August 5th, 1971 fell on a Thursday near the end of summer vacation and in the small burg of Elizabethtown it was no more or less remarkable than any other day, unless you were a guy who was born in 1952, or you cared about one who was.
If you were a male born in 1952, as I was, this would be the day that someone from the Selective Service Board would draw a date from a rotating drum and a corresponding number between 1 and 366 from a second drum. The resulting pairing of those drawings, designed to be as random as possible, would determine whether we continued our college education and began our adult lives, or we interrupted that education for a tour of duty in the Vietnam War with the very real possibility of never having an adult life. The thought of that possibility made for a restless sleep the night before. It felt a little like waiting for the jury to come back at your murder trial.
I spent the night before the draft lottery at the farmhouse of my stepfather's parents and I rose early the next day. The drawing wouldn't be televised until mid-morning, but I was too anxious to sleep. I had a bowl of cereal and finally positioned myself in front of a black-and-white TV set with a snowy picture from the rusty antenna on the roof. I waited for what seemed like ages to see the numbers "December 21" and "341" crawl across the screen. I wasn't going to Vietnam.
My stepfather's parents lived on a farm a couple of miles outside of E-town and avoided social contact whenever possible, which seemed to be just fine with the rest of town. When their son's dilapidated, red and white '56 Ford finally died, they parked it in the front yard. They raised a few hogs and rented out a field for someone else to grow corn, but the large farm was mostly unproductive.
Mildred and Clay were angry, spiteful and mean-spirited, if I were to be totally honest. Still, Mildred's response to the lottery results dumbfounded me, but then, there were a lot of responses to the Vietnam War that I wouldn't have expected. When I turned from the TV screen with a huge smile on my face, her anger was the last thing I expected.
"It isn't fair", she spat at me. "Why does Ronnie have to go into the military and you don't?"
Her son, Ron, had enlisted and planned to make the Navy a career, but that didn't seem to matter. The draft lottery produced winners and losers and it was clear that no one who lost would consider any system equitable. I headed out the door to be with my friends and to see how they had fared.
As I drove into town, the lead guitar riff from Grand Funk Railroad's Closer to Home blaring from the 8-track and the windows rolled down, I remembered a day in American Government class two years before when our teacher, Mr. Baird, had raised a point that had long troubled me. A smart and well-educated man, Mr. Baird had somehow earned the nickname "Squeezel" from students and that moniker had been passed down from class to class for two decades. He was rather short, had a high voice, and strutted around like a rooster. The nickname was nonsensical, but it fit.
His perplexing point, regarding the draft, was that student deferments were illogical. Why should society, or one's parents for that matter, pay for a young man's college education and then send him to war where he might be killed? Wasn't it more efficient to send him to war first and possibly save the cost of a college education? I found the argument both heartless and specious. Any young man and his parents would gladly pay the cost of a college education to live four more years. His argument was clearly more attractive from his podium than from where we sat.
Our physics class was taught by Mr. Bailey, who shared both Mr. Baird's physical stature and conservative position on the war, but was much younger. I'd guess twenty-five. He sat on a stool behind a large lab table at the front of the room and his feet didn't reach the floor. Somehow, he had successfully dated a senior in his class a few years before and then married her after she graduated with the full knowledge of the administration, the students and the town, a situation I find as difficult to understand in retrospect as Mr. Baird's argument.
One morning we entered class and took out our physics books only to notice that our teacher's face was red and a vein protruded from his neck. Three high school students had published an underground newspaper with the headline, "Fighting for Peace is Like Fucking for Virginity". It was a bold move in a conservative town and the vulgar title alone was grounds for expulsion in western Kentucky high schools in 1969. Mr. Bailey was repulsed by the profanity and resented the political statement so deeply that he spent the entire period ranting about patriotism. Ironically, as the bell rung, he ended the tirade by saying, "I never had to serve, but if I were called up, I'd go in a heartbeat." Observe how easily those words roll off the tongue, I thought, another argument that sounds better from the safe side of a college deferment.
I walked out of the classroom with my best friend, Steve. "Wasn't that great?" he asked enthusiastically. I thought he was referring to Mr. Bailey's political statement and I began to disagree, but he quickly added, "Do you realize he talked the whole period and we just got to skip an entire physics class?"
I made my first call that day to Steve's house and he was a little more focused on political realities by then. Tall and so thin that we called him "Straw", Steve was an excellent student, the starting guard on our basketball team and our high school's best tennis player. He had a letter jacket, a pretty girlfriend and the golden touch. It seemed that everything good came to Steve and if you had asked me before the lottery how he would fare, I would have been certain that good fortune would seek him out.
