Betting on the end by
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The war (the Vietnam War) had been at the top of the news and hotly debated when I was in junior high. But the draft and what it meant became apparent to me during my freshman year in high school. That year, 1968, my father said at dinner that he was relieved by his children’s birth order: that I was 4 years older than my brother Allan. Surely by the time he turned 18, the war—and the draft—would be over.

... numbers corresponding to the days of the year were written on slips of paper and placed in plastic capsules, which were put into a deep glass jar (at the time I’d imagined a bingo cage).

Also, that year several young men joined the high school teaching faculty, where they seemed out of place—especially Mr. Monroe, who taught biology, but really was in the New York area to pursue a career in modern dance. I don’t remember who explained that young men could get deferments from the draft if they went into certain professions, such as teaching, but Mr. Monroe was betting that the war would end before his time came. Handsome, with dark brown hair and eyes and a flexible body, Mr. Monroe endured the jeering of the football team, but soon earned their respect after he beat them up, one by one. Standards were different, then. I never found out what became of him.

By my sophomore year the deferments had ended, and the draft system became a lottery. Once a young man turned 18 and registered for the draft, he was subject to an annual drawing in the spring, near the end of the school year. According to Wikipedia, numbers corresponding to the days of the year were written on slips of paper and placed in plastic capsules, which were put into a deep glass jar (at the time I’d imagined a bingo cage). The first number was drawn (for example, 258, which corresponds to September 14) and assigned lottery number 1, and so on. Any young man whose birthday fell on the number 1 day would be drafted first. The lower the lotter number, the more likely the young man would be drafted.

It was spring of my junior year. I had just turned 17. On the afternoon of the lottery drawing, my girlfriends and I assembled in the school library, bringing the birthdays of boyfriends, relatives, and classmates. Someone had a transistor radio, and we managed to listen as the birthdays and lottery numbers were called. In my little group, we were lucky. The young men we knew all got numbers higher than 195, which meant they were unlikely to be drafted.

The war lasted longer than anyone could have believed, but fewer young men were drafted each year. In April, 1975, as I was preparing to get my college degree, the war ended. In June, my brother Allan turned 18. He had to register for the draft, but it was just a formality.

In the years that followed I dated many men and heard the stories about how they got through the war period. The more common stories were about enlisting as an officer, having a medical excuse, or even one man with a velvety baritone voice being assigned to Army radio in Thailand. Then there were the funny stories: one of the smartest men I’ve ever met tried to fail the Army intelligence test (he couldn’t manage to fail it), and then tried to convince the military that his Fulbright scholarship was to prepare him to become a priest. I even knew someone who was rejected on psychological grounds because the Army believed (and rightly) that he would shoot his commanding officers if they did anything stupid and put him and themselves into harm’s way.

And then there were those who didn’t win the bet. Several years ago, on a business trip to Washington, DC, a group of colleagues, some Baby Boomer age and others younger, went to the Vietnam Memorial. On the wall I found the name of a young man from my high school who went to war and didn’t return. We all stared at the endless names of those who had died. The younger people in group stood quietly and respectfully. The rest of us wept.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: been there, moving, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Good story, Marian. Your last paragraph brought tears to my eyes.

  2. Aw that made me cry. I always wondered how the lottery worked. Praying for peace, thanks for your story.

  3. Beautiful reminiscence, Marian. And thanks for running down the chronology of the draft, the lottery and, of course, the consequences. Such vivid scenes — the young women waiting with birth dates in hand, the modern dancer and the football jocks, the clever but desperate attempts to escape. What a time, in the midst of middle America struggling to hang on to its dreams. Thanks.

    • Marian says:

      You’re welcome, Charles. This was a time so different from when my father and uncle enlisted for WWII. Interesting, during WWI, my grandfather was a CO but volunteered to go to France as a medic.

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