There are a handful of numbers you always remember. The street address of your childhood home. Your social security number. The date of your wedding anniversary. And, if you are a man of certain age, you remember your draft lottery number. Mine was 159.
You remember your draft lottery number because of the anxiety it caused you at the time. Those of us in college, the lucky ones, had a student deferment. But how long would that deferment last? And what would happen after we left college? And would our local draft board reach our number? The guys with a low number were in a panic. Most of the rest of us had no clue what would happen.
Most of us hated the thought of going to Vietnam. Some of this aversion had to do with peer pressure. We were at a liberal school; the climate on campus was very anti-war. But some of our aversion also had to do with what we felt was common sense. The Vietnam War seemed hard to justify. The rationale didn’t seem compelling at all, unlike World War II. This was a civil war in a small, faraway country. It was not a domino. It was not our war. To this day, I still believe that.
And yet, had my number been called, I know I would have gone into the military. I’m quite sure I did not have the guts to find a way out of it. I would have let inertia carry me to Vietnam.
But I got lucky. My number was never reached. My local draft board had an ample supply of bodies not in college. And by the year I graduated, the conscription quotas were plummeting.
Years later I discovered I’d been lucky in another way. I was doing research for a video documentary. I came across an article about that first draft lottery and found out something interesting. Did you know that the procedure used in that lottery was flawed? Capsules, each one containing a birthdate, had been put into a bin. The bin was spun, but it didn’t sufficiently mix up the capsules. The first capsules placed in the bin—the ones having early-in-the-year birthdates—tended to stay at the bottom and were therefore plucked out later, resulting in higher lottery numbers. My January 2nd birthdate resulted in a lottery number of 159—which as it turned out, was never low enough to be called.
To me, that flawed lottery was symbolic of much of the random absurdity of that period of time. [Ed. note: The highest number called for 1972 was 95]