I looked up my draft number yesterday. An uncomfortably low 129. That surprised me; my memory had it higher than 270. However, because no kids were actually inducted into the military in nineteen seventy-four, the year I became eligible for the draft, I had little to worry about. Though Saigon had not yet fallen, American military involvement in Viet Nam had just ended and our troops were returning home. The draft was a moot point. Never the less, it seemed like a good idea to tune into the process.
I watched the draft lottery on my family’s old black-and-white TV. The whole thing seemed like Bingo night at the parish hall except that no one yelled out that he had won. I must have felt anxious; I don’t recall exactly. I know my mother was worried, even though she had already worked out all the angles for keeping her three sons out of whatever conflicts were on the horizon. Youth and stellar school grades protected my younger brother. For my older brother, my mother planned pre-med school. For me, her hope was that the Army would classify me as 4-F, meaning I would be found physically unfit for military service due to a somewhat embellished medical history. I guess she could not count on my academic performance.
I had no personal angle on avoiding military service. For the most part, I had been against our country’s involvement in the Vietnam War, but I didn’t waste much thought on dodging the draft. Maybe I had mixed emotions about my obligations to my country. Maybe I was afraid of dying young. Maybe I would be ashamed of ducking my duties instead of bullets. Maybe I was afraid of pulling the trigger on another man’s life—or worse, discovering I was proficient at it.
Mostly, my emotions were too muddled to count as mixed, if that can make sense. Who wants to die young? Who really wants to live forever? Who does not want to be completely free? Who does not believe they owe some form of dues to the society they are sewn to? Who does not want what they only want right now, without regard to the future and forgetful of the past? Who does not want to just get high on some magical ingredient—religion, philosophy, chemistry—and be altogether ignorant of time?
So, I missed the war–or rather, the war missed me. It ended too soon to matter to my life except as a subject of conversations about ‘almosts’. To my hawkish friends I could promise I would have done my duty. To my dovish friends I could describe which route I would have taken into Canada. To myself I could imagine being a buck-private in a foreign country, bravely crawling through overlapping fields of fire on my way to breakfast.
In truth, I would have never made it to breakfast. I have always lacked what military people call S.A., or, Situational Awareness. On my first morning of deployment in the field, I would have stood up in my foxhole to stretch, and immediately have been dissected by a mortar round. As in Randall Jarrell’s poem, ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’, they would have washed me out of my hole with a hose.
So it goes. You survive birth, though you really aren’t well designed for it. You survive running with scissors. You survive hurtling your car at high speed toward other cars with nothing to keep you alive except a collective faith in feint yellow lines painted down the middle of the roads. Then, after surviving all this, while you are happily feeding pigeons in the park, you might be killed instantly by a falling piece of space junk. It makes no sense. However, is it unfair? Is this worse, for example, than news that a lump on your liver has been diagnosed as your body’s cells fighting a war to end all wars—and worse than accompanying news of your calculable expiration date? Somehow, it must make sense.
Knowing your expiration date might make it difficult to enjoy feeding the pigeons. It could require a re-evaluation of life—yours and others’. It certainly asks for appreciations of the facts that, around here, you are free to choose how well or badly you face your expiration date, and that this freedom is partly paid for by people who intentionally risk their own future opportunities to feed the pigeons by volunteering to sit in foxholes.
May 28, 2012