1966 DRAFT BOARD
Six of Fort Worth's leading citizens had responded to an invitation to membership on its Draft Board. The group included the head of the local taxi cab company, a Baptist minister, an attorney, a physician, a construction foreman and shift leader from the Post Office. Draft Board meetings were often chaired by Mr. Charles Needham at the downtown Federal Building.
The members of the group visibly straightened as I entered the room and began inspecting me. My job was to convince them I was a genuine minister of my faith. I was on my own. I was only 19 years old. I eyeballed them back.
Each man was studying me intently; making mental notes and categorizing every detail; forming preliminary conclusions about who and what I was as a person and a citizen and maybe as minister. First impression counts.
For one thing, the physician stared at my shoes, which were definitely cheap. My hair was groomed, but, not professionally trimmed. I thought of myself as a young man exuding shopworn elegance. I think I looked homemade.
The Postal clerk studied how I held my body stiffly and how tense my lips made me appear. This kid is nervous. That was what they were all probably thinking. I didn't really know. I was experiencing a frisson of paranoia and self-induced manic energy. I was, however, mentally prepared.
The Postal clerk smiled, perhaps remembering his own first day at the Post Office as the only black man among all whites. I was guessing.
He began to sympathize a little, maybe? Wanting to please the Lord did not make you a coward. My imagination ran riot.
Charlie Needham spoke.
"Please sit down and make yourself comfortable. Terry. Is that how you’d like to be addressed?
Needham glanced again at the wall clock and noted the time.
"Terry is okay."
I sat in the center of the U shaped tables on the opposite side of the members with my chair pushed out three feet away from the nearest man.
I could see all of them and they could scrutinize me. I felt like a slow swimmer circled by sharks. I’m not saying I was paranoid. I’m just not saying.
"We will now proceed with our hearing. Can you give us a brief Statement covering your request for ministerial deferment?"
Their eyes bore in with expectancy. It really felt like a firing squad listening for the order to "fire!"
I cleared my throat again and again as I spoke. My mouth was dry. I was articulate. My vocabulary was unusually broad and detailed. I was odd duck.
As the self-help nerd who had often spent many hours memorizing large lists of words for fun; the kid these men were listening to must have puzzled them.
I repeated to the Draft Board the essential points I had already confided to the F.B.I. agents who interviewed me the month before: Who, what, when, where, how and why I am who I am. They were looking for authenticity.
F.B.I. agents had been keen to know how long my association with Jehovah's Witnesses had been developing. I explained I had been more or less attending the Polytechnic Kingdom Hall since I was 12 years old. That had been 1959. I became a baptized member in 1963. They scribbled it all down and departed. Now, I repeated it all for the local Draft Board.
I explored each man’s face as I spoke using all the highly developed skills I'd been absorbing at the Kingdom Hall in Theocratic Ministry School of Fort Worth. I made excellent eye contact and used persuasive gestures and modulated my voice well as I present the summation. I was an actor in my role as theologian. Besides, there was a scripture about being “a theatrical spectacle to men.”
Morris Culpepper loosened the top button on his shirt and undid his tie just enough to prevent strangulation. Rubbing his neck, he started scribbling with a yellow pencil on a legal pad. He was taking his job seriously, for sure.
"Here is what I want to know. Do you have a regular job? Do you work for a living? Or, do you preach in a church like normal preachers?"
He angled his massive head toward Reverend Oakes to indicate normal.
"I am a portrait artist and self-employed. I don't punch a clock anywhere. I live at home with my grandparents and mother. Jehovah's Witnesses are ministers; all of us. We’re the ones ringing your doorbell on the weekends while you’re trying to sleep.”
I managed a wry smile as Reverend Oakes pouted at my unseemly lack of seriousness.
"What we mean is this," Oakes tapped his manicured fingers together in the spider-doing-push-ups hand gesture.
"Are you a full-time minister so you actually deserve deferment?”
Oakes was confrontational without being mean-spirited. This was a question I'd never been asked before.
"Well, our ministry is something we all take seriously enough that we don’t just wait for Sunday.”
“You consider yourself Christians and not Jehovah’s?” Oakes inquired archly.
“We say, Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses.”
Oakes twitched his mouth with a dismissive grunt and turned to his left.
Attorney Parks was fidgeting in his uncomfortable oak chair. He pulled a Mont Blanc pen from his inside suit pocket and pointed it like the muzzle of a Derringer pistol toward me.
"Correct me, please, if I state this improperly. My understanding is Jehovah's Witnesses won't perform alternate service in a hospital as community service even as a privilege extended to persons like you.”
