Among the beauties of growing old is recalling exactly where you were and what you were doing when historic events happened:
The Cuban Missile Crisis; the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy; Richard Nixon’s resignation; the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Fall of Saigon, 40 years ago last week.
As Huey helicopters on the roof of the U.S. embassy overloaded with sympathetic Vietnamese, I happened to be north of Great Falls in the heart of Nuke Missile Country. As if on cue, ironic and iconic dark-blue U.S. Air Force vehicles—some armed and armored to the hilt—trundled the blue highways of the wheat-rich Golden Trapezoid, maintaining our peacekeeping force.
Our Ace in the Hole during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The aces stayed in their holes. Allegedly with enough nukes to flatten Moscow and kill all of humanity several times over, the silos surrounded by a sea of green remained silent.
With a whimper, not a bang, a Vietnam international nightmare dating back to the 1950s was over. Today, you can buy Cinco de Mayo hats made in Vietnam. For a lot of young male Americans, the war—or their vested interest in it—had ended earlier, on Dec. 1, 1969, with the first draft lottery. Birthdates were drawn for all males born between 1944 and 1950.
Even before that, there were what they called deferments for workers in key industries, people with disabilities or dependents, or those attending school. The education industry boomed exponentially as people sought to delay conscription for up to four years by becoming successful, full-time college students.
The draft multiplied the number of high-school grads thirsting for knowledge and delaying the inevitable draft notice. The towering Liberal Arts Building at what then was known as Eastern Montana College was built to accommodate the sudden surplus, earning the satiric nickname “Heywood’s High-Rise High School,” named for the college president, Stanley Heywood.
The phrase “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” proved all too true as drop-outs and flunk-outs became draft fodder.
One student (me) turned the other cheek by entering the University of Montana (all Montana high-school grads automatically admitted) with a D-plus average on his high school transcript and turning it into an A-minus first trimester grade point. Motivation was the key.
For a little time and space travel, let us go back to that first draft in 1969. Students were required to live in dormitories and not allowed to have cars during their freshman year. Televisions were a rarity in those dorm rooms, although each dorm wing had a big TV room with plenty of chairs and a huge (38-inch!) TV with three channels.
Those rooms were overflowing well before the countdown to the lottery. So the second floor of the Dean Stone Journalism Building was already packed when I began my shift as the night editor at the student daily, the Montana Kaimin.
Everyone on campus knew where the teletype was. I dispatched a young and deep-voiced photographer, Larry Clawson, to bellow the dates as numbers the were drawn out of a glass bowl and rolled off the clattering teletype.
And so on, down to 366.
Eventually, everyone up to No. 190 could be expected to be drafted. I was 186. Sighs of joy and cries of despair filled the second floor as Clawson boomed the dates and numbers. The crowd began to thin—as later did the number of protest marchers because those who knew they no longer had a dog-face in the fight became less concerned about the injustice, immorality and illegality of the Big Lie.
Overall, a total of maybe 1.4 million to 2.6 million civilians and soldiers were killed, including 58,303 U.S. soldiers who never came back alive. One of four U.S. fatalities were what in those days were politely called “Negroes.”
In Montana, it is mildly amusing that many Native Americans are justifiably proud of the high percentage of tribal members who have served in the U.S. military. The proud warrior culture.
Each county had its own civilian Selective Service (draft) board to seek and deploy young men.
Usually, county draft boards in Indian Country were all-white juries of non-Indians. In rural Montana counties, many able-bodied, strapping farm boys (including a few who had already flunked out of college and exhausted that deferment) took advantage of an agricultural deferment. Life on the farm was kind of laid back, compared to life and death on the Mekong.
Many Montana district judges dropped minor-league criminal charges if the youngster would agree to enlist in the military and learn some discipline, how to make up his bed, polish shoes and assemble and disassemble his M-16 rifle.
Despite all this and the war winding down, No. 186 eventually did come up.
The Yellowstone County Selective Service Board bought me a round-trip Greyhound ticket to Butte America for my physical. Of those who boarded that day in Billings, about half were draftees on the same mission. The bus was full.
I was among the few and the proud who did not have an armload of papers from doctors, employers, shrinks, homosexual lovers, parents, or clergymen stating why I was unfit for service.
We were put up at the aptly named Graves Hotel and my roommate was a cowboy who was the spitting image of Laurel’s only ’Nam fatality.
A neighbor and family friend, Richard Dale Pickett, began school with my brother’s Class of 1965 and ended up being graduated with my Class of 1967. His academic rank was somewhere below my 90 out of 134. He was a Marine. Drove over a land mine.
Earlier, his family was the first in town to receive discount school lunches in President Lyndon B. Johnson´s Guns-and-Butter “War on Poverty.” It was largely a poor man’s war.
Richard Dale Pickett. If you are ever at The Wall in D.C.—or the Laurel Cemetery— look him up.
My left eye did not pass the physical. But I did not receive the coveted 4-F. The attending physician said:
“We’ll make you 1-Y and call you up again in April. We might be taking blind guys by then.”
Someone from the Job Service consoled us rejects, said I might try the Montana Standard across the street. I was too elated to take him up on that.
The war wound down a little and the draft board never called, never wrote.
So Saigon had to fall without my help.
T.J. Gilles moved to Costa Rica three years ago to avoid the draft.