How I Beat the Draft
Thank you, USPS
When the Vietnam War started heating up in the 1960s, young men were drafted and sent into combat. As you can imagine, many did not care for the idea of being shot at. Protests initially were charmingly wistful; in fact, they were actually called “protest songs”
“Burning your draft card” was a common activity at those protests, although that could land you in prison. If you watch one of those “60s retrospective” shows, you’ll probably see the stock footage of “guys holding up a burning draft card.”
This was 1965, before the counter-culture era had really gotten started. The men were so well-dressed then (that’s probably the Federal agent there on the right)! Most of the 60s pictures you’ll see did not feature guys in suits and ties. The media wants you to think everyone was like Abbie Hoffman back then
By 1968 things had become considerably less polite:
Fortunately I was too young for the draft when most of this was happening. There was a student deferment, II-S, while you were in college, which gave you four years, and as it happened, I started college in 1968, the year Nixon was elected. Nixon almost immediately started withdrawing troops from Vietnam and turning over combat duties to the South Vietnamese army.
This did not in any way stop the antiwar marches. “Pull out now” was the common theme of the demonstrations, and Nixon countered with “we cannot abandon our prisoners” as well as the memorable phrase that he wouldn’t let the U.S. become a “pitiful helpless giant.” Demonstrations got larger and larger, and antiwar violence got worse and worse. I had a friend Jim in the dorm who got arrested at one of those demonstrations.
Some of us just kept going to classes, despite the frequent “on strike, shut it down!” student strikes. I was in Mathematics and Computer Science, and we mostly just stayed out of it at the Digital Computer Lab
and math classes at Altgeld Hall
Life was not like nowadays, where politics permeates everything, in and out of school. People were not constantly asking, “Are you for or against the war?” It was assumed that you were probably against it, but generally people just didn’t talk about it in casual conversation.
A Turn of the Lottery Wheel
Nixon wanted to let at least some guys quit worrying about the draft, so in 1969 there was a lottery on national television, based on birth dates:
They called out birth dates with a number. If your number was 240 or higher, you had very little chance of being drafted. If it was 120-240, you were probably safe. If you were under 120… well, start planning on serving. This was clever of Nixon: why would you go to an anti-draft rally if your draft number was 300? If you had a really low number, you were embarrassed to tell anyone.
My Deferment Expires
My number was 72. By 1972 when I was graduating, Nixon’s “Vietnamization” campaign and US troop withdrawals had been going on for years, and there were only about 25,000 US troops left in Vietnam. Getting drafted no longer meant combat. Still, it was two years out of your life, in an organization with a rotten reputation, and one that was losing a war. Nixon and his military commanders talked up the “all-volunteer Army,” which sounded like a pipe dream. Why would you volunteer for that? Guys still got drafted.
What was I going to do? I was a pathologically picky eater, skinny and non-athletic, and one of the worst candidates for infantry duty you could possibly imagine. Both my brothers had gone into the service, but I did not want to go. I know this sounds cowardly and unpatriotic, and it was. I’m not even going to make excuses.
All my senior year, my anxiety got worse and worse. There were books on how to avoid the draft, and I read some. Stories circulated about ways to flunk the physical (“drink a whole lot of coffee to raise your blood pressure” was a popular one, as was “get a doctor to write a letter for you”), and of course the song “Alice’s Restaurant” has Arlo Guthrie weasel out on psychological grounds, for his conviction for littering. I ransacked my memory for any disease I’d ever had, and questioned my mother about all of them. I worried, though, that Army doctors were wise to all these scams and they’d just wave me through.
The Plan: Losing Weight
Finally, I hit on a plan: I would weigh less the minimum! I weighed about 120 at the time, and the minimum for my height was 112. It seemed within reach!
But how long would it take me to lose those 8 pounds, or more realistically, 10 or more to be on the safe side? And how much warning would I have before the physical? I decided to test it.
Everyone wants to lose weight, but I was not one of those people always on a diet. I was already plenty skinny enough. But I obtained some, um, “stimulants” and went on a starvation diet. I got down to 108 pounds, and my roommates at the time said I looked like a death camp survivor. It took me about three weeks.
I caught mononucleosis and felt terrible. Maybe this plan had a flaw or two. I hated being sick like that. Christmas break was coming up, and I wanted to look at least somewhat like my old self for my parents. I gained the weight back.
Over Christmas, I got really serious and made an appointment downtown with a “draft lawyer.” There really were such things back then.
(Mine was not like Jackie Chiles, though.)
The lawyers were fully versed in all the ins and outs of draft law, and guys with a lot of money would hire them to find a way out of serving. Honestly, I don’t remember anything about my hour with him, which probably tells you that nothing much happened and he wasn’t any help.
After seeing him, I dropped in an Army recruiter. You didn’t need an appointment for that. They were happy to talk to you.
Back then, if you got drafted, you served two years, but the shortest period if you enlisted was three. On the other hand, as an enlistee you could be guaranteed your Army employment. I’d at least be a computer programmer in the Army, so that was something, anyway.
There was nothing much to do at home, but if I went back to the University, I’d have our 4-person apartment all to myself. Students were mostly gone, too, so it was a peaceful time on campus.
Thank you, Melvin Laird
On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, that same friend Jim who’d been arrested came over and we smoked some pot. While I was still stoned, I leafed through the Chicago Sun-Times, and saw a story headlined “Draft Lawyers Advise Clients to Drop Their Deferments.”
I was thunderstruck. Why on earth would you do that? The story said that Melvin Laird, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense
had said that the all-volunteer Army was doing so well that there would not be any draft calls for the first three months of 1972. Why did that matter to me? I wouldn’t graduate until June.
Normally you had one year of eligibility for the draft. But if the draft board had gotten up to your number but didn’t call you, they gave themselves an extra three months (“Not so fast, there, buddy boy!” was the attitude, I guess).
But still: so what? What those smart draft lawyers had figured out was, you could drop your deferment even on the last day of the year, and that still counted as your year of eligibility! Even mailing it on December 31 counted, as long as it was postmarked for that year. I had about seven hours left in 1971.
The mental fog from the pot cleared, Jim went home, and I had an anxiety attack. This was it. There was no time to dither. What should I do? If I dropped my student deferment, I could be drafted right away. Could I even get a letter postmarked? After all, the Post Office was closed for the day.
I called Dad for advice. He said, well, even if you do get drafted, they’ll at least let you finish the school year, so you really have nothing to lose. You might as well try it.
So I penned a letter to the draft board dropping my deferment, and headed to downtown Champaign to the main Post Office. The front doors were closed, of course, but I went around to the back, and that door was open to the processing room.
A worker was running mail through the postmarking machine. He was not at all surprised to see me; there’d been a lot of men coming through the back door that day. He ran my letter through the machine (I looked through Google Images and I couldn’t even find a small enough machine resembling the one he had).
I waited for months. There were not, in fact, any draft calls for the first few months of 1972. I tentatively began applying to graduate schools.
A Visit to the Draft Board
When I was home on spring break, I drove down to my draft board in Chicago near the Stockyards. There was a very large bullpen with hundreds of people working, and someone came over and asked what I wanted. I explained, and she went to a file cabinet and pulled out my letter. The scam had worked, apparently!
Of course, she couldn’t give me any official word, but she assured me that I would probably be classified 1-H soon, which meant “not currently eligible for induction.” In a month or two, the letter from the draft board came, and she was right: I was 1-H.
I did go to graduate school. I also saw a form on a bulletin board in the computer lab for “programming internships with the Federal Government.” I figured it almost certainly wouldn’t do any good, but what the hell? I sent it in. That will be the topic of the next Substack post. Stay tuned.