Luck of the Draw
William Scott Morrison
December 1, 1969
On the evening of Monday, December 1, 1969, President Richard Milhous Nixon held a prime-time lottery that riveted America to its television sets. The drawing was not your usual get-rich-quick, jackpot type of lottery, but a roll of the dice to determine which young men would be conscripted to fight, and maybe to die, in the faraway jungles of Vietnam. Nowhere was the sense of foreboding stronger than in the fraternity houses of college communities like “Happy Valley.”
There must have been a hundred people gathered in McGill’s fraternity for the event. A third were women, the dates and pinmates of brothers and guests as well as TKO’s “Little Sisters”—honorary Tokes in TKΩ–Penn State sweatshirts. Freshman pledges on bar-duty, wearing mandatory jackets and ties, were filling cups from pitchers from a newly-tapped keg. It was rare to tap a keg on a weeknight, even at a hard-core party house like TKO, but this was to be a night unlike any other in modern American history.
McGill and his old buddy, Frankie Dombrowski, stopped on the landing halfway between the first and second floors, lit cigarettes, and surveyed the crowd below. Frankie was on leave from the Army and had been crashing on McGill’s couch since Thursday. He had hitchhiked up with his guitar from Milltowne for a final fling before shipping out to Vietnam. He and McGill had been in a rock ‘n’ roll band in high school, Frankie and the Dynamos. The girls in Milltowne called Frankie “the Polish Elvis” because of his chiseled good looks, his wavy black hair, and his smooth baritone voice. He’d gone to college at Pitt, and like McGill, he would have been a senior, but last spring he’d flunked French, which dropped his Grade Point Average below 2.0, and the Decatur County draft board nailed his under-achieving ass. With his buzz-cut GI haircut and a U.S. Army field jacket he didn’t look much like Elvis any more.
The big window on the landing was swung open for ventilation despite the wintery weather. McGill and Frankie leaned over the wide windowsill to watch the three-way snowball fight in progress between the Tokes, the Alpha Sigs across the street, and the Tekes next door. Guys from all three houses were battling under the street lights, no gloves or jackets, making snowballs barehanded and whooping and yelling like ten-year-olds as TKO’s mascot, “Aphie,” short for Aphrodite, a gentle giant of a Saint Bernard, romped in the snow barking her low-pitched woof–woof–woofs.
McGill’s “little brother,” Bob Dawkins, came up the stairs carrying two cups of beer, said, “Here you go, Brother McGill, sir,” and handed them the cups. All pledges had to choose a “big brother” when they joined, which obligated them to become the big brother’s personal servant. Dawkins had chosen McGill because McGill had a beautiful girlfriend who went to Bryn Mawr and he played guitar, but mostly because they were both from Milltowne and McGill had his own car.
McGill yelled, “What took you so fucking long, pledge?”
Dawkins snapped to rigid attention and yelled, “The keg only pours so fast, Brother McGill, sir!”
“Still the wise-ass, aren’t you Dawkins. Drop and give me twenty.”
“Yes, sir, Brother McGill, sir! Thank you, Brother McGill sir!”
Dawkins dropped to the floor and began counting out push-ups. It was the second day of Hell Week, and if the pledges made it through they would be “brotherized,” becoming full-fledged members of Tau Kappa Omega. The pledges were just at the start of their four-year college deferments, so they weren’t too worried what number they pulled under Nixon’s new system. But for nineteen-year old males not going to college and for college seniors like McGill, whose four-year deferment ended in June, the lottery could be a matter of life or death.
The pledge-master, Kellner, blew his whistle and shouted, “Clear the living room. Clear the living room. Get your asses out so we can set up.”
Dawkins finished his pushups and raced down the stairs to help the other pledges. Everyone who had been in the living room moved into the foyer and the card room and the dining room so the pledges could set up like they did for football games, everyone except Looney Larry. At twenty-four, he was the oldest guy in the house, a super-senior who should have graduated or been drafted two-years ago but had gamed the system into extending his deferment. He just sat and grinned, forcing four pledges to pick up the big leather chair with him on it and move it while he blew smoke rings like the draft-dodging genius that he was.
