50th Anniversary of The Lottery (the draft, not the short story!)

Fifty years ago this evening, December 1, 1969, I sat in a student lounge at Grand Valley State University and was witness to the draft lottery for young men who would be sent to fight in the Vietnam war. It was a harrowing experience and I’ll never forget it–I understood many would not return. As I watched them grapple with the results of numbers matched to birthdates, and face what would be death for too many, I felt terrified for them and enraged at the unfairness of it all. But I was also upset because I couldn’t understand how I was not part of it–because I was a woman. Even then, in my limited way, I understood this was nonsense. I wasn’t jealous, just asking myself why: if the guys had to do this, shouldn’t we women as well. If they had to go, why didn’t I? I couldn’t answer the question, and was too uncertain of myself to ask–given that I was early into my understanding of women’s rights and human rights. It was a question, among many, that remains unanswered. Tonight, fifty years later to the day, I participated in a house reading where three women writers read works about war. The incredible writer/artist team, Patty McNair and Phillip Hartigan, hosted the reading in their Chicago home in honor of Katey Schultz’s new book of fiction, Still Come Home, which is getting rave reviews as an Afghanistan war story with a big take away. Rita Dragonette, who authored The Fourteenth of September, also read from her novel about the lottery, and I read an essay, Breaking Silences, written for the Michigan Humanities Council, which reviews my family’s history with war and weaves that into my correspondence with Six Foot Skinny, an Iraq vet. The mood of the 25 people who came was serious, thoughtful, and utterly respectful. In honor of this fateful anniversary, I am reprinting the essay here, in hopes that those who survived that day will remember those who didn’t, and will prevent that process from being considered a solution.

Here’s the essay. All italicized lines are taken from emails or Six Foot Skinny’s blog.

Breaking Silence

 “I have a natural inclination, maybe it’s a guy thing, to protect. If the specifics of a certain situation are a little on the nitty gritty side, I just tend to breeze over them and talk about other things in more detail.  It’s the only thing Julia and I have ever fought about. When I get home…that may change.”  Six Foot Skinny, email from Iraq

  1. First silence: World War I 

In the farmhouse where I grew up, at the oak kitchen table, I am learning to read. My mother is helping, she thinks, by introducing me to family history. I hold a pale letter of strange, tissued paper from the “Great War.”  My Grandfather Joseph VanAgtmeal, who died just this winter, sent this letter after he enlisted as a soldier and fought in France.  On a map Mom shows Meuse-Argone and Marne, battles where he fought. I am excited, but when I stumble through the words, he sounds like every farmer I know.  He writes about weather, food, nice people.                     

            “Why doesn’t he tell about the battles?”

            “There are things a soldier cannot say.” At the stove, she stirs oatmeal. 

            “Like what?” I ask.  I hate oatmeal. I want a war story. 

            “Sometimes soldiers are forbidden to say because the enemy might find the letters and learn where they are.”

            Wow. I’m thrilled. 

            Then she says, “Or sometimes they don’t want to remember.”

             I think of pictures I have seen.  “Because people blew up, huh?”

            She answers too quickly.  “He was a good soldier.” Suddenly, she folds the letter, closes the book, says, “He didn’t tell me anything else.”

            I am left with a thousand questions.  Or maybe only one. 

 “I know a soldier who says  ‘Don’t ask if I shot anybody.  Do you really want to know that?  What will you do with that information?’  Meaning, how will that piece of knowledge affect you and your understanding of the war, of me.’ 

            No, I haven’t killed anyone.  I feel like that’s always the unasked question, so I usually try to answer it right away.  Maybe because that’s the prevailing idea, that soldiers don’t talk about war… I do what I can to take that on directly.” SFS email.  

II. Second Silence: World War II

On a farm we hunt, fish, garden, taking food off the land.  My father is a good hunter, makes a clean kill, but he does not like to clean his kill.  He asks my mother to remove innards and skin to prepare the meat.  But she has laundry; she has the garden; finally she says, no, he must do it. 

            We are in the bean patch, pulling weeds. I ask my mother why he doesn’t, and she says in a voice like slow water, “Because of the war.”

            My father, drafted in 1942, re-enlisted, doing two tours in Africa and Italy. I have seen the maps; his big fingers have pointed to Kasserine Valley and Anzio.

