by Amy Kenneley
"As I call your name, come forward and collect your tags," our Junior High homeroom teacher announced. The big day had arrived. We were in the Army now…sort of.
It was 1951. The U.S. was engaged in a war that wasn't a war-the "Korean Conflict." The threat of atomic bombs raining down on U.S. cities was soon to give way to the threat of hydrogen bombs raining down on U.S. cities.
Parents were worried. School systems were worried as well. The Cleveland Board of Education made a decisive move against the Cold War and its unpleasant possibilities.
Parents received a permission/instruction letter in exquisite government-ese advising them of this possibility--an "emergency situation" where the child might need identification.
"Geesh," I voiced to a boy on the CTS bus taking us to school the following day,
"I have never even been unconscious-what's the big deal?"
"Hah!" the boy barked out with a heavy dash of gloomy glee, "That tag's so your folks'll know it's you when the Commies drop The Bomb on our school and we're all burned to a crisp!"
The dog tag would be of metal, just as the military, and suspended on a chain just as the military. It would have our first name, middle initial and surname, our address, our date of birth, blood type, and our religion.
My first and last name took only 4 syllables, but one classmate's first and last name was 11 syllables long. Fit that in! We couldn't use nicknames, either, so "Bill" had to reveal he was in reality Wilbert III.
They needed a blood sample. I had never willingly given a drop of blood. My forays into trees, up ladders, across fences and running with scissors had produced blood only accidentally, so Grandpa had kidded me that my type would probably be "T" for Tomboy.
But it wasn't. It was "O"…for Ordinary.
Even if the teachers considered us little heathens, we did have to 'fess up to some religious preference, so "P, C or J" were our choices.
The Big Tag Day
As our homeroom teacher called us up, we were handed our dog tags. We placed them obediently around our necks. The teacher reviewed: "-- property of the Cleveland Board of Education...never to be taken off, in the event o...at Great Expense to the public…" and so forth.
For a few days we were very conscious of this chain-of-school-board-command around our necks. At the cry of anyone who demanded, "Lemme see!" we yanked the chain upward out of our clothing, holding the tag out for examination. The lookee came up close to our upturned chin, peering at the engraved facts. No going incognito for us.
For at least 4 school days we followed all the orders--what else can you do with a dog tag, anyway? As it turned out, A LOT.
For some, it was the first piece of "jewelry" we had ever owned, so creativity was rampant. We tied the chains into knots, then spend irritating minutes in algebra or French class untangling them…clink, clink, clink. The effect of 30 tags being racheted up and down, up and down 30 chains in study hall was taking its toll on some teachers.
We also wrapped them around our thumbs and wrists, trying to see how long we could cut off circulation.
A few girls added some shaman-like fetishes to the chain, for fashion. We chewed the tags in concentration during tests, like metal pacifiers.
We carved with them on wooden desks, or tried to. We used them as monocles, perkily held with one hand-or more daringly- under one strong eyebrow. "I say, old chap!" we said to one another, then giggled at our humor.
We pared our fingernails with a sharp end. One boy decided that they made great stencils, and inked all over the raised letters in the back. He had a stunning tattoo when he pressed it to his forehead. As draftees in this cold war project, we did our best to disobey orders.
Love Me Loves Me Not
But what really led to the death of the dog tag debacle was love. True Love, as expressed by the adolescent. Going steady meant the two lovebirds exchanged dog tags. His became Hers. Hers became His. Noreen wore Sal's tag, Sal wore Noreen's. This merry mixup, should The Worst ever happen, could not be restrained by the order of any administration.
We treated our tags like a game of hot potato, pledging undying love, exchanging dog tags and love notes. The next week when love grew cold, a neutral party oversaw the exchange in reverse.
The following week or month a new love appeared, the mating ritual of dog tag exchange renewed, and a new name around your neck was displayed. "Who ya wearing?" was the question of the month.
We were fickle. We decided it was a good thing the tags were metal-anything less durable would have worn out in the round-robin game of hearts we played.
Finis to Tags
After a few years, the administration's project faded quietly. We still continued to practice air raid drills, kneeling beside our desks, our raised arms covering our necks and head. But the world was always on the brink of something disastrous, and we went through the drills mechanically. We were too busy to be afraid of missiles or bombs.
We were too busy learning shorthand and shop skills. Too busy working at after-school jobs or saving for a car. Most tags had by then been lost or dropped into a shoe box and forgotten. We were too young to worry about wars, too young to care about much except the next dance or the next test.
Too busy with life to think of death
It was good to be that young.
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