Once a week I visit my neighbor Charlie. Several years ago he fell on some steps and compressed his spinal cord. The accident left his legs weak and immobile. Until this past October I visited him in his home. Now he’s in a long-term care facility. 

Charlie and I have exhausted pretty much all of our stories about fishing, professional sports, crime novels, and respective careers, so now we look for other subjects to talk about. Lately he’s been telling me about his kids. I recently found out that one of his sons had gone to West Point and is now a retired Army major. I’ve never met the son, and I don’t know how old he is, but based on Charlie’s age (88 years old), I assume that his son is five to ten years younger than I am. What a difference five years make when you’re in your teens! I was eighteen in 1972. Guys five years older than I was had to face Vietnam head on. Guys exactly my age worried about their potential roles in the war, but subsequently had no direct role at all. Guys five years my junior missed the war altogether and consequently were more likely to make the military their careers. 

I was not quite nineteen when the Selective Service conducted the lottery for men born in 1954. A few friends and I sat around a table as a guy on the radio read off birth dates one at a time. It turned out that no one got drafted that year, but we couldn’t have known that as we listened for our numbers to come up. Every male who turned eighteen from 1964 to 1972 knew his draft number, and most still remember it now. Mine is 321. 

I often feel like I was born too late to have fully experienced the ‘60s. I was alive, of course, but Vietnam, civil rights, women’s rights, and the environmental movement were largely abstractions to me. That changed when I moved from Green Bay to Madison for college. There I attended noontime antiwar rallies.* By then the demonstrations were entirely peaceful and, to be honest, not all that interesting. The same speakers, while passionate, got on the podium to say the same things day after day. Much more engaging were the afternoons, when a dozen guys jammed into a single dorm room to watch the Watergate hearings. Having grown up in a conservative town, I felt my politics shift over a matter of weeks. I have always wondered what my parents thought of me when I hitchhiked home for Thanksgiving that first year. Only three months had passed since I’d moved out of the house, but I’d grown a fu manchu mustache, had not had a haircut, and became a Democrat. 

By 1972, the chances of being drafted for the war were small, but all young men knew, or at least thought they knew, what their options were if they were about to be called up. They could 1) let the Army induct them, 2) enlist in the Navy or the Air Force before the Army got them, 3) apply for conscientious objector status, or 4) flee to Canada. By the time I was of draftable age, student deferments were off the table. 

For reasons I do not remember, I thought CO status was almost impossible to get. I now know that not to be true, but at the time I thought my options were to go into the Army or move to Canada. Soon after my nineteenth birthday, the military went all-volunteer, and all of my consternation about military service turned out to be for nothing. Our lives are determined by the times we’re born into, and sometimes the specific window of “our time” is surprisingly small.  

* More impactful than the demonstrations was walking past the empty space that had been a wing of Sterling Hall. Sterling Hall is the university’s physics building, but at the time it also housed the Army Mathematics Research Center. In 1970, Karl Armstrong, David Fine, and two other antiwar radicals blew up the wing, killing a post-doc researcher named Robert Fassnacht.

Steven Simpson