I was born on September 8. On the day of the 1969 draft lottery I sat in my car waiting to hear what my number would be. My birthday was drawn at No. 184. I always thought it would be too low to keep me out of the draft. So, I shrugged and went about my business as a full time UCLA student and part time warehouse worker. Little did I know that I had just passed through one of those profound turning points in life.
On June 14, 1970 I received notice from my draft board that my status had been changed from a student deferment to 1-A. This was one day before graduation on June 15! Geez, I thought, they sure are in a hurry! I mailed in my request for reconsideration, knowing this would be denied but I would have an automatic 90 day extension before the draft process would begin. No, I wasn’t planning to avoid the draft or skip the country, I just needed those 90 days – I had already purchased my plane tickets and train pass for a summer touring Europe.
Soon after I returned home the denial of my request for reconsideration arrived, along with instructions to appear for my physical. I passed the physical and was subsequently notified that I was a sterling 1-A, prime candidate for military service. And, oh, yeah…they were already past my lottery number. It was only a matter of time, and though the Vietnam War was by now winding down, they were still killing 50 Americans a week over there.
I discussed the situation with my father, a WW II vet who had been a POW, captured by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. I told him that, well, maybe getting drafted won’t be so bad after all – that going to Vietnam would be an adventure of a lifetime – that I was curious about what it was like – that it might be a very interesting experience.
He shook his head and said, “No, not this war. You will not like it, it is not what you think it is, and you will regret being there one minute after you arrive. If you can honorably avoid going to Vietnam, do it.” Unlike many 21 year olds, I followed my father’s advice. It was fate, though, that gave me the opportunity.
This arrived in the form of a letter from the United States Marine Corps Reserves, telling of a very few slots available for specially qualified candidates in a reserve air unit at Los Alamitos Naval Air Station. I met with the recruiter, who said they had two slots open for avionics technicians, highly trained specialists in the repair of aircraft electronics systems.
“Are you interested?” he asked.
“Yes!” I nodded enthusiastically. I said this even though I had been a history major and knew absolutely nothing about electronics. What did I have to lose?
The recruiter gave me an aptitude test. It must not have been that difficult, because after he graded it he looked at me in awe, stating it was the highest score he had ever seen. Yeah…a history major! He became very enthusiastic about my prospects as a recruit, and said the next step would be a physical. All I had to do was fill out some papers and take them down the road to the Navy Corpsman who would administer all the tests.
“There is one requirement, though,” he added, “you can’t be color blind. Are you color blind?” he asked.
“Nope,” I answered confidently. I am absolutely blue/green color blind – have been all my life. What did I have to lose?
The Corpsman was all alone and utterly bored, and performed the physical in an exceedingly impersonal and, I thought, lackadaisical manner. When he started the color blindness test I told myself, try and fake it, do some guessing, anything…just pass this sucker or its Vietnam for you! I tried hard, but at the end of the test I realized I had named only two colors the whole time. Ooops. The Corpsman said nothing, began filling out the paperwork, and told me I could go back to the recruiter.
When I got back the recruiter asked, hopefully, how it had gone. “Great!” I smiled again with enthusiasm. What did I have to lose? He was very happy, had me sign some papers and said I would be notified soon regarding the date of my swearing-in and subsequent reporting to boot camp. I would be an “obligor” reservist subject to six months active duty for training and 5½ years of service in a reserve squadron – once a month drills and once a year two week summer deployments. Hey – much better than Vietnam!
I went home fully expecting to be notified at any time that, sorry, we don’t want you in the Marine Reserves as an Avionics Technician because you are color blind! The notice never came – instead I was told two weeks later to report for swearing-in. When I arrived for the ceremony I again fully expected to be sent packing…as a color blind reject. It didn’t happen. I was sworn in and given a date to report back for the bus to boot camp in San Diego.
Boot camp was just as advertised, and then some. I was a student of military history, and knew full well the Prussian origins of the Marine Corps basic training ethos and how this artfully designed cascade of physical and mental stress was designed to fundamentally change the personality of the recruit. Knowing this, I decided early on to go with the program, to pretend to be what they wanted me to be – to act out the bravado and confidence that comes at the later stages as the recruit is “built up” as a Marine. The deception worked beautifully – or so I thought.
