1969 was quite the remarkable year. If you’re into 50-year-old hallmarks, your memory may conjure some historic worldwide events like the first manned moon landing, the three-day Woodstock “Peace and Music” festival, and when the the Beatles came together for the final time on Abbey Road.
In the US, it was also the year of the Stonewall Inn riots in Greenwich Village, genesis of the contemporary gay rights movement, and the savage Hollywood murders by the Charles Manson “family.”
More personally, for me it was the year Joe Willie’s Jets won football’s Super Bowl, Tom Seaver’s NY Mets won the baseball World Series and—on August 18—when I was inducted into the US Army and set forth on a path that led to the Vietnam War. Talk about one small step for a man…….
I distinctly remember that sultry summer morning, despite a hangover from a nervous week’s worth or booze and amphetamines (I had a good friend with pharmacy access, but I’m not mentioning any names). Big brother Frank drove me to the Fort Hamilton Army Base in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in his gleaming 1964 Buick Riveria, the White Whale, which I painstakingly cleaned and polished all summer long for the privilege of driving it on a few dates with Natalie. Fort Hamilton is a languid and picturesque army base, overlooking the entrance to New York harbor from a grassy hilllock in the shadow of the Verrazzano Bridge. Befitting its pastoral postage stamp presence, Fort Hamilton was then home to a Military Chaplain school. Also a key induction point for new soldiers.
Without leaving his driver’s seat, Frank signaled his farewell and best wishes with a sympathetic shoulder shrug. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” he seemed to say. This was my H-hour: separating from family, friends, lovers, and all things familiar to me — good bad or indifferent. I knew this day was coming for the entire summer. Having finally arrived, I was floored; still unprepared. And that’s pretty much a spot-on description of how I got myself drafted into the Army —and eventually sent to Vietnam—in the first place.
Yes, I said drafted. Unlike the bonanza pro-sports “drafts” we’re familiar with today, back then, the military draft was clearly the greatest dread of young adult men in the US. If you didn’t enlist in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard for four years, Uncle Sam came and got you for two. Unless, that is, you were shrewed or deceitful enough to keep the wolf from the door. Can you say bone spurs?
At the time, every male US citizen aged 18 to 25—approximately 27 million of them—was required to register with the Selective Service, becoming eligible for conscription into the Army. However, only a tiny fraction actually served or was called. The bulk of the armed forces, including the Army, and all who served in Vietnam, were volunteers. Of some 10 million US military members during the war years, only about 2 million were draftees. Many many millions received deferments. They became exempt from the draft for reasons ranging from poor health or injuries, family hardship, religious beliefs (conscientious objectors), military sensitive jobs, criminal records or, college studies. Hundreds of thousands became “draft dodgers;” they openly defied and refused military service, or skipped out to Canada, Mexico, Scandinavia or elsewhere beyond its reach.
Statistically, an overwhelming majority of my generation qualified as one or more of the above. They did not serve. And an even larger percentage of my demographic—middle class, college-eligible, white males—never came close to seeing Vietnam let alone military service. Even among those conscripted, less than one-third went to the war: a total of 650,000. Draftees like me were a minority in Vietnam—though their casualties were proportionally higher.
Indeed, none of my friends or relatives served in the military full time during the war, let alone got their butts shipped to Vietnam like me. Most either held onto their student deferment long enough to run out the clock, or managed to finagle their way into homebound National Guard units. As weekend warriors, they lived as civilians following a few months of training, six years of local meetings, and a few weeks of sleep-away camp each year.
So what was my problem? How come I wasn’t able to pull off what most of my contemporaries did? Why did I wind up in the Army and Vietnam, when so many others did not? Worthy questions. There’s two answers really. One is that I screwed up. The other is that I screwed up real bad. In fact, I was lazy and totally irresponsible for my existence. Rudderless, I think, is the best descriptor for what my life looked like in 1969.
After 4 college semesters of embarrassing academic underperformance (which was totally predictable from my lackadaisical attitude at one of New York’s elite, entrance-exam high schools), I was politely asked to “take some time off” from the University of Bridgeport. Immediately, I lost my 2-S student deferment from the draft. The hallowed 2-S designation was doubtless the most coveted beat-the-draft, get-out-of-jail card of them all. An undergraduate student was required to be in good standing with an accredited college and carry a full matriculation course load—typically 12 credits or more. 2-S accounted for the lion’s share by far of the 15-million plus draft deferments. I was not clever enough to hold onto mine.
I got a job in New York City in the spring of 1969, with a plan to get back to school and regain my student deferment by the fall semester. Part of my problem was I was broke. I asked my dad for a $3,000 tuition loan, but never got it. My father, and by extension our family, was not wealthy by any means. He had a steady job, and we always lived comfortably, if modestly. We never owned a new car nor took a vacation to anyplace beyond Long Island beaches. So, perhaps he didn’t have the money. Or, he didn’t think I was a worthwhile investment. Considering how I squandered my first two years of college, that wasn’t an arguable conclusion. Truth is, I don’t know which was the issue because my father essentially never answered my request. As lawyers might say, he was silent on the topic.
My attempt to join the National Guard was half hearted and totally unsuccessful. My application didn’t impress the unit commander with the same conviction that a case of Scotch might have. I was too proud to beg. I opted instead for a summer scramble to build a bank roll in time to return to school. My strategy was a long shot race against the clock that I lost by a couple of weeks. The result was the proverbial “Greetings” letter announcing my induction date.
So, early on that midsummer’s morning, as Jimi Hendrix turned the Star Spangled Banner into a psychedelic anti-war anthem at Max Yasgur’s farm, I raised my right hand in Brooklyn, peed in a cup (alas, booze and drugs was not my salvation), and took the proverbial step forward that Muhammad Ali and tens of thousands of others bravely did not. Less than four months hence, the draft “lottery” was instituted. Numbers from one to 366 (for leap year) were assigned to birthdates, designating the order in which men aged 19 and older would be conscripted into the army from then on. Anyone with a lottery number of 196 or lower was eventually called for service. With chagrin, I and a barracks full of shaved-head GI’s watched this spectacle on TV. My number? October 13: number 138. My destiny was inescapable.