Chapter 37—"Hello, Vietnam"
The country continued to polarize. Black against white. Old against young. Hawk against dove. Nixon spoke to the ‘silent majority,’ calling for the nation to bring itself together. Vice-President Agnew pulled it apart when he said, “When the President said ‘bring us together’ he meant the functioning contributing portions of the American citizenry.” He went on to call the college students an intellectual group of effete snobs.
The war went on. My life went on. My heart went on. I moved into Marty’s room.
December 1, 1969. Live from Washington, D.C. Lottery night. Like the story from my high school literature book, if you win this lottery you die.
Jake and Ginger came for the event. Someone’s number was going to be drawn first. It might be one of them. Peter or Marty. My brothers. Someone. Not me.
Marty and I played “Lie Detector” waiting for the lottery to begin. It was like electronic Clue, complete with suspect cards, arrest and summons cards and secret information cards. The lie detector machine indicated if the testimony were true or false. Our task was to find the guilty person out of twenty-four suspects.
The ‘bank president’ gave his testimony. “The request for a loan might not have been signed with the applicant’s real name—but I couldn’t mistake that LARGE NOSE.” I put his card on the machine and inserted the small wand through the hole in the card. The bell rang and the needle indicated the testimony was false. So far everything was pointing to the guilt of the trombone player. The ‘school teacher’ said the suspect had a moustache. The bell rang. I looked at the ‘Secret Information’ cards I held in my hand. I must be interpreting them wrong. On his next turn, Marty made an arrest. “The gas station attendant.” GUILTY. How could I have been so wrong?
“That’s three in a row,” Marty said. “So much for your investigative journalism expertise.”
“One more,” I said. I hoped if we kept playing the lottery wouldn’t start and we wouldn’t have to know. Who would be first?
Marty looked at his watch. “Don’t think we have time. I want to be ready.” Ready for what? I had been ready for the moon landing and nothing bad happened. But we are talking about Marty’s life here. And Peter’s. And thousands of other young men. Maybe if I’m ready for this nothing bad will happen. I was ready. I wasn’t even close to ready.
Marty had two number two pencils, a pen and paper. One sheet listed every day of the year. It took him an hour to make it. My job, he told me, was to write the lottery number on the correct birthday. I was glad to have a job, something to occupy my mind. Marty’s task was to write down, on another sheet of paper, the numbers in order with the birthdays after. All we needed to do was buy a newspaper the next day. All we needed to know was whether Marty or Peter or any of our friends or brothers or friends of our brothers had to go. But this writing down kept us busy.
Rick finished the dishes and brought in a plate of crackers, cheese and sliced apples and put it on the coffee table, pushing over our Lie Detector game.
“Eat up,” he said. No one could eat. The food stayed untouched.
Peter sprawled bare foot on the beanbag chair, Suki and Racer in his lap.
In addition to Marty and Peter, 849,994 other young men watched somewhere, their hearts beating a little too fast, their teeth clenched a little too hard.
The lottery was supposed to level the playing field. No longer would the poor and uneducated bear the burden of fighting the war. Those smart enough or rich enough to get a student deferment, those ‘effete snobs’ that Agnew talked about, they would pay the price too.
No one should suffer for a sick, arrogant, unjust government policy.
Suddenly live from Washington D.C., Roger Mudd from CBS said, “Good evening. Tonight, for the first time in twenty-seven years, the United States has again started a draft lottery.”
The night began with a prayer. Dear God. Tonight, we are going to draw little capsules out of a jar and serve as judge, jury and executioner to the young men who we will send to fight a war that old white guys orchestrated. Please forgive our sins.
The prayer did not go exactly like that. It should have, though. Someone should ask for forgiveness. Thousands of those chosen tonight could die in Vietnam, dehumanized, merely numbers drawn out of a glass jar.
Males born between 1944 and 1950 were eligible to play that night. If your number is drawn, BUZZ. You lose. They called it a ‘random selection sequence.’
I adjusted the vertical hold on the television set. Television lights glared in the small auditorium room in the Selective Service building in Washington.
“Just get on with it.” When the going got rough, Marty talked to TV sets.
But they weren’t going to get on with it that easily. First the rules. The 366 days of the year were written on small strips of paper and each put into a plastic capsule. These capsules were dumped into a big glass jar. A capsule would be taken out of the glass jar, broken open by the woman at the desk who would hand the piece of paper to a man who would announce the date and hand it to another man in front of the list of numbers who would stick the date up by the corresponding number. Those numbers determined the order that young men would be drafted. For this lottery only, those with student deferments could keep them. Once their deferment was up, they were on their way. Well-crafted and completely sick. It was expected that you weren’t safe if your number was under 200.
