Girls Who Say No To Boys Who Say Yes


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June 19, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 36

Girls Who Say No To Boys Who Say Yes
by Sybil Claiborne

A cab or shabby old car draws up. A boy gets out. He is Puerto Rican or black or a white boy with short hair. He is carrying an overnight bag. It is a small canvas flight bag or a large glossy vinyl with straps. Or just a shaving kit. He is wearing a windbreaker or a leather jacket or a wool gabardine car coat. He is very clean, his face shines, his hair still glistens wetly from its early morning dousing.

In the car or cab are the boy’s family, a mother, a father, a sister, a wife, sometimes just one person is with him, sometimes many. They alight with the boy and wait their turn to kiss him. Or they sit in the car or cab and look at him for a moment before driving off. Each family searches for a ceremony.

Those unused to kissing awkwardly touch or exchange a handshake. Or a father squeezes the upper arm of his son. Some kiss hard, some just mutter an embarrassed good luck and goodbye. Occasionally a Puerto Rican family get out and cluster around the boy, crying, groaning, clinging, gasping. More usually the car or cab drives off and the boy stands alone, turns, and walks up the steps, his face sheepish with strong emotion. Then he disappears through the door.

The place is Whitehall, the army induction and examining center at the tip of Manhattan. It is very early in the morning. The boys with overnight bags are going into the army. They have been drafted or they have enlisted. If the war goes on, some of them will be killed this year.

Actually the inductees are in a minority. Most of the boys are here to take their pre-induction physical. Two of us stand on either side of the entrance. We hand out draft fact cards as they go inside. The cards are folded and very small, small enough to secrete in a pocket or wallet. They list deferments and how to claim them and where to go for draft counseling. Nearly all the boys accept one, some apparently under the impression that we are part of the bureaucratic procedure.

When we arrive, a dozen or so are hanging around waiting for the front door to open. This gives us a chance to circulate our cards. Promptly at 6.30, an elderly sergeant unlocks the door. He smiles at us, inquires about the pretty girls who leafleted yesterday. I feel as if I’ve been incorporated into the army routine. (Earlier, last winter and spring, when several resisters were refusing induction each month, the army ritualized their act by announcing during the induction formalities, “All those refusing induction please step to one side.”) The boys linger near the entrance, finish a cigarette, some of them stand reading our material, then one by one they walk up the stairs.

From 6.30 to 7.30, several hundred boys enter the building. Only a few working-class whites refuse our card. The inductees carrying their overnight bags I pretend not to see. I don’t want to give them a card for fear I’ll show them a deferment they didn’t know about and might have had.

Many, maybe 90 per cent of the boys are black or Puerto Rican. This is something I have known, but it is still startling to see so many dark faces. Too many of them are docile or ignorant of their rights; Whitehall will net them in the monthly quota like so many fish. Dozens of draft counseling centers are spread around the city but few minority or working-class whites find their way to them or even know they exist.

That’s why we stand here, to reach the boys who never find their way to our Peace Center. A boy going for a physical still has time to claim a deferment or document a disability that the army doctors might overlook or ignore.

Whitehall is a familiar landmark by now. In the two years we’ve been turning out for induction refusals, a building has come down, another has gone up, taller than its neighbors, a monument to the war, to our persistence, to our impotence. Across the street foundation piles sprout from a deep hole. Up the street, a fence of doors conceals another construction. By 7 a.m. the narrow sidewalk is clogged with helmeted construction workers. They pass and give us terrible looks. I hate to be scared by them but I am scared.

Office workers spill from the Staten Island ferry a block away, elderly clerks of both sexes walk by, hostile or embarrassed by our presence as if what we were doing isn’t quite nice. Occasionally an unknown friend mutters, “Good work.”

The boys come in clumps or one by one. We move quickly, determined not to miss anybody with our cards, pursuing one boy up the stairs of Whitehall, thrusting the card in the face of another who dreams his way by.

A boy takes my card and throws it back at me. Another glares and mutters, “Keep it.” A third reads it and tells me about his bad back, he has a pain, will it keep him out. I tell him to come in for counseling. A latecomer, a black inductee, dashes past, panicked at the hour. His overnight bag is a lady’s flowered cosmetic case.

A woman stands alone on the sidewalk. She has said goodbye to her son. She tells us he is the third the army has taken. There is one more at home. I want to reassure her, to tell her they’ll leave that one with her. But there is nothing in the army regulations that will keep him from being drafted.

We give her our last draft fact card and leave. It is 7.30 a.m. Whitehall has eaten its quota for the day.

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