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Wednesday, December 9,2009

Feel like a number

Remembering the draft lottery 40 years later

by Bill Castanier

 



On a cold, blustery Monday night 40 years ago last week, young men around Lansing, and the nation, were glued to the TV, and it wasn’t to watch football.


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
wasn’t alone. For most young men, the draft was like a pimple that
wouldn’t go away. In addition to registering at 18, young men often
found themselves pawns in seemingly nonsensical draft board decisions.


For
example, as early as December 1966, draft boards across Michigan began
ordering all their potential draftees, even those with deferments, to
show up for predraft physicals, which were conducted at the infamous
Fort Wayne, built during the War of 1812 to defend Detroit.


Registrants
were required to report to their county building and then be bused to
Detroit, where they spent the night before taking an intelligence test
and undergoing a physical.


Peter
Berg, now the head librarian at MSU Library’s Special Collections,
remembers one such trek to Detroit, where he and thousands of others
received their first taste of what military life could be like. “Once
you entered into Fort Wayne you knew they owned you, and there was this
uneasy feeling you might not catch the bus home,” Berg said. “On the
way down guys were goofing off. On the way home, there was absolute
silence on the bus.”


He
laughs now when he recalls men wandering around in their underwear and
shoes and socks, moving slowly from station to station to be prodded
and poked. He
recalls the doctor at the blood station with the front of his white lab
coated covered with sprays of blood. “It was so degrading,” he said.
“It was like an 18th Century prison.”




No fortunate sons


Before
1970, any male between 19 and 26 was already subject to the draft. The
lottery only provided an order in which they were called. As men lost
their deferments, or never got one, they were drafted for service.


Historians still ask why Congress decided to hold the draft lottery in 1969 and again in 1970, 1971 and 1972.


Official
reports at the time said it was to give some surety to the draft and to
interject fairness, or at least a sense of fairness, into the system.
Also, criticism that young men from lower socio-economic classes and
certain races were being drafted at much higher rates was beginning to
surface.


What
Selective Service and Congress didn’t expect, or at least
underestimated, was the pushback that would come from implementing a
lottery that exposed everyone to a draft.


“Hell
no, I won’t go,” and less polite phrases, began appearing on buttons
and posters. Fence sitters started taking to the streets, as it become
obvious the lottery was not any fairer; the advantage still went to the
well connected and those who knew how to play the system.


“My
local draft board was shamelessly tilted toward families with money and
connections,” said Thorp of his hometown draft board in Bay City. “If
you didn’t have either, then it seemed like you were out of luck.”


Draft
counseling centers sprang up in every major city and on college
campuses across the country. The advice was often spotty, but since it
was nearly impossible to acquire a copy of Selective Service’s rules
and regulations, something was better than nothing.


But
most young men didn’t begin researching until they were reclassified or
received the letter ordering them to report for induction. (Contrary to
popular belief, the letter did not open with, “Greetings from the
President of the United States.” It simply stated “Greetings,” and
concluded with, “be prompt.”)


Lansing attorney Tom Hay became a draft
counselor while attending the University of Michigan Law School. For
him it was personal. Hay had a low number and was approaching age 26,
so he used a common ploy for those in the know of frequently changing
his mailing address and appealing every decision made by his board.


Hay recalled going to Fort Wayne for four physicals and
making four personal appearances before his draft board. “One draft
board member told me he was going to get me,” Hay recalled. “He looked
right at me and told me, ‘You are going in the Army.’”


When Hay moved
to Lansing, only one attorney in the city had a complete set of
Selective Service rules. He said many of those he counseled were scared
to death and had “no clue what to do.”




‘Scared, not principled’


Berl
Schwartz, editor and publisher of City Pulse, was among the frightened
and clueless. “I don’t know what I would have done,” said Schwartz of
potentially being drafted. His number was 59.


Schwartz
took desperate measures, revealing something about himself to the draft
board that would exclude him from service that he didn’t reveal
publicly for 30 years: during a draft physical in 1970, he told a
Selective Service psychologist he was gay. He got a pass.


The next year, he was called again. He took a letter from his therapist and was granted an exemption.