The pledges arranged the couches and chairs in a wide horseshoe around the color TV, ran the big industrial vacuum, emptied ashtrays, sponged off tables, brought in logs and stoked the fire until it roared. McGill saw a pledge come out of the service kitchen carrying Aphie’s scrap dish with the bones and scraps the cook always sent up in the dumbwaiter and hurried down the steps to confront him. “Where do you think you’re going, pledge?”
“Uh, I’ve got Aphie-duty.”
“You’ve got Aphie-duty what?”
The pledge snapped to attention and shouted, “I’ve got Aphie-duty, Brother McGill, sir!”
“That’s better,” McGill said as he took the bowl. “I’ll take care of Aphie while you drop for twenty. Consider yourself lucky it isn’t fifty.”
“Yes sir, Brother McGill, sir! Thank you, Brother McGill, sir!” the pledge yelled as he dropped to the floor.
“Come on, Frankie,” McGill said as the pledge started counting out his push-ups. “Let me introduce you.”
Frankie followed McGill out to the side porch and McGill called, “Aphie! Come and get it! Aphie!” She ran right over and let him towel the snow off her thick coat and snap the chain on her collar. Frankie gave her a hearty pet and scratched her back. She would be content gnawing on her bones until the pledges let her in later to sleep by the fire, unconcerned who won or lost Nixon’s lottery.
The Little Sisters had been busy making twelve narrow posters, one for each month, using magic markers and sheets of butcher paper from the downstairs kitchen. The posters listed the days in a column on the left, and on the right were two columns with blank lines for a name and a number. The pledges put them up all around the living room walls with masking tape, January through December. “Makes the place look like a bookie joint,” somebody said when they finished.
When the room was ready, Kellner blew his whistle and yelled, “Listen up! Anybody who’s not in the pool yet, see pledge Rhinebecker. Okay. Ready…set,” and without saying “Go!” he blew his whistle, setting off a stampede as brothers vaulted over the backs of couches and elbowed each other out of the way to claim the best seats.
Everybody was on edge, but the seniors like McGill were really sweating. He was a political science major with plans to go to law school, but he would be graduating into the teeth of Nixon’s new system. A Little Sister came up to him and asked, “Stick, did you send off your applications yet?”
“No, but they’re all filled out. If I pull a decent number, I’ll write the checks and send them off tomorrow. If I’m screwed, I’ll bag it and use the money to go to the Orange Bowl.”
He thought his plan made total sense. Penn State had been undefeated for two years in a row, was ranked #2 in the polls, and set to play #5 Missouri in the Orange Bowl on New Years Day. If he was going to die in Vietnam there’s no way McGill was going to blow good money on law school applications if he could use it to party in Miami and see his school win a national championship.
A girl in a flowery Make Love Not War sweatshirt asked him, “Stick, can’t you just get a note from a doctor if you get a bad number?”
Tens of thousands of guys had been getting phony medical “outs” to beat the draft. Trick knees were a favorite because they were hard to disprove. You could also get outs for minor defects like flat feet and curvature of the spine. Doctors for many professional athletes swore their patients’ knees or shoulders or backs prevented them from serving in the military, but the defects were somehow not serious enough to keep them from playing professional baseball or football.
For healthy guys who weren’t sports stars and didn’t have a doctor willing to lie for them, there were various self-inflicted outs, like blowing off your little toe with a gun, inducing high blood-pressure with drugs, pigging out to become overweight, starving yourself and taking drugs to get underweight, and for the really desperate, claiming to be sexually perverted or homosexual. McGill was skinny and klutzy, but neither condition rated an out.
He just shrugged and told her, “Nah, I’m healthy as a horse.”
She tried to be upbeat. “Well maybe when you take your physical they’ll find something you don’t know you have?”
“Ha, now that’s a laugh,” said Frankie. “Let me tell you what my physical was like.”
