Draft Board Nights

I left the University in June, 1918, but I couldn’t get into the army on account of my sight, just as grandfather couldn’t get in on account of his age. He applied several times and each time he took off his coat and threatened to whip the men who said he was too old.

The disappointment of not getting to Germany (he saw no sense in everybody going to France) and the strain of running around town seeing influential officials finally got him down in bed. He had wanted to lead a division and his chagrin at not even being able to enlist as a private was too much for him. His brother Jake, some fifteen years younger than he was, sat up at night with him after he took to bed, because we were afraid he might leave the house without even putting on his clothes. Grandfather was against the idea of Jake watching over him—he thought it was a lot of tomfoolery— but Jake hadn’t been able to sleep at night for twenty-eight years, so he was the perfect person for such a vigil.

On the third night, grandfather was wakeful. He would open his eyes, look at Jake, and close them again, frowning. He never answered any question Jake asked him. About four o’clock that morning, he caught his brother sound asleep in the big leather chair beside the bed. When once Jake did fall asleep he slept deeply, so that grandfather was able to get up, dress himself, undress Jake, and put him in bed without waking him. When my Aunt Florence came into the room at seven o’clock, grandfather was sitting in the chair reading the Memoirs of U.S. Grant and Jake was sleeping in the bed. “He watched while I slept,” said grandfather, “so now I’m watching while he sleeps.” It seemed fair enough.

About four o'clock he caught his brother asleep
About four o’clock he caught his brother asleep

One reason we didn’t want grandfather to roam around at night was that he had said something once or twice about going over to Lancaster, his old home town, and putting his problem up to “Gump”—that is, General William Tecumseh Sherman, also an old Lancaster boy. We knew that his inability to find Sherman would be bad for him and we were afraid that he might try to get there in the little electric runabout that had been bought for my grandmother. She had become, surprisingly enough, quite skillful at getting around town in it.

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Grand-father was astonished and a little indignant when he saw her get into the contraption and drive off smoothly and easily. It was her first vehicular triumph over him in almost fifty years of married life and he determined to learn to drive the thing himself. A famous old horseman, he approached it as he might have approached a wild colt. His brow would darken and he would begin to curse. He always leaped into it quickly, as if it might pull out from under him if he didn’t get into the seat fast enough. The first few times he tried to run the electric, he went swiftly around in a small circle, drove over the curb, across the sidewalk, and up onto the lawn. We all tried to persuade him to give up, but his spirit was aroused. “Git that goddam buggy back in the road!” he would say, imperiously.

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So we would maneuverer it back into the street and he would try again. Pulling too savagely on the guiding-bar—to teach the electric a lesson—was what took him around in a circle, and it was difficult to make him understand that it was best to relax and not get mad. He had the notion that if you didn’t hold her, she would throw you. And a man who (or so he often told us) had driven a four-horse McCormick reaper when he was five years old did not intend to be thrown by an electric runabout.

Since there was no way of getting him to give up learning to operate the electric, we would take him out to Franklin Park, where the roadways were wide and unfrequented, and spend an hour or so trying to explain the differences between driving a horse and carriage and driving an electric. He would keep muttering all the time; he never got it out of his head that when he took the driver’s seat the machine flattened its ears on him, so to speak. After a few weeks, nevertheless, he got so he could run the electric for a hundred yards or so along a fairly straight line. But whenever he took a curve, he invariably pulled or pushed the bar too quickly and too hard and headed for a tree or a flower bed. Someone was always with him and we would never let him take the car out of the park.

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There was a tremendous to-do
There was a tremendous to-do

One morning when grandmother was all ready to go to market, she called the garage and told them to send the electric around. They said that grandfather had already been there and taken it out. There was a tremendous to-do. We telephoned Uncle Will and he got out his Lozier and we started off to hunt for grandfather. It was not yet seven o’clock and there was fortunately little traffic. We headed for Franklin Park, figuring that he might have gone out there to try to break the car’s spirit.

One or two early pedestrians had seen a tall old gentle man with a white beard driving a little electric and cussing as he drove. We followed a tortuous trail and found them finally on Nelson Road, about four miles from the town of Shepard. Grandfather was standing in the road shouting, and the back wheels of the electric were deeply entangled in a barbed-wire fence. Two workmen and a farmhand were trying to get the thing loose. Grandfather was in a state of high wrath about the electric. “The—————-backed up on me!” he told us.