“Yet, if the Judge compels you by sentence to perform the same service you had refused; you happily comply and take the job! I have to say this makes no logical sense in my legal experience.”
Parks narrowed his dark brown eyes and seemingly forced himself not to blink as he awaited my answer. I felt like he was a snake trying to hypnotize a mouse. I was more dazzled by his sharkskin suit and expensive fountain pen.
"To accept alternate service to military service is to substitute this for that. This violates our Christian neutrality. It is like taking an I.O.U. for money owed.
“It means the same. So, I have to refuse. But, if the Judge makes it compulsory rather than voluntary, as dutiful Christians under subjection we comply.”
Attorney Parks raised his eyebrows and chortled.
"Excuse me, you aren’t the Swiss. You have no neutrality. Caesar is Caesar in both instances. The military and the Judge work for Caesar. It’s six of one and a half-dozen of the other. You are confused.”
“Seventh-day Adventists refuse even to pick up a rifle but one of them during WWII won the Medal of Honor saving lives under fire as a medic on the battlefield. You think you’re too good for that? Neutral doesn’t cut it. It is a contrived position and illegal.”
Reverend Oakes, Charlie Needham and I each started speaking at the same time. Needham paused and let the Reverend take the lead while holding his hand up to me as a “stop” sign.
"Thank you, Charlie. I want to say this to you, young man…”
Oakes took on the fervor of the actor John Carradine in the film Grapes of Wrath. His craggy countenance waggled with melodramatic intensity as though mugging for an unseen camera.
“The Pharisee binds people with burdens of self-invented rules, regulations, traditions and twisted reasoning. Jesus said it burdens the faithful unnecessarily but, in stark contrast, his yoke was light upon your shoulders…”
Needham jumped in at the pause.
"We aren't here for religious debate or legal harangue; we just want some simple statements of fact for our decision. I hope you understand."
I sighed and shook my head as the Reverend shot him a disappointed look.
Culpepper wasn't following any of the fancy arguments. He lost the thread early on, it was obvious.
"Son, what if everybody believed the same way you did?"
Now here was a straight line I could volley!
"There would be no wars; no need for a Draft Board and we wouldn't be sitting here today."
I relaxed feeling I had finally scored a point. Yet, I was troubled by what had just been said by the attorney. Culpepper wasn't having in one-ups by this smart kid.
"What I mean is. . .what if only Americans believed just as you do and the Communists knew that?"
This was going to be easy. . .
“I suppose you could say we’d all being doing exactly what Jesus commanded by turning the other cheek and loving our enemy!”
Charlie Needham's sense of propriety now violated; he addressed the subject in a more serious way than before.
"Son, if somebody broke into your house and threatened your family's life, wouldn't you defend them with violence if it saved their lives?"
"Sir, the Vietnamese people have not broken into my house. If anything, my country has trespassed into their huts.”
I suddenly had a sense I was in a riptide but the words came to me easily.
Culpepper stiffened. He looked like his heart was pounding double time.
"My father served in WWII because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He wasn't going to let Emperor Hirohito or Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini take over this world or run his country.”
“We'd all be under Hitler's thumb or going up in smoke in some Auschwitz if God-fearing Americans all believed the way you Jehovah’s believe."
Culpepper's eyes were bulging out of his skull and he seemed to know he was not comporting himself well. This was passionate patriotism overcoming him.
I took a deep breath and answered thoughtfully and in whatever measured tones I could summon.
"Jehovah's Witnesses died in concentration camps in WWII. One thing you can be certain of. No Jehovah's Witness ever pointed a rifle at your father or pulled the pin on a hand grenade in the armies of Hitler, Mussolini or Hirohito.”
It was a prudent answer. I thought it cut to the heart of his objections.
Doctor Jarvis appeared to feel the heat of argument was getting off point and the clock was running out as well. He glanced at his watch and the clock.
A change of subject might cool things down enough to wind things to a close.
"Would you say Jehovah's Witnesses cherish life and view it as a sacred gift from God?"
Jarvis was laying a subtle trap rather obviously, I thought.
"Sometimes, if you save your life you lose it in a greater sense.”
Jarvis leaned forward as a knight about to unseat a rival in a joust.
"If life is so precious to you; why do you allow little children to die rather than accept a blood transfusion?"
I cringed inwardly. This was the most difficult issue to explain. Especially with doctors who took a black and white view of life, it was hard to argue persuasively. To me, it made no practical sense either—yet, the Bible confused me on this.
"Our hands are tied by what the scriptures say. Nobody wants a child to die under any circumstance. We believe the life is in the blood and it is sacred.”
Culpepper's body jerked like he'd been stung by a wasp.
