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Signing Up For The Draft

The recent rocket launch in North Korea and the resulting international stress over it made me think about how volatile the world seemed to me when I was 18 years old.

In 1980, Congress reinstated the requirement that all men 18-25 register with the Selective Service System -– “The Draft.” The 1980s were the height of the Cold War, when the two most powerful nations the world had ever known had thousands of thermonuclear missiles aimed at each other. I turned 18 in the summer of 1985, and for a while, to me, every international incident reported in the news seemed a prelude to global war.

I remember receiving a phone call –- which I took on the kitchen wall phone with the 10-foot curly cord –- where some government official reminded me that I had to register within so many months of my coming birthday. For a few years, there had been television commercials reminding everyone of their duty to sign up. Before I turned 18, those commercials were just a normal feature of TV -– like the PSAs nowadays about reckless driving.

Then I turned 18. Suddenly, the realization that I had to sign up for The Draft became unnerving. There was always some international military incident in the news. In the grand scheme of the world, these incidents were minor things, but to a young man due to sign up for The Draft, they were scary warnings that the world was not safe and one could be conscripted into the army and sent to war.

The military and war were terrible things in the general 1980s cultural consciousness. The last war America had been in was the Vietnam War, and most movies and tales about that conflict were very negative with scenes of bloody Hell. And to top off the fear of war, it was believed that the next war would be a nuclear holocaust. So, you see, signing up for The Draft was no light-hearted act. To an 18 year old in the mid 80s, there was real fear of The Draft being enacted, tomorrow!. I remember being really nervous for a few days before turning 18, and for a few days after.

I went to the post office with one of my best friends (he was 17) to fill out the form for the Selective Service. We stood in the hallway of post office boxes while I wrote my information. My friend was normally a very “laugh at anything” kind of guy (as was I, generally), but even he asked me how did it feel.

“I’m nervous,” I said.

“Yeah, I bet,” he said. “I’m not the one signing the form, but it feels weird.”

It was all totally teenage self-centered angst –- the world revolves around me, everything that happens directly affects me. The intermittent nervousness lasted about a week in all, and when the world didn’t explode soon and I didn’t get called to the army quickly, my teenaged mind went back to the normal distractions: friends, girls, and games (not necessarily in that order).

But it was an interesting, if short, feeling of dread that I’ve often wondered if other 18 year old guys felt. Maybe I was just hyper-prone to worry? General cultural ideas about war and the military has changed since we banished the Vietnam War bogey man from our national consciousness. Maybe guys don’t fear war as Hell now, as many did then.


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Clash of Cultures – Friending 2

Continuation of Clash of Cultures.

Zee Zee had the demeanor of a hard man. Someone street tough and without humor. He was wiry muscular under his t-shirt, and always wore a white painter’s cap, (more 80s fashion). Although he cooked as much as George or me, or anyone else, in my mind’s eye memory, I mostly only remember him washing dishes and cleaning.

It was only after a long while working together that I saw he wasn’t really as mean as he looked like he would be. In fact, he was a nice guy. He was pretty introverted, and did his job without chit chat. But he wasn’t abrasive or off putting when I dealt with him.

I found out his real name one time when I saw his paycheck envelope, but I don’t remember what it was. He went by Zee Zee and that’s how I knew him. (He said his cousin was called Cee Cee.)

One night in the late summer, (after I had turned 16 and could drive to work on my own), there was an accident in the restaurant. It was after closing and I was cleaning up. Zee Zee was sharpening a knife in the back, and I heard him curse. Zee Zee rarely spoke, and I don’t know that I ever heard him curse before.

I rushed to the back room to see what happened, and I found him holding a cloth on his hand. He told me he had cut his hand. There was a good deal of blood on the table, and the white cloth was reddening up pretty quickly.

I asked if we needed to go to the hospital, but he said, “No, let’s just go to the drug store.”

He was the elder of the two of us, so I did as he said. I drove us in my mom’s car to the nearest drug store.

We both went inside together and I picked up the items he told me to, we checked out, and went back out to the parking lot. I helped him use the alcohol and bandages to clean and wrap up his hand. He had bled a lot, and I was thankful for the dark of the evening — the only light we had was from the parking lot lamps — so I didn’t get a real good look at the cut. It must have been pretty deep. I was surprised at how he didn’t complain or show any sign of being in pain.

Some people walking through the parking lot would look over at us as we handled the bloody cloth, the alcohol, the bandages, etc. Zee Zee commented, “They probably think we’ve been fighting.”

“Well,” I said, “you’re the one who’s bleeding, so I must have won.”

Zee Zee actually chuckled at that. I think that was the only time I ever heard him laugh at anything.

He took a few days off from work to let his hand heal, and my step-dad told me I should have taken him to the emergency room, (for insurance and such). But when Zee Zee came back to work, (after seeing a doctor, at my step-dad’s insistance), it was like nothing unusual had happened.

He was his regular quiet and hard self, and I was back to being intimidated by his quiet and hardness.

* * *

All in all, my several months working at the Chick-a-burger, in the inner city of my small town, was a truly educational experience. I learned something about a lot of stuff that I had only known through the television and movie media and suburban myths. And I learned some little things about myself, as well.

So ends my tale of my clash of cultures.


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Clash of Cultures – Friending 1

Continuation of Clash of Cultures.

Two of my coworkers were neighborhood men in their twenties: Zee Zee and George. (I’m not positive the guy’s name was George, and my mom can’t remember either. So, having no way to check for sure, I’m going to call him George.)

