I was in my senior year of college when they held the draft lottery. For many of us, the lottery and the elimination of some draft deferments turned life into a strange game of chance. I eventually got drafted, and the skills I learned in the Army helped me get started in my career. But at that time, I wanted to pursue graduate studies (with two fellowship offers in hand), and so I tried to avoid the draft. Regardless, being a draftee means never having to say you’re sorry.
I knew that a lottery number in the mid-100s would not be high enough to get by my local (small North Carolina factory town) draft board. They did business in the old-fashioned way–influence and grease. A local appliance merchant got his son out of the draft with a brand new washer and dryer. Yes, that sort of thing went on.
I graduated in May 1970, passed the physical, and just like that was classified I-A. After looking into some alternatives, I decided on a direct approach, simply to appeal the I-A classification. Called to appear before the draft board, I told them I just wanted to go to graduate school, period. They were not impressed one bit so, caught up in the absurdity of the moment, I added, "And I will get my graduate degree by hook or by crook!" No guts, no glory, I thought. No deferment either.
By that fall, I was enrolled in graduate classes, still classified as I-A.
Graduate school deferments had been eliminated, but the rule was that if I received an induction notice while enrolled, it would be postponed until the end of the academic year. I was rolling the dice and buying time. The fall semester had hardly started when my draft notice came with a note at the bottom that my induction was postponed until June 17. It was hard to study with that letter sitting there next to my textbooks, but over the winter life got even more complicated–I got engaged to be married. And by then marriage deferments were long gone.
My fiancee and her family wanted us to have a church wedding. My only input was this request: please schedule this thing before June 17 (I’m busy that day). Well, they tried but the church was booked until late June so they went ahead and scheduled the wedding anyway and started mailing invitations. I was in a big jam. Mr. "Hook-or-Crook" would now have to ask the same draft board for a big favor. I wrote them the nicest letter I could, asking them tp postpone my induction for one month. To my amazement, they granted my request and changed the orders to July.
We got married expecting that I would be drafted a couple of weeks later, but our luck would take a strange turn. While we were on our honeymoon, a budget battle in Congress delayed the renewal of the draft bill, and the draft was temporarily suspended. A week later I got a letter from the draft board that my induction in July was postponed indefinitely, but, in so many words, stay tuned.
OK, now what? I moved into my wife’s apartment, got a job delivering furniture, and waited to be inducted. This went on for months. Meaning well, family and friends would say things like, "Don’t you want to know?" and "Why don’t you enlist and get it over with?" No, I didn’t want to know. Life was good. Newlyweds can put up with anything.
Finally in November the draft was back in gear, and I was on the troop bus headed off to who knows what. At the induction center, a Marine sergeant walked up to us in line and said, "We need some Marines" and selected the draftee on my left–my heart skipped a beat–and the draftee on my right, and every other draftee until he had his quota. I was almost a Marine. At the Army swearing-in ceremony when they asked us to step forward, two refused. I always wondered what happened to them.
Basic training was the usual miserable experience. As a Southerner, I crawled well (that’s how we gather wild onions to eat), but I had one major deficit and it was a serious one: I couldn’t shoot straight. I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Failing the first marksmanship test, I became one of the few unfortunate "Bolos", targets of extra duty, ridicule, and scorn. The next marksmanship test was again a disaster. I was the only one to fail. Now I was a "Double Bolo"–the company pariah and the lowest form of life. I would be given one last chance. If I failed to make a score of 23 out of 40 (some things you never forget), I would have to repeat basic training. This was unthinkable, but even more, it was flat-out embarrassing. Flunk basic training? No military glory with that. The pressure was on. I would need my new Army survival skills to pull through this crisis.
The final marksmanship test came early one January morning. It was me all alone on the firing range. Sitting behind me was a grader, a trainee from another company there to record my score. As I got ready, all of a sudden it came to me. This is the Army. I know what to do. It’s time for action.
Looking down range, I said, just loud enogh for the grader to hear, "Twenty bucks if I make 23." The grader laughed and said, "Relax, you’ll do fine." I started laughing too. What the hell. Sometimes you just have to let go. The first target came up, and I started knocking them down.
In 1999, thirty years after the draft lottery and with a little luck here and there, the Double Bolo finally got a master’s degree and did it "by hook or by crook."