Don't Send Me Home!
“Oh no!” I groaned, hearing the military doctor give an order I knew I could not follow.
“One last exercise before you all become property of Uncle Sam. Everybody, get ready to do the duck walk,” he barked. My mind raced as my pulse quickened. What the heck was a duck walk?
I was moments away from completing my military entrance examination. All that was left was one last stupid thing and my lifelong dream of joining the Navy would be fulfilled.
I’d been stuck there in downtown Detroit, getting my physical, since eight that morning. Blood had been drawn, eyes and ears checked. I’d peed into a cup, turned my head and coughed, and everything had gone smoothly.
It was now four in the afternoon and exhaustion had settled deeply into every muscle and bone in my body. Let’s just finish this up and get me sworn into the Navy so I can go home and share the news with my family, I thought. My mom was planning to make one of my favorite meals as a celebration: meatballs and gravy.
One last exercise.
“Let me show you how to do the duck walk,” the military doctor told us. “And I want it done in precisely this manner. No cheating allowed.” His keys jingled in his pocket while he hitched up his pant legs and crouched down on the ground, his white lab coat puddling around his feet. He resembled a major league catcher with his stony expression and arms stuck out in front of him.
“I want you all to stay in this crouch and hold it until we have a chance to come around and take a look. Then I want you to walk, while remaining in the squat position with your arms straight out. Looks like a duck out of water.”
The physician demonstrated how to execute what he wanted done. A few guys quacked. My heart sank, followed quickly by my stomach. You can do this, no big deal, I told myself. But I knew better.
“Ready, begin,” said the doc.
I looked around at the fifty or so other guys who were taking the induction physical with me. Stripped to just our boxers, we’d been herded like cattle from one room to the next for most of the day. The entire process had been a long, slow grind for everyone. I watched to see how the other enlistees were doing this simple movement. They made it look easy. It was as if the room was suddenly filled with a bunch of Johnny Bench All-Stars, ready to receive the first pitch of the World Series. The other enlistees were so comfortable that some flashed signs to an imaginary pitcher, one finger for a fastball and two for a curve. I was the last to get down on the ice-cold floor in my catcher’s squat. Pain immediately shot up from my hips and my whole body started to shake uncontrollably.
Focus, just focus, I yelled into my brain, trying to make my limbs work.
“Okay, now stretch both your arms straight out in front of you, and hold that position as we come through and look,” the doctor hollered to the assembled group of young men. This guy meant business.
I tried to stick my arms out and fell over.
“Shit!” I muttered to myself.
The doctors saw me collapse and headed in my direction. I quickly gathered myself and tried again, this time keeping my left hand on the floor for balance. I prayed they didn’t notice. Sweat rolled off my body and my muscles strained with every second.
“Both hands out, son, let’s see it,” the doctor snapped, hovering over me.
I lifted my left hand off the floor, my face a picture of determination and fear. I fell again.
The guy to my right chuckled and tapped the kid in front of him, pointing. They both laughed and the whole room joined in as I scrambled to get up. The doctor wrote something on a clipboard file he was carrying. He was not laughing.
Only a mere couple of seconds had passed since I fell, but to me it felt like hours.
“Son, get out of line. Everyone else, stand up and stretch out your legs. Get over to the locker room, put your clothes back on quickly and step into the induction room. In a few minutes, you will raise your right hand and embark on your new life in the military. Let me be the first to offer my congratulations. Well done,” the man said.
A cheer went up throughout the crowd. Guys were slapping each other on the back and giving out high fives. Everyone was smiling. Everyone, that is, but the doc and me.
“You, come with me,” said the doctor through the din of celebration.
As the passing candidates headed off to get into their civilian clothes, I walked over in my underwear to a quiet corner and was quickly surrounded by three physicians.
“Stand up straight and look forward.”
I did as I was told, hearing the voice of my mom. I was scared. My legs shook and trembled. The doctors circled, examining my body very closely. I heard the scratch of a pen on a metal clipboard. “Is that as straight as you can stand?”
“Yes, it is.” The words came out as a squeak.
“Put your legs together.” I matched them up as best I could while one doctor examined my lower limbs.
“Geez,” I heard him say under his breath.
Another looked at my left shoulder blade. “Have you ever separated your shoulder?”
“No,” I stated with all the conviction I could muster.
“Really?” the doc looked at me. “Does your back hurt you?”
“No, I feel fine.”
“How about your hips? Were you ever in a car wreck?”
One doctor called a colleague over. “Hey, Jim, look at this.” He ran his thumb down the length of my spine. I shivered. “What is wrong with you, boy?”
“Nothing’s the matter with me,” I lied, looking the man square in the eye.
He took a step back and nodded his head. “Okay, if there’s nothing wrong with you, get down on your haunches and put your arms out straight.”
By then, the examination room was empty. It was just the three doctors and me. I got down in a squatting position, and right away my legs started to quiver.
I fell over.
“Nothing wrong with you, huh?” The physicians all chuckled.
I looked up from the green tile floor and set my jaw. How dare they laugh! “Give me one last chance, I can do this,” I insisted.
“No, get up and put your clothes on. We have wasted enough time here. I’ll meet with your recruiter and he will send you home.”
Send me home. Those three small words sealed my fate. I turned back to the first doctor for confirmation.
“Son, I really don’t know what is wrong with you, but you have a spine in the shape of a pretzel. You cannot stand up straight, your legs are as bowed out as anyone I’ve ever seen and your hips are not aligned correctly. You are pigeon-toed. Your left shoulder is protruding forward and on top of all that, at six feet, one inch and 128 pounds, you’re about twenty pounds under military weight standards. Go home and go to college. Get a job on the assembly line. Uncle Sam cannot use someone like you.”
Someone like me. I had to laugh to myself. You see, I had lied to the doctors. Lied big time.
There was something wrong with me. A secret only my family and closest friend knew about. A secret that I would keep deeply buried for the next 25 years.
I was born with cerebral palsy.
I did not tell my recruiters about my handicap because I knew they would never allow me to enlist. And I sure wasn’t going to tell the military doctors. As I slowly reached into my locker and put my clothes back on, I could hear guys starting the enlistment oath…
“To support and defend the Constitution of the United States…”
The sound of their voices burned my ears. I was filled with jealousy and anger. I should be in that room, standing proudly with my chest puffed out, ready to serve my country.
“Against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”
I made a silent vow to myself. I will be back. Next time, I would pass the physical and become a sailor.
“So help me God.”
END OF CHAPTER ONE