Schwartz
said the only ones who knew he was gay were his therapist and the
Selective Service. At the time, Schwartz was working for the
Philadelphia Bulletin, which he said would have fired him for his
sexual orientation. “I was scared, not principled.”


Ed
Wendover, who works for the state legislature, was a MSU student in
1969. He recalls watching the draft lottery at the Sigma Nu house,
where after one low number was called, a chair was thrown through the
TV set. “I remember guys scrambling to find another TV,” he said.


For
a Monday, bars and party stores had an unusually busy night, as folks
either got drunk to celebrate or cope. But in the sobering light of
morning, many began to make plans to avoid the draft.


Some
made their way to Canada as part of a group of war resisters totaling
125,000. Others sought conscientious objector status. Most with low
numbers just awaited their fate.


An
anti-draft publication at MSU kept readers up to date about those who
would take another path: incarceration. In one edition, it listed the
status and addresses for five MSU students who were in federal prisons.
One resister, Al Schulz, was in Milan Federal Penitentiary serving a five-year sentence for refusing to serve. He was paroled after six months and assigned an alternative service job in Detroit.


Men
put plans on hold or changed them altogether. Large numbers of men, for
the first time, went into teaching; some rushed into marriage, and
young married couples pushed ahead to have children. Employers began
asking job applicants for their draft status and lottery number.


There
were also subtle changes on college campuses. Students seemed more
sullen. Relationships were less committed, and a “number” pecking order
developed, as those with high numbers felt a mix of guilt and elation.
Four-year degrees were stretched out as long as possible, and
professors became more forgiving.


There
were also less-subtle changes, as young men who had been indifferent to
the war became active anti-war activists once they had a personal
reason to see it end. The lottery designed to create stability and
quell opposition had the direct opposite effect.


The
draft continued for three years until it was suspended by President
Richard Nixon in 1973. In 1974, President Gerald Ford granted partial
amnesty to thousands of young men who had fled across the border.


‘One came home, one didn’t’


Barney
White, an MSU graduate who works today as a public affairs consultant
in Houston, remembers watching the numbers being pulled at Paul
Revere’s in Okemos with several other staffers from the Michigan State
News. “It seemed like a pony express, as word of someone’s number went
around,” he said.


White remembers one story about a couple of roommates in Wonders Hall, with one landing a 1 and the other 366.


Stories
abound about how close men came to being drafted. John Van Ochten, of
Bay City, said he was the next to be called up in Bay County when the
draft ended. He remembers the night he got the low number, which he
carried until the draft was suspended. “I didn’t have to wait for long
that night,” he said.


“The
whole war was an influence on our life in some way,” Van Octhen said.
“Go to school, don’t go to school. Get married, don’t get married.”


Van Ochten, who had two cousins who served in Vietnam, added, “One came home, one didn’t.”


For
many, memories of that night are still painful, but even more so for
those with low numbers who either enlisted or were drafted and found
themselves in Vietnam. Only one of the Vietnam veterans asked to
comment for this story would talk about his experience for print. Some
are decorated heroes, but the emotions are still too close to the
surface for them to be quoted in the newspaper.


Vietnam
veteran John Hribljan, of Grosse Pointe, said he saw it coming and
enlisted, thinking he would be able to pick his program and avoid
Vietnam. He ended up as a medic in a Calvary Unit in Vietnam. “At the
time, it was as if they were waiting at the gates of the stadium to
whisk you off,” he said.


Hribljan
is now a social worker and a counselor. He believes we have abandoned
our veterans. “We are reaping the tremendous harvest of misery from
that war,” he said. “The only difference between the current war and
Vietnam is the draft.”


That and the Vietnam War Memorial, on the Capitol complex grounds, which lists 70 Ingham County residents who died.


(Bill
Castanier watched the draft lottery on TV in an East Lansing apartment.
He received No. 179 and spent the rest of the evening at Coral Gables
in Okemos. He was drafted in 1970, refused induction, went to
California and made his way to Canada. He returned to Michigan and
secured conscientious objector status in 1971. Drafted once again, he
reported for alternative service as an orderly in 1972 at Sparrow
Hospital.)


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