At first, I hesitated to tell James my problem. He was a 30-something African-American who lived in a ghetto. When he was my age, he couldn't afford to attend college and, thus, could not put off or evade the draft with a deferment. He and most of his friends had been drafted and sent to Vietnam. Three of them came back in boxes.
So I didn't feel he wanted to hear a white boy whining about something that was common in his neighborhood, where young men couldn't defer, talk or buy their way out of the draft. Like in so many aspects of American life back then, there were plenty of opportunities and options in the white world and a lot, lot fewer of both in the black world.
But James was a friend, or at least a friendly coworker, so I decided to give him a new version of white man's burden. I didn't expect him to yell or laugh at me. He was a quiet-spoken, gentle soul. But I did expect him to say something like, "I'm sorry, man, but I guess Uncle Sam eventually gets everybody." Well, I got neither a rant, a laugh or a bit of philosophical fatalism. What I got was advice. And James was uncharacteristically animated and enthusiastic when he gave it.
His advice: at bedtime, take two bars of soap and put one in each armpit and keep them there all night. He said that, for some reason, the presence of the soap would somehow cause my blood pressure to rise. He didn't explain the science involved in a bar of soap affecting blood pressure, and as a science-challenged student in school, I didn't have a clue, either.
That night, about 11 p.m., after my parents had gone to sleep, I tiptoed to the bathroom, opened the closet door and got a couple of fresh bars of soap. I was going for maximum impact. If I was going to sleep with armpits filled with soap, it wasn't going to be little fragments. I was a tad concerned, however, that if it was true that soap in armpits did increase a person's blood pressure, mine would spike so high, I not only would get out of the draft, I might also check out of life.
Well, there I lay on my bed at midnight, each pit with a bar of Dial in it. Since I didn't have a blood pressure cuff, I relied on checking my pulse and my temperature to see a blood pressure rise had manifest itself in those measurements. My pulse rate did seem to increase, my heart did seem like it was racing a little bit, and I was feeling a little flushed. But those developments could've either been psychosomatic, wishful thinking or the result of my overall anxiety over being poked and prodded by the cold hands of an Army doctor only a few hours later.
Then, I thought to myself that it was a joke. As nice a guy as James was and as close as he had been to me as a coworker, I thought he couldn't resist pulling a practical joke on the suburban white boy who's worrying his little blond head over something most of James' friends had to go through routinely. Out came the bars of soap from my pits and some epithets from my mouth: "That SOB. He's probably lying in his bed laughing his butt off thinking of what I look like with bars of Dial in my pits."
My mutterings went on a while longer, but I kept them as quiet as possible lest my mom hear me and use the soap to wash out my mouth
It was about 3 a.m. when I called a halt to my attempt to fool medical science in general and the Army MDs in particular. I couldn't get back to sleep, thinking about what was going to be happening just three hours later.
The physical was at a large Army facility. The place was transformed into a massive barn filled with cattle being herded and prodded from one station to another, one doctor to another. Although I was hardly a specimen of physical fitness or health, I was in good enough shape to pass the physical.