The Church, the Draft Board, and Me (Installment 10 of 12)
The Draft, Part 3: Watching and Waiting
As I’d expected, the draft board lost no time in reclassifying me as 1-A after learning that I’d dropped out of school. However, President Nixon’s first annual draft lottery, held on December 1, 1969 for the year 1970, introduced a significant new factor: I received a high number, 288 (of 366), meaning that I might not be ordered for induction during my one year of eligibility. The odds in my favor seemed to improve even more when, a week later, Nixon announced a significant withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. Nonetheless, on January 7, 1970, the board notified me that the hearing I had requested was scheduled for January 20.
The hearing didn’t go well. (And I didn’t help myself by mentioning, when asked about influences, Allen Ginsberg. A board member exclaimed, “I read about him in the paper. He’s that homosexual Communist who was corrupting the innocent girls at Goucher College!”) The board made it clear that they would not acknowledge the sincerity of my claim. Indeed, after noting that I had studied for the priesthood, one of the members snarled, “I lost my arm in service to my country, boy, and I’m a Catholic. I know that a person who was raised Catholic can’t be a conscientious objector.” I had addressed that issue in my responses on Form 150, presenting Catholicism, with its teaching that God is love, as the starting point from which my faith and practice, and even my sense of self, had developed to their present form. I referred to those responses while arguing for a broader reading of the draft law’s phrase “by reason of religious training and belief,” but my attempts were in vain. Finally, I could only reply that my conscience would not be violated: “no matter what” the government did to me, I would never be a soldier; I would neither kill nor surrender my freedom of conscience. With that, I was dismissed.
During the hearing, secretary Elizabeth Simmons had remained at her desk outside of the hearing room. She knew the outcome nonetheless. “You got away from us last year,” she said as I walked toward the exit, “but we’ll get you next time.”
As if to underline that threat, the board issued a new 1-A draft card to me on January 21, the day after the hearing. Two days later, they ordered me to present myself for a pre-induction physical (and cursory psychological) examination on February 13. Given my high lottery number, the order was blatantly untimely. (Confirming the sense I had then that the order was irregular, the Selective Service System Web site states that 215 was the highest number ever called for physicals.17) At first I considered refusing, but after more thought I decided to comply. There were at least three reasons to do so. First, my approach from the outset had been to cooperate respectfully with the system in all ways short of submitting to induction into the military, and I wanted to continue in that. Second, delinquents — including men who refused the physical — had, by law, been given highest priority for induction, and I didn’t know whether that would trump the lottery number. Third, refusing the order could prejudice my case if I were to find a pro bono attorney and go to court: I would not be able to argue that I had exhausted all possible remedies offered by the government. (The examination was considered a potential remedy because one might fail it and consequently be exempted from the draft.) Perhaps, I thought, the board — or its secretary — had the latter two outcomes in mind. Therefore, early on a cold February morning, I was among a group of unhappy young men transported by bus from the draft board’s office to Fort Holabird. The examiners at Holabird would find me “fully acceptable for induction into the armed forces.”
I immediately filed an appeal of the local board’s denial of my C.O. claim. At the time, I was not aware that the state’s appeal board would forward my case to the Department of Justice for investigation by the FBI. (Eventually, I would learn that some acquaintances had received telephone inquiries about my character.) But as weeks and then months went by, I was very much aware that the Selective Service System had not communicated with me since receiving my appeal request. I feared that they were intentionally delaying the appeal hearing and maintaining my eligibility for induction, leaving me in limbo in order to keep me potentially available. If the draft got close to my number, I assumed, they would hear and deny the appeal in short order. That conclusion seemed confirmed when, on April 30, Nixon announced the expansion of the war into Cambodia. As college campuses erupted in protest, the Ohio National Guard killed four students — two of whom had simply been walking to class — and wounded nine others at Kent State University. For many of my generation, that was further confirmation that the federal government, controlled by the “military-industrial complex,” had become the enemy of the citizens it existed to serve. I continued to take Simmons at her word.
