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 we’re 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 Year‘s 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 we‘ve 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, there‘s 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, I’d 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 Manhattan’s 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 wasn‘t 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.
I returned to my room at Columbia. And around 5:15, Steve called.
Steve had been one of my freshman-year roommates, and we’d stayed friends in the years ensuing. In a tumultuous time on a tumultuous campus, he was just about the most mild-mannered, levelheaded friend I had.
And his draft number was 3.
I‘d called Steve on the 29th, shortly after I’d read the article, but he wasn‘t in. He wasn’t at his place on Morningside Heights, and he wasn‘t at his parents’ home on Long Island. He was, they told me, somewhere in New Hampshire — where, exactly, they had no idea — skiing. He‘d be back on either the 30th or 31st, and they’d have him call me right away.
I called both his numbers on the 30th, and he wasn‘t back yet. Likewise on the 31st. Then — 15 minutes after every post office in the Eastern Time Zone had closed for the year — he called from his parents’.
As best I can recall, I said something like “I don‘t know what your plans are for tonight, but you really should write a letter dropping your 2-S, come into the city, go to the General Post Office and somehow get it postmarked.” This required some explanation, but in short order Steve was trying to raise a draft lawyer by phone — no mean feat on New Year’s Eve. That having failed, he called again, and we agreed he‘d meet me at my place around 8 p.m. We’d draft the letter together (inasmuch as I was the closest thing to an expert he could find on such short notice) and trundle down to the post office.
And so, at 9:30 on New Year‘s Eve, I was back again, this time with Steve, at the venerable P.O., which at first glance looked to be profoundly closed for the night. We circumnavigated the building, though, and found the employees’ entrance, which to all intents and purposes was for the duration of the evening solely an employees‘ exit. Postal workers were whizzing out of the building as if they’d been shot from a cannon. Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night stays these couriers for so much as a nanosecond from getting the hell out of there.
Steve and I surveyed this stampede with some alarm. Somehow, we had to stop one of these speedsters and persuade him or her to take Steve‘s letter, go back inside, postmark it and bring him a postmarked receipt. Somehow, we had to figure a way to explain this situation to a postal worker at full gallop.
For the first 20 minutes, we simply approached the fleeing workers and said, “Excuse me” in a polite but urgent tone. This accomplished nothing. Steve, growing steadily more apprehensive, then changed the mantra to “I need your help.” Twenty more minutes of rejection (running the verbal gamut from “No” to “Fuck you!”) followed. Our next plan was a more careful targeting: Just try the workers with long hair or any other sign of countercultural identification. Yet another 10 minutes of failure. It was now 10:30, and fewer and fewer workers were coming out at all.
Clearly, it was time for drastic action. When the next longhair emerged, Steve — decorous, mild-mannered Steve — shouted, “Help!” and tackled the guy at the knees. That at least stopped him, and in the next 30 seconds, we somehow managed to explain just enough to rouse his sympathies. He took the letter and Steve’s postage money, went back inside, and five minutes later re-emerged with the postmarked receipt, handed it to Steve and vanished into the night.
Stunned, numbed, we stood there for a good five minutes more in the 15-degree cold. Then — it was New Year‘s Eve, after all — we went to a party.
I can’t recall if it was a friend of Steve‘s or a friend of mine who’d invited us to this party, but it was some party — way out of our league. It was in a swank building in the East 70s, looking down on the East River and the lights of Queens, a much-higher-rent district than we were even remotely accustomed to. The apartment was dazzling and so were the women, though not in that order.
Then again, Steve‘s and my ability to perceive, as such, was probably not at its apex. We arrived around 11, still shaking from our near brush with whatever it was we had had a near brush with. In the ensuing 20 minutes — with all the moderation and decorum characteristic of the 21-year-old male — we got instantly and hugely drunk and stoned. So that when, at 11:20, someone said, “Let’s go down to Times Square!” we both said, “Sure!” in what must have sounded like a slurred chirp.
This, too, was a race against time. We — there were about a dozen of us — managed to hail two of the old-style cabs with those little jump seats in the back, and proceeded downtown. At around 11:45, we were in the 40s, but still way over on the Eastside. Our cabbies tried to go cross-town, but the streets were clogged with traffic. At 11:55 or 11:56 or thereabouts, we clambered out of the cabs between Madison and Fifth, I think on 47th Street. And we started trotting westward, hoping to get to Seventh Avenue by midnight so we could be in Times Square when the ball dropped.
Between Fifth and Sixth, it became apparent that trotting was not going to do the trick. There was just a minute or two to go. We began running across Sixth, then sprinting toward Seventh. And then came the roar from Times Square: “10-9-8.” The crowd was counting down, the ball evidently had been lit and was dropping, refulgent, into 1972, while we still had several hundred yards before us. Steve had taken the lead and was flying down 47th, a bat out of hell. “6-5-4.”
Suddenly, Steve stopped dead in his tracks, still a couple hundred yards from Times Square. He looked straight up and pointed. “Look!” he shouted. “There it is!” — “it” being the dropping ball, shining brilliantly in the night sky.
Except, it wasn‘t the dropping ball. It was the moon. And Steve — sweet, mild-mannered, swacked-to-the-gills, just-reprieved-from-a-date-in-Vietnam Steve — genuinely couldn’t tell the difference.
Now, that was a New Year‘s Eve. And a happy Millennium to you all.