— Chapter Fifteen: Enlightenment —
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne.
Stewart confided in his boss Doug Seiler, at the chewing gum factory, Doug Seiler, about his cartoon creations, and showed him the letter of encouragement and intent he’d received from John Hay Whitney.“Before responding, I think you should find an agent or consult with an attorney, because no matter how enthused Whitney might be about your concept, he’s also a businessman. This may be the honeymoon stage where Whitney has fallen for you and is proving his interest by also offering to purchase your art. He knows that you’re young, and although he doesn’t want to take advantage of you, he still needs to see results — so he may make a lowball offer. You need to be prepared.”
Stewart had no idea who to contact regarding any form of representation. If he asked Richard Fenimore, it might threaten his position at the firm, or he could even lose his job. Fenimore might be threatened by him if the contract is too lucrative and Stewart decided to quit his job or ask for more money.
Stewart instead called his Uncle Russell, read him the letter and explained the project and the offer.
“That’s quite impressive, Stewart,” responded his uncle. “The Whitneys are big-money people, and it seems highly unusual for any of them to contact a vendor directly. I’ve worked with an attorney who I trust and whom I’ve known for many years. I’ll get in touch with him and then back to you as soon as he responds. You won’t want to wait too long to address Whitney’s offer. Rich people have short memories, and are often distracted by the next ‘shiny object’ that flashes before their eyes.”
Stewart remained on a high for the better part of the day, and stopped by Debra’s parents’ house on his way home. Her parents had heard the news from their daughter, and expressed a great deal of excitement at the possibility that Debra’s young suitor might make a success of himself after all.
Debra was greatly enthused, and immediately asked Stewart what this would mean for him financially.
“I really have no idea. But as of right now, I’m happy to have a job, and the possibility of being paid for work I can do and that I enjoy.”
“I know that, Stewart,” said Debra, curtly. “But this offer could make you rich and enable you to get an apartment of your own, and think about raising a family.”
A family was the last thing on Stewart’s mind, and he reminded Debra and her parents that this was ONLY a first step in a process, and that “nothing may come of it.”
“Don’t be so negative, Stewart,”said Debra. “Just think of all the things we could do if you had money. We could travel, maybe buy a house, and plan for the future.”
Stewart hadn’t gotten past the “I” when she got to the “We.” He had hopes that he would make some extra money, and thought that he might then be able to take Debra to the theater or the ballet, or perhaps enjoy an evening out at a fancy restaurant. But he suspected that he would continue to work at his steady job while taking on the responsibilities of a second job, leaving him with less time to spend with Debra. The long-term prospects might lead to him improving his financial outlook, but for the short term, he was concerned with the amount of work he’d need to produce if the Kafka series or The Cargyles proved successful and ran weekly, or even daily.
“We’ll see what happens after I talk to someone knowledgeable about the business, and after I get back to Mr. Whitney. As my big boss has said, ‘I can’t count my chickens before they hatch.’”
Debra’s facial expression changed immediately from elation to anger. She struck a pose he hadn’t seen before as she placed her hand cocked on her hip, curled her lip, and raised one brow and pointed her index finger at Stewart.
“I’ve waited around for a long time now, Stewart. I thought we were in this together, but you sound like you don’t even want the success you’re being offered. Well, you might not care, but I do.”
Stewart started to speak, but Debra’s mother stepped in and tried to calm her daughter, as if she knew from past experience that she must intercede as she watched Stewart look at Debra as a person he’d never seen before.
“I’m sorry about this, Stewart,” said Debra’s mother. “She’s just a bit overwhelmed with emotion right now. Give her a call tomorrow, and I’m sure she’ll be better.”
Unfortunately, Stewart could still see Debra posing with her arms folded and tapping her foot behind her mother. He had never seen her act this way, and was shaken by the volatility of her response. Stewart thanked Debra’s mother and left the premises. As he walked to his car, he could hear Debra and her mother arguing loudly, and became particularly upset by hearing the mother’s response, “Don’t you realize, Debra, that you may once again be ruining your best chance of a decent life when you act like this?”
Stewart remained upset the whole evening. He wanted desperately to call Debra to better explain the details of the opportunity, but also didn’t want to face a wrath which he had not previously known.
He knew he didn’t want to settle down; he just wanted to work and enjoy the freedom of having some expendable cash, and of perhaps moving away from his parents’ home.
The next day didn’t brighten Stewart’s mood, since after arriving home following his visit to Debra’s house he got a letter notifying him of the place, date, and time he was expected to arrive for a physical fitness examination for military service as requested by the local Selective Service board.
