Bell Bottoms? You Can’t Be Serious

Lessons from my days in olive drab

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Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a faraway land there was this thing that everyone dreaded.

It was called … THE DRAFT.

Okay, maybe that’s a little over dramatic. But many people today don’t realize the draft was something all young men of my era faced.

When the Vietnam War began most people in America would have had trouble even finding Vietnam on a map. But as the war went on year after year everyone in the country became aware of what was happening there.

TV news cameras recorded actual firefights. We saw bombs exploding, villages being decimated, and soldiers being wounded and killed. War is not pretty and this was the first war that Americans could watch on a daily basis from their living rooms.

And as the casualties mounted and the number of troops increased, the draft became the primary method for filling the ranks of the troops being sent to Vietnam.

And that meant the draft wasn’t just an inconvenience. The draft now meant you might be sent to a war on the other side of the planet and you might become one of those casualties you saw on TV.

When you turned 18 your name was put in the hopper and you became eligible to be called up for military service. And you remained eligible until you reached the age of 25.

It didn’t matter if you wanted to serve.

It didn’t matter if you had other plans for your life. You know, things like marriage, career, family.

It didn’t even matter if you were famous. They got Elvis in 1958 and they tried to get Muhammad Ali in 1967.

If your name came up, you were drafted.


Unless …

And this is where things got interesting.

Because there were some things you could do to put off being drafted.


There was the medical deferment.

You could get out of the draft if there were some physical issues that would prevent you from serving in the military.

Now my dad had been 4F during World War II because he had flat feet. Even though he was a high school and college track athlete the flat feet kept him out of the draft in World War II.

During the Vietnam War era, I heard stories of people who intentionally damaged their bodies in order to receive a medical deferment.

Now I may not have been a great athlete like my dad … okay I was not a great athlete by anyone’s standard … but I was in decent physical shape.

I was definitely NOT into shooting a body part or intentionally damaging myself, so the medical deferment thing was not an option for me.


The other big option was this thing called Canada.

Now Canada didn’t have a draft so if you moved to Canada they wouldn’t send you back to the U.S. because it wasn’t a crime in Canada to not be drafted.

Of course you couldn’t return to the U.S. because you would be breaking the law but you didn’t have to go to Vietnam.

It seemed to me, however, that the Canada option was primarily for those who were running away and didn’t want to get hurt.

The fact is, I liked being an American. I had no intention of going to another country and giving up my citizenship.

So Canada was out.


Then … this is a strange one today … there was the National Guard.

Unlike recent history, when joining the National Guard meant there was a good chance you could be sent to the conflicts in the Middle East, back in my era, joining the National Guard usually meant you would not be sent to Vietnam.

Oh sure, you had to make a six-year commitment, and you had to go to weekend meetings once a month, and you had to do a two week training session each year, but you would not be going to Vietnam.

Needless to say, the National Guard became a very popular destination for many people.

And that created a problem of its own. It was so popular, there were waiting lists to get in.

I did apply to my local National Guard unit but there was a three year waiting list, so it didn’t seem to be a viable choice for avoiding the draft.

But then something happened.

For some reason, they activated a number of units in my area and sent them to Vietnam. That had to be a real bummer to those who joined the Guard to get out of the war, but it was a real benefit to those of us on the waiting list.

I received a phone call and told that I could join the National Guard! All I had to do was take the physical and if I passed I could become a part of the Guard.

I took the physical and was notified that I passed.

As I thought about it I realized I didn’t want to become a “weekend warrior” just to avoid being sent to Vietnam.

So, I told them no.

I told my friends — and myself — that I was not impressed with their professionalism because their medics did a bad job of drawing my blood for tests, and if the rest of the Guard was like that I didn’t want any part of it.

But the fact is I just did not want to go into the National Guard.


And the there was — and this was the most common way to get out of the draft — it was called the student deferment.

A “2S.”

If you went to college you could get that “2S” deferment. And you could keep it for four years as long as you kept your grades up.

And then when your four years were up, you went back into the pool of potential draftees. The hope was … the war would be over by the time you finished your four year college degree.

After a little confusion about what I was going to do and where I was going I finally ended up in a Christian college and when I applied for my deferment I got something called a “4D” deferment.

