Tommy Herndon, 19, leaned all 230 pounds of his 6 foot, 4 inch hulk onto the counter of the tiny one-room post office off the town's square, stuck his reflector sunglasses and green Spike Chemical cap through the window and asked if he could register for the draft.
"You're a week early, said postmaster Ray Johnston, eyeballing Herndon's driver's license, "but we'll take you anyway."
"Might as well," said a grinning Herndon, a high school dropout turned herbicide sprayer whose boss let him come in two hours late today so he could sign up with the Selective Service -- the first day of registration for a possible draft.
"If he didn't register, I'd kick his butt," said the boss, Vincent Grund, 40, a transplated Yankee and former Navy flight navigator in Vietnam whose company kills industrial weeds to the tune of $150,000 a year. "I don't believe you can grow up in this country and not be ready to defend the values that make you free and let you earn a living. Besides, I told Tommy the military might do him some good."
Ever since Gen. Zebulon Pike stumbled across Pike's Peak and managed to get himself killed in the War of 1812 and declared a national hero -- spawning a name grab hereabouts to christen a patch of red clay in his honor -- the folks of this sleepy Georgia town surrounded by pecan trees and pine forests have proudly sent their boys off to war.
For many teen-aged boys raised amid the fields of soybeans, beef cattle, corn and partiotic southern values, the military has always represented an honorable path to salvation, a ticket off the farm, a head start out of the textile mills.
"I don't want to work in the cotton mills all my damn life, be a broken down old man in a broken down old trailer with a lot of screaming kids running around," said Hal McGinnis, 17, a Pike County high school senior who plans to enlist in the Marines. "I'm going to have me a nice-looking wife, nice-looking kids who don't give me no lip and make me some money. I figure getting out of town is one way to do it."
There were no protests, no demonstrations today in Zebulon, 50 miles and a century away from the big city angst of Atlanta, where, hard by Peachtree Street, about 75 antidraft protesters marched outside the main post office, waved placards reading "Free Death Certificate Inside" and chanted '60s slogans.
"We don't allow protesters in Pike County," said red-haired county sheriff Billy Riggins, sucking on a toothpick after a lunch of meatloaf and mashed potatoes inside the Crossroads Restaurant. A window afforded him a clear view of any potential assault on the main post office.
"Anybody burns a flag here, that'd be it. Might have to shoot 'em," said Philip Rawlins, 30, an insurance agent who missed the last war after he broke his neck playing football. "Protesters should go to Russia or Cuba. The only protesters we ever had in Zebulon was in 1968 when they integrated the county schools. That lasted a month. Ralph Abernarthy drove his baby blue Cadillac down from Atlanta and got everybody all stirred up."
Across the street, Franklin Jones, 18, a clerk for the state's agriculture extension service, marched across the town square -- Gen. Sherman is rumored to have spared it because he figured "the town would never amount to nothing" -- and signed up.
"It's just something I got to do," said the high school graduate who, in faded jeans and a Star Trek T-Shirt, stepped up to the window without hestitation. "The U.S. military needs to be improved, and if the draft is what it takes to get up out of this mess, maybe I can help."
Ask any of Zebulon's 3,500 residents and if they don't have a veteran in the family, as unlikely as that sounds, they can tick off a dozen neighbors who do. All proudly point to their very own homegrown POW, Leonard Daughtery, quiet much admired ex-Army sergeant who came home to Zebulon to raise two boys after surviving five years as a prisoner in North Vietnam. He works for the telephone company as a supply clerk, raises vegetables, fishes for bream and keeps mostly to himself.
Vietnam touched Georgia hard: 1,537 men killed in Southeast Asia, among the highest per capita loss of any state. A good number of those young men came from the rolling farmland around Pike County, where Army officials marvel that harvesting recruits is easier than picking ripe peaches off trees. Yet even here, amid solid red clay ethics, bolstered by God and hard work, that war has taken a chunk out of Zebulon's patriotic armor and made some young men think twice about signing up for a peacetime draft.
"I don't let my boys play war games and I don't talk military to my kids," said Alton Silver, 37, an electrician for Thomaston Textile Mills and a Vietnam Navy veteran whose little brother, Lonnie, 19, a Marine private, was killed Nov. 26, 1967, on his first mission in Vietnam.
Silver credits the Navy for his career as an electrician and believes in the draft "to a certain extent." But he harbors a bitterness. "My children shouldn't have to go. Maybe I'm selfish, but the Silver family has given enough already. If we're invaded, I'll put on my old uniform and take the rifle off the shelf.But I won't send my children off to another Vietnam. Lonnie gave his life for nothing."
Indeed, patriotism in Pike County has been tempered by the individual experience from the last war. And on Sunday night, the eve of registration, a young crowd gathered in the K-mart parking lot down the road in Thomaston and grumbled about the possibility that their futures would be snatched away. "If we have to fight, I'll fight for my country, but there's no sense in getting yourself killed when you've got better things to do," said Stanley Short, 19, a $5-an-hour construction worker.
Terry Pippin 19, a parts manager for the local Ford dealer, cruised alongside in his mud-splattered, $12,000 Bronco. "Hey man," he yelled, "Y'all going for it, aren't you? All we need is a six-pack of Schlitz and a machine gun!"
"No way I'm going to be drunk on the front line," said Stanley, who vowed to fill the enemy with "more holes than a sprinkler."
"At least you won't feel it if you're drunk," he assured Tippin, roaring off to a party.