I remember listening to the radio broadcast of the 1969 draft lottery with my college roomate. Graduation was approaching for both of us, and the end of student deferment. The lottery would determine if life after college required a risky two-year tour in Southeast Asia.
We had heard that people who received the lowest one-third of lottery numbers were sure to be called to duty; the middle third might or might not; the upper third were likely safe. We listened through the lower numbers, one by one, until finally his birthday came up at number 171, then mine at 210. Both of us falling in the middle third, we still weren’t sure how close we might be to active duty.
I was soon notified by the Selective Service that my number wasn’t too high to rule out a pre-induction physical. I boarded a bus at a street corner in the county seat a few miles away, very early on a Monday morning, for the ride to the induction center. The boys on the bus were a mixed group: some college types like me, mostly white; some black guys who looked hardly old enough to be out of high school; and a few country boys as well.
We spent much of that day being herded from place to place inside the building, mostly in our underwear. It was like getting a physical from the family doctor, except multiplied by dozens. We would form up as ordered while several med techs would come down the line–take your pulse, look in the ears, turn head and cough, etc. At one point the uniformed man in charge–a sergeant I think–bellowed out that anyone with a doctor’s letter should raise their hand. Suddenly nearly all of the college kids, not including me, went diving into their back packs and duffel bags and came up waving papers. I realized that maybe I’d been taking all of this a little too lightly. The black boys near me exchanged glances, sensing they were already being left behind. Every man with a letter from his own doctor was granted an individual audience behind closed doors with someone I barely glimpsed, an army doctor I assumed. I couldn’t tell how many of that group were being deferred from service.
At the time I went for my physical, I had no active plan to avoid the draft, unlike many of my acquaintances who were already busy applying for conscientious objector status, or losing weight to be too skinny, or counting on the home town doctor to hype a problem with flat feet or allergies or deviated septum. I didn’t see the war as just and certainly didn’t want to shoot or be shot. But my father had been in WW II, my grandfather in WW I. If every generation has its war, this one was mine, worthwhile or not. I figured that two years in the military, at least away from the front lines, would be an experience that would never come again. At the physical, however, I started to wonder if the front lines might be where I was headed.
Those of us with no medical records from home were herded onward to the eye exam, where they didn’t check our eyes but instead put every pair of eyeglasses on a measuring device. It occurred to me that a simple way to flunk the physical would be to borrow just for that one day the glasses of someone with really poor eyesight. One of the guys in the group who from his talk was very gung-ho about going to fight got dropped because his glasses were just too thick.
Later we were standing in rows again for a med tech to hold a stethoscope to our chests. The tech lingered over me longer than the others, kept placing the metal cup at different spots over my heart. Then I was told to leave the line and they took me away to a small room and hooked me up to an EKG machine. Over the previous couple of years I’d noticed an occasional rapid, irregular hearbeat but it didn’t happen often and didn’t bother me, so I’d never seen a doctor about it. On the weekend before the draft physical it happened that I had gone home with a friend and stayed two nights in his parents’ large older home that creaked and groaned all night and kept me mostly awake. That Monday morning on the way to the bus stop I had a big cup of coffee, which was unusual for me. Probably the lack of sleep and caffeine jolt made my heart act up during the physical. After the EKG machine printed out wavy lines on a roll of graph paper, the tech tore off the paper and took it away to be scrutinized by an unknown doctor. I waited about half an hour and then the tech came back and told me they couldn’t use me. My draft classification was changed to 1-Y, which meant I was healthier than a 4-F but would only be called up in the event of a major personnel shortage. Thanks to the draft, there was no personnel shortage, so I never experienced any military life other than the day of the physical. Eventually, the top number called for the 1970 draft was 195, so I would have been deferred anyway, although not without a period of suspense.
Most everyone I knew was able to avoid the draft if they wanted to, so I personally knew very few who went, and only two whose names are etched on the Wall. Then as now, draft army or all-volunteer, America drew its troops almost exclusively from the blue collar and poorer neighborhoods.