the night life changed

We all remember where we were …

People talk about life-changing events and most of the time it’s a dramatic event: An accident, a religious conversion, marriage, the onset of illness, the birth of a child, and such life changes generally affect people right away. Sometimes, though, it’s an event whose life-changing implications lie far off in the future. You just can’t know the path fate has chosen for you. And sometimes the change targets a select group of people.

Where Life Changed, Benton Apartments   Photo by Tom Poland
Where Life Changed, Benton Apartments

That was the case with me. Take a good look at the photograph accompanying this column. Not much to it really. Simply a place college kids could rent off campus at the University of Georgia. Just behind that large window is where my life took a dramatic turn December 1, 1969. Let’s talk about that photograph. It’s at 205 Little Street in Athens, Georgia. It’s a cement-block duplex once known as Benton Apartments. I lived there for one year when I was at Georgia. The year was 1969-1970. It was a year that changed my life.

That squatty cement-block dwelling was painted blue back then and blue was an appropriate color. A war was raging in Vietnam and most guys I knew kept an eye on the news. I certainly did. The possibility that I might go to ‘Nam was slim but real. If you were in college in good standing you were pretty much okay. If you dropped out or flunked out you put yourself in position to be drafted. In my junior year and happy to make a “Gentleman’s C,” I was on autopilot cruising toward a degree in journalism. No chance I’d ever go to war. So I thought.

And then things changed fast. During Richard Nixon’s administration the Selective Service decided to hold a draft lottery for men born during the years 1944 to 1950. Suddenly all Georgia boys paid attention to what was going on. With a mix of dread and optimism we anticipated the drawing. That lottery would affect two of my roommates and me. We were baby boomers. Our birth years ranged from 1945 to 1949. We were “in the hunt” to win the lottery — only it was one lottery we did not want to win.

The lottery worked like this. Slips of paper carrying each day of the year, birthdates if you will, were enclosed in plastic capsules (Conjure up large clear pill capsules with Fortune-cookie-like slips of paper inside). All the capsules had been dumped into a large glass jar. That jar by the way was big, sort of like an old-time large water cooler jug with the top cut out. That jar held my future.

My birthday is February 4. My roommate Joe’s birthday is May 6, and roommate Garnett’s birthday is March 22. Guys born on leap day didn’t catch a break. That date was included in the lottery. The ceiling for this random draft pool was 195. Any birth date drawn 196th or higher for all practical purposes meant its lucky owner was home free. If you were born September 21, say, 1947, you drew No. 204 for drafting. You, my friend, had no worries.

December 1, 1969, arrived and three country boys sat in front of a small B&W, grainy TV to watch the draft. Look at that photo. Just behind that window with vertical blinds we’re hunched over staring at the TV, talking little. In that small simple apartment a life-changing drama is about to unfold. It is going to be a very bad day for a lot of young men. Some guys refused to watch.

A CBS Special Report took the place of “Mayberry RFD.” The special report had a simple title: “The Draft Lottery.” Correspondent Roger Mudd covered the lottery.

The first number up, September 14, was designated 001. Boys with that number were dead men walking. I doubt they slept any that night. Or the next. Think about it. One day they’re in college loving life; the next day they face the prospect of basic training and going to war. A lot of young men drawing low numbers moved to Canada to avoid ‘Nam and its rice fields, booby traps, and ambushes.

Anti-Vietnam sentiment was at a fever pitch. The lottery prompted Country Joe McDonald to write a song, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die-Rag.” … “Well, come on all of you big strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again. Yeah, he’s got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Vietnam. So put down your books and pick up a gun. Gonna have a whole lot of fun. And it’s 1, 2, 3 … what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn. The next stop is Vietnam.”

The numbers kept coming out of that glass jar. Joe’s number came up first, 155. He was not happy. And then a long stretch of numbers came out of the jar. With each number drawn a mix of euphoria and dread gripped me. The 190s arrived. And then 194, January 9 was pulled out. One number to go and it was … September 24. Back then no one high-fived or fist-bumped but had they I’m sure Garnett and I would have done just that. I drew 210 and Garnett drew 265.

The next day on campuses all across the country guys who drew high numbers were home free. Guys who drew low numbers were scrambling to save themselves. Some folks say that lottery produced schizophrenic times. The lottery number you drew represented a huge cultural divide: students versus soldiers in waiting. For me it meant something else. A more relaxed student. My gentleman Cs slipped to Ds. An F came too.

When I went on academic probation, Dad gave me a pep talk. I set about righting the ship but cumbersome ships far off course take a long time to turn. To stay on schedule to graduate I had to go to summer school. For the first time in three summers I would not be working at eastern Georgia’s Elijah Clark State Park, a place I dearly loved. I went to work instead as a waiter at a restaurant on West Broad in Athens. It was there that I met a girl from West Virginia. I was given the task of training her how to set up the salad bar. The very first thing that happened was I accidentally cut her finger showing her how to slice tomatoes the preferred way. We overcame the spilling of blood and started dating and in time — a year later — we married. The date was August 28, which incidentally would have been No. 167 in that life-changing draft.

I got my academic life in order and graduated on time. But what if I had I drawn a low number … I would not have gone to Canada. I would have accepted my fate had I been drafted. What might my life be like today had I drawn, say 76? Would I even be here? I’ll never know but I know this. Things didn’t work out for Liz and me, that’s her name, but we had two wonderful daughters, Beth and Becky. In time they had children and today I have five of the most wonderful grandchildren on planet Earth. I cannot imagine life without my daughters and their children.

Take one final look at that window. December 1, 1969, I sat in a simple chair staring at a TV right behind it. I was staring at fate, staring at the future but had no way of knowing it. In retrospect, it was a window of opportunity, a destiny, and the best thing that ever happened to me.


Photo by the author

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at Email me at [email protected]