"Any religion that stands by and lets an innocent child die—when they could be saved by a doctor—is no religion I'd care to call Christian. That’s pure evil!"
"Well, it's in the Hebrew and Greek Testaments, Sir. We didn't put it there. We just obey it. 'Keep yourselves free of blood.’ Make of it what you will."
I was out of my depth on this. I couldn't understand what any of this questioning had to do with my own deferment. Every denomination has deep teachings hard to bear. Needham looked like he had had enough for his own decision. It was up to him to bring order and organization and accomplish what they set out to do to conclude matters straight away.
"I think we've all heard enough to determine what we are dealing with here. You can have the last word if you like, in summation."
It felt like a high tide had crashed on my head and I struggled back to the surface. What could possibly change any minds?
"Gentlemen, thank you for taking the time and trouble to hear me out. When I was a kid I wanted nothing better than to be a jet pilot in the Air Force.”
“I played army and cowboy and owned a two gun holster. I was an ordinary, normal American kid. Gradually, by studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses, I came to see my service to God from a different line of view. That's why there isn't just one church, I guess. There are thousands of them and we all differ in some way.”
“Logically, they can't all be true and right. So, we have a standoff and the freedom to step on one side of the line or the other and make our best call. I request a deferment to tell Jehovah's side of the story. I can't take up weapons in good conscience and I can't work in a hospital for reasons I explained. Conscience compels me. I am just trying to do the right thing.”
If anything, my words were coming from somewhere deep inside of me. This was sincere confession. It was a command performance and self-conscious.
I believed what I said. I had been carefully taught. It was my duty. I never mentioned I’d been coached.
Charlie Needham nodded as though putting a period at the end of a long sentence with his chin.
"Thank you. We'll confer and give our decision directly to proper authorities. You'll get something in the mail eventually from the Selective Service concerning your status. That's about it."
I clutched my green New World Translation of the Bible as I quickly departed from the room and down the staircase to the lobby and out into the bright sunlight. I took in a deep breath and tried to clear my head.
First, there had been an F.B.I. interrogation and now, this. When would it all end? I was almost certainly going to end up in prison no matter what I said. I groaned.
Exhaling slowly and fighting off a gnawing sense of panic, I set off walking to the bus stop. Inside of a few months the die would be cast.
Later, arrested and released on my own recognizance, I entered the last phase before things got really serious.
When a young man is on the threshold between adolescence and adulthood, in a normal context, his life is filled with glorious plans for the future.
There were no such plans for my life which could be immediately realized with any confidence or optimism.
My best friend Johnny got married in 1967 to a young Witness girl who couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15 years old. He had a job driving a truck and was already well on his way to an average life and family. Being married, he didn’t go for full-time door-to-door ministry. He later told me, he knew how to play the game.
I had recently met a Witness girl my age at one of our frequent religious conventions. She had the same heritage as I did: Finnish. She and I tried to make promises to each other about staying in touch in the event of my incarceration, as though that were really going to happen. All sense of possibility was dying inside me.
When you have a concrete wall blocking your view of the future something poisonous seeps in to your sense of life itself.
How many young men do you know who have a self-belief to go with their dreams and plans? I didn’t.
My personal ambition became stunted and deformed instead of blossoming into reality. The uneasy brooding of status quo ruled. It was a countdown.
At my Preliminary Hearing I asked Judge Leo Brewster if I could defend myself rather than have an attorney represent me. Judges don’t like that sort of thing. It leaves a conviction open to a Writ of Error too easily. Judge Brewster denied my request and appointed attorney George Petrovich.
Reluctantly, I made an appointment and arrived at the law office to discover rows of black and white photographs of aircraft carriers, destroyers and other military depictions decorating his walls. How encouraging!
I heaved the kind of sigh the Burmese tiger heaves when the ground gives way beneath him and he finds himself in a deep pit unable to escape.
George Petrovich was what you’d call an unassuming fellow, which is to say he asked simple, almost naïve questions, and seemed genuinely puzzled why any young man would avoid the military.
“Why are you refusing induction?”
The office was small and the attorney had two chairs set up for us. We faced each other and for some silly reason I kept checking his knee so no accidental contact was made. I had an aversion to physical contact, you see.
I confess I was a bit paranoid because of an incident with the physician who had privately examined me for possible military exemption. I had a bilateral inguinal hernia which this doctor said he could not detect!
And then, he began casually handling my penis appraisingly and pretending there were tiny traces of stitches from circumcision remaining which he needed to remove! My circumcision had occurred 19 years earlier. Well, color me suspicious!
