Sweden, in the 1960s, still had compulsory military service (“Lumpen” it was called—which means “the Lump”, for some beyond-me reason). This meant that every male in the country, upon reaching eighteen, by law, had to do a twelve-month stint in the Swedish army—as in twelve months’ worth of 24/7 soldiering. I guess you could call it the Draft, for it sure walked like one and talked like one, except that Sweden did not have a war to go off and fight at the time.
For many, Lumpen served as a sort of mandatory rite of passage, for listening to a gathering of two or more middle-aged men boozing it up a little of a Saturday night, the conversation invariably, at some point (usually toward the bottom of the bottle), turned to the travails of those wet and cold twelve months usually served in—by my recollection of these long-winded though not uninteresting commiserations—the suffering infantry.
The young men of my generation took this state sanctioned shanghaiing practice in stride; the way we looked upon Lumpen was that the lot of girls was to carry children and give uncomfortable births and ours was to do Lumpen—that’s how God had dealt the cards.
So, no surprise then that in the late fall of 1968 (I had just turned eighteen) I received notice to show up for my military conscription interview, at such and such a place, third floor, at such and such a time, don’t be late.
Conventional wisdom (or rumor) had it that those who lived (i.e., were registered) in Stockholm (big-city dwellers) would be shipped up to Kiruna (about as far north as you can get and remain in Sweden) to spend your year crawling the ice and snow up there, while the more tolerable climes and locales were saved for those who weren’t big-city dwellers—perhaps this was the army’s way of sticking it to the stuck-up Stockholm guys, or this piece of conventional wisdom was sheer fantasy (i.e. just a stupid rumor). Still, among the guys at work, there was a lot of joking and predicting about me having to go to Kiruna for a year, poor me, and bring some warm clothes.
All right, there’s nothing for it, and I show up at the appointed time and place and I fill out the required forms and sign in the required places and then it’s over to the medical checkup and interview where everything seems to be just fine with me—a healthy, if somewhat concerned, eighteen-year-old specimen of my species.
The doc, while crossing the tees and dotting the is, asks me, without even looking up, if there’s anything I’d like to say or add.
And here is where I literally have no idea whatsoever where the notion came from—what could possibly have possessed me (taken over as it were), but what flashed through my mind at that question was me being so sick from drinking too much one evening that summer that I threw up and threw up and threw up again to the point where I was throwing up what indeed was blood (I must have torn something in my throat, who knows). And with this image flashing look at me, look at me, I said to the doctor:
“I have a bleeding ulcer.”
He stopped crossing and dotting and looked up at me and said, “You have a bleeding ulcer?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“You have documentation to prove that?”
And I lied again, “Yes I do.”
“Well,” he said, and put the pen down. “What I would like you to do is to go get that documentation and come back next year.”
Next year! Did I hear that correctly? Had he said “next year”? Yes, he definitely had and I was not about to clarify just in case that would make him think it over and change his mind.
“Yes, Sir,” I said. “I will do that.” Stood up, and left.
I had realized, of course, the moment he asked for documentation, that I was in trouble. Of the deep variety. I had expected him to tell me to go home and get it and to come back later today or tomorrow or later in the week at best, and that—since I had no such documentation—would have been a very stiff task. But here, oh my God, the man had told me to come back next year. Next year! Not that I had any proof of my supposed bleeding ulcer, but at least I had ample time to figure something out, as in perhaps fabricating (risky, of course) or perhaps… well, I really had no clear idea of perhaps what else. But I left a lot lighter than I had come in, and I had twelve months to come up with something.
Now, part of this story is that I had thrown up blood and I had actually gone in to the hospital a few days later to have it checked up. I might have said something to my dad about being that sick and he probably insisted on having it checked out. Once there, they gave me a thick, white, tasteless mixture to drink and about ten minutes later they x-rayed my abdomen. Brief wait while they developed the pics: Ah, all’s well, I was told. Probably just tore something in my throat, but the stomach was A-Okay, no problem. Fit as a fiddle, et cetera.
So, no bleeding ulcer. Good news.
Consequently, no documentation to prove my non-existing ulcer.
But this young liar was nothing if not mentally enterprising and I had lied my way out of not necessarily worse holes before but some pretty deep ones nonetheless, and this is what I came up with:
My good friend Thomas’ dad was a very old, I mean very old (Tomas was an adoptee) but still practicing medical doctor who saw his very old patients in his large downtown, fourth-floor apartment (top floor—that’s how high buildings grew in this little town). My plan was to ask Thomas if he could arrange for me to see his dad about my stomach. I forget what excuse I came up with as to why I needed to see his dad and not some regular doctor at the hospital, but whatever excuse I provided worked just fine and a few days later I’m looking at this old (and very nice) doctor from the patient-side of a huge, well-polished desk.
