This story was prompted by an assignment for one of my workshop classes. It required that it be written with a first-person point of view, which was a challenge since I had originally envisioned this story in third-person. My inspiration was listening to stories about the draft lotteries back in the 70s. It all seems so long ago, but technically it was during my lifetime. The following is my latest draft.
“Hey, the draft party’s at Pat Calderisi’s tonight. You going?” I didn’t see him right away but I knew who it was as soon as he spoke. I turned around to see Jack Coker walking up to me in my garage. His gruff voice was unmistakable. Since I had the day off from work, I had spent the afternoon cleaning out the garage for my pop and had just finished cleaning out the family car. It was an unusually warm day for December in Toledo, and it was better to be outside than hanging out in the house.
“Yeah, I’ll be there. You talk to Peter yet?” I knew that Jack and Peter didn’t spend much time together outside of our group. Peter was too nerdy and too intellectual for someone like Jack, but we all grew up together and went to the same grade school.
“Yeah, he knows.” Jack kicked at the rear tire of my car. I gave him a look, and he stopped his kicking. “The lottery’s on at eight. I’ve got a few things to do before tonight. I’ll see ya’ there.” As Jack lumbered away, I nodded to him and told him I would see him later.
Peter was back from MIT on his Christmas break. He was freaky smart but had little patience for someone like Jack. I knew that Peter wouldn’t go without me, so I called him and made the usual arrangement to pick him up and go over to Pat’s with him. Like me, he wasn’t looking forward to the lottery, but he didn’t want to be at home with his mother when his number was called. I remembered that Charles was back from Julliard, too, and called to invite him as well.
“No, thanks. Sounds like a downer anyway.” Charles couldn’t be bothered with anything as pedestrian as a selective service lottery. He was convinced that he would be exempt because he was the only son in his family. He might have been right. It gave him a weird sort of cockiness that was entirely annoying. It was bad enough that he was the golden boy of Central Catholic. Everybody had wanted to be his friend. I thought about my situation–I was an only son, but I also had a half-brother. Charles was convinced that half-brothers would count and that my assumed only-son status couldn’t be used as a deferment. It seemed that I was doomed.
We had all turned eighteen in 1972 except for Jack. He was already nineteen. He had been held back one grade due to, well, lack of intelligence. What he lacked in smarts he made up for it in fists and attitude. He always had my back whenever someone got aggressive with me. At the same time, he would never take any crap from any of us. As he got older, his build grew to be more and more like his father’s, a longshoreman. And so did his vocabulary. He taught me how to swear convincingly so I always admired him for that. We bonded even more during my gap year, for better or worse.
I knew Pat from school. We all graduated from Central Catholic High School together and had gone to elementary school at Rosary Cathedral before that. He hosted the draft party last year. I saw some friends for the last time at that party. I would occasionally hear about other friends that were in the service that hadn’t been killed in Vietnam. Not yet anyway.
The afternoon slipped quickly into the evening. I borrowed my dad’s car and picked up Peter. We arrived around 7:30, and the house was already full of people. The smell of cigarettes, beer, and feet greeted us at the door. The Calderisi home was a modest size with knick-knacks in almost every room. A framed image of Jesus looked over us in the foyer. I saw mostly kids that I knew from school and the neighborhood along with some of their siblings. My sisters were much older and lived in other towns, busy with kids and diapers and another life that I hadn’t yet understood. A hockey game was on the television but could barely be heard above the all the voices. Jack showed up in front of us with beers in hand. We each grabbed a bottle, and he guided us through the crowd to some empty seats in the kitchen.
There was an awkward moment of silence, and then Julie, another neighborhood kid, appeared. Julie and I had walked home from school almost every day when I was in high school. She always ate all of my French fries whenever we would stop at the Burger King along the way even though I would offer to buy her an order of fries just for her. I thought about guarding my beer as she moved closer to us.
“Hi, Larry! I’m so glad you’re here. How are you doing?” She had genuine concern on her face, but she was struggling with her words and smelled of pot and beer.
“Hi Julie. I’m good. You doing ok?” She looked a little unsteady even while she leaned on the kitchen table.
She nodded and opened her mouth to say something but then changed her mind when she saw the hungry smile on Jack’s face. Her expression soured, and she stumbled away. I released my grip on my beer and shook my head at Jack. It was mildly amusing, but I didn’t want to give Jack the idea that I approved of his obvious leering.
“C’mon, man. Leave her alone.” I hoped that Jack wasn’t going to hunt her down like some unfortunate prey from one of his grisly hunting trips. He snorted at me and took a big swig while his eyes followed Julie out of the room.
“You screwin’ her?” Jack asked. I shook my head, and Jack snorted again.
“She’s a good kid, but not my type,” I explained.
“Man, she’s not a kid anymore, and she’s ready to fall into your lap. You’re wasting an opportunity, man.”
An argument erupted in another room causing the other voices to hush for a moment. I was thankful for the momentary distraction. Peter’s eyes were glued to the clock on the wall while one of his knees bounced up and down under the table. His beer was still unopened. I could never tell what Peter was thinking by looking at his blank face. Yet he seemed quieter than usual.
“Hey, Peter. What time is it?” I asked. I could see on the clock that it was 7:40 but hoped to cut through his fog. Peter slowly turned to me, his eyes reluctant to focus on my face.
“What would you do?” Peter asked resuming his staring contest with his beer bottle. “If you got a low number, would you do it? Would you go to Vietnam?”
Jack was quick to answer. “Yeah!” He gulped the last of his beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “It doesn’t matter anyway cause I’m joinin’ up whether or not they call my number.”