We watched with our hearts in our throats for the ceremonial first draw, hands clinched on chairs, on arms, on someone else’s hand. “Please, dear god, don’t make it November 8.” I held on to Marty’s arm. “Please don’t ever make it November 8. Please, dear god, make November 8 be lost or forgotten.”
Alexander Pirnie, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, drew the first capsule and read the date. And the winner is—I wanted a drum roll, trumpets blaring—September 14. If you were born on that day you die first. I breathed a sigh of relief. And all those born on September 14 quit breathing. It didn’t stop there. If, by chance, your mother had you on April 24, you die second. December 30. February 14.
“That’s Valentine’s Day,” I said. “You can’t do that to kids born on Valentine’s Day.”
“You can’t do that to anyone,” Jake said.
October 18. September 6. October 26. September 7. November 22. “That’s the day John Kennedy was assassinated. They shouldn’t have to go either. That’s a holy day.”
Peter looked at me. “No one should have to go, Becky.”
“I know that. God, I know that.” I talked to keep myself sane.
It went on and on in a surreal display of power and death. What a way to die, tiny blue capsules jerked from a fish bowl.
Rick’s birthday was twenty-seventh. “Good thing I’m too old.”
A commercial tried to convince folks to buy an electric shaver for someone for Christmas. Thank you, Jesus. Can’t finance the lottery without a commercial break.
I held Marty’s hand tighter. With each number they called I squeezed, he squeezed and we breathed again. They called another and each time I exhaled a little bit. Then it started again. I held my breath. I heard the date. I exhaled. Finally, it came.
Number 97. November 8. Marty’s birthday. I squeezed his hand as tears rolled down my face. Marty stared straight ahead and dropped the pencil on the table. “What the fuck am I going to do?”
Number 124. April 13. Peter. He didn’t say anything, just held Suki a little bit tighter.
Why Marty? Why anyone? Why September 14th? What about those boys? What about their girlfriends and wives, lovers and friends and siblings, mothers and fathers? One Christmas Eve two lovers conceived a son. The night was cold as snow fell. The lights on the tree reflected off the branches. Quiet music played on the stereo. After hot chocolate and popcorn, the lovers went to bed and made quiet gentle ‘joy to the world’ love. Twenty years later their son was pulled first out of a fish bowl.
Why April 24th? Sometime in July. The two lovers spent the day at the lake water skiing. That night they ate cold chicken salad for dinner and drank a glass of white wine. They sat on the porch of the cabin they rented and watched the sun go down. Then they went into the cabin and made love. Little did they know that twenty years later the son they conceived that night would be destined for Vietnam.
If either of those lovers had waited a day or two. Three days after. Two days before. The next day. The day before. Why couldn’t you wait, Mom?
If I had been male, I wouldn’t have had to go. My birthday number was 310. Lucky me. Why couldn’t I exchange with Marty? My older brother was 321. It didn’t matter. He had a bum shoulder from a diving accident. My youngest brother was too young for this drawing.
“This isn’t fucking fair.” I’m not sure who said it, I was crying too hard. It might have been Marty. He still stared at the TV set. It might have been Peter but he didn’t say ‘fucking’ very often. It might have been Rick. There but for the grace of God go I.
It’s not my war. My war rages inside me. My war rages against a system that sends its kids to a monsonic jungle. Against a system that lets jungle rot eat away at their feet. Against a system that welcomes back their coffins with pomp and circumstance without questioning why they are dead to begin with. My war rages against the fears and nightmares they will live with for the rest of their lives. All from a game of chance.
Remember when your birthday was the day you celebrated? You got presents and cake and ice cream? Today it became your deathday. Hey mom, couldn’t you have waited one more day?
Maybe I was the one who said it.
Marty got up and walked out the front door, the screen slamming behind him. I found him on the porch, his draft card burning in his hand. He held it until the fire singed his fingers, dropped it on the porch and crushed it with his foot. If only it could be that easy. If only he could say, “I’m not going to play” like the captain of the JV football team did in high school. I wonder what his number was.
Marty looked at me. “I am never celebrating another conception day.”
U.S. Soldier Body Count: 48,312