I’d never heard of a “4D” deferment. I didn’t know what it was. But apparently it was a ministerial deferment. Since I was going to a Christian college and studying to work in the church that was the deferment I received. At the time I thought it was pretty cool. Most of my friends had “2S” deferment’s and surely something that started with a four was better than the two so I guess my “4D” was better than their “2S” but when we got together I just felt a little awkward trying to explain to them what a “4D” was. No one had any idea what that was.

It didn’t take me many explanations to realize it certainly didn’t sound fair. Just because I was going to a Bible school I should get a special deferment?

Even I didn’t think that was a fair thing to be doing. So I wrote my draft board and asked them to take away my “4D” deferment and give me a “2S” deferment.

I thought that would be great because everybody had that.


Well, not exactly. A number of friends didn’t go to college. It was not in their interest. It was not in their life goals. They went right into the workforce. And that made most of them a “1A” — prime targets for the draft.

As I thought about my situation I didn’t like the feeling that just because I was going to college – I enjoyed school – I should get a deferment from the draft while my friends who weren’t going to college had to be concerned if they would be drafted and sent to Vietnam.


As a Christian, I also had to deal with the question “should a Christian serve in the military?”

You wouldn’t believe some of the advice I heard. To put it kindly, it was terrible.

I wanted to know what God would have me do and it seemed like everyone I was reading had their own agenda. And surely God wanted what they wanted.

Very few used scripture accurately to support their arguments.

Fortunately the youth pastor at my church taught me that God’s Word — the Bible — was the Christian’s standard for life.

So I read the Bible and sought to learn if God opposed military service.

I couldn’t find any teaching of that being the case so I focused my study on should I serve if drafted to be part of the military in Vietnam.

Now in the book of James the Bible says, If any of you lack wisdom you should pray to God who will give it to you because God gives generously and graciously to all. That’s in James 1:5.

I definitely needed wisdom so I began to pray.


As I prayed and watched the news of the day unfold around me, I thought perhaps I should join the military instead of waiting to be drafted.

If I took that route, I had to decide which branch of service I would join.

So I went to the recruiters offices. I picked up the pretty full color brochures. I talked to all my friends who were in various branches of the service.


Now my brother had been in the Air Force and as much as I liked to follow in my brother’s footsteps, the Air Force had a couple of problems.

First, their uniforms were — I don’t know how to say this nicely to you Air Force vets — but the Air Force uniforms were dorky. Blue just didn’t look right. In fact their uniforms looked more like business suits.

And then there was the mission. I mean if you’re in the Air Force aren’t you supposed to fly? Well I knew I couldn’t be a pilot. Aside from the fact that I wasn’t a college graduate I also had terrible eye sight. I think it was 20/200. So, what in the world would I do in the Air Force if I wasn’t in a plane?

But that wasn’t the kicker.

If I joined the Air Force I would have to sign up for four years. Four years to me sounded like a lifetime.

So the Air Force was out.

I was back in the hunt.


Next on my list was the Navy. I loved the documentary “Victory at Sea.” I think you can probably go online and see it on YouTube or something.

I’d seen a number of movies about the Navy. I had friends who were in the Navy and they seemed to enjoy the experience.

I knew the Navy would probably not be fighting in Vietnam unless, of course, I was on a river boat.

So I had to consider. Would I actually be fighting for my country if I didn’t do any fighting?

But those weren’t the real issues in my look at the Navy.

Even with bad eyesight, there was a good chance I would be assigned to serve on board a ship.

That meant I would be floating around on the water. Or even worse, under the water if you were assigned to a submarine. And that was a problem.

Now let me give you a little personal background. My grandfather had a sailboat and a couple of times he took my brother and I out to Catalina Island which is 26 miles across the sea.

When we left the harbor in Southern California and hit the open ocean, I was pretty sure we were going to die because of the bad weather.

My grandfather, on the other hand, complained it was too calm. He, after all had been raised in Boston and was used to sea sailing. Well, it wasn’t any fun for him to sail in such calm weather.

Here’s the deal. I got sick. Sea sick. And I have to let you know I did not like getting sea sick.

But that wasn’t the kicker.

Now don’t make fun of me.

My main complain against the Navy was — their uniform.

Oh, the color was fine and it didn’t look like a business suit, but …

They wore bell bottoms.

