I was a student at Duke from 1966 to 1970–a very volatile period for everyone, but especially for males over the age of eighteen. Draft statuses were constantly changing, with the result that none of us who were classified II-S (student deferment) felt any security from month to month. In my freshman year I was reclassified to I-A (draft eligible) twice without warning. On the first occasion I was told to write a letter to my draft board and request reinstatement to II-S. On the second, I was required, along with everyone else on a student deferment, to take a test so that the government could determine whether or not we were worthy to be enrolled in college.
Those were nerve-wracking, very troubled times. Flunking out of college almost always resulted in a rapid change in status to I-A, followed by induction into the army, deployment to the rice paddies of Southeast Asia, and active membership in the Mekong Delta fraternity.
For those of us who stayed in school, planning for life after graduation was haphazard, at best. My idea was to try teaching. I thought I might like it, and at the time teachers were eligible for a deferment. But in the middle of my senior year, teaching deferments were canceled and the Draft Lottery was instituted. The Lottery was another misdirection play by Lewis B. Hershey, Director of the Selective Service. Its purpose was to democratize the draft, and it was marketed on prime-time television like a sweepstakes.
I remember watching the broadcast in the commons room of a dorm at Duke. We called it "You Bet Your Life". It was an early version of reality TV. Some of the guys in our dorm even arranged a pool in which the "winners" of the lottery stood to gain a cash prize–consolation for a low draft number.
My recollection of the "show" is that a Plexiglass barrel containing 366 capsules, each one holding a birth date, was ceremoniously rolled out on stage. The barrel was turned to shuffle the capsules, and then the drawing commenced–one capsule at a time until all of them were out and announced. My lottery number came up 156, which put me in the "likely to be drafted" category.
In the spring of 1970 I received a letter from the Draft Board requesting my presence at a medical exam to take place at the Veterans Hospital in Raleigh. I boarded a bus with two friends who were on the same invitation list, and we rode over with a group of players from the Duke football team–big guys who looked capable of rending the Vietcong into bite-sized chunks.
The result of our examination day in Raleigh was that every single member of the football team failed the physical–they all had bad knees or ankles. I, on the other hand, half blind and weighing in at a whopping 130 pounds, sailed through with flying colors. It was one hell of a way to end my senior year.
By graduation, the choices were simple: get drafted, enlist, or become a Canadian. To be drafted meant an almost automatic ticket to Vietnam and participation in a war that increasingly looked like a bad idea. I had neither the guts nor the commitment to go to Canada. That left me with enlistment. I always liked the Navy Hymn, so I thought maybe that was the way to go. When I looked into the possibility of Officer Candidate School, I found that it was closed to everyone except math and physics majors. In the end, I enlisted in the Navy with a proviso that when OCS opened, I would have the option of enrolling. That was the best deal I was going to get.
As it turned out, I spent the better part of my enlistment in Naples, Italy, acting as a legal specialist for an aviation squadron that served the Sixth Fleet. I was there when my invitation to Officer Candidate School finally came through. The decision was a tough one: should I continue to live at my lakefront Italian villa or should I go back to another boot camp and be assigned to a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam? It took me about three seconds to decide, and I finished out my enlistment in the comfort and security of Bella Napoli.
I did, after all, become a teacher. But it was only after spending three years masquerading as an "American Fighting Man Overseas". While the experiences of living in Italy were invaluable to me in later life, I always resented the spasmodic way in which Selective Service acted during my college years, and I was somewhat bitter over the fact that I was four years behind many of my classmates who drew a lower number in the lottery.
The trauma of the lottery has never quite left me. I am still visited from time to time by a recurring nightmare in which I am ordered back into active duty because of a low number in yet another lottery. I protest to the authorities that I am too old to serve and that furthermore I have already done my time. It is someone else’s turn, I argue. All of it falls on deaf ears, though, and in my nightmare I am taken away, processed, and sent back to Recruit Training Command at Great Lakes, Illinois to start over again.