But to get back to the war. The Columbus draft board never called grandfather for service, which was a lucky thing for them because they would have had to take him. There were stories that several old men of eighty or ninety had been sum-moned in the confusion, but somehow or other grandfather was missed. He waited every day for the call, but it never came. My own experience was quite different. I was called almost every week, even though I had been exempted from service the first time I went before the medical examiners.

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Either they were never convinced that it was me or else there was some clerical error in the records which was never cleared up. Any-way, there was usually a letter for me on Monday ordering me to report for examination on the second floor of Memorial Hall the following Wednesday at 9 P.M. The second time I went up, I tried to explain to one of the doctors that I had already been exempted. “You’re just a blur to me.” I said, taking off my glasses. “You’re absolutely nothing to me,” he snapped, sharply.

I had to take off all my clothes each time and jog around the hall with a lot of porters and bank presidents’ sons and clerks and poets. Our hearts and lungs would be examined, and then our feet; and finally our eyes. That always came last. When the eye specialist got around to me, he would always say, “Why, you couldn’t get into the service with sight like that!” “I know,” I would say. Then a week or two later I would be summoned again and go through the same rigmarole.

The ninth or tenth time I was called, I happened to pick up one of several stethoscopes that were lying on a table and suddenly, instead of finding myself in the line of draft men, I found myself in the line of examiners. “Hello, doctor,” said one of them, nodding. “Hello,” I said. That, of course, was before I took my clothes off; I might have managed it naked, but I doubt it. I was assigned, or rather drifted, to the chest-and-lung section, where I began to examine every other man, thus cutting old Dr. Ridgeways work in two. “I’m glad to have you here, doctor,” he said.

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I passed most of the men that came to me, but now and then I would exempt one just to be on the safe side. I began by making each of them hold his breath and then say “mi, mi, mi, mi,” until I noticed Ridgeway looking at me curiously. He, I discovered, simply made them say “ah,” and some times he didn’t make them say anything. Once I got hold of a man who, it came out later, had swallowed a watch—to make the doctors believe there was something wrong with him inside (it was a common subterfuge: men swallowed nails, hairpins, ink, etc., in an effort to be let out).

Since I didn’t know what you were supposed to hear through a stethoscope, the ticking of the watch at first didn’t surprise me, but I decided to call Dr. Ridgeway into consultation, because nobody else had ticked. “This man seems to tick,” I said to him. He looked at me in surprise but didn’t say anything.

Then he thumped the man, laid his ear to his chest, and finally tried the stethoscope. “Sound as a dollar,” he said. “Listen lower down,” I told him. The man indicated his stomach. Ridgeway gave him a haughty, indignant look. “That is for the abdominal men to worry about,” he said, and moved off. A few minutes later, Dr. Blythe Ballomy got around to the man and listened, but he didn’t blink an eye; his grim expression never changed. “You have swallowed a watch, my man,” he said, crisply. The draftee reddened in embarrassment and uncertainty. “On purpose?” he asked. “That I can’t say,” the doctor told him, and went on.

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An abdominal man worrying
An abdominal man worrying


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I served with the draft board for about four months. Until the summonses ceased, I couldn’t leave town and as long as I stayed and appeared promptly for examination, even though I did the examining, I felt that technically I could not be con-victed of evasion. During the daytime, I worked as publicity agent for an amusement park, the manager of which was a tall, unexpected young man named Byron Landis.

Some years before, he had dynamited the men’s lounge in the statehouse annex for a prank; he enjoyed pouring buckets of water on sleeping persons, and once he had barely escaped arrest by “I don’t think so,” he said, “he was taller.” (I had my shoes off while he was examining me.) “A good pulmonary man,” added Ridgeway. “Relative of yours?” I said yes. He sent me on to Dr. Quimby, the specialist who had examined my eyes twelve or fifteen times before. He gave me some simple reading tests. “You could never get into the army with eyes like that,” he said. “I know,” I told him.

Late one morning, shortly after my last examination, I was awakened by the sound of bells ringing and whistles blowing. It grew louder and more insistent and wilder. It was the Armistice.

end note


Draft Board Nights by James Thurber in My Life and Hard Times

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