Dear Family and Friends:
Since the Turkey Cook last week with my buddies retelling stories of Viet Nam, and then seeing The Deer Hunter late last night on Turner Classic Movies (I love the first hour of that movie, the before Viet Nam part. It is a great depiction buddies and their girls at one of the friend’s wedding. It’s a very ethnic wedding, Russian music, dancing, lots of drinking. The joys before the tragedies) my mind as gotten stuck on those days in college and Chicago. I graduated from the University of Illinois at exactly the wrong time, in Viet Nam terms, January 1969. 1965 to 1969 were dark years to be in college. Times of student protests, loss of faith in our government, great pressures to make regular advancement toward graduation (you couldn't think of changing majors) so you would not be drafted before finishing. Sure, kids in those days were drawn together in their anti-establishment, anti-war, and generation gap culture. But it was all negative energy. Kids were against a lot, but hardly for anything. We talked peace and love. We tuned in, turned on, and dropped out, I think, because of a fear of what the world (or our world) had become rather than any kind of conviction or idea for the future. Strange days.
The late 60’s were hardly hooked into information sharing like we are today. No computers, no internet, no Google, facebook, etc. You found out what was happening by watching TV, reading the newspapers, and talking to people. A few weeks after I graduated I received that dreaded letter from the government assigning me to a day and time to report downtown for my military physical. I passed it and was told that I’d get my marching orders within six weeks. What to do? The goal was simple; stay out of Viet Nam. If you couldn't avoid being drafted, then find some kind of military service that would keep you out of the jungle. I heard that the Army Air Reserve was still taking people. The headquarters was in Oak Park, Illinois and I showed up to take a physical exam to qualify. Just out of college I was pretty fit. We had to run a mile and do some chin-ups and sit-ups, as I recall. I passed. Gathered in a room, an officer addressed us. He told us that this was the army air corps and as such we would be required make six parachute jumps a year to remain active. I raised my hand and asked, “What if you were injured on a jump and couldn't make all six in a year?” “Then,” he said, “You’d become inactive and subject to be drafted into the regular army.” I picked up my stuff and walked out.
The next day I took my car in for an oil change. I was friendly with the mechanic and he told me that the Navy Air Corps was still accepting people. I called them at the Glenview Naval Air Base and learned that the following Saturday, if I was interested in the limited number of spots open, I would have to come there and take an aptitude test. The position was for a hydraulic equipment mechanic; six weeks of basic training, then mechanic school, then two years on an aircraft carrier and four years in the active reserves. Sounded a lot better to me than Saigon. I went.
Not that I was so bright, but I had just finished four and on half years of college. The others taking the aptitude test were high school kids. Taking tests was what I did. I scored at the top and got the offer of the position.
While all of this was happening, I was trying to get a job with the Chicago Board of Education. Substitute teaching offered a deferment. No being drafted. The Monday after the Navy test, I was called for an interview down on LaSalle Street. They closed just as I was being called in at 5 PM, but I was able to convince the interviewer to stay a few minutes late and do my interview. At 5:15 she offered me a job as a permanent substitute at the Emmet school. That school was an inner-city school on Chicago’s West side. As the interview ended I inquired as to the possibility of a deferment from the draft. “Oh, certainly,” she said. “It comes automatically with the position. We will inform your draft board.” I was saved. Deferred for a year. Later I’ll tell you some tales of the mini war zone known as the Emmet school.
After six months of teaching and a summer at camp in Wisconsin, I found myself studying at a school in Jerusalem, still under that deferment. I was able to extend the deferment for another year as long as I continued to work with children. Camp qualified. But while in my little room (converted from a kitchen, and about the size of a matchbox) in a residence hall of the Hayyim Greenberg Institute, in Talpiyot, Jerusalem, listening to a little hand-held transistor radio to the Voice of America news broadcast, I learned of the draft lottery that was to take place at the end of 1970 or the beginning of ’71. They picked birthdays and, in the order of the picking came the order of the lottery. My birthday came up number 199. That meant that 198 birthdays worth of people would be drafted before me, if I gave up my deferment. Once cleared of the lottery you would be forever exempt from the draft.
When I got home from Jerusalem I went to a draft counselor who assured me that in order to fill their quota, and because this first lottery had a huge number of people in it (everyone turning 18 that year and everyone under thirty-two who had not yet been drafted) they surely would not take over 145 birthdays worth of people. I was advised to give up my deferment on December 31st, 1970 and enter the lottery. I would certainly be free and clear the next week when they started drawing names.
Well folks that is exactly what I did. Juca and I were married on December 27th, 1970. On December 31st I formally gave up my deferment and entered that first lottery. The next week they indeed started taking people with low birthday numbers, but they did not stop at 145. They reached the quota at 194. I was 199. I cleared, just barely. That’s how I avoided going to Viet Nam.
I greatly admire those who served our country. They got a bum rap coming home from that very unpopular war. They were heroes who served in terrible times. I was thankful not to have been one of them.