My blog-friend Uncle Skip recently posted in observance of the anniversary of his induction into United States military service. I never served in the military, but even so, his post reminded me of a story from my own young life, of my own very limited interface with the US military. I thought that I had posted it before, but it turns out I hadn't; so now I am correcting that gap in the stories of my life presented here. Enjoy. . .
When I was in my childhood, and into my teens, the Vietnam War was still in full swing, and registration for the draft was compulsory. In fact, sometime in the 60s, a lottery was instituted; every year, birthdates were pulled out of a rotating drum at random, setting the order in which that year's crop of draftees would be called. The lottery results were published in the newspapers, and, like most young men, I would check the list to find my birthday on the list. In all the years I checked, my 'draft number' was never significantly below 200 (out of 365), which I regarded as hopeful, that I might actually bypass the government's offer of a free trip to southeast Asia. Not, mind you, that I was categorically or morally opposed to military service, or unpatriotic, or anything like that; I merely hoped to complete my education, get married and raise a family, and all that 'regular stuff', without the disruptions that military service would entail.
I actually went away to college when I was still 17; my 18th birthday was in the spring of my freshman year. So, a couple months before my birthday, I got a letter in the mail, which very helpfully reminded me that it was my duty as a citizen to register for the draft within 30 days of my 18th birthday, which in my case meant 'between the dates of 1 February 1974 and 2 April 1974' (since my birthday is March 3). It even told me where the nearest Selective Service office was (in the Student Services Building, right on campus), for my convenience. I noted the correspondence, and made sure to stash it in a prominent, visible location on my desk, lest I forget my obligation to my friends, neighbors and fellow-citizens.
Now, at the time (being a not-yet-18-year-old freshman) I saw no particular reason to run right out and register early. And my birthday was down toward the end of the Winter Quarter (my university, in those days, divided its academic year into quarters, rather than semesters), and final exams loomed. So I decided that I would have plenty of time, without urgent academic pressure, to register at the beginning of the Spring Quarter. I finished my exams and went on spring break, and all was well with the world.
I returned from spring break and got settled into my Spring Quarter classes. On April 3 (of course, the date is absolutely significant), I was sitting at my desk, when my eyes fell on my letter from Uncle Sam. I smacked myself on the forehead for forgetting to do it sooner, and ran right out to the Student Services Building, found the Selective Service office, and duly registered for the draft. Yes, I thought to myself, it's actually 31 days since my 18th birthday, but I had done my duty, if a day late. No big deal, right?
I can hear those of my friends who've ever dealt with either the government or the military, laughing at my precious naivete. And of course, in due time, it was impressed upon me just how big a deal it really was. It was perhaps a month or so later, that I received a letter from the Selective Service Administration. I opened the letter, thinking that it was an acknowledgement of my faithful registration, and instructing me as to what happened next. I was a little unclear as to exactly what the process was, and when I got my vaunted Draft Card, and all that.
I don't have the letter anymore, so I can't quote it verbatim. But, in so many words, it said:
"Your duty under the law is to register for the draft within 30 days of your 18th birthday. We see here that you registered on April 3, which is 31 days after your birthday. If you think you're making some sort of a statement, or having a joke at our expense, we're not laughing. Send us a letter explaining your actions within 30 days of the date of this letter. If you don't, or if we don't like your reasons, the law gives us a range of options for dealing with people like you, including drafting your ass immediately. Have a nice day."
Oh, I wrote the most sorrowful, contrite letter you ever saw, explaining that I meant nothing by my tardiness, that I wasn't remotely trying to make any sort of grandstand moral or political point, or, God forbid, making a joke at their expense, because, hahahaha, that would be incredibly stupid, wouldn't it? That I had simply put it off too long and lost track of the time, what with exams and spring break and the beginning of the new quarter, and all. And how really, really, REALLY sorry I was for the inconvenience that my procrastination had caused them, and that I loved my country, and may God bless you all, and the President of these United States. And Mrs. Nixon, too. Pleasepleaseplease don't draft me. Thank you. PS - Can I mow your lawn, or wash your car, or anything? Believe me, it was pathetic.
Evidently, I appeased their wrath, because the next correspondence I received was the standard, 'OK, we got your registration; here's what happens next' letter. For which I heaved a heavy, grateful sigh. . .
As it turned out, when the lottery took place for those of us turning 19 in 1975, which was when I would actually be 'on the line', my lottery number was 53. It figures; all those years of numbers above 200, and when it really matters, I drew 53. But 1975 was also the year that US troops left Vietnam, so the draft didn't go very far down the list that year, and never got as far as 53. It wasn't very many years after that, that the draft was eliminated altogether, and the US military became an all-volunteer force.
I wonder, from time to time, if my letter still exists, buried in a file somewhere in the basement of a warehouse in Washington. But as far as making points is concerned, the SSA made theirs, and they got my full and undivided attention, for a couple months during my freshman year of college. . .