Monday, December 2, 2019

139: Memories of the Draft Lottery 50 Years Ago

Fifty years ago today, December 2, I walked into Brooklyn College’s Boylan Hall cafeteria a depressed senior. The night before, my birth date, March 6, had been selected as the 139th number drawn in a televised national draft lottery. With my educational deferment set to expire in six months I sadly expected a letter inviting me to a physical examination to assess my fitness for assignment to Vietnam. We had 549,000 soldiers stationed there in 1969.

As I sat commiserating with friends at the Knight House table, Ronnie Sperber (now Tokatlilar) set up shop a few tables away. She was selling yellow buttons with large brown numbers, lottery numbers, on them. The daughter of one of my father’s landsleit from Ottynia, Poland, Ronnie cheerfully handed me a 139 button, no charge. I wore it through May of 1970 when the expected letter from my local Selective Service board arrived. I had 10 days to report to Fort Hamilton for my physical.

I immediately sprang into action. I had not wasted those six months. I had researched ways to beat the draft. Flunking the intelligence test was not an option, eventually confirmed by the sergeant who administered the exam. Merely correctly filling out one’s name assured a passing grade, he advised.

As the military could keep you for three days after your physical the idea of doing something to momentarily alter blood pressure or blood sugar level was not feasible. I also rejected enrolling in divinity school, a path chosen by some of my friends. Nor, for practical reason, could I seek further deferment by registering for medical school—I still had another half year of undergraduate classes before I would earn my degree as I had changed majors too many times. Uncle Sam didn’t care. My 2S college deferment status expired after four years, not when I received my sheepskin.

My only hope was found inside the pamphlet “1001 Ways to Beat the Draft.” Or so I thought all these years until I scrolled through a PDF copy last night and couldn’t find the relevant section ( What I do remember is discovering my escape plan while sifting through a similarly named book in the college bookstore located just yards away from the Knight House cafeteria table.

Inside that blessed book was a table defining height and corresponding weight acceptable for admission into the armed forces. Anyone 6-foot tall had to weigh at least 131 pounds.

I stood 72 inches tall when the Selective Service Board letter arrived. I tipped the scales at 134 pounds. I had spent 21 years trying to put meat on my bones. To no avail I had swilled milk shakes laced with raw eggs. I had been threatened with being sent to a special summer camp where they would fatten me up. I had, to put it bluntly, made my mother sick with anxiety over my skinny malink physique.

The letter transformed her. Oh, she continued to dote over how much I ate. But her mission now was to reduce, not increase, my consumption. She became a partner in my plan to beat the draft by adhering to the Stillman Water Diet to lose 10 pounds in 10 days.

Dr. Stillman’s diet permitted only proteins. No starches, fats or carbohydrates. No fruit. No vegetables. Only meats, poultry, fish, hard boiled eggs, all accompanied by 80 ounces of water a day.

On the day of my physical—May 6, 1970—I weighed 124 pounds. A seven pound cushion in case the military chose to keep me for three days to fatten me up. Today, I am still a six footer. I weigh 165 pounds. I think I am skinny. Just imagine how I must have looked 40 pounds lighter.

I received a one year 1Y physical deferment. The Army didn’t keep me for three days. To celebrate, I walked over to the mess hall for a truly delicious meal of breaded veal cutlet, corn niblets, mashed potatoes, rye bread, banana cream pie, Coca-Cola. 

Lottery number 139 never came up again in the military’s need for more fodder in Vietnam. I’m forever indebted to Dr. Stillman. He died in 1975. He was 79. Ronnie is still adorning people—she designs and sells her own jewelry.