“So, what can I do for you?” he asked.
“I’d like a prescription for a bleeding ulcer,” I said.
This took him by surprise, as well it should have. “You have a bleeding ulcer?” he said.
“Yes,” I lied.
“Have you been to the hospital about that? Have you had it x-rayed?”
“Yes,” I said quite truthfully. I had been to the hospital and I had been x-rayed.
“And they confirmed it?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“Do you smoke?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“I would suggest that you stop smoking. It could aggravate the condition, the ulcer.”
“I understand,” I said.
He then took out his prescription pad and unscrewed the top of his fountain pen.
“And I wonder,” I said in my most innocent voice, “if you could please make a note on the prescription that it is for a bleeding ulcer.” This was the one thing I needed more than anything, of course, to make my bleeding-ulcer documentation hold some sort of water.
“Sure,” he said. And did.
He finished writing and tore the prescription from the pad and handed it to me. “And, be sure to stop smoking,” he said.
“Okay, I’ll try,” I lied.
He stood up, I stood up, we shook hands and I let myself out.
He didn’t even charge me—perhaps that’s why I had asked Thomas to arrange it, who knows.
I looked over the prescription. Yes, “For Bleeding Ulcer” right there, in the doctor’s hand. And my name was on the prescription as well (thank God—for I had forgotten to make sure of that). So, even if perhaps not the strongest proof ever, didn’t this in fact document my bleeding ulcer? Well, it was the best I could do, so it would have to ditto.
Fast forward to the following fall (would have been 1967). I’m back in Stockholm now, back at work. Different company. My second army interview is coming up, just around the corner now and then a little bit closer and then it’s here.
What I had discovered between these two interviews was that the Army had a Data Center in Stockholm which they manned with us young Lumpen guys and I figured that with a bleeding ulcer in my pocket I should be able to perhaps swing that assignment (for I had come to the conclusion that they didn’t really want bleeding ulcers among the regulars, so to speak. And a computer center assignment would be wonderful. I could stay in my apartment, live like a normal person, and never crawl in the snow. I told the guys at work that this was what I was going for and they all wished me their very cynical good lucks with that.
Different doctor. Huge desk, massive amounts (piles) of paper. “Take a seat,” he says and points to one of two interviewee chairs. I sit down while he’s looking over the original interview notes. “Aha,” he said. “Ulcers.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You brought documentation?”
“Yes,” I said and handed him the prescription. As I did, I had the sinking feeling that this little prescription slip might not be good enough, would not live up to the task of documentation, as it were, and that he would soon demand that I come back with something more substantial, official, x-rays, what have you, tomorrow.
He took his time looking it over. Then he placed it in my folder and looked up at me and said, with a sadish and quite friendly smile actually, “Well, Ulf, I’m afraid we’re going to have to give you an exemption.”
An exemption! Ex! Emp! Tion!
Now, even in my most optimistic scenarios I never heard the sound of that word. Not even close. Exemption. Oh, Lord. An exemption meant no service at all, never. For life. Once you’re exempt from service, you’re exempt, period. A little on the unbelievable side.
But devious and lying fox that I was, I wanted to show him that I was not trying to wiggle my way out of service, that I, in fact, found this news a little disappointing. So, this is what I said, “Exemption? Oh, wow. For real? Wow. Can’t that give me trouble later in looking for work? I understand that employers don’t like to hire exemptions.” For so I had both heard and gathered since the two most common reasons for exemption at that time were either some sort of criminal history or homosexuality.
“Oh,” he said, understanding my concern, and (sympathetically) wanting to allay my fear, “We’ll make a note that the exemption is for the ulcer. You see, ulcers need a special diet and we just cannot provide that in the army. Long and short of it is that we’d rather not deal with ulcers at all. Nothing derogatory or denigrating, you see. Just from a practical viewpoint.”
“Oh, all right,” I conceded (while exploding internally and doing my best no to let that show). “I understand,” with a sort of disappointed okay-then demeanor (sly fox through and through).
So, he filled out this document which exempted me from army service and handed it to me. I took it and folded it and put it in my pocket. We shook hands and I turned and left.
As I closed the door behind me, I actually levitated. And grinning from left ear to my right I floated down the corridor past the many potential and mostly nervous recruits, announcing, “Exempt. Exempt. Exempt.”
Looking back, I saw the doctor by his open door looking down the corridor in my direction and my fear, for a brief, horrifying moment, was that I was simply too jubilant to not be a con from beginning to end. He was about to call me back for another chat, if I wouldn’t mind.
But, no, he never called me back, and neither did the army.