Found in the Draft Lottery

Hot air hung on our shoulders and licked down our backs slippery with sweat during a sultry August day in 1971. I was two months out of high school, two weeks from college and two minutes from life changing news.

I sat with my back against a tree with a few buddies taking a break from cleaning pea combines following the harvest season for Oconomowoc Canning Company in Poynette, WI. While we pressure washed the stink, stems and stains from the huge machines, we all wanted three things from the day – a glass of cold water, a spot of cool shade, and news about the draft lottery being conducted that afternoon.

This was the third year of a lottery to determine in which order 19-year-olds would be drafted into the military. U.S. involvement in the ill-advised war in Vietnam was past its peak – troop levels were just half of the 335,000 of the previous year, but still high.

Several of us were born in 1952 and “Vietnam” was still the big gorilla in any jungle of our thoughts about the future.

The lottery was instituted to provide some level of certainty for young men. Aside from a myriad of deferments available for those in college, in sensitive jobs, ministers, married with children, well connected to a politician, etc., any man from age 19 to 25 lived every day uncertain about whether or not that day’s mail would say “Greetings” from Uncle Sam.

Planning was difficult. Employers were reluctant to hire a draft eligible man. Families with money could keep their sons in college, and graduate school, and post graduate school to keep the draft board at bay. Canada beckoned others.

Of course, this meant the poor, uneducated and least connected – as usual – bore the brunt of service. To level the field President Nixon eliminated the student deferment. A lottery was instituted to provide some semblance of structure, fairness and confidence.

The first lottery included everyone from age 19 to 25. After that, each year’s lottery was for those men turning 19 that year. This provided a basic expectation that if you landed in the first third of the lottery, you would likely be drafted. If you were in the bottom third, you would not be drafted. The high uncertainty level was reduced to only those in the middle third of the lottery.

Lottery mechanics were this: Two bowls were filled with ping-pong balls. The balls in one bowl had written on them a number from one to 366. The balls in the other bowl had written on them one of the days of the year, from January 1 to December 31, including February 29.

A ball was drawn randomly from the date bowl, then matched with a ball drawn from the numbers bowl. People born on that date would be drafted in the order reflected by that number.

Given similar circumstances today the lottery would be broadcast live on every television and mobile device. In 1971 a few radio stations broadcast the numbers in bunches as they were drawn. Learning the numbers was hit or miss, depending on how much you could be tuned into a radio.

Most of us would have to wait until the newspaper came out the next morning to see where our birthday fell on the death depth chart.

That August afternoon a friend pulled up in his car, radio playing. I asked him, “What do you hear about the lottery numbers?”

He said, “They’ve broadcast some, but I can’t remember them. The only one I remember is that December 4 is number one.”

I laughed at his joke.

“How did you know December 4 was my birthday?” I asked.

The shadow that rolled over his face wasn’t from a cloud.

“I don’t know your birthday,” he said. “No kidding, are you December 4?”

I nodded.

“You’re screwed,” he said.

With a word, my friend rewrote my future, as if he’d pulled down a big screen across my world stage like a prop and painted on it was the picture of an entirely different world.

As you see, I survived the new world. I didn’t plan it; didn’t want it; didn’t like it. But once I embraced that world – which somehow morphed into this world – I learned to trust the One who created it. And in that world I found love in the one He created to share my life with me.

Those two treasures – trust and love – are clearly the benefits derived from the moment 44 years ago that I never wanted, that grew into an experience I would never give back.

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