CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Six weeks out of high school, 17 notches on my birthday stick, I was pumping gas 50 hours for $30 a week, $1,560 a year. So college was out in those days before grants and student loans.
I signed up for a three-year Army hitch. First, because they would teach me a useful trade. Second, so I would not later be drafted away from a future good job and family. Yes, there were lesser, more altruistic reasons like patriotism and family tradition, too. (The "cost-cutting" Republican Congress and President had done away with the GI Bill and, for the first time in history, began requiring the military to pay income tax.)
In today's "new" all volunteer army, the vast majority of recruits are barely high school grads. In the "old" army, I immediately found myself surrounded by draftees from every trade and profession. Teachers, professors, even a New York state trooper whose two years would count toward his pension so he decided service would be useful and waived deferment. I listened to and learned from them.
One of my best buddies, Lou, worked his way through Columbia Law School by emptying garbage cans from midnight to 8 a.m. (earning union scale). Shortly after passing the New York bar and starting practice with a classmate in the financial district (He said, "All we could afford was a broom closet"), his deferments ended. He was drafted. He turned down a commission as an army lawyer. "Too many strings attached." So they made him a military policeman. (Today the practice bearing his and the partner's name occupies three floors in a tall building on lower Broadway.)
A year in, I was paid $99 a month before taxes. I had a girlfriend back home and was going to ask her to marry me while on Christmas leave. The main army PX sold jewelry for about 10 percent of the civilian store price. I bought a "decent" engagement ring. In the barracks, I showed it to Lou, who also planned to make a proposal soon, and told him the $85 price.
"Nice," he admired. "I think I'll go over there and look."
About that time two fellows from another barrack were walking past. We had never spoken. All I knew was that both were aloof and condescending. They came from very wealthy families but apparently not so influential that their sons could evade the draft. One pulled out a small, velvet-covered box and showed its contents. It was an engagement ring with a diamond about the size of a fingernail.
"I paid $5,000 for this," he sneered.
"No you didn't," Lou retorted. "Your father did. Cook's ring is a lot more valuable because he spent a month of his life earning it then buying it with love. You spent five seconds yawning then saying, 'Charge it to daddy's account.' "
The fellow's jaw dropped. It apparently was his first experience with an impertinent non-worshiper from a lower caste. Just as it was my first with (Lou's later words) "A preppy snot who thinks he's entitled to belittle and humiliate anyone not to the manor born."
When I learned of Mitt Romney, while in prep school, bulldogging that boy and cutting his hair, I was reminded of my contact over 50 years ago, with that other kind of "the entitled."
Cook is an author, artist and inventor who lives in Hurricane.