Everybody nearby came closer to hear what the only person in the room who knew what he was talking about had to say.
“They made us take off our clothes and stand bare-assed with our toes on a yellow line. Then two guys in white coats came along. One said open your mouth and say aahh, and the other said bend over and spread your cheeks. Then the first one shined a light down your throat, and the second one shined a light up your asshole. If they didn’t see each other, you passed.”
Everybody in earshot cracked up, and Frankie said to McGill, “I’m supposed to pick that Annie chick up at her dorm pretty soon. You were going to make me a map to that parking spot.”
How Frankie had finagled a date with Annie Chambers, president of Chi Omega sorority and last year’s Homecoming Queen, God only knows. He’d just met her that afternoon down at the Lions’ Den. McGill couldn’t imagine a girl like that going parking on a first date, but ever since seventh grade Frankie always had his way with girls.
It was a strict university rule that women were not permitted above the first floor of frat houses after nine, so McGill drew a map to the duck pond where they could park without being hassled by the cops. “There’s blankets in the trunk,” McGill said as he gave Frankie his keys. “And don’t forget, ladies curfew’s at midnight.”
“Thanks, Stick,” Frankie said, and as he headed out the door he flashed a two-fingered “peace sign” and yelled, “Good luck you guys.”
Kellner’s pin-mate, Darlene, a sister in Tri-Delt, archrivals of the Chi-O’s for best sorority, came up to McGill and asked, “Does your friend really have a date with Chambers?”
She gave him a sly smile. “You know what they say about Chi-O’s and Vietnam, don’t you?”
She was delighted to spread the rumor. “They’re all into a Florence Nightingale competition thing. If your friend is going to Vietnam, he’ll get a Chi-O mercy fuck.”
McGill broke into a laugh and tried to imagine what a Chi-O mercy fuck with a Homecoming Queen might be like. Would the other Chi-O’s do a sorority cheer and wave pompoms? “Frankie might get laid, but it won’t be out of mercy. Chicks cream their jeans over Dombrowski.”
Rhinebecker was walking around carrying a flip-over calendar and a cigar box full of cash—the house pool—while calling out, “Anybody not in the pool better sign up. Only a few minutes to go.”
McGill waved Rhinebecker over and said, “How’s it work?”
“Everybody puts in a buck,” Rhinebecker said. “Third place gets five, second gets ten, the winner gets the jackpot. Ties split.”
“Oh, how exciting,” Darlene said. “Can I get in too?”
“No chicks allowed,” Rhinebecker said with a firm shake of his head.
Her lips turned down in a pout. “You guys have all the fun.”
“Oh yeah,” McGill said as he handed Rhinebecker a five. “Waiting to see if your life is going down the tubes sure is fun all right.”
“When’s your birthday, Brother McGill?” Rhinebecker asked as he counted out change.
“Hey, St. Patrick’s Day,” Rhinebecker said as he flipped the calendar to March and wrote McGill’s name in the 17 square. “Luck of the Irish to you, Brother McGill, sir.”
McGill gave him a dollar back. “Put this in for Dombrowski. November third.”
Rhinebecker furrowed his brow. “But he’s already in the Army.”
Rhinebecker seemed confused. “But the lottery won’t affect him.”
McGill glowered and said, “Are you arguing with me, pledge?”
Rhinebecker tried to cover his ass and shouted, “No sir, Brother McGill, sir!” He took the dollar and hurriedly flipped to November and wrote in Frankie’s name before McGill dropped him for pushups.
The room was crackling with excitement as Nixon’s big show began. Not even during the frenzy over Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett Show had so many “war babies” (who were not yet dubbed “boomers”) been glued to the tube at the same time. To one degree or another, the results would impact the majority of healthy guys born between 1944 and 1952. About the only guys who would not be affected were those who were currently serving in uniform, those who had already served in uniform, and the 30,000 or so who had already died in uniform.
