On August 13th in 1969, my eighteenth birthday, I registered for the draft in a hot little office somewhere in downtown Bloomington. For an occasion that was so momentous to me it turned out to be dull and mundane. While I put my life under the thumb of the U.S. military the woman behind the desk chewed gum. Immediately after leaving the draft board office I bought two albums, Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, one of which I still listen to. I went back to the farm, sat in front of the big wooden stereo in the living room and played the music loudly as I pondered my fate. Mom was not impressed.
“What are you doing? It’s time for chores.”
“I just registered for the draft.”
“Oh yeah? So does every other eighteen year old boy in the country. What makes you think you’re so special? Now turn off that record player, get out to the barn, and help your Dad milk the cows.”
Dylan’s Nashville Skyline was a happy country album which took up where John Wesley Harding left off, with a guy named Pete Drake playing pedal steel guitar. His band had even added a Dobro. With the war out of control, why in the hell was Dylan happy? I sure didn’t feel happy. Dylan’s protest days were evidently over. Mine were just beginning.
That fall while living on campus I joined the huge but peaceful march that snaked through ISU’s campus and downtown Normal protesting the Vietnam War. While I did so my older brother, an officer in the Air Force, flew night missions targeting the Ho Chi Minh trail in an F-4 fighter out of an air base in Thailand. I listened to both radicals and arch conservatives speak on campus. I took a sharp interest in politics and became critical of President Richard Nixon. On December 1 of that same year I was in the 11th floor lounge of ISU’s Manchester Hall watching the first ever draft lottery drawing on TV. It was held by the Selective Service System to determine the order of young men to be drafted. Three hundred and sixty five balls, one for each day of the year, were drawn randomly from one rolling cage while three hundred and sixty five balls with consecutive numbers were drawn from another. It was like a huge game of BINGO. When the two balls were matched we learned when and if young men would be called essentially to serve in the Vietnam War. The room was quiet. We had all received four year student college deferments from the draft board, the last ever to be issued, but the order of our birthdays on this list mattered.
It mattered a lot to Frank Lowell for example. Frank had learned, from knowing no chords at all in August, to play guitar amazingly well. He was forever coming into our rooms and saying “listen to this” before breaking into a popular guitar riff. He had just learned to pick that great opening to the Beatle’s “Blackbird” off the white album. Frank accomplished this by never going to class. While we slept he stayed in the lounge and played guitar. While we attended school he slept. Frank was flunking out, had already flunked out for all intents and purposes, and the number he got in the lottery mattered a whole lot to him because he would lose his deferment as soon as grades came out and immediately enter the draft. With a high number he could continue to sleep late somewhere else and play guitar. With a low number he would soon be in basic training. You could, with little imagination, call the lottery process a matter of life or death for Frank. He was born on April 24th, 1951. The ball that was drawn opposite his birthday had the number 2 printed on it. Frank’s face went pale when they put that single digit next to his birth date on the big board. He stood and left the lounge holding his guitar by the neck. It swung slowly as he walked back to his room, barely clearing the carpet. Frank was essentially gone.
I was lucky. My number was 307. Predictions were that no numbers over 210 would be called. In the cold calculations of conscription each number called yielded some known number of Army recruits. The number of recruits called up corresponded directly to the need of the Army for fresh live American male bodies. As it turned out no one would be called past 195. We didn’t know then that the war was beginning to wind down.
The previous year, 1968, was the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War for Americans when 16,899 young American died. 1969 was on a slower pace, and would end at 11,780 American casualties. 1970 would see 6,173 Americans die. Probably only God knows how many Vietnamese were killed, along with Cambodians, Laotians, Thais, and other Asians during those years. My friend Mike, a year older than me and the driver on a double-date to the prom when I was fifteen and lacked a driver’s license, joined the Marines to avoid the draft. College was never in his future. No one in Mike’s family had ever gone to college. He told me in great detail how the Marine officer in full dress uniform validated his papers in a ceremony in Chicago by dramatically drawing straight lines which formed an X over them using his sword as a straight edge. He was gung ho for a long time. Then he lived through the siege of Khe Sanh when so many Marines didn’t. The tone of his letters to me changed. In them he described napalm and its effects on people in graphic terms. It didn’t sound like MIke. He was wounded but sent back to the fight. When he was home on leave he had a nearly fatal collision alone in a car on his way home. He collided with a utility pole he passed every day of his young life till he left for the Marines and would never return to the war. The war and that accident changed his life forever.
For those of us paying attention to what was going on in Vietnam the Battle of Khe Sanh preceded by a few months the Tet offensive when everything we had been told about the US winning the war proved to be wrong. After waging a war primarily in countryside villages the Viet Cong attacked Vietnam’s cities. The cover of Life magazine featured a Vietnam regular army soldier firing a rocket launcher at the American Embassy in Saigon. The VC blew a hole in the wall surrounding the newly built four acre US embassy compound and occupied the grounds for six hours. All this after the US Army’s top officer General William Westmoreland earlier in the fall expressed his belief that the communists were weak and “unable to mount a major offensive.” He went on to say “I hope they start something because we’re looking for a fight.” In February of 1968 he definitely had one, and it was being fought by and large by conscripted young men my age.
Perhaps if we knew why we were being asked to fight and die we would have felt differently. By the end of the Vietnam War 58,220 Americans died. I did not then and still haven’t a clue why. I was confident no one actually believed in, or could look you in the eye and repeat with a straight face, the argument represented by the Domino Theory which held that if South Vietnam fell to the communists in the North then so would the rest of Asia somehow jeopardizing our American way of life. South Vietnam eventually did fall and when it did America hardly noticed. Many if not most young Americans were there I think simply out of a sense of duty, to not disappoint their father, their family, or their community. To allow oneself to be drafted was a huge risk, but to flee the draft by leaving the country was an enormous and perhaps irreversible sacrifice. There was no good way out. Some had schemes to flunk the military’s physical exam and some of those might have worked. Some tried to enlist in what looked like a safer branch of the military. Those of us with student deferments in 1969 studied hard. Those who turned eighteen in 1970 underwent another lottery with no deferments and no escape.
My friend Steve, a year behind me in school and also a Danvers dairy farmer’s son, got a low number in 1970 and enlisted in the Army rather than face the draft. He somehow found himself in Germany. Things could have worked out much worse for Pete, but as it turned out Germany and army life proved a daunting challenge for that farm boy as well. How might the lives of Pete and Steve and all of us have been different had the draft not hung over our heads? We’ll never have good answers to that, only more questions. Would the American public allow a draft of our own children today? I do think we know the answer to that one. I knew I was very fortunate in 1969, but I could only attribute my good fortune to chance. Something about it wasn’t right. (More next week.)