Their Faces Bear Their Numbers

Draft Lottery, December 1, 1969

During the time of the Vietnam War, if you were a young man born between the years 1944 and 1950, and you had not already been drafted or had not joined the military by December 1, 1969, you probably were very interested in the results of the two “draft lotteries” held on that day. The purpose of the two lotteries was to determine who was most likely to be drafted (conscripted into the Armed Forces of the United States) in the near future. Although some men looked forward to joining or being drafted into the military, many men were not happy about the idea, and so this was a day of great anxiety for many young men (and their parents). Depending on the lottery number they received on that fateful day some men felt that they were doomed to die in Vietnam, while others felt a huge sense of relief at the prospect of not being drafted at all.

Congressman Alexander Pirnie (R-NY) drawing the first capsule for the Selective Service draft, December 1, 1969. Selective Service System photo.

A short story by Tony Fitzpatrick

Trudging through the snow on his way to the bus station to travel for his draft physical in Chicago, Karr sought a mailbox to mail Darla’s letter. And in frigid dreams of her he remembered the draft lottery, December 1, 1969.

A dozen guys from the house packed into his room on Nevada Street, Urbana, Illinois, the University of Illinois. They listened with clutching guts, to each announced birthday, the air thick with testosterone and cigarette smoke. They all awaited the next turn in life, based on the capricious draw of a birthday. The consensus going in was that if you could survive the first two hundred picks, you would go through the draft the next year unscathed and untouched, if you were, like Caleb Karr, set to graduate in 1971.

Gorski, the big Polish football player, took the first hit, a miserable 10, and proclaimed how drunk he was going to get tonight – then Barton, at 72. He groaned, got up from the table, and banged his head slowly, pitifully against Karr’s door. Karr was rolling along past 100 and hoping for more. A few others were called after 110, and it became obvious that everyone was going to get drunk tonight. No matter how you fared, your near future was being plotted for you by the mystic hands of the government.

In the 130s, Karr knew he was in middling territory. Pilser, the senior on his right, had chain-smoked all the way to 82, his birthdate, when he then pounded his right fist into the palm of his left hand until Karr begged him to quit. Johnson, on the other hand, sailed through 300 and finally was called at 322 – he’d never see a draft board or physical as long as he lived. No wonder he had the nickname “Lucky.”

Karr, though, waited and waited. The dates danced out across the airwaves in his darkened room, each day of the calendar that was not his a reprieve from defeat. At 150, he began to relax. There were, after all, 216 days yet to go, and he’d come through unscathed this far. He got the same feeling he’d had playing basketball, playing the hot hand, he couldn’t miss, though he tensed at the sound of JAN, when a January date came up, his birthday being January 2. Just as he thought he had it licked, the caller read: 159, JAN-uary 2!

What did it mean? His life now had a new number along with birth date and Social Security. As far as he knew, the number meant that, were he to drop out of school in 1970, he would surely be drafted. But if he stayed in, if the numbers drawn for the draft encompassed all the birthdates drawn from numbers 1 to 200, including his, unless, barring a miracle (for instance, Tricky Dick would decide to end the war in 1970, and thus, scale down the draft from 1970 outward), Karr would be taken already for the 1971 draft. There was, indeed, time – a little more than a year and a half, and henceforward he couldn’t afford to lose any credits, he had to make progress, or else Uncle Sam, eagle that he was, would swoop down and take him.

His number, he realized, like his life, placed him once again in the middle. He was a middle child, top-middle of his senior class, in football a middle linebacker, and for college purposes, a middle-sized one, and thus he never had gotten a D-1 scholarship to play – those bruising, banging days now long behind him.

What would have been better? Had he just been able to make it through another thirty or forty birthdays, earning a number close to 200 and then wondering agonizingly if he could safely, carefreely live his life, knowing that the numbers might stop at 190, or living dubiously in the middle, almost certain that they would get him, clutching to hopes that war protests and unrest might make the administration wobble enough to “End the War Now.” He’d much rather have had a higher number. His 159 almost certainly doomed him.

At night’s end, looking at his buddies around the room, it occurred to him that their faces bear their numbers. An English major, he loved Auden, and remembered, “Faces along the bar cling to their average day,” a line from a poem that heralded the start of World War II, September 1, 1939. Thirty years later, Karr’s face bore his number. Low rollers were pinch-faced, stunned, or, as Karr imagined himself, blank. High rollers looked on the verge of a bachelor party. Nearly half of them under-age, they trotted off to the Wigwam and drank to their widely disparate futures.

He dropped Darla’s letter into the mailbox by the Champaign Public Library – he embraced the thought of her slumbering in her family’s Galesburg farm house, sleeping, placid as a prayer, innocent as an infant. Oh, how he wished that his world were as tranquil as a beautiful woman sleeping. But he was going to a hot, dark, and dangerous place. She would write. He would write. Eventually, she would end it through the mail.

The photo of Tony Fitzpatrick appearing on page 2 is courtesy of Alex Ring of “The Echo,” the monthly publication of Webster Groves High School in Webster Groves, Missouri.


Tony FitzpatrickTony Fitzpatrick writes about a wide variety of topics including science, technology, environmental and agricultural sciences. His widely acclaimed stories, articles, and essays have appeared in publications around the world. His short story appearing in VietNow is an excerpt  from his novel, Tunnel Rat. Photo by Alex Ring of The Echo, the monthly publication of Webster Groves High School in Webster Groves, Missouri.