“Greetings from Uncle Sam.” So began a letter that struck terror in the hearts of every boy in the U.S.. Each one received it upon reaching their eighteenth birthday. It was a notice to report to your local draft board within ten days. For most, it meant that they would be inducted into the Army and very possibly to be sent to Vietnam to fight. The image of fighting in the Vietnam War was burned into our consciousnesses. Every night, video footage from the war was shown on the news. There was even a popular GI Joe doll, an action figure of a U.S. soldier (GI stands for Government Issue) produced by the mega-toy company, Hasbro.
The draft was a worry throughout the high school years as the day approached, both for boys and for girls who opposed the war in Vietnam (girls weren’t drafted). It was a threat always hanging over life. Among my friends, along with most of the counterculture, who deeply opposed the Vietnam War, the assumption was that nobody was going to go into the military. The question was which option are you going to take when the moment comes that you receive your summons to face the draft board? My neighbor Steve Wilensky brought a cadre of friends with him when he had to register. While he went inside, we stood on the front steps of the Oakland Induction Center singing “Alice’s Restaurant,” which among other things told the story of Arlo Guthrie’s induction. Guthrie recounted that when he stood before the people interviewing him he shouted “I want to kill!” I don’t think that Steve Wilensky did that, but he got some sort of deferment and did not join the army. Guthrie got a deferment because of his arrest at Alice’s Restaurant.
Everyone knew the names of the major draft classifications. Their numbers and letters rolled off our tongues as easily as our own names. 1-A was most dreaded; it meant that you were eligible for service. The deferments were the hope: 4-F meant that you were physically or mentally unqualified to serve. Peple did crazy and sometimes dangerous things to get a 4-F deferment. Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead told me,
“There was this one guy, he got a glass eye and he put it in his butt. The docs told him to bend over and spread his cheeks, and ‘What’s that?!’ He replied, ‘What’s going on man? I keep it there!’ It got him out. I don’t know who it was. It was just a story I heard.”
Don Mikkelson wrote in his Ph.D. dissertation, “I knew a guy who had ‘General Hershey is a Motherfucker’ tattooed on his butt. That got him out. Because in those days there was a thing in the Army code saying no one can get inducted into the army if they had an obscene tattoo.”
Dan Hicks told me, “I failed the draft test. There was a guy there who looked like me but he wasn’t me. I got a twenty-eight on the IQ test. I just graduated from college and I failed the test. I did it on purpose. I took my test in 1965. I had to take another test a year to see if I had gotten any better, and I had gotten worse.
I didn’t want to go to Vietnam. I faked it. I told them things that weren’t quite true. They bought it. They were sad to tell me that I couldn’t be in their army. I had a sad look on my face receiving the news. I walked out, and once I got outside I yelled ‘yee-hah!’ bought myself a cowboy shirt and Bob Wills record and celebrated. And then went to the Red Dog Saloon with the Charlatans.”
Mikkelson quoted another young man, “There was a psychiatrist in Berkeley who had the reputation of someone you paid $100 and he wrote you a letter to take to your draft board. He wrote me a letter. And then I stayed up for a week, taking drugs constantly. When I wasn’t shooting up drugs I’d shoot up water to look like a mess. I wanted tracks. The night before the physical I shot up two hits of acid and sat up all night with head phones on, listening to Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. I wanted to be so much at the edge that I’d scare everybody in the place. I lost fifteen pounds because I didn’t eat the whole week. I looked like death, for sure. . . .I went through the physical and people just kept away from me. Then at the end they saw this letter and they sent me to be interviewed by this army psychiatrist. He said, ‘Are you still taking LSD all the time?’ I said, ‘Ahah.’ ‘Do you think it is doing you any good?’ I said, ‘No.’ So it worked. Rejected.”
2-S was a student deferment for those in college. It was the easiest and most obvious option for most, but it was dicey. In 1967 the House Armed Services Committee threatened to end 2-S deferments due to antiwar protests on college campuses. The committee went so far as to suggest to Congress that First Amendment rights should be ignored in the case of anti-Vietnam protestors. Therefore there was always a possibility that your deferment could be rescinded.
Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead told me about how arrests got him out of serving in the war. “You know, it was just Providence. What happened was I got my induction physical notice. I had to go down to take a physical and I was downright uncooperative but they were gonna draft me anyway, and a day or two after my physical, somebody in the San Francisco police department who had political aspirations decided he was going to bust the Grateful Dead, and they planted us with drugs —The Ashbury Street bust. There was pot, a fair bit of really good pot in the house that they totally missed. They know exactly where they were looking because they were…it was horrible weed. And at the time I was macrobiotic and pure as the driven snow. During that first Haight-Ashbury bust I was meditating when I was busted. I was up in the attic because it was quiet up there. I was in full lotus, meditating, when the guy came through the floor and told me I was under arrest. He was surreal. Everything was surreal for me back then.
