In the years I attended the University of Wisconsin, 1967-1971, my classes seemed to be sandwiched between attending a never-ending series of protests and going to hundreds of movies on campus. On December 1, 1969, the day of the first draft lottery, the classic French film I saw, starring leftist actor Yves Montand, had the fitting title Wages of Fear. I was a twenty-year-old junior and if I didn’t feel total fear that day as the numbers were called out it was only because the whole thing seemed unreal. And after I heard the bad news–the number for August 8 was 48–at a gathering of jittery students in the Union, I was in even more of a daze. But one thing that was clear, and commendable, is that none of us who had low numbers resented those who got high, safe numbers and breathed a sigh of relief. Nobody whose birthday was between January 1 and December 31 should have been in that vile lottery.
My life didn’t change dramatically over the next year and a half, leading up to my physical. However, like everyone with a low number, I experienced anxiety, and the idea that Uncle Sam might want me after I graduated was always in the back of my mind. I didn’t believe the war would end by then; it looked like with Nixon as president it would never end, and lotteries would take place every year. Even in my senior year, though, I didn’t consider fleeing to Canada, and I applied to grad schools. But I wasn’t going to take the chance of going to my physical unprepared. Somebody in the draft resistance movement gave me the name of "a shrink who will write you a letter to take with you". Apparently this Madison psychiatrist was known to be antiwar and wrote many letters to help graduating students get deferments. I saw him only once and was surprised that he seemed totally straight. He never once said he’d write a letter full of lies that would terrify the establishment and assure my being rejected. It was a real 50-minute session, during which time I told this well-dressed, emotionless man about myself and wondered, "Is this the right guy?". He did give me a letter; it was sealed and he told me to keep it that way. Of course on the day before the physical, I opened it, with the help of someone who was an expert at opening and resealing official letters. I couldn’t take a chance. I was actually surprised that he had written the type of letter that I was hoping for, and a little worried that he believed what he wrote. Yes, he fibbed that I was homosexual, which was fine with me, and he made the bold statement that I’ve never forgetten: "He doesn’t act well in group situations or intrapersonal relationships." I wasn’t sure what an "intrapersonal" relationship was, but I wondered if I was really so bad at it. My friend resealed the letter and I was on my own.
After a sleepless night, I got on an early bus from Madison to Milwaukee. I still appreciate, particularly considering the hour, that there were protesters there to bolster us and give some advice. My girlfriend saw me off and I remember that as the nicest thing she ever did during our relationship.
There were a zillion young men getting their physical at the selective service facility in Milwaukee. I like to think that I was the least appealing. My hair was long and uncombed, my beard kind of ugly, I kept my eyes crazy-wide–with no blinks allowed the whole time–I spoke with a weak whisper and was pretty much nonsensical, and as my trump card, I carried a handkerchief full of dust which triggered sneezing fits every time I blew my nose. But you know what? None of that mattered. None of the military personnel paid any attention. I had expected to be pulled aside and disqualified, but after hours of doing my get-out-of-the-army routine I found myself in a line leading to a table where a short-haired guy in uniform was stamping everyone’s forms with their draft designations, including the dreaded 1-As. It was to him I handed my letter from the psychiatrist. He read it, looked at me with true repulsion, and called over another soldier. He read the letter too and they both looked at me, imagining me in all kinds of intrapersonal relationships. He took out a different stamp and pounded my form. He handed it to me. I expected 4-F, obviously, and was taken aback. The f**ker had given me a 1-Y, a mere six-month deferment. I dared question him. "Only six months?" He gave me the dirtiest, cruelest look imaginable and said, "If you don’t like it, I’ll change it to 1-A." I did my impersonation of the Flash and got out of there, pretty unsatisfied. I was due to start grad school in six months in Los Angeles, so I wondered if I’d be allowed to go at all. Six months passed and I left Madison for L.A. and began school. Another six months passed, then another, and still another. Then, one glorious day, I received a letter from the Selective Service. They got it right this time–I was now officially 4-F.