December 1st, 1969. A group of college kids crowded round the tv. Each left as his birth date was called, his future having been decided—Vegas style—by the luck of the draw.
As time’s shadow fell across the last tumultuous days of the 1960s, the number of young people volunteering for military service could no longer sustain our country’s fight against communism in Vietnam. The maw of war needed more bodies—and beginning on the night of December 1, 1969—it got them.
I was a freshman in college living in a dormitory imaginatively named East Hall. It was males only, as the notion of men and women cohabitating on campus had not yet widely penetrated university culture. There was only one T.V. on our floor and we crammed into the bemused owner’s room to watch the broadcast as the U. S. government held its first military draft lottery since 1942. Someone adjusted the television set’s rabbit ear antennas to get a better picture. Sensing that the final act of the 20th century’s momentous seventh decade was about to play out, we sat helpless and small before our fate, like prisoners at the bench, all with running commentary from intrepid reporters.
In a large glass cylinder were 366 blue plastic balls containing slips of paper numbered for each day of the year, including February 29. We barely breathed as Congressman Alexander Pirnie (R-NY) of the House Armed Services Committee reached into the jar and pulled out the first ball, number 257, September 14, followed by April 24, December 30, February 14, October 18, and on and on until the glass container was empty, with June 8 drawn last.
As the dates were announced, an odd mixture of groans, sighs, shouts, and curses peppered the room. Those with numbers drawn in the lower third of the order had likely beaten the odds; those with numbers drawn in first third had likely not; and those with numbers drawn in the middle third would simply have to wait and see. In fact, numbers 1 through 195 were eventually called into service from the 1969 draft; 196 through 366 continued their lives normally, peacefully, as if no war were going on at all. Each person left as his birth date was called, his future having been decided—Vegas style—by the luck of the draw.
The next morning, the kid who lived across the hall had vanished. Gone to Canada some said. A few days later his dad came to collect the boy’s things. I helped him load the car. Upstairs and down we plodded in silence until the young man’s room echoed the fearful emptiness of lives abruptly distorted, capricious and irrevocable.
“Thanks,” he said. I shook his hand and nodded.
On his face was written no shame for a son who had turned away from his country’s call; nor any pride for a son who had sacrificed freedom and future to make a principled stand. All I could make out in the depth of the father’s bewildered eyes was a weary and unbearable sadness.