            I stop pulling pigweed.  “What’s that got to do with cleaning his kill?”

            She hesitates. “It reminds him of the bodies.”

            I look at her.  She looks at me.  We do not speak. We pull the weeds.

 “My dad tells me Grandpa is hesitant to talk about the war because he feels like he didn’t do anything worth talking about.  In the face of Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, The War and the rest, I think he feels guilty he wasn’t in direct combat. His brothers were.”  SFS email.

III. Third Silence: Peace time service

In sixth grade I have a crush on a neighbor boy who is funny and “dark-haired handsome.” He goes “into service.”  There is no war right now but he must help “keep the peace.”  He is sent overseas and when he comes home on leave, dressed in his dashing uniform, he visits. He sits on our blue brocade davenport but tells no jokes. Says service is boring. Dad sighs, says they should go hunting.  That night, they poach a deer.  My mother, who is pregnant, hollers about this so they go to the barn and drink beer.  I stand under the yardlight and watch them from a distance, listening to voices too far away to be understood.  When they see my shadow, they go silent. They are soldiers. They close ranks. I am jealous.  I want to know. 

 “There are the silences that are silent because words aren’t necessary, and the silences because of experience …. Now, say something blows up far away, or there’s a certain smell in the air. All we have to do is look at each other, or maybe say a word or two, and that’s enough.”  SFS email

IV. Fourth Silence: Vietnam 

My first year at college the draft lottery is instituted.  On December 1, 1969, we watch a small TV in one of the student lounges. People in suits pick blue capsules from a tub, call the birthdates, match them with a number.  Three acquaintances who have low numbers are drafted. The one who flirted with me in Shakespeare class, who, with flashing eyes, compliments me on how I read “iambic pentameter” does not come home.  Another, who maybe isn’t a student but who attends student folk masses, who I teased for singing off key, doesn’t return. The silence of their absences, the noise of newsreels piercing our living rooms, makes me bitter.  I attend anti-war demonstrations, protests; I write letters.  My third friend returns, but this war has become so unpopular, he refuses to speak his experiences because so few support what happened.  This time, he is silenced by people like me.

 “There are some really horrific wounds, and these guys and gals have to pick up the pieces and try to live as civilians again.  Some of them make it admirably…and some of them end up drinking themselves to death in a dark house because the power got shut off.  I worry about guys, especially in this economy, who are seriously disabled by wounds that would have been fatal even ten years ago, who are waiting on VA benefits or unable to hold or find a job, who will just disappear.  Completely silent.  That’s not fair.”  SFS’s email.

V. Breaking Silence

Years pass. Like many people, I recognize my wrong-headedness, not in protesting the war, but in my self-righteousness, treating returning soldiers with a distance they did not deserve, in essence, initiating the silence. I feel ashamed.  Is that what soldiers feel when we do not tend their stories, do not recognize their service?  My anger drains, replaced by sorrow.  I live my life, grateful for the relative peace in my homeland, for now, and to the people who keep it. 

            Then, I am again touched.  At a backyard barbecue, I meet a soldier; call him Six Foot Skinny.  He is dating Julia, a beloved young friend, who whispers that SFS is “someone important” to her.  She tells me he joined the Reserves shortly before September 11 because his dad told him if he enlisted, he would pay to fix his old car.  He’s been in Iraq for one tour already.  In that picnic moment of summer light and burned bratwursts, I watch SFS and Julia.  They are beautiful, in love. I see dreams in their faces.  But they make no plans, waiting for him to be discharged.  Then, news comes.  He will be deploy a second time to Iraq.  Stop gap. I think of them holding hands, then not.  I hear the old silence.  My bitterness rises. 

            But this soldier is different.  SFS writes, blogs, emails and teaches us how to know him.  Until now.  His blogs have stopped. He is there but quiet.  I am afraid of the silence.  And because I care for him and adore Julia, I decide to ask.   I force myself to find a way not to silence this thing we call war.  I sit at the computer and try to break silence.  Is it like breaking down walls or like breaking bread?  I start.  I ask about sounds.  He likes this question. 

             “Deisel engines, foul language, generators, yelling in general, bad music, snoring, farts, helicopters, Arabic, the sound of mortar being launched. Crunching gravel.  Traffic.  In the last tour, the call to prayer from the minarets at dawn (gorgeous, I miss it).  SFS email from Iraq