For uncounted thousands of Chicago-area men, last week's announcement that Sara Lee Corp. was moving from Downers Grove to a West Loop office building meant something other than a story about Mayor Rahm Emanuel poaching suburban businesses.
For them, the ugly building at 400 S. Jefferson St. that the company will occupy is a significant landmark. Perhaps more than any other Chicago landmark. There their lives changed dramatically, bringing blessings for some and unimagined loss for others. For them, it'd be the last they'd see of Chicago, possibly only to return in a coffin.
The building once was the Chicago's central military recruiting and induction center. Appropriately, the place looks like a bunker.
When military conscription forced every lad to contemplate a minimum of two years of service, it's where you went for your draft physical, IQ tests and induction — unless you had a deferment. Drab and worn inside, its hallways and rooms were full of puzzled young men getting their first taste of what it was like to become pod people.
They slouched from one room to another, following faded red, blue, green and yellow lines painted on the floor so wanderers wouldn't get lost. As I wrote for the old Chicago Daily News back then, I followed the red line as directed to testing room A where I slinked into an empty spot, hoping not to be noticed among the hundreds.
"Printyourlastnamefirstnamelastandmiddleinitial," a corporal bellowed. He quickly droned on and God help those who weren't keeping up. The machine-gunned orders quickly followed: "In blank four, everyone fill in 4 May '66. Do it now. In blank five … "
It was the beginning of the Vietnam build-up and clearly some of us didn't want to be there, correctly anticipating the carnage to come. Ten minutes into the test, a shout was heard from the back of the room: "I'm done! I'm done!" Couldn't be; even Einstein would have taken longer.
I don't know where the MPs came from but they quickly had the voice on the ground and once secured dragged him from the room. His voice faded down the hallway, still shouting, "I'm done! I'm done!" Don't know where they took him but those of us who remained in the room exchanged glances that said, "Damn, I wish I had thought of doing that first. Too late now."
Not everyone was looking for a way out; you could tell those who were volunteering because they saw the military as a way to get ahead. Some thought it was their duty with the war approaching. They were the quiet ones, declining to announce their intentions or join the others nervously chattering.
I may have set an attendance record, having visited there three times in 1966. The first was to qualify for Army Officer Candidate School. The second was when I went back with a photographer to do the story for the Daily News. The third was to qualify for Navy OCS. That's because on the second visit, a crusty Navy chief pulled me aside to inform me that I didn't want to go into the Army. He read my mind, and the Navy was an easy sell.
And thank God that he did. If he hadn't, I wouldn't have met my wife in Jacksonville, Fla. where my destroyer was home ported. And my wonderful children and grandchildren would not have been born. It had to be fate.
That place couldn't exist today. Something about the national character snapped in the late 1960s. Call it radical individualism or true liberty, depending on your outlook. But the abolition of the draft — which made 400 S. Jefferson possible — was more than a protest against a war; it was a sign of things to come: the notion that a right to absolute privacy gave you complete and total control over your body.
Never mind. The men that were processed through 400 S. Jefferson willingly or unwillingly gave much, from just a few years of their lives to their very lives. Before Sara Lee guts the place and gives it a new look, it ought to put up a plaque. Or something.