Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Three days, 567 questions

The last time I had my testicles professionally counted was in the Winter of 1989, along with every eighteen-year-old male with whom I shared a birthday in the greater Milan area. Together, we had been summoned to appear at the army recruitment precinct in via Mascheroni.

No, wait, that’s not it. That’s my old primary school. This is it.

They lined us up in the poorly heated corridors, with nothing but our underpants on, and one by one we underwent the scrotal inspection. There were hundreds of us, all chosen exclusively by birth date. They gave us spirometry tests and chest x-rays and a comprehensive hearing test that went like this: “Can you hear?” “Yes.” They counted our testicles and checked for the absence of varicocele. They vaccinated us against typhoid and meningitis. But most of all, they made us wait.

The examinations lasted three whole days, which involved sleeping in the barracks for those who came from out of town. Those with advance knowledge of what awaited us came armed with a copy of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s legendary pink-coloured sports newspaper, which could be traded for various forms of preferential treatment (most typically: skipping a queue). Or with cigarettes, which could also be traded. But they, too, spent most of their time waiting for the next event. We waited standing or we waited sitting down. Always, we waited where they asked us to wait, clothed or half-naked, because even the most naïve among us knew better than to question the orders.

The army examination at eighteen was known as ‘the three days’, as in ‘Mario has done (or is yet to do) the three days’. Its ostensible purpose was to determine whether or not young men were physically fit for conscription, and was therefore compulsory for all males of age who didn’t meet a handful of exclusion criteria (such as having two older brothers who had already completed the service). Not turning up for the three days was a crime punishable with up to two years in military prison, a sentence served most commonly by Jehovah’s Witnesses and by those who practiced the so-called ‘total objection’ for political reasons. I think my paternal grandfather was one of them. As I wrote before, I eventually took the civil option, which was a far less hard-core form of conscientious objection won by previous generations of pacifists. As such, I had to still go through the three days, which was like a mini-version of the year we were all supposed to spend in the army.

Image by Gin Angri

Never before or since have I had an opportunity to meet such a comprehensive cross-section of my fellow male Italians, without the class biases that attending such institutions as your local school entail. But it was a sample distorted by the context in which we came together. Within the walls of that military precinct, we weren’t citizens: we were future recruits, that is to say people that even privates had the power to order around. The whole experience was a prolonged, slow-motion hazing, punctuated by ritualistic examinations of dubious medical value such as the aforementioned ball census. Along with the enforced nudity and poking, we were subjected to army humour, whose peculiar joylessness lay in repetition. How many times had the attendant standing next to the queue for the urinals yelled the line: “Remember, after two shakes it qualifies as a wank”?

Above all, however, we caught a glimpse of the immense, almost incomprehensible waste of time that the real, eventual service would entail. Like queueing in your underwear, but for a whole year. I’m sure many of us made the decision to become conscientious objectors there and then. I was foolish enough to say it out loud, and for that they sent me to see the psychiatrist.

But first came the famous and fabled questionnaire. This was an interminable psychometric test that most of us had heard whispers about. For some reason, we had been warned that it would contain questions about flowers and being a florist, and that we should answer them carefully, unless we wanted to be sent to see the psychiatrist. It was only last week that I tried to find it online, doubting very much that I would, and lo and behold, it is there. All 567 questions of it. Questions ¬in the form of statements such as ‘I think I would like to work as a librarian’ (#4) or ‘My hands and feet are usually quite warm’ (#8) or ‘Sometimes I am possessed by evil spirits’ (#24). And, just as they had warned us, ‘I like to pick flowers or grow plants at home’ (#119) and ‘I’d like to be a florist (#74), which were supposed to trick you if you answered them inconsistently.

Image by Gin Angri

As it turns out (again, I only just discovered this), the test was modelled on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a psychometric test designed in 1939 by psychologists at the University of Minnesota to assess personality traits and detect signs of mental illness. The test was recalibrated in 1989, the year I sat it, but I doubt the army ever updated the old test, nor do I have any great faith that they employed it for what might have been a reasonable purpose: namely, to identify psychological vulnerabilities in those for whom the service risked becoming a death sentence – as suicides among conscripts in those years numbered on average over 400 a year. Instead, they sent us to the psychiatrist for what appeared to be random, arbitrary reasons, according to a logic that mirrored the social topsy-turviness of life in the military: a life that stripped you of the qualities that education sought to develop, in order to elevate violent dullards to position of prestige and authority.

Italy no longer has a compulsory draft, and the recruitment precinct where I spent those three days is being converted into a new campus of our famous academy of fine arts, Brera. It’s a happy, hopeful ending for a place that use to be synonymous for generations of young men to experiences ranging from inconvenience to mild torture.

As for me, I must admit that sometimes I worry excessively about things that are not really important (#442).