(5 Stories)

Prompted By The Road Not Taken

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

I’d put a lot of thought into military service long before it was time to sign up for the draft when I turned eighteen in 1964. All that thinking led me to the conclusion that it wasn’t for me. Not because I had some deep-rooted opposition to all wars, if I’m being honest, but simply that it wasn’t in my strategic plan. I couldn’t see putting my life on the sidelines for two years while I got the chance to build character marching in formation and sweeping out barracks, or whatever other plans the army might have for me. Then, there was this Vietnam thing slowly heating up, which clinched my decision. The whole thing made no sense to me. The French had been there forever and finally threw in the towel; wasn’t this just a civil war in some tiny Asian country a half a world away? I remember our 8th grade history teacher telling us back then that every generation had to have its war and while there was nothing solid on the horizon for us, he was confident that we’d get our chance. This was just before the first US military advisors were killed in Vietnam. My plan was to go directly to college to get my 2-S student deferment in the fall, no year off to bum around Europe or contemplate my navel.

I remember our 8th grade history teacher telling us back then that every generation had to have its war and while there was nothing solid on the horizon for us, he was confident that we’d get our chance.

Five years later, while Washington was sending more poor kids to the jungles of Asia, I was preparing for on-campus senior job interviews. My search criteria were clear: I had to be assured of a 2-A critical industry draft deferment, the job had to be reasonably interesting, and it had to be within striking distance of Philadelphia. I went with a firm seventy miles to the west after their HR guy boasted that they had never been turned down for a deferment request. I broke that streak for them.

Shortly, I got a letter from my draft board back in the Pittsburgh area stating that I was to be reclassified 1-A, available for military service, pending a physical exam. Next came the letter to report for a physical as the clock began to tick LOUDLY. I hooked up with an anti-war group in Philadelphia to see what options I had. With no obvious [well, not obvious to me] physical or mental flaws, my options were limited. I declined to establish Conscientious Objector status on principle and also took the reserves off the table. My opposition to the war had perhaps grown stronger than my army-less strategic plan or maybe it was my nightmares about dying in a faraway jungle for a cause I didn’t believe in but I began to take a hard look at the land up north. I bought a few months by switching draft boards but the notice to take my physical eventually came and a few weeks later the mailman told me I had passed the physical and was deemed ready to serve.

A steel company just across the border in Hamilton, Ontario had openings for engineers and I decided I would head that way if I got a draft notice. Next came tearful letters and phone calls with my parents. My dad, a WW2 vet, said he’d support my decision if it came down to that. Looking back, it was probably naive of me to think I could walk into a steel mill in Canada and be offered a job on the spot. Maybe I’d have driven a cab instead; who knew where a draft dodger would end up?

On December 1,1969 the government held a nationwide draft lottery in an effort to make the system fairer for all. Each of the 366 birthdates was given a number and I listened in my car radio to KYW as they were pulled out of a cage one by one. The expectation was that anyone below 130-150 would be drafted. I drew 351.

It was at last over for me, but was it really? All these years later I still think about it and even write about it. Do I ever worry that my personal battle caused somebody else to take my place, perhaps coming home damaged or in a box? Absolutely, to this day. Were my motives all righteous and pure with me standing up for exactly what I believed at all times? Probably not. Yes, I had my convictions but I gamed the system and won. Did I ever disrespect anyone who was drafted or enlisted then or now? Absolutely not. I visited Normandy a few years ago and was fortunate enough to shake the hand of a Vet at one of the cemeteries there. It was a deeply moving experience for me.

We all have to make our own decisions based on the information and options we have at hand. Would I have gone to Canada if it had come to that? I’m reasonably certain the answer is yes. Where would I be today as a result? I wish I knew. That’s as black and white as I can get on this one.

Profile photo of Alexander Alexander

Tags: draft, Canada, Vietnam
Characterizations: moving


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Alexander, I have been watching the Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam and am horrified by the lies our leaders told all of us that prolonged the gruesome conflict, causing tremendous loss of life and treasure. I am younger than you, so it didn’t feel as immediate to me, but reading your story now, while watching the documentary is stunning. So many could not and did not make the decision that you made. It is wonderful that your parents supported you.

    I visited many battle sites in Normandy this past June, was on Omaha Beach on D Day at 6:38am, when first boots were on the ground, met a few vets (now in their 90s) and all we could do was thank them for their service. But then we knew why we were fighting (my father, too, was a veteran of WWII). Being Jewish, defeating the Nazis was particularly important. But as you say, intruding on a civil war, half a world away, which France had already tried and failed at, made no sense. Thank you for sharing your story with our community.

  2. John Zussman says:

    This is such an honest self-examination of your thoughts, attitudes, fears, and anxieties about serving in Vietnam; it takes me right back to my own, and I’ll bet it resonates with many other men who lived through that period. I don’t think you gamed the system, but instead played by the rules as they existed then and ultimately got lucky. The rules weren’t fair and others weren’t so lucky, but (as I too watch the Ken Burns doc) that was the fault of our “leaders,” not you. Thanks for your honest appraisal.

Leave a Reply