In 1970, soon after I was handed my University of Georgia diploma, I got my “greeting” letter from Uncle Sam. The Vietnam War was raging, and I was a likely suspect to be drafted and sent to Southeast Asia. My dad and three of his siblings were World War II veterans. I never doubted that I would serve my country, too. But I had to decide how. That choice was made on a Trailways bus, heading back to Jesup from the pre-draft center in Jacksonville, Florida.
Earlier that morning, a burly sergeant barked, “All you men with orthopedic issues, form a line over there!”
I hustled to that corner of the room. I had entered UGA on crutches, a couple of weeks after knee surgery. Cartilage had been removed from my left knee, following a high school football injury. I was able to play in the last five games of the season, but I had been hoping to avoid the knife. No such luck. I hobbled to Athens. Four years later, I was in line to be examined by a U.S. Army doctor.
About six pre-draft inductees were ahead of me.
One by one, the doc in Army fatigues declared, “4-F, 4-F, 4-F, 4-F, 4-F, 4-F!”
That meant those fellows were not physically fit to serve.
Maybe I wouldn’t be going to Vietnam, after all.
When I climbed on the exam table, the doctor grabbed my left ankle and wiggled my leg. Then he shook it some more.
“Who did you say did your knee surgery?”
“Dr. Bickerstaff in Waycross.”
“Damn fine job—1-A. Get in that line over there.”
In that line, I was handed a urine specimen cup. Inside the latrine, a guy shouted, “I got the VD. Anybody want a shot of my pee?” Several would-be draft-dodgers scrambled over to get a squirt or two.
No, thank you.
I was about to be drafted, so I had to make up my mind how I would serve.
Fifteen months earlier, I had married my college sweetheart. Pam was thinking about grad school, and I was leaning toward law school. Somewhere about Folkston—on U.S. 301 North—I decided to see whether I could arrange a way to complete my military obligation without disrupting mine and my wife’s college plans. Sure enough, there was an opening in the Brunswick unit of the Army National Guard.
On Dec. 28, 1970, I was getting my head shaved at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. When Pam came to visit me in Kentucky, she said, “If I had known your head was that ugly, I wouldn’t have married you.” From there I went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. With basic and advanced training behind me, I had to make another decision—yes or no on law school. I was ready to go to work, and Pam, thank goodness, followed me to Jesup, where I started getting ink injected into my veins.
After two weeks of summer camp at Fort Stewart and picking off ticks, I wondered, “What else is possible?” Sure enough, the Air National Guard unit on St. Simons had an opening. I traded olive drab for blue and a desk job. In 1976, my last year of obligation, America was celebrating its 200th birthday. Men across America were growing Bicentennial beards, but the Air Guard prohibited beards. I didn’t really want a beard, but then I saw my friends in the Army Guard growing facial hair. Hmmm, what’s up?
I went to our commander, Col. Claude M. Strickland Jr., and asked for our unit to have permission to grow beards. He cited the regulations, and said, “No.”
“No? But the Army Guard ….”
“I’m sorry, but I’m following regulations.”
“Who sets the regulations?”
“Georgia’s adjutant general.”
“Gen. Billy Jones.”
“May I reach out to him?”
“Help yourself. He’ll only say no.”
Off to Atlanta, I went to meet with the general. Sure enough, he said, “No.” But he did say that he got his orders from the governor.
OK, I knew Gov. George Busbee. The Gold Dome was the next stop to explain the unfair situation between the Army and Air National Guard units. Gov. Busbee was both sympathetic and amused. But bless his heart, Georgia’s commander-in-chief deferred. “Dink,” he said, “I get my orders from the Pentagon.” I shook his hand and thanked him.
On the way back to Jesup, I decided to take this beard thing as far as I could. The Bicentennial celebration was in full swing, so I decided to quit shaving. I also planned to attend the upcoming National Newspaper Association’s (NNA) Government Affairs Conference in Washington. I wasn’t ready to give up with my request. I told Col. Strickland my plans. As Gov. Busbee had been, my commander was amused, too.
Without an appointment, I showed up at the Pentagon. When I explained why I was there—to my surprise—they let me pass the front desk. Mind you, this was decades before 9/11 and today’s security paranoia. Somewhere inside that mammoth, sprawling complex, I found several officials who would listen to me before they passed “the nut from Georgia” to the next bureaucrat. Finally, a colonel said, “Mr. NeSmith, the Pentagon gets its orders from our nation’s commander-in-chief, and he’s in the White House.”
“Perfect,” I said. “I’m going there tomorrow.”
Stunned, the officer said, “OK. Good luck.”
What I didn’t tell him was that members of NNA had been invited to a reception hosted by President Gerald Ford. The next day, the newspaper contingency went to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Each of us got a chance to shake the president’s hand and say or ask something. There are times when it is better to be lucky than good. I got my chance.
“Thank you, Mr. President, for inviting us. Down in Georgia, we have a dilemma. The Army National Guard is growing beards to celebrate the nation’s Bicentennial. The Air National Guard would like beards, too.”
Reading my nametag and looking at my stubby beard, the president rubbed his face, laughed and said, “Mr. NeSmith, you men enjoy your beards. God bless America.”
Well, there you go.
The Good Book says, “Ask and ye shall receive.”
And I took President Ford’s message and my beard all the way back to St. Simons.