When the current version of the draft was initiated in 1965, Stewart had become exempt by his student status, having enrolled in Temple’s School of Engineering. Although he knew that young men were being drafted, Stewart took little notice of how many of his high school classmates had been drafted and trained for participation in the Vietnam conflict. He knew that most of those he knew from school and church were attending college and thus also exempt. But others from his old neighborhood in Stonehurst had already joined up prior to being drafted, in hopes that they would spend their tour of duty in clerical jobs, intelligence, technology or in military training programs.
Although Stewart was a reader of books, he didn’t follow the news and wasn’t aware of the issues that provoked the U. S. participation in the overseas conflict. His focus was narrow and centered on the improvement of his own situation, educating himself in a compatible trade, getting away from his parents, and forging a pathway to a life of which he could be proud.
After he graduated from Temple with an Associate’s Degree, he understood that there was a possibility he could be drafted. The significance of conscription hadn’t personally impacted him until he discovered that Carol, the lone female designer at work, had recently married Andy, her sweetheart from high school, and he had been to sent to Vietnam a few months before Stewart had returned to his co-op job. Carol told Stewart that Andy had become a sniper in the 1st Infantry Division, was stationed northwest of Phu Loi, and would be gone for the better part of the next two years.
Carol missed him terribly, but she wasn’t too concerned for his safety, since Andy had learned to use a rifle early in his life, hunted and shot skeet for recreation with his dad and uncle.
On April 5th, she got a call at work from her mother, who told her that an officer had come to the house and had given her the news that Andy had been killed while holding off enemy soldiers in Bình Duong Province
Fueled by emotion, Stewart attempted to catch up on the politics of the war while also reading novels that focused on the absurdities of war throughout the ages. He read Camus’ The Rebel, Heller’s Catch-22, and Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and tried to pry from his father some of the stories he’d buried after surviving four years in the Pacific.
Stewart realized that prior to Andy’s death he had been self-absorbed with issues he faced growing up and ignorant of the problems faced by those who survived wars, as well as those who died and left wives and children behind. His ignorance included his own father, who had returned to the U. S. with battle fatigue, but was given little or no assistance in adjusting to normal life.
While gaining a better knowledge of the Vietnam conflict, and analyzing multiple opinions America had had in preparation for the conflict, Stewart still had difficulty in forming an opinion on the need for a draft, the politics behind his country’s involvement, and the long term effects of win or lose scenarios by U.S. leaders. He did, however, have an opinion about concerns for himself and others being maimed or killed, or maiming and killing others toward whom they had no malice.
Some of the young men he knew at work and from high school were planning ways to avoid the draft, which at the time meant escaping to Canada, or injuring themselves in a way that would help them fail their physical to gain a deferment from service, but not enough to drastically affect their lives.
Stewart wasn’t sure that he was a conscientious objector, and realized that those privileged by wealth or status stood a much better chance of avoiding the draft than did those of working class families, and thus had a better chance of surviving the conflict than those with little or no higher education. So Stewart, after completing his courses, accepted that he was vulnerable to being drafted, but empathized with those who, like him, didn’t want to be, or be sent overseas to kill others, or die without purpose, for no comprehensible reason.
The local Selective Service board provided a bus for prospective draftees living in eastern Delaware County. Its purpose was to deliver them to 401 North Broad Street in Philadelphia for their physical exam. On the day of Stewart’s physical, it was parked across from the 69th Street Terminal on Market Street, just a block from the apartment Stewart shared with his parents. He saw upon entering the bus that the other young men selected were predominately white and spoke in a manner and accent familiar to him, one in which the word “water” became “wooder” and “hoagie” became “hoogie,” and often included words made incomprehensible as they voiced their concerns about being drafted. They were proud of growing up in “Amurica.” Some were even looking forward to seeing other parts of the world and joining the fight as they reminisced about harmonizing in the reverberating alleyway dividing the Lit Brothers store from the rest of the 69th Street strip, having ice cream sundaes at Betty’s, lime rickeys at the SunRay Drugstore, and roller skating and dancing at the Chez Vous Ballroom.
Many spoke of having dead-end jobs, but feared the war, and chatted about the “oold daays” just a few years before when they took their dates for make-out sessions on Reed Road near the trash incinerator in Broomall after a dinner of a “humbooger” with fries at the Thunderbird Restaurant on West Chester Pike.
