Tony Vagneur: When my number didn’t come up
He was one of those kids — not part of us “long-timers” — arrived sometime in the late ’50s, like maybe the sixth grade, wore his pants too high around his waist, was very smart and got good grades; had a quiet, unassuming way, wanted to be part of the cool bunch and became one of my best friends.
His family bought a neighboring ranch and we spent a lot of time together during high school summers. On Aug. 19, 1968, he was killed in Vietnam, one of three Aspenites to die in that war. I went to his funeral at the Aspen Community Church. Years later, facing her own death, his mother called me to talk about her son, William L. Sandersen. The grief never goes away.
My cousin Norman Vagneur was killed in a plane crash over Dawson, Texas, on May 3, 1968. He was on his way to Vietnam when the military transport plane he was riding in was struck by a civilian aircraft, creating a fatal mid-air collision. None of those aboard were considered Vietnam casualties.
Prior to those deaths, sometime in the mid-’60s, I was driving a school bus during the summer semester, a part-time job. I had a required accomplice, a rider they called them, someone to get out at railroad crossings and make sure there were no trains coming.
My rider was very articulate, a smart man about things, and we talked about the war frequently. He was opposed to it and was thinking about Canada if he got called. There was no military history in my family and my general thinking (at age 18 or 19) was that if called, I could go over there and clean house, Audie Murphy style. Not because I necessarily understood the war, but because I was drawn to the idea of it.
Back at college in the fall of 1968, after Bill Sandersen and Norman Vagneur’s deaths, the mood about Vietnam seemed more somber, but it never really seemed to be a major focus of campus discussions. However, in the thick of what discussion there was, my college roommate, who came from a Marine family, said let’s go down to the recruiting office and take the test, see if we qualify for officer’s school.
“You can do that,” I asked and we probably went down that afternoon to take the test, which naturally, we passed with flying colors.
The officer in charge gave us the opportunity to sign up right then, to be effective upon our graduation from college. He gave us a list from which we could pick the area of expertise in which we would like to serve. I wanted to fly fighter jets, which wasn’t on the list — he said they couldn’t guarantee that, so I demurred on signing up.
My roommate, who was a year ahead of me, went into basic training at Quantico, Virginia, and I never heard from him again. Until later, that is, when as a full-on lieutenant in the Marines, he sent me a letter from Vietnam saying, “If you can help it, don’t come over here!”
College graduation was rapidly approaching for me when the dreaded letter came — my draft reclassification from 2-S (student deferment), to 1-A, prime target for call-up to military service. I hadn’t been officially drafted yet but was instructed to report for my physical in Denver.
We walked around all day in our skivvies, occasionally dropping them when ordered, as in “bend over and spread your cheeks.” There wasn’t a lot of joking around.
President Nixon came up with the idea for the lottery — on Dec. 1, 1969, numbers were drawn and the draft proceeded sequentially, based on the numeric scale. September 14 was drawn first — those born on that day would be the first men drafted in 1970. I drew a high lottery number, 233, and was reasonably assured that my number would never be called.
I graduated at the end of the fall semester Dec. 15, 1969, and as I’ve said many times before, the ink wasn’t dry on my last final before I was back in Aspen, skiing. There may have been some sort of celebration involved about that, but as I recall, no one bragged about receiving a good or high number, out of deference for those who didn’t.
The military draft never caught up to me and by the time it might have, the Vietnam War was over. On some level, I regret that I never served, but then again I mostly consider myself fortunate. In the end, had I been called, I would have gone. How that might have changed my life, no one knows.
To those who did serve, you have my utmost respect.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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