“But I got busted nonetheless and so with a shaky and and a tearful eye I sat down and wrote the draft board a letter saying I would be there with bells on to my induction but I’m currently dealing with the issue of California Health and Safety Code Violation 11-530, and we’re going to clear my name and then I’ll be able to serve. The court case lasted for eight or nine months.
“And then it was a year or two later and finally the whole issue was dispensed with and the draft board finally got wind of the fact that I was exonerated. And so they sent me my draft notice again. And within a few days of that I was busted down in New Orleans. The same damn thing. The police planted us. And once again with a shaky hand and a tearful eye I sat down and wrote a little letter to the draft board. Meanwhile, the word on the street was that the draft board had to keep all your correspondences. So I was sending them bricks and rocks and buckets full of rusty nails and stuff like that with a note painted on the outside, just sort of get in their face a little bit—let them know who they were dealing with. If they had gotten me they would have shipped me straight off to Officer’s Candidate School, and they would have made me a lieutenant and and I would have been dead in fifteen minutes, ‘cause those were the guys who died first. “
Nick Gravenites wrote about Paul Butterfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in his online autobiography, Bad Talkin’ Bluesman,
“….one day he opened his mail and found that he had been drafted into the army. This drove Butterfield crazy. . . .The only way out for him was to get married as soon as possible and to claim a marriage exemption to the draft. Paul frantically called every girl that he knew or ever met and asked them if they wanted to get married to help save his ass from the Army. He finally found a waitress that he knew that would marry him, and they quickly got together and got blood tests and a license, and, with me as the best man, traipsed down to City Hall and did the deed. …as a married man, he was exempt from the draft and the killing fields of Viet Nam.”
Gay men were exempt from the draft. Geoff Muldaur of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band told me,
“I got out of going because I was so homosexual—for a day. I filled out the forms and said I was and then scratched it out and said I wasn’t and kept filling it out and scratching it out—obsessive-compulsive.”
1-0 was a Conscientious Objector and 1-A-O was a Conscientious Objector who was willing to do non-combatant work in the military. The first was noble but very hard to get, and the second unattractive to most who opposed the war. Martin Luther King, Jr. advised all draft-age boys to boycott the war by declaring themselves conscientious objectors.
My high school friend Fritz Van Orden was one of the few who was granted 1-O Conscientious Objector status. He told me,
“I was sixteen when the issue of the draft became important to anyone to anyone who had his eyes open. I prepared for two years to be a C.O. [conscientious objector]. I went to various counseling meetings—you could get draft counseling—they would spell out all the things you could do. C.O was one of them: the criteria for the Berkeley draft board as opposed to others. A Quaker group walked me through it. I got various letters, from my mother, from a Quaker friend and from the American Friends Service Committee. The Berkeley draft board was very good. If you don’t claim C.O. when you walk in and fill out the first form you can forget it—they say you got scared and changed your mind. I was far too idealistic to do what more people did, to go to school and get a student deferral. I went through whole CO thing and got it. It took three very important years of my life.”
You could also take more drastic measures and buck the system altogether. You could refuse to cooperate with the war-making system, fail to register for the draft, even burn your draft card as a protest — and go to jail. At one Vietnam protest I attended, in front of the Federal Building in San Francisco, hundreds of young men attempted to hand in their draft cards to U.S. Attorney Cecil Poole. He would not accept them. There was a fountain in front of the building and people sloshed around in it hoisting placards and chanting “We’re in Cecil’s pool!” to the tune of “We Shall Overcome.”
Popular underground radio disc jockey Milan Melvin took a unique approach by mailing his draft card back to his draft board in Oakland along with a letter explaining that he had worked as an undercover agent for the F.B.I. while a student at U.C. Berkeley. He was working at underground radio station KSAN at the time he turned in his draft card, due to his admission to being a hated Fed, he resigned from the station soon afterwards.
You could high-tail it to a foreign country which more or less welcomed American “draft dodgers,” usually Canada. If so, you had to be prepared to live outside of the U.S. for the rest of your life. It is estimated that 125,000 young men fled to Canada to avoid the draft. My pediatrician moved his entire family to Canada to protect his sons from the draft.
