cock and balls disprove any notion of “intelligent design.” What god would put gonads on the outside of the torso? Given the nature of male self-regard, however—including the prevailing attitude among men that the male genitals deserve respect, honor, and even adulation—the attention bestowed on Mr. Big Balls suggested not just astonishment but envy.
One other attribute made this guy stand out. His smile was the most idiotic grin I had ever seen infest a human face. Combined with the boy’s eyes—pinched almost shut with self-amusement—this expression revealed a bizarre amalgam of delight, arrogance, and pride. Mr. Big Balls saw our amazement and bewilderment as we viewed his massive cojones. Surely no other man present could exceed, match, or even approach the splendor of his virile bounty. Mr. Big Balls smirked as though he had simultaneously won the Nobel Prize, the Congressional Medal of Honor, and the PowerBall lottery.
It’s hard to know exactly what thoughts churned behind that idiotic face, but the young man’s grin declared: Marvel at me, all ye of pitiable flesh (though perhaps not phrased in Elizabethan rhetoric). Gaze at the glory of my gonads. Tremble at the triumph of my testes. Cower before my splendor, O ye lesser males, and lament that your Family Jewels are naught but the merest rhinestones.
What about the AFEES physicians? How would they perceive this odd specimen of manhood? As a valiant, macho warrior that the U.S. Army could unleash against the Vietcong? Or would they worry that those mega-gonads would burden the young man shackled to them with a double ball-and-chain as he slogged through the jungle?
A pair of Army doctors interrupted the group’s reverie. Wearing white coats and clutching clipboards, the medical officers performed a cursory exam focusing on nuts and butts. Their attention on the first area no doubt concerned genital function and venereal disease. So quickly did the doctors stride past the rows of men, however, that only the total absence of genitals could have caught their notice. The physicians manifested no more interest than assembly line workers glancing at widgets zipping past on a conveyor belt. The second assessment, which followed a startling command — “Turn around, bend over, and spread your buttocks cheeks” — probably focused on hemorrhoids. Yet with the doctors once again merely passing the lines of mooning youths, this cursory process couldn’t have detected any pathology beyond the most grotesque. Not a single one of the five or six dozen bodies on display prompted either of the medical officers even to slow down, much less to stop for a closer look.
At the time, I didn’t care. I was focused on my own dilemma, my own survival. I just wanted away from Mr. Big Balls, away from all the other guys, away from these AFEES personnel attempting to ship me off to my doom in Vietnam.
After that came the weigh-in—the test that prompted both my greatest dread and my greatest hope. The Army’s pre-induction criteria included a chart designating the minimum and maximum weights for a given height. When I stepped onto the scale, I weighed seven pounds less than the minimum weight required for someone five feet seven inches tall. My scrawniness instantly and emphatically disqualified me from military service. The Army would reject me. I would never be sent to Vietnam. My most embarrassing physical attribute had become my escape hatch.
A few more delays ensued, then an officer ordered us back to the locker room. We could now get dressed, return to the entrance, have our paperwork reviewed, and leave the center.
Despite the clear-cut evidence I’d seen when I stepped onto the scale earlier, I awaited my turn uneasily at the front desk.
The captain on duty there—fortyish and dapper in full uniform—assessed the findings about my scrawny body and signed one of the documents. Then, with surprising cordiality, he stated, “Congratulations, Myers—you flunked.”
E. J. Myers
Born into a bicultural family (Mexican/German-American), E. J. Myers grew up in Colorado, Mexico, and Peru. He has worked in a wide variety of professions and trades – inpatient health care, emergency medical services, cabinetmaking, and freelance writing. Myers has published twenty-two books to date, as well as many essays in literary journals. He lives with his wife in Vermont.