I had almost forgotten about the incredible doom of the draft lottery of 1969 and the years following. But recently, I happened upon two fictional accounts of lives being undone by this lottery, and it all came back to me. One came in the television drama This Is Us, in an episode about the back story of Jack’s time in Vietnam. (Spoiler alert!) Jack and his younger brother Nicky are at a bar on December 1, 1969, waiting to see what birthdays will be chosen for the draft call-ups. Nicky is portrayed as a gentle, glasses-wearing kid, not tough, not cut out to fight. Jack is his protector. Nicky’s birthday, October 18th, is chosen as number 5, which means he is sure to be inducted. Their dad tells him only, “Make me proud.” Jack and Nicky consider options, maybe Canada, but Nicky succumbs to the pressure and joins up. We learn that Jack himself had had a deferment because of a rapid heartbeat condition. But when Nicky writes from Vietnam that he has gotten himself into trouble, Jack finds a way to enlist, so he can watch over his brother.
I had almost forgotten about the lottery. The feeling of foreboding, its random terrors. My own age peers were affected by the lottery of February 2, 1972. We were freshman in college, then, and my male friends would have received college deferments, but if they dropped out, or when they graduated, they would once again be vulnerable to being called up. My friend Tom’s birthday was September 16th. He was sorting out what options he might have as a conscientious objector to the war. When his number was above 200, we all breathed a sigh of relief.
Before watching that episode of This Is Us, I had been reading the novel, The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman. She introduces us to a family of young witches: two sisters, Franny and Jet, and their younger brother, Vincent. Their history included an ancestor tried for witchcraft back in the 1600s in Massachusetts, and continuing suspicion towards their magical family. Vincent is an artist, a singer, and a young playboy, though he eventually comes out as gay and finds true love with a man. He has eerily known for years that he faced doom: it comes in the form of the number 1 pick in the draft lottery of 1969. His birthday is September 14th. (The actual number 1) The family is devastated and knows he cannot serve in the military–a witch must “harm none” lest it come back three-fold. They try to figure out a way for him to escape, but ultimately it means that he is forever cut off from his family.
Hoffman compares the lottery to the witch hunts of earlier times, and writes the most haunting description of its effects. Her words stirred that memory in me of our fear and our relief, of the randomness of horror cast upon the lives of young men and those who loved them. How we were divided into the lucky and unlucky. How we almost took it for granted.
It came on the wind, the way wicked things must, for they are most often weighted down with spite and haven’t the strength to lift themselves. On the first day of December 1969, the lottery was held. Men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six would be drafted to fight in Vietnam according to their birthdates. Lives were interrupted and fortunes were exchanged. A cold drizzle hung down and flurries of snow fell in swirls. There were no stones thrown or drownings, no pillories or burnings. Those chosen were computerized, their fates picked at random.
Life went on in spite of the lottery: traffic headed down Broadway, men and women showed up for work, children went to play. The world breathed and sighed and people fell in love and got married and fell out of love and never spoke to one another again. Still the numbers drawn had the weight of ruin and sorrow; they turned young men old in an instant. A breath in and a man was chosen to walk on a path he’d never expected to take. A breath out and he must make the decision of a lifetime. Some would leave the country, some went to jail, some were ready to take up arms and die for the country they loved despite the heartbreak of leaving families and friends. All were torn apart. It was said that fate could not be altered, except by one thing, and that was war.
After Vincent watches the lottery, he gets drunk, and is brought home by two veterans, who “pitied him the war of his time. Theirs had been terrible, but it had also been just and worth fighting.” From Vietnam onward, I believe that none of the wars fought by our country have been just or worth fighting. In each war, so many were wounded, so many broken in body or spirit. And always, some resisted. So strange to recall these old tragedies that linger beneath the surface of so many new tragedies. And as always, some resist.