I graduated from Carolina in the spring of 1969, with only a vague notion of
what to do with my life. After taking creative writing under Max Steele, I
fancied myself a budding novelist; Carolina law school was Plan B. But nothing
could happen until the dark cloud of the draft was lifted.
bitterly opposed to the war in Vietnam and, indeed, had participated in several
demonstrations. I considered Canada, but the idea of leaving my friends and
family — perhaps forever, as the notion that such expats would be barred from
ever re-entering the States was in vogue at the time — was out. Temporarily at
loose ends, that summer I applied to the MAT program at Carolina and to the
I was accepted to both. The MAT program, run through the
School of Education, meant a year of teaching U.S. History at West Charlotte
High School, an all-black school that would be integrated the following year in
a landmark desegregation case. The Peace Corps would send me to teach in
American Samoa, but I would again be subject to the draft after two years. I
chose the MAT program and rented a house near the Charlotte airport.
lottery, the first since 1942, was held on the evening of Dec. 1, 1969. My
roommate Ken and I sat by the TV, exhaling after each number and its
corresponding birthdate was announced. As I recall, there was a break after the
first 25 numbers and, sensing the prospect of high, safe numbers, we began
putting on our coats and heading for a bar to celebrate. But as I went to turn
off the television, the lottery resumed and number 26 was announced: Dec. 14, my
One month later I was among the first lottery draftees in
Union County. My notice announced I had two weeks before my induction date. But
unbeknownst to me, my mother had written a heart-wrenching letter about her only
son to Jesse Helms, the senator from North Carolina and her elementary school
classmate. A week before my induction into the Army, a letter arrived on Sen.
Helms’ stationery, inviting me to enlist in the United States Coast Guard. I
jumped at the chance. The Guard was four years, granted, versus two in the Army.
But my odds of survival were infinitely higher; draftees, particularly from the
South, were almost certain cannon fodder in those days.
camp in Cape May, N.J., I was off to USCG Air Station, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The prospect of living alone in Puerto Rico hastened my first marriage, which
occurred in August of 1970. My four Coast Guard years included the Watergate
scandal, so like many young people at the time I decided to follow in the
footsteps of Woodward and Bernstein and pursue a career in journalism.
wife was a Pennsylvanian. I liked the state — from my first big city,
Philadelphia, to the forests upstate –and was happy to be accepted into the
graduate journalism program at Penn State. I received my Masters’ degree in
journalism in 1975 and began a 15-year career that culminated in a staff
position at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a 1991 Pulitzer Prize nomination for a
series of articles on the family that owned Campbell Soup. My knowledge of the
inner workings of Campbell, along with an MBA degree from the Wharton School,
then led to a successful 20-year career on Wall Street.
Nearly 50 years
later, I can sometimes summon the bitterness I felt at the random manner in
which I was forced to waste four years of my life in a military I despised. I
can remember, too, the searing envy for those with comfortably high numbers. But
age has a way of smoothing sharp edges.
Today I stand proudly when
veterans are recognized at luncheons and dinners. And as I look back — from the
toilet cleaning of my early military years to the halls of Park Avenue — it’s
with a feeling that almost approaches fondness that I recall that chilly
December night in Charlotte and that awful number 26.