1970 was the year that I turned 18 years old and registered for the draft as required by law. Up until then, the U.S. had been drafting approximately 200,000 to 300,000 kids a year between the ages of 18 and 26 years old. Being young and strong and healthy, and with no medical or student deferment, my draft classification was 1-A. I knew that I was the perfect draft candidate. 1970 was also the first year of the draft lottery, which was based on 365 randomly selected days of the year. For example, if the first date drawn in the lottery was July 20 and your birthday fell on July 20, then your draft number would be number 1, and you would be the first to be drafted. If you had a birth date lottery number over 125, then you were pretty safe and unlikely to be called. My birth date was the 18th date drawn that year; therefore, my draft lottery number was 18. I would surely have been called up for military service if I had been one year older. However, beginning in 1970, only 19-year-old boys were subject to the draft, so I was still safe for one more year. The possibility of being drafted weighed heavily on my mind even though I wasn’t old enough yet.
By that spring, I was working as a laborer at my Dad’s construction company. We were building two commercial air cargo storage buildings alongside a runway at the airport. Since that was the first time I had been to an airport, I was fascinated by the close-up view of the airplanes taking off and landing. Their loud acceleration on take-off and their rapid deceleration on landing were impressive. It was interesting to see the puffs of smoke from each of the airplane tires as they screeched, touching down on the runway. I was in awe of the jets’ massive power and size, and never realized until then how huge they were. I wondered where on earth all of those passengers could be going. And I also pondered whether I would ever have a chance to travel by plane someday. But that seemed unlikely since no one in my family had ever flown before.
It didn’t take long to discover that one thing airports lack were shade trees. For a couple of months, I shoveled slag, dug ditches, and helped pour concrete out in the hot sun. I worked alongside strong men who treated me well, maybe because my dad was the boss. But I think they also respected a kid that was able to keep up with them. The hard work kept me in great physical shape. I was growing stronger than ever, and working in the sun gave me a great tan too. For the first time in my life, I had plenty of spending money. Earning five dollars an hour was unbelievable; two hundred dollars a week. I even saved enough money to buy my first motorcycle. The only problem was that I couldn’t imagine myself doing that kind of hard physical labor for the rest of my life. That was some tough back-breaking work.
Diane and I went out on dates as often as possible. Usually, I would borrow my dad’s old stick shift Rambler, but sometimes she could get her dad’s newer Dodge, (which had a bigger back seat), and we would ride around all night, not caring where we were going. We just enjoyed being together. Often, we would stop someplace for a burger, fries, and a soft drink. Winky’s, a local fast-food chain that was trying to compete with the new and only McDonald’s franchise in the area, was a favorite stop, mainly because I liked the “Big Wink” better than the “Big Mac.” Sometimes on the weekends, we would go to the drive-in movie theater where we had three or four hours to snuggle close together in the darkness while we pretended to watch the movie. We continued spending more and more time together. I loved Diane and wanted to ask her to marry me. So, I sold my little old Honda motorcycle for some cash to buy her an engagement ring. On her high school graduation day in June of 1970, I gave her the engagement ring and proposed, asking her to marry me. She said YES! (We were only 18 years old.) Now I had the scary task of facing Diane’s Dad to ask his permission to marry her. He didn’t torture me, though. He told me it was okay, as long as I kept my haircut and face shaved. I guess as an old WW II Marine veteran; my future father-in-law had no use for bearded, long-haired hippies.
I wanted to go back to school so that I could get a decent job before getting married, but I couldn’t see any way of making that happen. It never crossed my mind to ask my parents to pay for college. They had us five kids and plenty of personal challenges of their own. Good jobs were tough to find while you were still a candidate for the draft. Employers didn’t want to spend the time or money to train draft aged guys who may have to leave the job within a year. There was also the fact that the employers were required to hold your position open for two years until you completed your military service obligation and were able to return to work. I felt the odds were pretty good that I would be wasting the next year and would likely be getting myself into trouble while sitting around waiting to be drafted. Some of the “bad” friends that I was hanging around with were already getting themselves into more and more severe trouble, even engaging in borderline criminal activity.
My three best friends that I grew up with had already left home. Frank went away to college and then, later on, joined the Marines. Pete, who was one year older than me, had already been drafted into the Army. And Bob had joined the Marine Corps and was sadly killed in a car crash on his way home from base one night. So, I decided not to wait; I had a plan. I was going to join the Army now and get it over with, once and for all. And then, in two years, I could come home, attend school, and have the tuition paid for by the GI bill. It was a big decision that many friends tried to talk me out of. But it seemed like a good plan at the time. At the end of June or early July, I asked Luke, a friend of mine, if he would do me a favor and drive me downtown to the Federal building so that I could join the Army. I chose to ask Luke for that ride because he was already in the Army reserves at the time. There were a lot of kids who joined the military reserves or the National Guard as a way of avoiding the draft. I thought Luke would be willing to fill me in on what to expect, enlightening me about the Army experience. But instead, he tried talking me out of enlisting during the entire ride to town. His reason was: “They may send you to Vietnam”!
Of course, I was well aware of the Vietnam War, everybody was. The war news and antiwar protest news permeated society. My parents never missed the evening news with Walter Cronkite. There were always plenty of graphic news stories of traumatic events being shown right on our living room TV. The news reports would show video footage of soldiers in firefights, wounded soldiers, as well as, protesters on college campuses burning their draft cards and marching in the streets. But I never saw any of that first hand in my safe little suburban neighborhood community. It all seemed to be so far away from home.
We arrived downtown at the tall skyscraper federal building and then entered one of the many elevators and went up to the Army recruiting office. I walked right over to the front desk and stated that I wanted to join the army for two years. The recruiter shook his head and said: “Sorry, can’t do that, three years is the minimum.” I didn’t expect, nor was I prepared for that response. I just wanted to get in and get out and be done with it, putting it all behind me. I started to argue my case with him, but he interrupted me, and once again stated, “Sorry, I can’t do it. If you want to join the Army, you’ll have to enlist for at least three years, but six would be better!” So, after agonizing over the decision to enlist, they were telling me no. Dejected, I exited the recruiter’s office and then noticed the selective service system offices right across the hall. I pointed them out to Luke and asked him if that is what I thought it was? Is that the draft board office? Luke shook his head, not replying as I walked over and entered the room. I asked the clerk at the front desk, “Can you draft me for two years?” He asked how old I was. “18,” I replied. He asked to see my draft card and then said: “Sign your name right here on this form, and you’ll be getting your draft notice in the mail.” I had just volunteered for the draft! Over the next few weeks, Diane and I spent as much time together as we possibly could.