Peter’s eyes widened at the announcement. Jack was probably the only one of us capable of surviving Vietnam, and it wouldn’t be much different from what his dad would do to him at home. He would just get paid to do it. Even though he had finished high school, I had always suspected that the nuns just wanted to get rid of him and graduated him anyway. It probably was the only way that he could get away from his father, the only way his father would allow Jack to leave home. Peter’s eyes started darting around the room.
Peter leaned in and whispered, “What if we didn’t go? What if we went to Canada? Our chances of survival are much greater there. If we leave now, we could be there in an hour.” The desperation in his voice was growing.
“What’s the matter, brainiac? Don’t have enough brains to fight for your country?” Jack made no effort to hide his disdain.
“Fight for my country? You’re so plebeian! Do you even know what the fight is about?” Peter’s voice was nearing a high-pitched whine. Jack smacked his open hand on the table, startling others with the sound of the slap.
“Knock it off, you guys,” I said. Their arguments had never ended up in a physical fight, but I wasn’t sure if either one of them could be trusted to show any restraint considering the circumstances. Jack reached across the table and yanked Peter’s unopened beer from the table.
“You’re just lettin’ it go to waste,” Jack growled.
I realized that I hadn’t thought about what I would do if my number was called. And that was becoming a more likely with every minute that passed. Jack was ready to jump into battle. Hell, he was probably born for it. Peter could think his way out of most anything, but he was unlikely to survive boot camp much less live combat. Charles was safe, unlikely to be touched by war. And then there was me.
I didn’t go right into college after graduating high school. For my year off I worked at a furniture store as a delivery guy. I just needed time to not be so uptight anymore. My parents didn’t have anything left after paying to put four daughters through college, so my pop told me I’d have to work my way through college. And college was the only option he gave me. I wanted to take the time to make my own decisions and on my own terms. But this war business… it was messing up everything. The rooms of the house were filled with people that I grew up with, went to school with, went to church with, and I might not see any of them ever again.
Two beers and fifteen minutes later, I still hadn’t come up with any bright ideas. Jack was circulating throughout the house, while Peter made his way into the living room in front of the television. I wandered out to the backyard in search of fresh air but the smell of cigarette smoke followed me. Peter had calculated that we each had a 30% chance of being drafted right away. We all knew that the top 100 numbers were shipped out within weeks of the lottery. God, what can I do to stay out of the top 100?
I was startled by the sudden silence, and then a man’s voice came from the house, “The Draft Lottery. A live report on the picking of the birthdays for the draft.” I made my way through the crowd and into the overstuffed living room. Everyone quietly watched the numbered balls tumbling in the giant plexiglass urns, our individual fates at stake. One urn held the balls numbered one through 365 to assign the priority of the dates that were called from the balls in the other urn. The woman on the screen selected a ball with a date and passed it to the announcer. She then selected a ball from the other urn, which set the order of the date just pulled from the first urn.
“June 14. Number 95. October 1. Number 215.” The man’s droning voice filled the room. “March 2. Number 2.” A gasp came from across the room, and all heads turned. It was one of the Greer brothers, Rob. He and his older brother were firemen. Rob had even dated one of my sisters a while back. He looked unbothered by the calling of his fate, but his girlfriend next to him looked white as a sheet. The tears started flowing but she didn’t make a sound. Rob tried to comfort her with a hug.
The numbers kept coming, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of Rob and his girlfriend. He kissed her cheek and whispered something to her. She just leaned into him. Their moment of fear and intimacy was mesmerizing. All I could do was stand and watch. He should have been mad as hell, but he wasn’t. She should have been screaming and wailing, but she just clung to him.
It wasn’t fair! We were in the prime of our lives, for some of us our lives hadn’t even started yet. I looked around the room and saw faces that I had known most of my life–some of us were still babies. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life yet, but I knew that I didn’t want to go off and fight in a war!
“July 25. Number 35.” Whoa! That was a close one. Just two days after my birthday. My eyes locked on Peter, and then I remembered his birthday was just a few days from mine. Was it the 25th? Peter’s normally blank face looked pinched and red. He was muttering something to himself, fingers twitching, and almost panting. Oh, damn. That was his number. I sat on the floor, unable to stand anymore. The beads of sweat turned into streams. Meanwhile the numbers droned on.
Jack’s birthdate was called, and he let out a grunt of satisfaction. He was going to get what he wanted after all. I wasn’t sure what I felt; I knew that I couldn’t be happy for him at that moment. He had no idea of what was waiting for him, of what he might become. He got up and left the room, but I was unable to see where he went.
More dates and numbers were announced. More tears, arguments, and sighs of relief as well. They were about two-thirds of the way through the process when they called my birthday, July 23. I stood up to see the television screen and watched the woman reach into the urn and pull out another ball for the priority date. She seemed to take her time with this one, almost moving in slow motion. She handed the ball to the announcer who spun it around in his hand, looking for the all-important to number to read.
“Number 365,” he stated and moved on to the next set of balls to be announced.
365-365-365. I had to repeat the number several times. 365—what did it mean? Peter said that the top 100 numbers always went, and my number was the last for the year. I was at the bottom of the list! I must have let out gasp or something because the guy standing next looked over at me.
“Hey, man. Are you all right?” He searched my eyes for some sign.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m all right.” I shuffled my feet. “I’m all right.” I had to repeat it just to be sure.
The numbers continued until they had assigned every day of the year. And I was free! I wanted to shout and cheer, but I couldn’t. Five other people in the house were going to fight in a war that we never wanted. These were my neighbors and friends, some of them were like brothers and sisters to me. How did I get so lucky?