The rules for who would be called to serve and who would not had changed over the years as the war dragged on. Between 1964 and 1967, President Johnson eliminated, one by one, the deferments for marriage, children, and graduate school (except for medical, dental, and divinity students). Only the four-year deferment for undergraduates remained. For the past several years, all males between eighteen and twenty-six who were not full-time students with a Grade Point Average of 2.0 were draft bait, with the oldest taken first. The system kept guys at risk for eight long years, and many said it was a major factor fueling the anti-war protests, and there was widespread criticism of it from all quarters.
Nixon was changing the system so that all the American males born between 1944 and 1952 would be assigned random numbers based on their birthdays. Barring a national emergency or a major escalation of the war, males in this pool would be at risk only for the next year—one year instead of eight. New lotteries would be held in succeeding years for boys who had come of draft age that year, and boys in those cohorts who did not receive college deferments would fill future quotas. So the system which previously called “oldest first” would change in succeeding years to calling “youngest and dumbest first.”
Critics said the lottery was a devious Nixonian ploy to take the steam out of the anti-war movement. By limiting the risk of being drafted to an unlucky few, and placing the burden of future drafts on younger boys not yet old enough to drive, much less to vote, there would be fewer angry males willing to take to the streets to protest. Nixon wasn’t called “Tricky Dick” for nothing.
Before the drawing, the Pentagon had been publicizing the Army’s anticipated manpower needs for the coming year so everybody knew what to expect. The official estimate was that the lucky males in the highest third, from about #240 to #366, were relatively safe and could get on with their lives; those in the middle third, from “about” #125 to #240, were in a sort of limbo and would “probably” not be drafted; and all healthy males in the lowest third who had no deferment were goners. The new system was good for freshmen like Dawkins. If he kept a “gentleman’s C” for the next year he would be off the hook and not have to worry about the draft unless things got so bad that Viet Cong war canoes came paddling up the Ohio river.
When Nixon’s big show began the carpet in front of the TV was packed tight with guys sitting on the rug, beers in hand, like at a rock concert. The crowd behind the horseshoe of couches and chairs stood four and five deep, with guys in back standing up on radiators and tables and chairs brought in from the dining room to get a view of the tube.
The soothing voice of Walter Cronkite, America’s most trusted TV newsman, explained how the drawing would work. The camera focused on a clear, cylindrical jar, about three feet high, the same exact one used in the draft lotteries of 1917 and 1940. At the bottom of the jar, were 366 blue plastic capsules, about an inch long, each containing a piece of paper with a different day of the year on it. Cronkite held up a sample, and somebody in back yelled, “What’s it look like?”
“Like a fucking horse pill,” came an answer from the front.
The capsules would be picked at random, and the order in which your birthday came up was your very own draft number. Unlike most lotteries, the sooner your number came up, the bigger you lost.
When Nixon’s face appeared on the screen the house rocked to a cacophony of hisses and boos and shouts of “asshole!” and “motherfucker!” Just then McGill saw Rotsee Ross come in, carrying his white saucer hat in one hand and brushing snow off the shoulders of his navy blue R.O.T.C. overcoat with the other. He grabbed a chair from the dining room and climbed up to be able to see the TV over the crowd in front. When he saw Nixon, he began shaking his white saucer hat at the TV and yelling “motherfucker” louder than anybody.
The lottery began when a dour Republican Congressman nobody had ever heard of stepped up to the jar to pick the first number. The banter stopped, and the house became eerily silent. It must have been like that all across America as millions of guys and their girlfriends and families gulped and held their collective breaths. The Congressman seemed to be enjoying himself as he bent over and shoved his arm into the three-foot deep jar, right up to his shoulder, to get his hand all the way to the bottom. He fished around for a few seconds, then pulled out a capsule and handed it to an official seated at a table. The official opened the capsule, removed the paper, read it, showed it to other officials sitting around and said, “September fourteenth.”
“September fourteenth,” Cronkite repeated in his most stentorian, anchorman tone. “September fourteenth is number one.”
Everybody looked around to see who would claim the first-place money, but no one did. Rhinebecker checked the calendar in case the winner wasn’t present, shook his head and said, “Nobody’s got it.”
