|The 1969 Draft Lottery--the prize could be death.|
Note: This is the first in a new series of memoir stories that first appear in The Third City blog.
If you were a young guy in the 1960’s your life plans and prospects pretty much revolved around the caprice of your friends and neighbors at your local Draft Board. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had backed into what even Douglas MacArthur had warned the nation to avoid at all costs—a land war in Asia.
By the time I turned 18 and was subject to the beck and call of the Selective Service System in 1967, the Vietnam War was raging and demanding more and more fodder for the stalemated carnage. Rather than call up National Guard troops or Reservists, as in earlier conflicts, the Army had depended on the Draft to keeps its ranks filled since the Korean War, now even the once elite, all volunteer Marine Corps was in such dire need that draftees were also becoming Leathernecks.
I dutifully, if resentfully, fulfilled my obligation and registered for the Draft. I was issued a Draft Card which I was told to keep on my person at all times under penalty of law. At the time I had an alleged humor column The Wind from the West in my school newspaper at Niles West High in Skokie. I wrote a bitter, decidedly un-funny column about the war and the draft. It got passed the official sponsor, but the shit hit the fan when the principal, Nicholas T. Manos, saw it in print. I was pretty much an official pariah the rest of my senior year and some small school scholarships I had won for Forensics and drama were revoked.
Despite my bitching, I was safe because I was college bound. My local Draft Board handed the coveted 2-S student deferments out liberally. If I stayed in school there was a good chance I could avoid a call to arms for four years—longer if I went on to graduate school—and hopefully the war would be over.
Of course those 2-S deferments sent many young men scampering to campuses that they would never have otherwise darkened. Along with other deferments, physical and mental disabilities, and the like, non-college bound single men were almost all doomed to be called.
Between my St. Patrick’s Day birthday and my arrival at Shimer College in Mt. Carroll, Illinois the next September, I grew more involved with the Anti-war movement. I marched in a giant April march in Chicago that ended with a rally at the old Coliseum addressed by the Rev. Martin Luther King. My little high school group, the Liberal Youth of Niles Township (LYNT) put on a program Up Tight About the Draft? In August I was a delegate to the New Politics Convention where I met Dr. King in person and encountered serious radicals and anti-war leaders.
I arrived on campus a committed radical. Between bouts with the Great Books and discovering the delights of marijuana and assorted hallucinogens, I did what I could for the movement out in isolated Carroll County. When I heard that the Second National Day of Resistance was going to present Draft cards to be turned by to the Selective Service System, I sent my card with some other students who drove into Chicago for the December 4 demonstration.
I happened to be home on Spring break when I got the letter from my Draft Board threatening me with prison. My Mom reacted by locking herself in the bathroom and becoming hysterical. To calm her down, I wrote a letter asking for my card back. I felt like a traitor and a heel. Meanwhile I toyed with the idea of becoming a Conscientious Objector, but never turned in a request when I realized I was not a pacifist, just opposed to this particular war.
Once again safe with my 2-S I returned to Shimer for one more semester after my summer adventures at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Then I moved to the city and transferred to Columbia College, got involved with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and got deeper and deeper into the Movement.
In 1969 the Selective Service System decided that because of the great disparity between how local draft boards issues deferments, to institute a national lottery to make the system “fairer.” Young men around the country paid rapt attention on December 1, 1969 when official in Washington drew birthdates out of a glass bowl for everyone born between 1944 and 1950. That was me, one of that first wave of Baby Boomers.
The lower the number of you birthday, the surer and faster you would be drafted. Those which high numbers probably would not be called at all. Some guys will forever remember their number. I don’t. It was somewhere north of 100 and south of 150. I was not in immediate danger, but my number would almost certainly be called before my window of eligibility expired at the end of 1971.
By 1970 I had dropped out of Columbia and gone to work as an offset pressman. Then I was elected General Secretary-Treasurer of the IWW and later worked on the Chicago Seed. I assumed that I was subject to being called up, but I never heard from the government. After a while, concern that I would be drafted faded away. I assumed that somehow, miraculously, my number had been passed over.
I was wrong. I got the dreaded call to report for induction in December of 1972.
Next time: Turning down the invitation.