by Stuart Warner
LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 21) -- The knot in my stomach tightened with
each step. My heart beat faster and faster. It was as if a ghost were
nearby. A ghost reminding me how it once took fear to motivate us to
stop the loss of so many young lives.
I was taking a long walk through the suburbs of Lexington, Ky., where
I grew up, on my visit home last week. I had made this trip many
times before, but usually running, biking or riding in a car. You see
so much more when you slow down.
I passed my old elementary school, Clays Mill, and the Little League
field where I hit the only home run of my life. A few blocks later, I
turned toward the Southland Shopping Center, where my buddies and I
spent many idle hours, sipping cherry Cokes and annoying local merchants.
I walked past the barbershop, about the only store still there from
those days. That's when my blood pressure began rising.
At first I wasn't sure what was happening. Then I looked at the
building across the street. It houses a picture frame shop now. In
1970, it was something altogether different. The post office was on
the top floor. The Selective Service was in the basement, at the rear.
That's where I signed up for the draft, 40 years ago next month, a
few days before I turned 18.
And I'm not talking mock draft. This was the real thing. The military
draft. If your number came up, your number could be up.
We hadn't been too worried about getting our draft cards only a few
months earlier. All my close friends and I were planning to go to
college. We would receive student deferments. Surely, this thing in
Vietnam would be done by the time we graduated.
But in 1969, Richard Nixon signed a bill reinstituting the lottery
system for the first time since World War II. For those of us of
draft age, our chances of an all-expense paid trip to Saigon largely
would be determined by a random drawing based on our birthdays.
On Dec. 1, 1969, 366 capsules representing each day of the year, Leap
Years included, were plucked from a glass jar, one at a time. Men
born on the days with the lowest corresponding numbers would be the
first inducted into the Army.
My birthday, May 3, was No. 40 that year. They took everyone from 195
and below. But only men born from 1944 to 1950 were eligible that
year. I was born in 1952. Still, it was enough to give me quite a scare.
Many students felt the same way, now that it was clear this battle
wasn't just going to be fought mainly by the poor and under-educated.
Campuses ignited in protest.
On May 4, 1970, the day after I turned 18, four students were shot
and killed by National Guardsmen during a demonstration at Kent State
University. The next day, I watched the ROTC Armory burn to the
ground at the University of Kentucky, in my hometown. More
experienced state troopers diffused the violence there, however. They
kept their weapons holstered, content to let the students chant,
"Hell, no, we won't go!"
The nation's attitude continued to shift against the war and Nixon
proposed ending the draft altogether. But he also phased out many
deferments for the time being. And that was bad news for me as Aug.
5, 1971, approached. That was the day they would draw the numbers for
men born in 1952.
I was a full-time student as well as a full-time journalist by then.
Didn't matter. I was married. That deferment was gone, too.
It was too late to join the ROTC as a student named Bill Clinton did.
(He dropped out after he got No. 312 in the 1969 lottery.) I didn't
have a cyst on my butt to get me excused from service as a young man
named Rush Limbaugh had. (Insert your own joke here.) And I hadn't
been charged with littering as Arlo Guthrie was.
I had no protection whatsoever.
So I didn't know what I was going to do if I got a low number. I only
know this: I don't believe in violence. I've never even been in a
fight. I certainly wasn't going to war to defend a corrupt government
in a place that seemed a million miles away.
Canada was certainly an option, as it was for thousands of young
My memory of that day isn't clear, but I suspect my heart was
throbbing even faster than it was last week.
I know I heard the news on the radio. No. 177. Men born on May 3,
1952, were assigned No. 177. The year before, only men born in 1951
with the number 125 or lower were called up. My year, they stopped at 95.
They held another lottery in 1972, but the draft ended before any of
those men were taken.
And the war that should never have been fought was soon lost. Too
many brave young men -- much braver than I was, I suppose -- died for
no reason that I can understand.
Four decades later, we're repeating this mistake in faraway lands.
I thought about that as I continued walking. I was more than a mile
past that building when I realized the knot in my stomach was gone.
Maybe it's way past time that we were all scared like that again.