A Little Sister wrote “1” next to 14 on the September poster with a marker and put a line through the space where a name would have gone.
After the first pick, instead of an official doing the picking, the remaining numbers were chosen by 365 young men of draft age from every state in the union who had been flown in to do the dirty work. A tall, cheery-faced boy with thick Buddy Holly glasses jumped up and stuck his arm in the jar, picked a capsule, and handed it to the official who announced, “April twenty-fourth,” followed by Cronkite who intoned, “Number two is April twenty-fourth.”
“Hey that’s me!” said somebody’s date, but girls didn’t count.
Rhinebecker checked his calendar. “Nobody’s got it.”
A Little Sister with a black marker wrote “2” next to 24 on the April poster, and another Little Sister used a pink marker to write in the name of the girl who didn’t count.
On the third pull the official said, “December thirtieth—”
A plaintive “NOOO!” wailed out, and up from a couch jumped Baker, a ladies’ man who always seemed to have a different girl on his arm, just about the last guy you’d expect to see carrying a rifle. Like McGill, Baker was a senior and out of options. He hopped around, shaking his head, tugging at his blonde, Beatlesque hair and screaming, “NOOO! FUCKING NOOOOO!”
The brotherhood offered him its sincerest condolences.
“Die, Baker, die!”
“Your ass is grass, Baker!”
“Dead meat, Baker!”
Somebody sang out, “Bake, Bake, Baker man, go to Nam, fast as you can,” and everybody joined in, chanting, “Bake, Bake, Baker man, go to Nam, fast as you can!”
A Little Sister using a red marker put a “3” next to 30 on the December poster, wrote in Baker’s name, drew a fat circle around it and put a big red star next to it.
Rhinebecker took out a ten and a five to cover the second and third place “winners” and handed Baker the cigar box stuffed with cash. “Congratulations, Brother Baker, sir!”
Baker opened the lid, peered in, then shaking his head in disbelief, slumped down in his seat on the couch and made a goofy show out of counting his winnings, one bill at a time, but his wide-eyed, shit-eating grin betrayed his utter despair.
With the big money out of the way, everybody relaxed, and the race was on for second. For a while it seemed nobody would take it until the official said, “September twenty-sixth—”
It was a freshman pledge, Sharrock. “Pledge Sharrock takes second,” Rhinebecker announced, and handed him the $10 prize. McGill thought it unfair for a freshman to be in the money, since if he kept a 2.0 average for a year he would be safe unless Nixon changed the rules again.
On the twenty-seventh pick, the official said, “July twenty-first—”
“Jesus fucking tits!”
It was Zovis, a junior whose GPA hovered dangerously close to 2.0, putting him at high risk if he got less than a “C” in any course. Already overweight from his job as a fry cook at the Char-Pit, he often joked about eating his way into a medical out. He wasted no time, taking his $5 prize and yelling, “Sharrock, call Marino’s for a large pepperoni with mushrooms and extra cheese.”
Next up was fourth place, just out of the prize money, the biggest loser of all—the douchebag of the day. A few numbers went by and the official said, “March seventeenth,” followed by Cronkite intoning, “Saint Patrick’s Day is number thirty-three.”
McGill was standing in the back, a cigarette in one hand, a beer in the other, totally dazed, an empty chill already sweeping through him as Rhinebecker yelled, “That’s Brother McGill!” and everybody rubbed it in, hooting, “DOOOOSSHH! DOOOOSSHH! DOOOOSSHH!”
The numbers rolled on, with more guys going down. At sixty-seven, Nixon nailed Stugall, a super-senior who was graduating that term. He held his cup up high and shouted, “Fuck this shit! Tales!”