George was a ladies man, suave and debonair. George loved talking to the lady customers, and apparently the lady customers loved talking to him. But when no woman was around to hear him, he’d point to a girl or woman out in the table area or parking lot and give me a reading on them.

“She’s out looking for a man. She’s not even being picky. Look at the way she smiles at every man that looks at her.”

“Uh oh, that one. That one you should stay away from. See how she has her hand on her hip. She’ll cut you.”

He’d often make a date through the service window for a woman to meet him at the local dance club. He always went to the dance club after work.

In fact, a few times, he came to work already dressed for the club. He’d come in wearing a double-breasted, purple suit with a white shirt and a thin black tie, (this was the 80s), and work a full four-hour shift, and then go straight from the restaurant to the club. I never asked, but I always wondered didn’t he smell of hamburgers and fried chicken when he went to see the ladies?

I would never wear my cooking clothes anywhere after work. But it didn’t seem to matter for him. Maybe it worked for him?

One day, a couple of girls, (older than me, younger than George), came to the window and ordered some food. In talking with me and George, they mentioned there was a dance going on out in the parking lot of the restaurant. We could see the crowd gathered in a tight group, but we couldn’t see what was going on other than cheering and laughing.

The girls invited George to come out and dance. George declined, saying he doesn’t break dance, (was the craze of the 80s). The girls said the guys weren’t break dancing; they were doing a new dance called “The White Boy.”

George and I laughed, and he commented that maybe I should go out there and win the competition. I declined saying I don’t know how to do The White Boy. George said neither did he, “So I guess we can’t join this dance party.” Everyone laughed.

(This White Boy dance was mentioned a few times in my months working at the Chick-a-burger, but I never got to see what it looked like. I have no idea other than, judging from the comments on it, it wasn’t a flattering set of moves.)

One time I had one of my Dungeons & Dragons books at the restaurant with me. George saw me reading it and we conversed briefly about the game. Turns out he knew guys who played it when he was in the army, and had watched them play a couple of times. It’s probably ironic that his knowing and understanding what D&D was bumped up his cool level in my eyes.

But that was George: always friendly, always ready to smile.

Now, Zee Zee, was very different, but not in a bad way.

Continued: Clash of Cultures – Friending 2


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Clash of Cultures – Fighting

Continuation of Clash of Cultures.

I didn’t make any friends among the neighborhood teenage guys. Not that I was actively seeking friends –- I was just working in the neighborhood, almost always inside the small chicken-and-burger joint. Most of them treated me neutral, with no more or less personality than you’d give a self-checkout register nowadays. But a few openly disliked me. And on two occasions, a fight was attempted. (Note: “attempted,” not “started.”)

Now, I was never even in any kind of schoolyard fight, unless you count the bloody rumble on the bus incident. (In my teenage years, I guess I flew under the radar of schoolyard bullies.) So an invitation to fight just wasn’t something I had experience with.

One incident was a straight forward, announced challenge. The challenger’s second approached me at the order window and told me, “There’s a guy out here who wants to fight you.” He pointed to a crowd of maybe a dozen teenagers, boys and girls, who were hanging around in the parking lot.

The Chick-a-burger was a public business with all its seating outside, so a crowd of people was not unusual. There was always a crowd of people around during lunch and dinner time. The crowd with the fight challenger looked no different than any other crowd the restaurant ever had.

“I’m working,” I said. I was dumbfounded that such a challenge would be issued to me, especially when it was obvious that I couldn’t just run outside for anything. I mean, I was working.

The challenger’s second looked at me, “You scared?”

Surprisingly, I really wasn’t scared. “I’m working,” I repeated. I wasn’t scared because there was no chance a fight would actually happen. I mean, I was working.

“Pussy,” the guy called me. Then he left the order window and went back to the crowd of teenagers. What could I do even if I was insane enough to want a fight? I mean, I was working.

I just mentally shrugged my shoulders and took the next person’s order –- you see, I was working. No more happened or was said regarding that incident.

The other incident was less verbal and more mental. I was sweeping the area outside the order and pick-up windows, and a teenage boy came up and stood about six feet away from me. He scowled at me without saying a word. He scowled at me for a full couple of minutes while I continued to sweep and clean up.

His presence and stare unnerved me. It was obviously a challenging glare, intending to get a rise out of me. This time I was scared. There was nothing between me and the challenger, but I continued my work duties. A couple of times I turned my back to him –- tactically dumb, but I was trying to just break the stare.

After a couple more minutes of failing to get a response from me, the challenger left. As he walked away, a crowd of teenagers started laughing. They were laughing as much at him for not getting a response from me, as they were laughing at me for not taking the challenge. I was embarrassed and he looked even more angry.

Having finished my sweeping, I took my broom and went back into the restaurant. No more happened or was said regarding that incident, either.

I should note that in the several months I worked at the Chick-a-burger in the “inner city” of my small town, I never witnessed any violence at all – not even a scuffle like I was challenged with. We once heard some gunshots from somewhere nearby, and those of us working the restaurant on that day noted the sound but didn’t really react –- we were working, you know.

Turned out that a verbal altercation had started in the restaurant parking lot, and ended several minutes later down the street with shots fired. The police questioned us employees, but only one of us even knew there had been an argument outside.

Not exactly the drive-by-shooting-a-day kind of environment that the media and suburban myths portrayed at the time.

Continued: Clash of Cultures – Friending 1


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