For much of 1970, I lived with a sense of dread, always aware of the possibility of federal prison — which, for a young, frail conscientious objector, could include being beaten and raped. Early in the year, I inveigled my way into a daytime job as a pump jockey at an acquaintance’s service station, but the change didn’t ease my depression. And by late spring I would lose that job, apparently because I had let my hair grow long. Although I subsequently applied for a variety of jobs, from laborer in a factory to groundskeeper for the School Sisters of Notre Dame motherhouse, I could not get hired. Indeed, at the factory I was warned to get off the premises before any of the workers could see me, because they would surely beat up a long-haired hippie. I was also turned down for a ward attendant position at a state psychiatric hospital — ironically, a job that I might have been assigned by the draft board had they given me the 1-O classification. (A year or so later, after the state was sued over the hospital’s refusal to hire long-haired men, I would be hired for that position. I have written about the experience of working there in “Asylum Memories.”) It was a time of poverty, depression, anxiety.
And drug use. Like many peers, I used psychedelic drugs to experience new modes of consciousness. The religions in which we had been raised had revealed themselves to be not only unbelievable but harmful, and our recognition of that reality had undermined our sense of identity and belonging. We were trying to make sense of, and find spiritual grounding for, our lives. We were alienated also from American society, which we saw as obsessed with consumerism and violence; it was not a world we wanted to live in. Nor did that world want us as we declined to serve as pawns in its pursuit of lucre and the resultant wars. Because we violated the accepted appearance code, refusing to signal middle-class normalcy, we couldn’t get work to support ourselves legally — and so were called “lazy” and “criminal,” an experience that gave us a measure of empathy for economically oppressed people. From the perspective of society, church, and state, we were outlaw monstrosities; defiantly reflecting society’s opinion of us, we referred to ourselves as “freaks.” Our use of psychedelic drugs was an expression of that defiance, but it was also part of our search for a more humane way of being in the world.
The drugs, which were easily obtained, were reported to open “the doors of perception.”18 Whether or not we succeeded in finding insight through them, we had little or nothing to lose by trying. In the attempt, however, we found that our experience of both inner and outer worlds was indeed opened. A psychedelic substance such as LSD could sideline subliminal schemas that shape everyday experience, thereby freeing one temporarily from “mind-forg’d manacles.” Through those “trips” into different modes of experience, we found that knowing the relativity of one’s received worldview, even of one’s sense of self, could be liberating and enriching. As author Michael Pollan would put it after taking psilocybin decades later, “That I could survive the dissolution of my ego without struggle or turning into a puddle was something to be grateful for, but even better was the discovery that there might be another vantage — one less neurotic and more generous — from which to engage reality.”19
It was an adventure that I accepted frequently and with gratitude, undeterred by a “bad trip” that had me seeing snakes in the draperies and putting my hand through solid objects (including people) — dramatic if frightening demonstrations of the inherently interpretive nature of human awareness. Scary or not, the immediate effects of the drugs, unlike the everyday American madness, would dissipate after eight to twelve hours. But the knowledge that human existence could be experienced differently would remain.
Thus did I watch and wait, my depression and anxiety sometimes suspended by psychedelic experiences, for the Selective Service System’s next move. For much of the year, I expected to be given a formal hearing and then called for induction — which would mean trial and imprisonment — at any time.
Next week: The Draft, Part 4: Decision
. “The APN (highest number) called for a physical was 215 for … 1970 through 1976”: see https://www.sss.gov/about/history-and-records/lotter1. (That sss.gov page may need multiple reloads before displaying.)
. Aldous Huxley was one of many authors extolling psychedelic drugs as gateways to spiritual breakthroughs: other popular writers included Carlos Castaneda, Alan Watts, and of course Timothy Leary. (For a current treatment that is refreshingly free of the metaphysical interpretations imposed on the experiences by Huxley and followers, see the Michael Pollan book referenced in Note 19, below.) The phrase “the doors of perception,” which Huxley used as the title of a book-length essay, is from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. / For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
. Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Penguin Press, 2018, p. 270.