Numbers rule our lives. No way around it. Words are powerful, but numbers are the bedrock underlying our lives. Hard and intractable, numbers never lie. They don’t give a damn. Nothing illustrates this better than the Vietnam Lottery that took place at the Selective Service Headquarters in Washington DC on December 1, 1969. The first lottery of its kind since the outbreak of WW2. I witnessed history firsthand as it went down. I had skin in the game.
Being of age, my friends and I were all entered in the Lottery, courtesy of Uncle Sam and his cronies. Of course, we decided to have a party and watch our numbers being drawn live on a CBS News Lottery special that night. Black and white TV, blurry, the reception dubious at best. Whether we were having trouble seeing the screen because of all we had ingested and smoked was something we were too wiped out to think about. Only the finest of the fine was smoked that night, along with a smorgasbord of exquisite African Hashish delivered by Haggis Altoona, our dealer and friend. Through the drone and flicker of the TV and the smoke filling the room, I could just make out Roger Mudd, the CBS anchor sitting in the foreground. A congressman (whoever he was), hunched over like a stork with long skinny legs, shuffled up to a table to pick the plastic capsules out of a large glass container that looked more like something a hospital would store blood-soaked rags in than a lottery machine.
Listen, our lives were at stake here. Some of us would be chosen to go to war, others would not. Much like those unfortunates in Shirley Jackson’s famous story she wrote in the fifties, The Lottery, where one person is chosen out of all the villagers by ballots drawn from a black box and then afterwards stoned to death. All to ensure a good harvest. Sound familiar? Because it is. In 2008 Suzanne Collins penned the dystopian novel
There were 366 plastic capsules with every birthday, incorporating all the years from 1944 to 1950, on 366 strips of paper tucked away inside. Like babes in cradles we were, ripe for the picking. At this point I was biting my fingernails down to the stubs. Even under the heavy influences I was still a wreck. Still, there was a glimmer of hope hidden in all the hype. If you were drawn at a high number, say 200 or over, Uncle Sam couldn’t get his mitts on you. Anything below that, you were probably bread for the toaster.
Few can escape the avalanche of history crashing down around them. Most of us are molded by the drifts we live in. In the sixties and early seventies, the sweep of Time pushed us away from military service and engulfed us in peace and free love, anti-war sentiment, rock music, alternative lifestyles, the coming of pot. I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but few of us wanted to go to Vietnam and fight a war no one understood. Nobody with a mind believed the Dominoes Theory the U.S. Government was dolling out to the public like candy. We were too well informed. TV wasn’t ascendant and didn’t have much influence on our lives. We thought independently, read books, newspapers. Not fake news. We weren’t lemmings walking over a cliff blindly following the one in front of us. Consequently, conscripts were way down. The Army was having a hard time getting numbers to volunteer. Madison Ave had yet to glorify the armed forces and war. Only after the Vietnam War ended did the Pentagon begin to rehabilitate its image, fueled by a perpetual bombardment of TV spots that put soldiering in good stead with the public again. After a couple of decades when Ronald Ray-Guns rode into office in full regalia, the Army was able to equip itself with enough walking dead to fight all the wars the military industrial establishment warranted. Hell, they even took care of you in a time of low wages, spiraling inflation and lack of jobs. They shelled out dough for college. Even paid your funeral expenses if you came home in a black body bag.
The draft party was in full frontal swing and I could feel the top of my head exploding all the way through the ceiling – on its way to the stars. Still, I couldn’t calm my nerves. I watched with one eye open as the congressman stooped, reached into the glass container, and pulled out the first capsule. He handed it to a pretty woman sitting in front of the container. She opened it, gave a winning smile, and handed it to a clerk on stage, who then walked up to a big board and stuck the paper on the number one spot. September 14. We all looked at one another, and breathed a huge sigh of relief. No one in the room had that number. Things were looking up. Only 365 more to go.
When number seven came up, I heard a groan as if a two-by-four were slowly being twisted until it snapped. I turned and Sven fell over, slumped on the couch, head in his hands. Then we all chanted. He rallied, started to laugh, jumped up, took a massive hit from a joint and guzzled a giant stein of beer. He belched a roar, raised a fist, and threw the glass against the wall, shattering it into a million chimes. We all cheered. He was off to war. Going to Vietnam. Lucky guy. Go to war and see the world. All expenses paid. That’s when it hit me. Christ, what the hell was I thinking? That I’d get out of this unscathed?
My heartrate skyrocketed and I tried to calm myself with another swig of beer and a hit of pot. I was thinking there must be some way to stop this abomination Nixon had concocted, but I was helpless in the face of all those numbers tumbling around and around in that shiny glass lottery machine. Numbers began to fly by. Then two more of my friends were called. I felt like I was wearing cement shoes and a machine gun was being placed in my gut. There was no exit.
Then they called number 36. The pretty woman handed it to the clerk and he plastered it on the board. Did I detect a smirk as he turned and looked out at the audience he couldn’t see? The camera zoomed in on the sticker with the birthdate on it. I leaned forward and squinted. August 24… 1948 – in bold black and white. No, it couldn’t be. I squinted again. But maybe I was reading it wrong? I looked in a mirror on the wall next to me and my eyes stared back at me, roadmaps leading into Hell. I grabbed a joint and took another blast, staggering backwards into a chair. Then the clerk droned the birthdate, “August 24, 1948.” Mine. Shit, holy shit! I was going, on my way. Number fucking 36! With my luck I’d probably end up as point man on patrols. Be the first one shot. I could smell the hot, red steam of the jungle rising around me and feel the gurgle of bullets as they wound their way into my flesh. Oh sweet Jesus, I was headed for the far country of Doom.
If I had been born on August 25, one day later (as it was, I was born at 11:58 PM on the 24th), my number would have fallen at 286 and I would have been safe from the war. But no, as bad fortune would have it, I was born on the 24th. No matter how I turned it over and over in my stoned mind, I was going to war. One click over to the right – to the 25th, or if my mother had held on giving birth to me for two or three more minutes, I would have been safe. Numbers don’t give a shit. They don’t lie. Numbers, goddamned numbers.