Towards the end, as I dutifully mimicked the extremism of Marine boot camp machismo, I began to wonder. Am I pretending? Or, am I being changed? Who am I fooling – them or myself? This was because I was facing, and overcoming, the single greatest crisis of my life. And as I succeeded in doing things I never thought I could do, in handling physical and mental stresses that should have crushed me, I grew…I changed.
After graduation I had a short leave and went to visit my brother, then a student at UC Berkley. I strode across the campus with my Marine buzz cut with total confidence, afraid of nothing and no one – actually hoping that some hippy would give me an excuse to kick his ass. They all sensed this and no one said a word.
My brother told me this – you have changed – you stand different, walk different, talk different and look different. I had to agree. Because I had been 22 when I started boot camp the change was not permanent – I later “warped” back to my real personality, more or less. But the experience is seared on my soul, and changed me for life – for the better. Here’s how I summarize it. In June 1970 I graduated with honors from UCLA. In February, 1971 I graduated from Marine Corps boot camp with a meritorious promotion to PFC – an honor given to the top 10% of the recruits in the platoon. I am more proud of this latter accomplishment…because I worked harder for it.
After graduation from boot camp almost everyone went to infantry training at Camp Pendleton. Not me. I was a reservist scheduled for something like five months of training to become an Avionics Technician, so I was ordered straight to Naval Air Station Memphis to start the course. As it was I would be on active duty for training for over eight months, and they didn’t want to add to it with the infantry stuff. Fine with me! A few days after starting the two week aviation orientation training in Memphis I was called in to the Gunnery Sergeant running the show.
“Applegate,” he said, “you are scheduled for training as an Avionics Technician.”
“Yes Gunnery Sergeant,” I answered.
“Well,” he paused, looking at a folder, “you can’t be an Avionics Technician.”
“Why not Gunnery Sergeant?” I asked.
“Because you are color blind!”
“I know that Gunnery Sergeant.”
He slammed the file down and proceeded with a series of invectives directed at my recruiter, using language that best not be repeated here. I was worried that I would be kicked out (and then drafted), but that was never a possibility – I was already in – had already finished boot camp – so they were stuck with me. I ended up being trained as a supply clerk – a six week course that had me home with over a month left on my six months of active duty.
While away Los Alamitos had closed and my unit was moved to MCAS El Toro, where I reported for duty. They didn’t need any supply clerks, and I was assigned to maintenance control for a squadron of OV-10 Bronco aircraft. When my six months were up I was free to resume a civilian life, albeit as a Marine Reservist required to report for weekend drills once a month. The grooming requirements were explained thusly: “You can grow your hair as long as you want, but you can’t wear it on drill weekends.” In other words, short hair.
In the early 1970’s this was a problem for a young man. No, not in getting a job – it actually helped me start my career with U.S. Customs because my interviewers were all WWII vets. It was…you know what I mean…women!
At this time the Vietnam War had ruined it for our military. They were shunned, not honored, and short hair was a sure sign that you were one of the baby killers. This attitude, however, tended to be limited to American women. Foreign women did not seem to care. Once I figured this out I noticed something else – I lived in Los Angeles! No problem finding foreign women there!
So, as a young man with short hair I dated only a very few American women and many Asians and Latinas. In 1974 I married a beautiful Mexican girl. We have three lovely children (and now one grandchild) and I am still married to this wonderful woman. Would this have happened if my lottery number had been high enough to protect me from the draft? I don’t think so.
I finished my services in the Marine Reserves as the NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer In-Charge) of the OV-10 squadron. I received an honorable discharge and when I recount this experience to others of my generation who did go to Vietnam they usually express envy – and never disdain. Also, to this day, wherever I go in the world (and I have been all over it) whenever I meet a fellow former Marine, we are instantly good buddies. As long as there are Marines around you are never alone, and I cherish being part of this community.
The effect of my lottery number did not stop there. As my time in the Marines had been a positive experience, this attitude was picked up by my children. My oldest daughter spent four years in the Coast Guard and my son served eight years in the Marines, including a tour in Iraq. These were also positive experiences for them and I am proud of their service and thankful that this time our military is honored rather than disparaged.
So, there it is – the path my life took because of a low lottery number. At the time I thought I was unlucky. It turned out to be exactly the opposite.