An echoing roar of “Tales!” went up, and the guys with bad numbers charged downstairs to the Red Room for what would become a historic session of every fraternity’s favorite drinking game—Wales Tales. The Red Room had been TKO’s party haven for over fifty years. You could smell it when you opened the door at the top of the basement stairs as the sour aroma of five decades of beer parties wafted up and punched you in the nose. It was about fifty feet long and twenty feet wide, and had a masculine, hunting lodge-meets-rathskeller ambiance. Built into the walls all around the room, were bench seats of cushioned red vinyl. There were six highly-varnished oak picnic tables and benches. The walls were dark maroon with oak trim, with a pair of Old West-style saloon doors leading to the dance room. It was the heart and soul of a party house like TKO, and pledges waxed and buffed its hardwood floors to a glistening shine after every event.
As the lottery moved past #125, where the Pentagon said the cut-off for losers would “probably” be, guys whose birthdays hadn’t come up yet got to feeling better and came trickling down to get into the games. When a birthday of a brother was drawn, Rhinebecker rushed down to announce it. When he came down and yelled, “Brother Nichols is two-forty-eight,” Nichols stood up, held his beer cup high and shouted, “Here’s to Richard fucking Nixon! I’m fucking out!”
McGill gave him the finger. “Fuck you, asshole.”
The keg kicked about eleven, but the losers insisted on tapping the emergency keg to keep things going. About twelve-thirty, Frankie showed up to the roaring din of six simultaneous Tales games. He came over to McGill’s table and handed him the car keys. “How’d you do, Stick?”
Frankie shook his head. “Damn, that’s a bummer.”
“Know what you’d have been, asshole?”
Frankie grinned a wide, satisfied smile. “Nah, I was getting to know Annie. She’s a very friendly girl.”
“Three-forty-eight. You’d be home free if you hadn’t flunked French, and now you’re gonna get your ass blown away for nothing. Fucking nothing. You really piss me off, Dombrowski.”
Draft Night voided all the rules. For the losers, like Baker, McGill and Stugall, it was a night out of the Rubaiyat, a night to forget how screwed you were—eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die! For the winners like Nichols with high numbers, it was a night to celebrate the biggest victory of their lives. For the guys in the middle, it turned into an emotional, fuck-it-all bull session. Guys argued for and against the war, the winners ragging the losers and everybody wondering just what they were going to do with the rest of their lives.
For the first time in TKO history, the long-haired, semi-hippie “heads” rolled joints out in the open and passed them around like it was Woodstock. Even the most tight-assed “straights” kept their mouths shut, and several straights even turned on for the first time. The Tales games went on like a Roman Saturnalia; if you were feeling sick from too much beer, you went outside, stuck your finger down your throat, blew lunch in a snowbank, and came back for more.
They took occasional breaks from the games and got into the bawdy drinking songs the older alumni loved to sing when they came back for Homecoming. One verse in particular summed up the lifestyle:
We toast the girls who do
We toast the girls who don’t
We toast the girls who say they will
And then they say they won’t
But the girls we toast
From the break o’ day
Until the late o’ night
Are the girls who say they never have
But just for you they might.
Say I-I-I think
We need another drink
Say I-I-I think
We need another drink
Say I-I-I think
We need another drink
To the brotherhood
Frankie sat at McGill’s table and joined the Tales game, and somebody asked him, “How’d they get you? You went to Pitt, right?”
A sheepish look came over Frankie’s face. “I was in a new band and gigging a lot and I didn’t put much time into French, so—”
“Oh, bullshit, Dombrowski,” McGill said and belched a long, beery buurrrppp. “You got your ass drafted because you think you’re fucking Elvis. But they drafted Elvis, douchebag, like in Bye-Bye Birdie. So now it’s bye-bye Frankie, and you’re gonna get your ass blown away for nothing. Fucking nothing. What an asshole you are.”
“That’s how they got Johnny Zimmer,” somebody said. “He flunks chemistry and the next thing you know he’s beating the bush in some place called Phu Bai.”
“Have you thought about going to Canada?” somebody asked.
“I hear Toronto’s okay,” Frankie said, “but I don’t—”
“Screw Toronto!” McGill shouted. “Hump your dumb ass up to Montreal where you can parlez-vouz some French and maybe get your fucking grades up.”
