This happened in 1969, when my birthdate came up No. 2 out of the draft lottery fishbowl. Vietnam was chewing up young men by the thousands, and it had been decided that student deferments (I was a junior at UC Berkeley) would end. By the spring of 1970 I had received my “notice to appear.” That was the infamous “Greetings from the President of the United States” letter ordering me to appear for my physical exam – step one on the way to ‘Nam.
Now you could get just about anything on the streets of Berkeley in those days, and I somehow found a free legal service that specialized in draft issues. A nice law student told me that if I didn’t, in fact, want to join the Army, I had just a few options: I could try for conscientious-objector status; I could try to get out on a physical deferment; or I could refuse induction, with the likelihood of jail time.
He suggested that in any event, I apply for a C.O. He wasn’t hopeful; my draft board in southern California had turned down Quakers, for god’s sake. But he said it would look good on my record should I ultimately refuse induction. I did oppose war, that one in particular. But I’d never had to articulate my beliefs formally before. I wrote a pretty good essay, I think. Better than anything I’d written for school. But it was, of course, denied.
My prospects for a 4F or a 1Y physical deferment were not strong. I was a healthy kid with some minor back and ankle problems from playing volleyball. I’d had an anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting once. But I’m not sure I even remembered that. The lawyer told me guys had speeded up their hearts with drugs and shot themselves in the foot and still passed their physicals in cynical, seen-everything California.
Did I know anyone in Wyoming, or Idaho? he asked. The question baffled me at first. He explained: If I could move, at least get a post-office box, in a state where they filled their draft quota with volunteers, then I’d stand a better chance of flunking my physical.
As it happened I did know someone in Idaho, an old girlfriend who had moved to a cabin outside Sun Valley with a new beau. Well then, my advisor said, drive there now, get a post-office box, and write the Selective Service from there, saying you just received their notice to appear. That’ll buy you a few months. They’ll reschedule your physical for the end of the summer in Boise. You can get all your records together. Get X-rays of your spine. Your friend can check your box and let you know when to come back.
It all seemed surreal. And of dubious advantage. But I was surer with each passing day that the war was wrong, and I wasn’t going to contribute to its prosecution. I also didn’t want to die.
Berkeley had become a kind of war zone itself over the last year. Revelations of Nixon’s secret invasion of Cambodia had rocked the city and shut the campus down. I’d been clubbed in the shins by police at one rally. Gagged, choking and half blind, by tear gas at another. (I was actually just trying to cross campus to get home.) I saw a man shot to death on a rooftop by Alameda County Sheriff's deputies. Governor Ronald Reagan had said something about a “bloodbath.” If the protesters want a bloodbath, then let there be a bloodbath.
And (on the powerful positive) I had looked over an undulating sea of half-a-million heads, six lanes wide, on a peace march to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
I went home at one point and talked with my parents about going to jail or perhaps going to Canada. They looked stricken. My dad had fought in World War II. He never would have considered not going. But he acknowledged that this was different. They didn’t try to influence me one way or another. I left with a pit in my stomach. At age 21, I didn’t know if I had the guts to choose either path.
Central Idaho was gorgeous in September. I drove along spring-fed trout streams through hayfields and sage-covered hills. I thought about Papa Hemingway, who completed The Sun Also Rises in a room at the Sun Valley Lodge. I tried not to think about his killing himself there, despondent and broken at 61.
The bus to Boise left promptly at 7 a.m. The Selective Service had thoughtfully reserved me a seat.
To be continued . . .