Dave Mandel, popularly know as “the king of Telegraph Avenue” during the Sixties in Berkeley, told me while sitting in the Café Mediterranean on Telegraph,
“I was initially a conscientious objector. And then the draft board abruptly reclassified me on my birthday in 1967 as 1-A. There was no way I was going to Vietnam, period. It was equal parts morality and cowardice that made me hold to my position to refuse to go to Vietnam.
“I had a girlfriend and I called her up and said that we should go down to the induction center handcuffed together. She loved that idea. We went down to the induction center and I reported, with Janice in handcuffs sitting next to me. I said, ‘This is my girlfriend and where I go she goes.’ There was an Oakland motorcycle police sergeant standing behind us whose job whose job was to be present in case bad guys like me turned up. And he walked up to me and grabbed my wrist and pulled out his key and said, ‘I’ll be glad to take those off.’ And I said, ‘If you don’t take your hands off me immediately I’ll charge you with assault. These are my property. They have nothing to do with you or the Oakland police, and if you take them off I’ll charge you with petty theft.’ A man who was identified as an FBI agent said, ‘This man is going to take you in that room back there and advise you of your rights.’ And he took us in some back room. He read from a piece of paper that you will receive an indictment from the grand jury in San Francisco and you will be charged for refusing induction. He said, ’I’ll be happy to take those handcuffs off you, you Jewish bastard.’
“I had to leave the country before the indictment was handed down because then I would be fleeing justice, whereas if I left before the indictment was handed down I had every right to go. The woman at the passport office asked me if I needed a passport in a hurry. i said that I needed it before I received a certain piece of paper and she said, ‘I can expedite that.’ I got my passport two days later and got on a plane for Canada.
“When people asked me about Gerald Ford’s Amnesty, [President Gerald Fold gave a conditional pardon to men who had fled to Canada during the Vietnam War so that they could return to the U.S., and President Jimmy Carter granted full pardon in 1977] I said, ‘Who the hell is he to give me amnesty? I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not accepting anything but an apology from the United States government.’ My parents contacted the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors in 1978. They looked into my case and concluded that the draft board had been completely illegal in classifying me at 1-A. They called the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco and he agreed with that. and one day out of the blue I received a letter from the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco, one paragraph long, stating that ‘All the indictments against you has been dismissed. You are free to return at any time.’”
Rupert Drew spoke to me an agonizing story about leaving the army to defect to Canada. “I went into the army in January, 1968. I smoked about a kilo of dope the week before. My hair was Grateful Dead length. They shipped me off to Basic Training. I brought my guitar, and had people singing protest songs at night. One Sunday afternoon I took an entire bottle of aspirin in the afternoon, and took a razor blade to my wrists in the evening. I realized everyone was asleep and no one would find me. I had to wake someone up and say ‘I’m committing suicide. Do something.’ They complained about waking them up. They got me in an ambulance. There was no sympathetic ear in the whole hospital. They had me see various people, including the chaplain. He said to me that war is a necessary evil on the road to utopia. I basically said, ‘Bullshit. I don’t believe that for a second.’ He started pounding on the table and getting really angry.
I was trying all kinds of things at that point. They said, ‘What are you? A Conscientious Objector?’ I’m thinking, I sure am. The other thing that tipped me over the edge was when we were in training, that they were training us to murder people we didn’t even know. When I had the rifle in my hands and I was looking at people I knew and imagined shooting them, it made it very real to me, and I knew I couldn’t do it. I had to apply for C.O. status and they automatically turned me down. If you apply to be a C.O. after signing up, forget it.
“I thought I would go to the Haight-Ashbury, but the military police were scouring that place. My sister’s boyfriend said, ‘Have you thought about going to Canada?’ I said, I haven’t. The next day I was in Toronto. I went to the anti-draft area. A lawyer, Paul Copeland, who gave all his services free bailed me out because I was going to be deported. Through the anti-draft, they created for me a viable skill that the Canadians wanted. They made me into a carpenter/cabinet-maker. Eventually, I got a letter saying they were going to deport me. I got deportation papers. My lawyer told them, ‘If you don’t get off his ass in fifteen seconds, your ass is mine.’ They let me go, because what they were doing was illegal. The next week I got my landed immigrant papers. That’s when I knew how things really worked. It took two years. I never saw my family for ten years. I always say it [dodging the draft] was the best thing I ever did, it was the thing that started me towards consciously living and waking me up.”
In June, 1969, a draft lottery was instituted. Selected at random, people were assigned a number according to their birthday. Those with numbers below 215 were called up, while those with numbers 216 to 365 would most probably not be drafted. This scarily arbitrary system was used until the last Vietnam draft in 1973, although the lottery itself was conducted until 1976. But at least a number of young men would not be called up at all, as opposed to all men of draft ages.