Tooth-Paste and Whiskey
THIS is not a treatise on hygiene, oral or otherwise. Neither does it try to prove by statistics that the amount America spends on whiskey, if spent on tooth-paste, would add ten years to the life of the average American. In fact, this has no firm, unwavering mission, no relentless purpose. It seeks merely to relate some of the adventures of a draft-board clerk. The work is new. It offers the imaginative great opportunities for romance, tragedy, or nausea. Nevertheless, one speedily discovers that the greatest of these is a sense of the ridiculous. A sense of humor has little chance. There are few subtleties to rouse it. But a sense of the ridiculous is an unfailing ally, which somehow keeps one sane and more or less tranquil, even when the Provost-Marshal General sends out eight bulletins in one day.
After weeks of comparing registration cards, of making out lists and then verifying them, we began physical examinations. I was stationed to gain the necessary information from each man and to dispatch him to the doctors. The first day, when I esconced myself at my desk at a quarter before eight o’clock and began to examine the long line of men that filed past me, I discovered that all the world was divided into two classes: the men who gave forth the faint and antiseptic odor of tooth-paste and the men who, not so faintly, smelled of whiskey. Later, I found out that the tooth-paste variety could be addressed in English, while the whiskey class required the fragments of languages which I learned.
At first, however, I knew no tongue but my own. I seized upon Form 14, P.M.G.O.,and began conscientiously to read the questions printed thereon.
1. Have you found that your health or habits interfered with your success in civil life? If so, give details.
2. Do you consider yourself sound and well? If not, give details.
3. Have you undergone treatment in a hospital or asylum? If so, for what ailment?
My dismay increased with each question as I read them to that first man. They seemed so very personal, especially the parts about habits and asylums. I really did not see how I could go through them one hundred and eighty times a day. But, lo, after the first half hour, I shortened them to ‘Feel good?’ and ‘Ever in a hospital?’ and recorded the answers with the proper business-like unconcern. I also acquired enough assorted languages to make myself understood. It had a sad effect upon me, however. I caught myself talking broken English at dinner that night.
Before this I had always had a vague idea that women were hypochondriacal and men were not. After dealing with some two thousand men, I have lost that notion forever. They hated to confess that they were well. The poor souls who had no definite ailment would cautiously say, ‘I’m not sick that I know of,’ plainly implying that horrible diseases might be preying upon them secretly. The men who had never ‘undergone treatment in a hospital’ seldom said no to that question. Instead, they replied, ‘Not yet,’ and explained that they had sometimes had a doctor. It was not an instinct of selfpreservation and a longing for discharge on the ground of physical deficiency which moved them. Rather was it the spirit of emulation, which made each man long to be a little more decrepit than the man ahead of him in line. When one poor, deformed creature told me that he had had a broken back, the others looked at him with envy.
The foreigners described their ailments in most expressive pantomime, and then looked disgusted when the interpreter turned to me and said, ‘He’s all right.’ One of them proudly boasted that he had once been in a hospital for three days after a fight, but that he had stabbed two men in the fray. One man in a new and obvious wig whispered, ‘ Do they take bald-headed men in the army?’ I thought that I had listened to so many grievances, real and makebelieve, that nothing further could surprise me; but one day, a man of whom I asked my usual question, ‘Do you consider your health good?’ looked around for a chair, drew it up beside my desk, sat down, crossed his knees, and began, ‘Well, I’ll tell you — ’
When they came down after the examination, and I told them that they had passed, great was their astonishment. One man sighed lugubriously and confided to me, ‘Those doctors never felt my pains or they would n’t have passed me.’ Another gasped and said, ‘This is what I call robbing the grave.’ But some men left with renewed self-confidence and vigor. Mayhap their wives will always be grateful to the benevolent government which devised selective service.
Having safely passed the doctors, the men were asked whether they wished to claim exemption or discharge. Most of them did, but some of them were apologetic or explanatory about it. One little Italian beamed at me when I asked him whether he wanted to go and fight or stay home and said, ‘Too much babies.’ It was beautiful, by the way, to see how devoted the children of the foreigners were to their fathers. After the first day many men brought their wives, children, and witnesses with them, in order that they might fulfill all formalities at once. The children ran to meet their fathers when they came downstairs after their physical examination. Men proudly claimed discharge when they held a child in their arms.
Some married conditions were not so felicitous, however. One man said, ‘Sure I got to claim exemption. My wife’s nervous. Why, she has n’t taken in a washing for two years now.’ I found myself sympathizing with him. Marriage had turned out so differently from his roseate dreams. On the other hand, one youth declared with an oath that nothing should prevent his going. Startled at his vehemence, I asked whether he was married. He said that he was, but nonchalantly disposed of his wife with the statement, ‘She has her mother.’
The men’s names never ceased to interest us. Boleslav and Wladyslaus conjured up vague recollections of John Huss and the Holy Roman Empire. Ksawery Roman sounded like a picaresque tale by George Borrow. Orcowe Kornel, Curchi Lausa, and Fidos Windunk had a charm entirely apart from the men they represented. Pronunciation became a tremendous gamble — a man was so unlikely to recognize his name when he heard it. The strange beauties of many names were not due, however, to sponsors in baptism so much as to clerical errors. Lists were many and handwritings eccentric. We trust that the men were properly grateful to the typist who made them sound like Homeric epithets.
So the work hurried on, until the other day half our men went to camp. And the men who had been sure that their health was wrecked, and the men who insisted that they were supporting wife, child, and mother in England on ten dollars a month, went gayly with the rest, devoutly hoping, perhaps, that their past aberrations were forgotten. Men fairly fought to be allowed to go out of their turn. Two thirds of them were aliens, proud to fight for ‘U-nited States’ — even the little Armenian who had said to me with Eastern courtesy, ‘I am a Turkish subject. The privilege of fighting for this country is not mine.’ The men hung out of the train windows, waving their hats, calling out good-byes, and singing ‘Over There’ — not the ancient hymn, but the latest success of Mr. Cohan. The women and older men stood on the platform, many of them weeping silently. Yet it is an ancient saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’