The day was December 1, 1969. I was a 19-year-old sophomore transfer student at Westmont College in Montecito, California. I lived along with other classmates in Emerson Hall, a stone estate off campus that was used for student housing. I gathered around the television with other men that evening to watch this historic event–the outcome would determine our destiny.
That night was the first of two lotteries that the Selective Service System of the United States conducted to determine the order of call to military service in Vietnam for men born from 1944-1950. I was born January 10, 1950. The lottery numbers to be drawn would be used during the calendar year 1970–both to call for induction and to call for physical examination, a preliminary call covering more men. The days of the year (including February 29) were listed on slips of paper. These pieces of paper were then placed in separate plastic capsules that were mixed in a shoebox and then dumped into a deep glass jar. Capsules were then drawn from the jar one at a time. (Wikipedia).
One by one, those of us in the room learned our fate. One unlucky student got his number “7.” He might as well have started packing his bags. Up until this time, those of us enrolled in college were exempt from the draft. As long as we remained in school we were assured of not being called up. The lottery changed all of that. As the evening dragged on, for what seemed like an eternity, we all learned of our place in the rankings of who would go, and who might not. Finally, my number was drawn: “325.” It was like a “get out of jail free card.” There was no way they would get to that high of a number. I could be assured of being able to finish college and get on with my life.
This week I have been watching the Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam. We are learning the full story of Vietnam and the decisions that led to the buildup of troops in the mid-1960’s and beyond. It’s a painful series to watch, but a necessary one if you want to understand the times we lived through. I’m amazed at how little I knew of Vietnam or the struggle of so many of my peers who fought and died there. I neither marched to oppose the war nor did I endorse it. I, along with so many other Americans, was preoccupied with my own life pursuits. Yes, we saw the news reports that were coming back from the field and learned of more and more American servicemen dying there. But it seemed far away and certainly not a part of my world at the time. Across town in Santa Barbara students were marching in protest, tying up the freeway and burning the Bank of America in Goleta. We were ensconced in our own evangelical bubble in the hills of Montecito. But seeing this film series has caused me to reflect on that fateful evening of the lottery once again.
How does one reconcile the idea of a sovereign God who oversees the whole of your life, with a random lottery drawing? Had I been born five days later, my number would have been “17,” an almost certain guarantee of a trip to Vietnam. Last night I called my 92-year-old mother and thanked her for having me on January 10th and not the 15th! Her response was, “I guess you weren’t supposed to go!”
Whether I “wasn’t supposed to go,” or I was just lucky is a question for the ages. Either way, I didn’t–and I’m alive today to reflect on that. I guess you could say I “won the lottery” that fateful night of December 1, 1969. Many of my peers were not so fortunate.
Note: The Vietnam documentary resumes tonight, September 24th on PBS and runs through Thursday. It will be repeated on a weekly basis in October.
Spoiler Alert: On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese with helicopters evacuating the US embassy.
written by Richard Bergstrom, D.Min., President, ChurchHealth
picture by Richard Bergstrom