During the cold war, from the late forties through the eighties, the USA fought a number of proxy wars with the Soviet Union. The biggest by far was Vietnam. There are a number of movies about the war if you want to learn more about it. Apocalypse Now is the one that sticks in my mind. There were jungles, illicit drugs, killing, bugs, death, guns, humidity … all things that this North Dakota boy wanted nothing to do with. Needless to say I did not want to go.
The government needed cannon fodder and not enough young men volunteered to go to the killing fields. So they restarted the draft. To make it a little more fair, there was a lottery system. Each year they would draw numbers and assign that random number to a day of the year. The day to watch for was your birthday. That gave you your number. When you were eligible for the draft, your number went into the pool. First they took boys whose number was 1, then 2, then 3, and kept taking them until the infantry was full. You knew exactly where you stood.
The system wasn’t exactly fair, as there were a couple of ways to avoid the draft. My out was college. My number was 96. That was a relatively low number, but I had a deferment. Life was good. I went to school, got married, and generally enjoyed the student life while the other boys went to ‘Nam. That plan only worked for four years, then I went into the pool. I graduated from college in 1972, so immediately lost the deferment.
There was a chance they wouldn’t take me, as they were drafting fewer people every year, so I didn’t do anything serious. Then I got the letter, sent to everybody with a number below 100, to have their pre-induction physical. The letter said to report to the courthouse in Jamestown for the screening physical. So I drove from Fargo, where we were living in married student housing, to the post office in Jamestown. It was a nice drive. From there they tried to herd us all onto the bus for a trip to the induction center. In Fargo!
It took a little fast talking, but I did manage to convince them to allow me to drive back to Fargo and meet them at the induction center. They probably thought I was trying to chicken out at the last-minute. It was an experience being lined up with all these strange farm boys in their underwear. They did all those things that you saw in the movies.
Walter Cronkite on the CBS evening news
We were more than a little worried now, especially since I had just received an NSF scholarship for the upcoming school year. The scholarship would disappear if I wasn’t in school. We discussed options, including what the job market was like in Toronto. Draft dodging was big business in the seventies. My dad would have been unhappy, but I was ready to ignore that issue.
The draft was big news on the TV. Each month they’d announce how many were being drafted, and which numbers would be taken. I clearly remember being home (53 Bison Court) watching the little B&W 13″ TV set as Walter Cronkite announced that everyone with a number up to and including number 95 would be inducted into the service. Those over number 95 were free to go, thank you.
That was one of the happiest days of my life. How different life would have been had I been drafted and sent to war. Several of my friends were drafted and served in Germany, Washington, DC and other benign places, so there’s a chance I would have survived. Happily, I didn’t have to find out. This life turned out pretty good.