It was a cold December evening in 1969. The 5:15 Mass had adjourned at 5:50. Short sermon, fast communion. The pastor stopped me in the back of the vestibule on my way out.
“Good to see a Duck attending the weeknight service,” he said, acknowledging by a glance at my University of Oregon letterman jacket.
I thanked him and hurried out. I suspected he knew why a 20-year-old would be attending a Monday service off campus on this particular day.
Ten minutes later, I was nearly back at the fraternity house, just a short jaunt away through the ominous graveyard that had witnessed years of civic and academic pressure yet remained unviolated in the dead center of campus.
As I passed the first row of headstones, I heard the bluesy notes of a trumpet in the distance. The somber melody cut through a heavy sky the color of sheet metal and was carried with startling clarity on the gentle gusts of a chill-winter breeze. The music-maker was Charlie, a fraternity brother. He was the first of our group to wear a ponytail, the first to burn his draft card.
On this evening, we were brothers in another sense. My reason for bending a knee at the local Catholic church was the same as Charlie’s for aiming his trumpet to the heavens. Our shared fate was in the hands of some New York congressman, who within an hour would be pulling capsules from a fishbowl and thereby determining who of more than 18 million able-bodied American men falling between the ages of 19 and 26 would be asked to go to war and fight a dubious cause in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Without saying much, Charlie and I walked back to the frat house and quietly sat at the dinner table. There were about 50 of us assembled that night, and I recall the pre-meal blessing being extraordinarily reverential. A large black radio sat imposingly at the head table, and just a few minutes past six the first capsule was pulled from the bowl. A bitter pill it was, for any young man born on September 9.
All heads jerked around nervously, and when no one responded to the date, I took a quick breath. The powers-that-be were telling us that if our birthday was called in the first 100 numbers, once our student deferment had expired we were surely draft bait and probably headed for Vietnam.
The second hundred numbers put us in a sort of limbo: maybe we’d be called, maybe not. Anything over the number 200 was deemed safe. It meant we could go on with our lives without the sense of dread of being little more than a pawn for politicians in a high-stakes game of international chess.
A fellow named Jeff, a senior sitting across the table from me who had planned to attend graduate school the next autumn, had his birthday called with the third capsule. He barked out an f-bomb and hurled a dinner roll against the wall. He then stormed out of the dining hall. We all wondered who would be next.
Over the course of an hour, I heard 326 birthdays called before mine. I’m Irish, and a leprechaun had perched on my shoulder that evening. I mouthed a quiet thank you to my mother for holding on until the early morning hours of July 6. Had I popped out of her womb just a few hours earlier, my lottery number would have been 19.
I often think about those boys who were less lucky than I, who paid the ultimate price because they had their number pulled early and didn’t have the savvy or the political connections to avoid the war.
Believe me when I tell you that none of the young men I knew back then wanted to go to Vietnam. Check that: there was one — a cowboy named Jimmy Blaine who enlisted right out of high school. He was killed less than a month after shipping out. Anytime I feel the inclination to pray I include him and others lost to that war.
I hope those boys up there looking down will do the same for me. Even though I didn’t want to go, and because of blind luck didn’t have to.
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