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My Life in a Blue Plastic Capsule

On December 1, 1969 the Selective Service System of the United States of America held a lottery to determine the order in which young men would be drafted into the military to fight a war in Vietnam. The lottery numbers selected in December 1969 were used to call-up men for induction and physical examination in 1970. I was part of that lottery. 

Here’s how it worked. Each day of the year, including February 29th, were assigned a number between 1 and 366. Each number was written on a piece of paper and then placed in a blue plastic capsule. The capsules were mixed up in a shoe box and then dumped into a large glass jar. The glass jar was placed unceremoniously on what looked like a step stool. Capsules were taken out of the jar one by one. The honor of taking the first capsule from the jar fell to Republican Congressional Representative Alexander Pirnie of New York’s 34th District.

The first number taken from the jar by Pirnie was 258 which represented the date September 14th. All men registered with that birthday born between 1944 and 1950 were assigned lottery number one, which meant that those men would be called to service immediately . The second number drawn represented April 24th and so all men born on that date would also be called up immediately. This process continued until all the capsules were retrieved from the jar. Somewhere between the first birthday drawn and the last, the military reached its quota of draftees for 1970, but at what point that happened was unknown to those of us waiting for the capsule with our birthdates to be drawn. What was clear, however, was that those drawn early in the process would get a call and those drawn late in the process would not.   

Rep. Alexander Pirnie, R-NY, draws the first capsule in the lottery drawing held on December 1, 1969. I was rather offended that a lottery drawn by some stuffy politician would determine my future so I went to the library to study while almost all other men on campus were gathered around radios listening to numbers and dates being read out one by one. I think I lasted thirty minutes in the library. Unable to concentrate, I hurried back to the dorm and started listening. I remember vividly that they were drawing the tenth capsule from the jar when I sat down, which was December 6th. Time went by with tension filling every room on every floor in the dorm. 25th number called, 50th, 100th, and still I had not heard my birthdate of August 27th. Somewhere around the 150th number I started to worry that August 27 might have been drawn in the first nine numbers! I began asking people if they heard August 27th in the first nine, cursing myself for going to the damn library. What was I thinking? Who was I kidding?

Of course, no one knew. They were only listening for their own birthdates. 250 and still no August 27. At 300 I was truly worried that I was in the top ten for immediate call-up. And then on the 352nd draw I heard August 27. I was 352 which meant there was no chance in hell, short of WWIII beginning, that I would be drafted. It meant that I dodged my generation’s war.

My roommate got 334 and we but a sign on our door saying: “I’m 334 and I’m 352.” The next morning we found the sign had been burned. We hadn’t meant to be insensitive. We were excited and relieved and didn’t really know how others had faired. Two guys on our floor left college within days. They both were in the first ten. My girlfriend baked me a yellow cake with chocolate icing with the number 352 drawn on the top in yellow icing. I immediately requested my 1-A status from the military.

My excitement eventually morphed into guilt. My cousin was fighting in Vietnam during all this. The unfairness was vivid. I hadn’t been drafted because I was fortunate enough to attend college and thus get a deferment until graduation. When he came home from leave I told him I was going to volunteer and he told me in no uncertain terms to forget it. While he was proud serving in the US military, he told me the whole damn war was drugged and corrupt, and he wasn’t talking about listening to the Who and drinking Bud. And so I stayed in college and he went back to Vietnam.

We all had draft cards back then and one of the most common protests against the war was to burn your draft card. That was not my chosen form of protest. However, I did burn my draft card one evening at Pizzeria Del-Dio, which we all called Dio’s. Here’s the thing: We each had a draft card or a Selective Service System Registration Certificate. Mine was signed by Diane M. Beck. Along with the Registration Certificate we were also given a Selective Service System Notice of Classification card. This card was issued each year when your classification was renewed or changed. With a college deferment I was classified 1-H, until I requested my 1-A (1-A meaning you were eligible for immediate call-up). Well, that night at Dio’s my friend I decided to tell our girlfriends we were burning our draft cards as an act of protest against the war. In fact we were planning to burn our old Notice of Classification card. It was to be a good joke, but I pulled the wrong card from my wallet and actually burned my Registration Certificate. I didn’t discover my error until a week or so later when I tried using my draft card to buy beer. I told Diane M. Beck that I had lost my original draft card and she kindly sent me a Dup. Issued card. By law we were required to have our draft and classification cards in our possession at all times.

In September of 1969 the Beatles released Abby Road which, while not their last release (Let It Be was to come in 1970), John Lennon had left the band by the time we started listening “Here Comes the Sun,” and Paul McCartney quit the following year. In December I didn’t know that and played Abby Road to left my spirits. Also in December of 1969 John Lennon was offered the role of Jesus Christ in Jesus Christ Superstar; in Chicago fourteen police shot and killed Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, members of the Black Panther Party, while they were sleeping; arrest warrants were issued for the Manson cult for murder (you might recall Charles Manson and I had a brief staring contests in prison); Seattle unveiled the new Boeing 747; the USSR conducted a nuclear test in Eastern Kazakh/Semipalatinsk; the L.A. police attacked the Black Panthers;  the first strain of the Aids virus migrated to the US from Haiti; People’s Park in Berkeley was claimed; Arlo Guthrie released “Alice’s Restaurant;” USAF gave up its search for extraterrestrials and closed Project Blue Book; the US performed a nuclear test in Nevada; “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by Peter, Paul, and Mary hit number one; Diana Ross had her last performance as a Supreme on the Ed Sullivan Show; The French Lieutenant’s Woman was a bestselling novel; people all over the US were listening to “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head;” and I avoided the draft.

Copyright © 2017 Dale Rominger

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