I know I’m a child of the 60’s and bell bottoms were in, but I look weird in bell bottoms.

There was no way I was going to go into a branch of the service that required me to wear bell bottoms.

So, back to the hunt.


The next branch of service I checked out was the Marine Corps. I have to admit I was excited about this one. They had a number of pluses.

First one.

They had the best brochure of any of the branches. I know that sounds weak. But they did have beautiful color pictures, great looking brochures, and I would look at those pictures over and over and over again.

And then …

They had the best looking dress uniform anyone could want to have.

And no bell bottoms.

And there were lots of war movies growing up that I had watched that highlighted the work of the Marines during World War II.

And, of course, one of my favorite movies, “The D.I.” starring Jack Webb about training during peace time was fascinating.

I had several friends who were Marines. And they were sold on it. To them there wasn’t any other branch of service worth belonging to.

And — this was important — they had a two year enlistment program.

So I decided the Marine Corps was the answer. I went down to the local recruiting office with a friend, filled out some papers, took written tests, and waited.

It wasn’t long before I received a call from the recruiter and I headed back to the recruiting office to close the deal.

But then the recruiter told me I scored too high on the test to be admitted into the two year program.

He pointed out that I could go into a three year program where I would receive training in a specialty and he assured me that this was much choice.

Otherwise I would just be a rifleman.

I tried to explain to him that I was joining because I wanted to be a rifleman. He said I wouldn’t be happy doing that but I would be very happy if I signed up for a three year or a four year enlistment where I would be taught a great skill.

So, the Marine Corps was out.

That didn’t leave me many options but I had soured on the enlisting route.

If I waited to be drafted and I knew I would be going into the Army but that was okay. They didn’t wear bell bottoms either.

As I was thinking about my short range future, the government changed the rules.

Politicians recognized that the draft system of my day was not fair, and most of those politicians liked getting re-elected, you know, so they came up with a new approach.

Actually it wasn’t a new approach. It was an old approach that had been used in World War I and World War II but it was new to the people of my age.


The government changed to a lottery system for selecting draftees.

They would randomly select birth dates and give you a number based on that selection. You would be drafted based upon that number.

And you were eligible to be drafted for only one year.

If you weren’t drafted in that year then you were free and clear for the rest of your life.

As you might imagine, the day they held the lottery — December 1, 1969 — a lot of people paid attention.

Well, they did their drawing.

The experts said they didn’t think they would draft much beyond the first 150 numbers.

My lottery number? My birthdate came up with the lotter number of 202.

So it looked like I was in the clear.

If the experts were right I would not be drafted.

I could go about my plans for life and ignore the Vietnam War.

Everything seemed to be settled.

Except …

This was the war of my generation. I believed fighting Communism was the right thing both for our country and for the people in Vietnam.

And so I made a decision.

I wrote to my local draft board and I volunteered my draft. Basically I said, forget the lottery number. If they wanted to draft me they could.

They wanted to and I shortly received my letter from the draft board inviting me to join the United States Army.


Looking back on this time period, there were a couple of important lessons.

The first was …

Lesson #1: Don’t make important decisions for stupid reasons.

Selecting a branch of service based upon what I thought of their uniforms was really stupid.

That’s not a good reason for an important decision like that. And besides even if I had gone into the Navy, maybe I would have learned to like bell bottoms.

Kidding aside, so often when we have important decisions to make we make them based on really terrible reasons.

So think back and decide when you make important decisions if the reasons you’re giving yourself or others is really worthwhile.

Lesson #2: When you ask God for wisdom about a decision, listen to what He says.

I had prayed and asked for God’s direction concerning the draft and during that time I had the opportunity to join the National Guard but I turned it down.

During that time I also had the opportunity to participate in the lottery and my number was too high to be drafted. But I didn’t accept that.

Either one of those options would have been very reasonable answers. I was asking God for wisdom and He had given me two options that not going into the military might have been His will for me.

But neither one of those — the National Guard or the Lottery — were the answers that I wanted.

So I went my own way.

That really is an important lesson.

When you ask God for wisdom or direction and He gives it to you, do what He says.

Don’t go your own way.


I thought I was ready for what the military would be like.

Well, I was wrong on that score.

Has anyone ever asked you if they could borrow your pee?

I had never been asked that before until my first day in the United States Army.

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