He repeated a few times, ‘Any other ideas how you might obtain an exemption?’ I set a new land speed record exiting his office. The only thing that got blown was my exemption.
Without a medical exemption my only alternative was refusal of induction leading to arrest and now consultation with a court-appointed attorney; the one with his knee a few inches from mine. I figured I needed to stifle my paranoia and emphasize my average Joe-ness. I spoke.
“The military was not the historic choice of Christians trying to obey the teachings of Christ Jesus.”
Now, out of what I had just spoken, what part of that puzzled him the most, do you suppose?
“Why’d you say it backwards?” he asked.
“You said, Christ Jesus, instead of Jesus Christ.”
“Well, Christ is a title, like King George. You wouldn’t say George, King would you?”
It was probably at that moment I saw the light of amicable solidarity fade in the attorney’s eyes. He didn’t argue. He pulled back physically a bit and simply regarded me quietly. He was wearing a rumpled suit that didn’t look tailored or expensive. This guy was losing his hair but had made no effort to hide it with a swooping comb-over. He was a decent, average man.
“So…how do you think I can help you with this, uh… problem? Didn’t anybody explain to you that you are not required by the law to actually engage in combat? Alternate service is provided for conscientious objectors. The word “alternate” means other than, as in other than military.”
“They’ve assigned you to Terrell State Hospital right here in Texas. It could have been a lot worse. It could have been out of State, you know.”
Here he was like a modern day Galileo reasoning with the Vatican. He wanted me to snap out of my delusion, I could tell. I wanted to, believe me.
“It may be unusual but, I assure you it is a simple Bible principle. No man can serve two masters and I dedicated my life at baptism to one master the Bible identifies as Jehovah.” I explained.
“I’m dedicated to ministering door-to-door. That’s how Jehovah’s Witnesses do their
evangelizing—door-to-door.” I sported my best winning smile.
Petrovich brightened. He could solve my problem for me; I could see it coming a mile off.
“Look, you can still go door-to-door—in Terrell after work, or even before work. You don’t have to live in the hospital. You can easily perform Community Service like a regular 8-5 job—see?” He beamed.
I wanted to tell him not to cloud the issue with facts but he was, after all, an attorney. Plan B commenced. I had to enlarge the scope of my defense with historical precedent. Any lawyer would immediately see precedent as binding.
“Back in the 1st century, the early Christians refused to share certain duties of Roman citizens. The Christians felt it a violation of their faith to enter civil or military service. They would not hold political office. They would not worship the emperor. Why? They were subject to Jesus’ command. They obeyed God as ruler rather than men.”
I didn’t even try to guess what he was thinking. I didn’t have to, he told me.
“Terry, nobody is asking you to be a Roman citizen. Nobody is forcing you onto the battlefield. Nobody is demanding you become a politician or worship President Johnson. All anybody is asking you to do—since you are opposed to fighting—is do your share by working in a hospital.
It is community service and not military service. Why can’t an obviously bright guy understand that?”
I did get it. Rocket science, it wasn’t. It was basic fairness. I took out the verbal trowel and slopped it on.
“Back during the Civil War conscientious objectors were sometimes offered an alternative to fighting in a regiment under the command of an officer.”
“They could hire somebody to fight as a substitute. It seemed perfectly fair to the lawyers who thought that up. But, the problem is, it didn’t solve the problem. The real problem was the serving part. Substituting one thing for another thing which accomplishes the same end is a compromise of integrity as a Christian. That’s why hiring a killer is wrong.”
My underpaid, court-appointed attorney looked at his wristwatch and shrugged. He spoke musingly.
“I had a roommate in law school. He was an Orthodox Jew. On the Sabbath he wasn’t allowed to operate machinery, answer a phone, push an elevator button or anything. It was a ‘day of rest’ from all physical work. So, you know what he did? He did what all the other Orthodox Jews did in law school. He paid his goyim friends to answer the phone and take a message, push the elevator button and drive him where he needed to go. His conscience was perfectly clear.”
“Are Jehovah’s Witnesses just showing off their super-piety one-ups, or what?”
“Well Sir, I appreciate your confusion. I’m not the one to judge. But, suffice to say, we view alternate service in
the very same wheelhouse as military service because it involves this-for-that. So, I cannot do it.”
The lawyer flashed a momentary pout with his mouth and shrugged it off.
“Okay, fine. How do I plead your case for you then?”
“I guess the most honest way to plead is ‘Guilty’ and make a plea for leniency for conscience sake. The mitigating circumstance is I’m not doing any wrong by trying to do what is right. You shouldn’t punish a twenty year old for trying to serve God according to a clean conscience. That’s not justice.”_____________________________
(Above are 2 chapters from my book)