Steve met me with a smile that afternoon, just hours after the draft lottery. It seemed that lottery position 352 was even more joyful than 341, though neither of us was in danger of ever wearing fatigues.
Hanging out at the Burger Chef was typically saved for Saturday nights, or for Friday nights when there was no football or basketball game, but we all knew that everyone would show up after such an important day, even if it was midweek. We parked our cars and milled around, as one by one our friends arrived, parked their cars and walked over to our circle. You knew the news by their expression long before they told you.
The sole exception was Stuart Davis. His expression looked the same as any other time I'd ever seen him, a constant half-smile. Stuart was a handsome, stocky, blond-haired offensive guard on E-town's championship football team. He was the first guy in our class who could grow real sideburns and his girlfriend was one of the prettiest girls in the history of high school. In college, he had joined ROTC, another bold move during the Vietnam War era when it seemed that more kids were burning down ROTC buildings than joining. "What's your number?" we asked.
"Two forty-one", he answered with that smile and a slight shrug, "but it doesn't matter. I'm joining the Navy to become a pilot." Now, the ROTC thing made sense.
Gary Jenkins, the guy we called Jinx, approached our group soon afterward with his small lottery number written large in his facial expression. Gary was a smart kid who ran cross-country and played on the football team. He was also the victim of abusive foster parents, though we didn't know it at the time. "I got number sixty", he told us. "I am so screwed."
Stuart offered consolation in the clumsy way of a high school football player. "Jinx, I'd give you my number if I could. I'm not going to use it."
It didn't help, of course. Gary stood there for much of the evening with both hands in the pockets of his jeans, nervously shifting his weight back and forth from one foot to the other, his gaze darting all around the parking lot to avoid eye contact. His shoulders were tensed inward like someone would do to keep warm on a chilly day, not during the Dog Days of summer.
Cola was the next to join the group with the most unique reaction. Bobby Tabb's nickname came from Coca-Cola's diet drink of the seventies, Tab Cola. He was a fun kid to have around. He played on the football team and sang in the Madrigals chorus. Cola was not the brightest student in E-town's Class of '70, but he somehow remembered the words to every popular song ever written and he could do Frankie Valli falsettos. In another time, Bobby would have never considered going to college. Academics just weren't his strong suit.
Before the Selective Service Act of 1971 was passed, college deferments were the ticket out of military service. If you could get into college and stay there for four years, you would likely avoid the draft, so the smart play was to go to school and run the clock out. Dick Cheney famously received five draft deferments and not a single U.S. Senator or Congressman lost a son in the Vietnam War.
Eventually, the nation grew weary of the unfair toll the war had taken on minorities and the underprivileged and the Selective Service Board was pressured to create a fairer method for draft selection. The draft lottery was implemented to solve that problem.
New college deferments were eliminated in 1971. If you received a high draft lottery position, you could voluntarily give up your deferment for a year in which you were unlikely to be drafted, after which you would no longer be eligible. With a low number, you could remain in college and be subject to the draft for one year after graduation. Bobby had hated college, but he had worked his butt off to keep his grades up. Failing out of school meant being drafted, a powerful incentive.
'Well?" we asked as he approached.
"Number 290!" he gleamed, but that wasn't the only good news. "I don't have to go to college, anymore!" he quickly added.
We spent that evening congratulating our friends with high lottery numbers and consoling those who weren't as fortunate. We assured those in the middle that they would ultimately avoid the draft, since no one knew how high in the draft the military would need to go when the time came. Would number 170 be drafted? Would 180? It was a Kafkaesque moment in our young lives when a government bureaucracy would use a purely random process to decide our fates, or so it seemed.
That Thursday in August of 1971 felt like a fateful moment, but as it turned out, 1971 was the last year of the draft of the Vietnam War era. The war ended, as did Richard Nixon's presidency, before any of us would be drafted. I graduated from college and moved to the East Coast to work and raise a family. Steve became a Baptist minister and moved away, to South Carolina last I heard. Bobby still lives in E-town, but Gary built a successful travel agency business in Louisville. Stuart Davis did become a Navy pilot and the last time I saw him he was flying 737's for Federal Express. When I asked how he liked it, he replied, "After flying A-6's off a carrier deck, it's a little boring."
The clock ran out on the war before it ran out on our deferments. My friends and I had dodged a bullet.