A personal history of the 60s Talk about your sound and fury signifying nothing! As a cause for celebration, the commemoration of an arbitrary marking of time -- be it the New Year or the Millennium -- has always left me a little cold. Every other holiday commemorates something, whether real, imagined or both. But exactly what were celebrating as the calendar page turns to January 1 has always somewhat mystified me.
Perhaps New Years seem flat to me because once, just once, 28 years ago, I was privileged to experience one New Years Eve where the turn of the calendar page was actually a matter of life and death. Well, at least figuratively a matter of life and death. For me, it remains the definitive story of the 60s, or anyway, my 60s, involving as it does the Vietnam War, the draft, the Nixon administration, student life, drugs, booze and the vagaries of the Postal Service -- all of it set against the ticking of the clock, the descent of the illuminated ball into Times Square, as 1971 turned into 1972. I have other you-shoulda-been-there 60s stories (as my friends will wearily attest): like the time, returning to New York from a giant Capitol Mall protest of the Cambodian invasion and the Kent State killings, when traffic on a jammed northbound I-95 came to a total halt for 30 minutes, and people got out of their cars and passed joints around to one another across all the lanes. But for sheer drama and historic resonance, nothing can top the final night of 1971 on the sidewalks of New York.
The tale actually begins a couple of days earlier, on December 29. I was staying at school (Columbia) over Christmas break that year, and on the 29th, a story on the front page of The New York Times caught my eye. It began, straightforwardly enough, with a report that the secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, had announced that there would be no draft call-ups for the first three months of 1972. (This was an election year, after all, and as weve learned since, Richard Nixon was willing to do all kinds of things to ensure his eventual re-election.)
Then, abruptly, the story entered the realm of greatness. Around paragraph five, the reporter, whose name I wish I could remember, added as an aside the helpful tidbit that if anyone with a draft deferment dropped that deferment in the remaining days of calendar 1971, his period of eligibility for the draft, by law, would be whatever remained of 71 and the first 90 days of 1972 -- the very period that Laird had decreed a draft-free time. All you needed was to get your letter dropping your deferment postmarked by the 31st, and poof! You need never again worry about the draft board knocking on your door.
(In recent years, theres been a vogue in some circles for something called public-interest journalism. Every time I hear those words, I flash on that story in The New York Times. There, goddammit, was public-interest journalism at its finest.)
The reason I was such an appreciative reader was the basest of self-interest. I was a senior that year at Columbia, and in a few more months, my 2-S student deferment would be gone with the wind. At that point, Id be at the mercy of my draft number. As my fellow fogies will recall, at some point in the 60s, the Selective Service Administration started annually putting every date of the year into a fishbowl and drawing them out one by one, then ranking the dates from 1 to 365, and assigning that ranking to every 18-year-old male in the land. If your birth date came out first, your number was up -- or actually, it was 1, and, the moment your deferment expired, you could start planning your trip to Mekong Delta. If your birth date was number 365, on the other hand, you could plan at your leisure your tour of Europe by thumb.
My number was 29.
There followed an immediate round of calls to my parents, friends and, more important, lawyers who specialized in keeping guys out of the draft (a flourishing and noble practice of the time). And so it was that on the afternoon of the 31st, I found myself in the long line for Registered-Mail-With-the-Postmark-Stamped-on-the-Receipt at Manhattans General Post Office -- a sprawling Mead-McKim-and-White-esque edifice across the street from Penn Station, with the sentiment Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds inscribed over its doors. The Registered Mail line wasnt distinctive just for its length. Everyone in it was a young man, every one of whom clutched a letter in which he selflessly gave up his draft deferment. We exchanged grateful mutters about that Times piece, swapped tidbits about what our respective draft lawyers had told us (in essence: Do it!), went to the window, and left clutching our postmarked receipts, a crazed grin adorning our faces.