It became personal for me in 1968 when two milestones occurred. I graduated from high school and celebrated my eighteenth birthday. I dutifully registered for the draft, as all males are required to do, (even today) and waited for my official classification. Which meant that, unless otherwise excused for a narrow set of reasons, I would be subject to service in the military, or the public health service.
I could have asked to be excused because of poor health, marriage that included children, or being the sole survivor in a family. None of those applied. Enrollment in college could have also deferred my service. It worked for hundreds of thousands of “professional students,” who stretched out their time in college as long as possible to obtain Bachelor Degrees in everything from Political Science to Underwater Basket weaving. (All right, I made that one up, but it did seem as though there was a plethora of less-than-deserving fields of study.)
Professional students often went on to obtain one, two, or even more Masters Degrees and continue studies to obtain doctoral-level degrees. It left them ineligible to be drafted while they prayed for an end to the conflict in Southeast Asia.
I couldn’t afford to go to college, and I was not a Conscientious Objector. They were men who, for religious or personal beliefs, wouldn’t kill. Furthermore, I didn’t have a friend or relative with great political influence who could certify that I was essential to government or industry—or who could get me into a scarce position in the National Guard. In other words, I was screwed.
The only other option was to have a high number in the Draft Lottery. Not the kind of lottery where they took your picture with an oversized check and you started fielding loan requests from people you scarcely knew. No, this particular lottery worked in a similar way, but with almost equal importance to eighteen and nineteen year old males, since it determined the course their lives would take for the next two years.
Each year, 365 little balls that were consecutively numbered, beginning with one, were placed into an open-wire cage that resembled those used in bingo games. After a vigorous spin, the balls were extracted one at a time in random order and recorded on a board. Each ball represented a birth date and you hoped yours was as far down the list as possible.
A low draft number, on the other hand, could put all of your plans on hold while you served for two years. Eligible males without a deferment checked the newspaper each day to see how far down the list eligible males were being drafted, based upon the needs of the military. They fretted each time the war escalated, knowing it brought them closer to the dreaded letter that would order them to report. Lucky ones with high numbers could breathe a sigh of relief at the end of the year and start the process all over at the next lottery.
My very first year in the lottery was a disaster. My number came up in the thirty-fourth position, while they were drafting well into the one hundred and fifties.
Have I mentioned that I am a person who will jump off a cliff before I allow someone to push me? Yep, that’s me, the one who will volunteer before being drafted. So, I moseyed on down to the local recruiting office to talk with somebody about the Air Force. I figured my chances for survival in Vietnam were far better if I sat on an air base, as opposed to being in an anonymous foxhole in places like Pleiku, or Da Nang.
Other potential draftees apparently had the same idea. I pushed open the door to the recruiting office and saw a dozen or so guys waiting to talk to the lone Air Force recruiter. Two Army recruiters sat at desks on the other side of the room talking about their luck in getting into recruiting. Except, there were no warm bodies to recruit. Said warm bodies wanted to get into the Air Force. Imagine that.
I signed in and sat in a chair in the waiting area. The first thing I noticed was that most of the men around me were quite a bit older—you know, college graduate age. After chatting with them, I discovered most had not been accepted to study for a Master’s Degree and were hoping to get into an officer program. They preferred to sit at a desk on a secure air base, instead of in a tent surrounded by foxholes. At least, we had one thing in common.
My turn came and I took a chair next to the recruiter’s desk. He seemed like an amenable sort as he introduced himself. “You look a little young to have a degree,” he commented.
“Degree?” I responded.
“You do have a degree, don’t you?”
“No, I just graduated from high school. Is that a problem?”
“Not at all,” he answered. “Go see the Army. We’re only taking people with at least two years of college.”
My butt had been in the seat for less than a minute. I reluctantly stood up. He stood up, shook my hand and pointed to the Army recruiters. I’m sure it was my imagination, but I think they smiled like two lions facing a lame gazelle. I was a fresh kill to meet their quota for the month. I think one even licked his lips.
I’ll describe what happened after I sat down at their desk in my next post.