Stewart brought a paperback copy of Camus’ The Fall on the bus with him, while others looked over promotional material for optional branches of the armed forces found on the seats to distract them from the verdicts of the physicals determining their fates. The Fall was Stewart’s statement on war, as well as a shield from conversation, as the bus traveled down Chestnut Street. Pretending to be reading, he was privately trying to formulate his response to his own results, which bounced between acceptance and resistance to the entire process.
Over the past few years, Stewart had lost his faith in a God, and believed that he and everyone else on Earth were alone in the world and subject to random happenings by an uncaring universe. He knew that he cared deeply for many, both living and dead, but believed himself to have no special qualities that exempted him from duties imposed on his fellow man. If that meant he would die or become disabled in battle, it was his task to succumb or endure, and not his right to be singled out as a more “valuable”person than any other, either on the bus or in the world.
After registering, the men were sent to the second floor for processing.There they were told to strip to their underwear and to place their clothes and belongings into bags handed out by military personnel. Many of the men joked about the sea of white of which they were a part and noted the sizes and shapes of the penises and scrotums defined by the tidy-whities most of them were wearing. There were papers to be filled out, and at first Stewart decided not to sign or provide any additional information about himself. One very tall young man wearing John Lennon glasses introduced himself to Stewart as Isaac, and told him that he collected junk for a living, but had gone to Swarthmore College and majored in English. From what Stewart could gather from Isaac, as he followed him down along the corridors defined by ropes and stanchions, the graduate enjoyed working in the open air and decided to forsake his training for the freedom he gleaned from simple physical activity.
Stewart had his weight and height measured and his vision and hearing tested, and at some point in the process was guided by a voice in his head that told him that it might not have been a good idea to leave the forms provided to him incomplete and unsigned, so he excused himself to Isaac and returned through the maze to the registration desk, completed the forms and submitted them.
After the tests were completed, a stiff-backed sergeant seemingly in charge of the processing asked the men to raise a hand if they had a disability, or any disorder of their internal organs. Though it had never meant much to Stewart in the way he lived his life, he recalled being diagnosed with a heart murmur while trying out for the football team in ninth grade, a condition that prohibited him from participation. Only a few others responded and they were separated, along with Stewart, from the crowd and directed to a table at which they were given a card to fill out and an address within walking distance where he was to go to for additional testing.
Stewart retrieved his clothes and belongings and walked a few blocks to a medical facility. He presented the card issued to him and was led to a waiting room, where two men in white coats with stethoscopes asked him about his condition. Stewart simply stated what he had been told in middle school, that he may have a small hole in his heart that created a murmur.
One doctor measured Stewart’s blood pressure and then asked Stewart to open his shirt so he could listen to his heart. The doctor moved the stethoscope to various positions, and then repositioned it to his back and listened before calling over the second doctor, who placed his stethoscope onto Stewart’s chest, and then shrugged his shoulders, not knowing what he was supposed to hear.
The first doctor looked up at him and said, “Listen carefully.”
The second doctor moved the stethoscope from place to place on Stewart’s chest and on his back.
“Did you hear it?” said the first doctor, and smiled.
Then the second doctor smiled and said, “Yes, I believe I did.”
Stewart’s card was returned to him with a note that confirmed the examination, and he was told to leave it with the woman at the entrance to the office.
“Enjoy your life!” said the first doctor as he waved goodbye to Stewart.
When Stewart arrived home from the physical, he returned his uncle’s call, who passed along the phone number of an attorney who would help his nephew draft a contract if he actually was approached by the newspaper syndicate. His uncle said to Stewart, “Since you worked your way through school and needed no assistance from me in financing your education, I’ve decided to pay the attorney’s fee, if and when you need him.”
A few weeks later, Stewart received notification from the Selective Service board of being classified 1-Y, which he later learned meant that he was only qualified for service “in time of war or national emergency.” Since Vietnam was considered a “conflict” and not a “war,” Stewart was never called on to serve.
Stewart often thought about the diagnosis and the doctors to whom he was referred by the sergeant. In later years, each time he had a physical he was told by the doctor that his heart was strong and that there were no signs of any murmur. Perhaps it had cleared up on its own, but Stewart personally believed that, for some reason, the doctors who examined him had singled him out and rescued him from the draft. He never had any proof of that, but he knew that he owed a debt of gratitude to those two men who asserted the presence of a murmur, relieving him of the threat of military service, as well as to the physician in junior high who first diagnosed his ailment.
Perhaps the murmur had existed, but repaired itself, but the mystery offered Stewart another possibility, an intervention by an unknown force that defied reason and logic to reshape his universe and offer a hope that all things are possible whether you believe in what causes them, or not.