Feel like a number
|By Bill Castanier|
Remembering the draft lottery 40 years later
The U.S. Selective Service was throwing a birthday party of sorts for hundreds of thousands of 19-to-26-year-olds. Those born on June 8 received an early Christmas present in the form of virtual exclusion from military service.
On Dec. 1, 1969, during the first U.S. military draft lottery in 27 years, 366 slips of paper printed with the days of the year were rolled up, placed inside light-blue plastic capsules and dumped into a giant glass jar.
At about 9 p.m., Congressman Alexander Pirnie, ranking Republican of the House Armed Service Committee’s draft subcommittee, stepped up, stuck his arm in up to his elbow and pulled out the first number. The date, Sept. 14, was announced, and the paper was taken from Pirnie and stuck to a board behind him. For young men born on that date between 1944 and 1950, it meant that, barring deferments, they would be the first to go in the draft beginning in January 1970. Then, with little ceremony, members of the Selective Service Youth Advisory Groups from across the United States stepped up and pulled the remaining capsules.
The recitation of dates droned on: April 24, Dec. 30, Feb. 14. Number by number, an estimated 850,000 young men learned their fate via fuzzy, black and white televisions, as they watched the live broadcast of the lottery. Others listened to scratchy transistor radios. As the TV broadcast started, CBS announced that the regularly scheduled “Mayberry RFD” had been canceled.
Most who watched the draft lottery recall numbered ping-pong balls, which actually weren’t used. Thanks to YouTube. com, memories can be jogged with 10 minutes of footage from the actual ceremony as it was aired on CBS.
Seated on a folding chair, CBS newsman Roger Mudd matter-of-factly described the scene. So as not to disturb the lottery, he would whisper his observations, leaning over his shoulder and looking back at the camera.
In what was the only lighter moment of the night, the broadcast broke for ads. In possibly the best niche buy of all time, one spot showed Santa on a sled pitching Norelco razors.
Across America the announcements were often punctuated with expletives from viewers, as the early numbers were posted. Later in the night, the expletives became cheers of exultation; the plum number, the last chosen, was June 8 — No. 366, accounting for Leap Year.
Michigan State University graduate Stan Eichelbaum was one of those cheering. His birthday was June 8. Eichelbaum, who graduated in 1969, was back at home in Detroit watching the lottery with his parents. Ironically, he had returned to Detroit to appeal a Selective Service classification. Eichelbaum had wanted to join President Lyndon Johnson’s VISTA program instead of being drafted into military service. His board told him VISTA was no longer considered an alternative.
Even after receiving his lucky number, Eichelbaum still chose to go into VISTA, working on public housing issues in Philadelphia.
Hardly a political conservative, Eichelbaum, who today is head of a marketing and planning company specializing in international development, still thinks there should be a draft with some sort of alternative for public service. “The worst decision Nixon ever made was doing away with the draft,” Eichelbaum said.
He believes public service would have helped reengage youth in the American way, which he said has, “drifted so severely.”
Oddly enough, when Eichelbaum notched the highest number, the war had already cost him one job. After graduating from MSU, he headed to California with an offer to work on the “Smothers Brothers Show.” As he was on his way out, that job disappeared when the show was canceled by CBS for its anti-war attitude.
After the draft lottery broadcast was over, Eichelbaum and some friends headed for the racetrack. “I learned luck wasn’t eternal,” he said.
‘I don’t think I ate any breakfast’
For many men who were of draft age, Dec. 1, 1969, is a day they remember with the same awe as the previous summer’s moonwalk. Ray Walsh, owner of Curious Book Shop in East Lansing, called it “the best of times, the worst of times.”
“We didn’t know if we were coming or going,” he said. (His higher number kept him from going.) “That night was a lifechanging moment, and for some it was a matter of life and death.”
After the lottery, most of the estimated 67,000 draft-eligible Michigan men felt they knew their chances of being called up. Those receiving numbers below 150 could pretty much count on, as Peter Paul and Mary sang, “leaving on a jet plane,” six months after any deferment had run out. Those with numbers 200 and higher would stay home.
Those with numbers between 150 and 200 were less certain, as draft numbers as high as 190 were called across the country that first year.
Although it was a national program, the draft was administered by hundreds of local boards at the county level. Each month, the draft boards were required to meet a quota based on national manpower needs. At different times and at different locations, draft boards could use different lottery numbers to fill their quotas. By 1969, there were an estimated 475,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, and expectations were for about half of the replacements to be filled by voluntary enlistments. Unlike today’s wars, soldiers were required to serve only one tour of duty.
Deferments were granted for everything from physical conditions (IV-F) to ministerial studies (IV-D) to professional and career deferments. For example, in rural areas there were a number of agricultural deferments. There was little consistency between boards. A man from Toledo, Ohio, could get a deferment, while someone from Bay City with the same criteria could be classified 1-A.
Deferments were quite liberal early in the war, but as it dragged on, Selective Service began eliminating deferments one by one and more stringently enforcing those that were granted.
Probably the most common deferment was the 2-S, or student deferment, which was granted to full-time college students taking a minimum of 14 credits and main taining just above a C average. Any time a student fell below those requirements, a letter was sent, re-classifying the young man. Drop or flunk a class, and it was like ly that a 1-A would appear in the mailbox soon after.
Boards that had trouble making quotas also imposed higher standards for deferments.
One means of avoiding the draft, which in most cases meant deployment to Vietnam, was to join a National Guard or Army Reserve unit, a la President George W. Bush’s controversial placement in the Texas Air National Guard.
Clifford Haka, director of the MSU Library System today, went that route after getting the No. 1 as a student at Western Illinois University. Haka didn’t watch or listen to the broadcast of the lottery. He remembers waking up on Dec. 2, sitting down to breakfast and seeing his draft number in a headline in the Chicago Tribune. “I don’t think I ate any breakfast,” he said.
The next day, Haka began working out a plan to join a National Guard unit in Illinois. He visited the units every three months to submit his application and was finally accepted into an MP unit, which was gearing up to confront domestic disturbances caused by anti-war demonstrators.
‘Still roils my insides’
MSU Journalism School graduate Wes Thorpe remembers with clarity watching the numbers come across the Associated Press wire machine at The Ypsilanti Press, where he was working as a reporter. “I was No. 10; I knew I wasn’t going,” he said.
Thorpe, like many others, signed up for a six-year stint in the Army Reserve and became what was known as a “weekend warrior.”
“The draft affected every part of my life during that time,” he said. “I felt its touch from my senior year in high school right until the time I joined the Army Reserves.”
He said thinking about that time “still roils my insides.” He
No fortunate sons
Historians still ask why Congress decided to hold the draft lottery in 1969 and again in 1970, 1971 and 1972.
Lansing attorney Tom Hay became a draft
Hay recalled going to Fort Wayne for four physicals and
When Hay moved
‘Scared, not principled’
The next year, he was called again. He took a letter from his therapist and was granted an exemption.
‘One came home, one didn’t’
White remembers one story about a couple of roommates in Wonders Hall, with one landing a 1 and the other 366.
Van Ochten, who had two cousins who served in Vietnam, added, “One came home, one didn’t.”
That and the Vietnam War Memorial, on the Capitol complex grounds, which lists 70 Ingham County residents who died.