Frankie grinned and gave McGill the finger, then reached for his wallet and pulled out a piece of paper and began unfolding it. “Talking about being drafted, ever see one of these?”
“What is it?” somebody asked.
“A greeting from Uncle Sam,” and he passed his induction notice around the table for everyone to see. When it got to McGill he held it up and read it out loud:
“SELECTIVE SERVICE SYSTEM
ORDER TO REPORT FOR INDUCTION
From: The President of the United States
To: Francis James Dombrowski
184 West Seneca Street
Milltowne, Pennsylvania 16555
You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States, and to report at the Federal Office Building, 1000 Liberty Ave., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15222, on 12 July 1969 at 6:45 am for forwarding to an Armed Forces Induction Station.
Signed Edward T. Blaatz
Clerk of local board #758
For Brig. General John S. Hershey
Commander, Selective Service System”
McGill folded it up and started to put it in his own wallet.
“Hey, what the fuck you think you’re doing?” Frankie said.
“I’ll hang on to it for you so you don’t lose it in a rice paddy, asshole. When you get back, I’ll buy you a beer and we’ll burn the sucker.”
Frankie grinned and said, “You’re on.”
McGill and Frankie and the other losers stayed up bullshitting and playing Tales until just before dawn. The next day, McGill cut all his classes and he and Frankie crashed until late afternoon, totally hung-over. When they got up they showered and drove to the State Store for a bottle of Jack Daniels for Frankie’s last night. After dinner, they settled on a couch in the living room, which still had the feel of a bookie joint with Nixon’s lottery-results posted on the walls. McGill brought his stack of law school applications down and set them on the coffee table, and drinking and laughing, they meticulously folded the pages into paper airplanes, one at a time, and sailed them into the fireplace.
Dawkins was on door-duty at the small desk just inside the entrance when the pay phone in the coat-closet rang. He answered, came out and said, “Phone call for Frankie Dombrowski.”
“Who is it?” Frankie asked.
Frankie jumped up and closed the closet door, and a minute later came out and said to McGill, “Annie’s already snuck out of the dorm. Think I can borrow you car and some money for a motel?”
She was taking a big risk, and could be expelled for violating the university’s strict in loco parentis rules. McGill gave Frankie his car keys and his last twenty and told Dawkins, “Call the Holiday Inn and book a room for Mr. and Mrs. Francis Dombrowski.”
Around eleven the next morning, Frankie brought Annie to the TKO house and introduced her to McGill and Dawkins. Annie’s silky blonde hair was in a ponytail, and her complexion so perfect she could have stepped off a Hollywood movie poster, but her eyes were red and puffy, like she’d been crying.
They loaded Frankie’s duffel bag and guitar case into the trunk. Dawkins rode shotgun, McGill drove, and Annie clung to Frankie in the back seat as they took her to her dorm. McGill tried not to listen as she sobbed like a kindergartner and Frankie promised over and over that he’d be careful and would write as soon as he could. Frankie gave her a long kiss in the parking lot, and as Frankie climbed into the car McGill watched Annie standing in the snow wiping tears from her eyes and looking like she was the one who needed mercy.
“Man,” Frankie said, “chicks are so strange.”
On the way to the hitchhiking spot, McGill offered to drive Frankie to Canada. “Niagara Falls isn’t far, and if we leave now we can have you across the border before dark. And I’ve got a couple hundred in the bank I was saving for applications you can have to get started.”
Frankie shook his head. “Thanks, Stick, but I’m no deserter. So what are you gonna do now that you know your number?”
“Damn if I know,” McGill said. “I graduate in June, so I’ve got a few months to figure something out.”
Dawkins took the duffle bag and guitar out of the trunk as Frankie and McGill shook hands, strong, John Wayne handshakes, followed by a long hippie peace clasp—thumbs interlocked, fingers wrapping around the back of the other’s hand—and gave each other hearty slaps on the back.
“Nice knowing you, Bob,” Frankie said, giving him a handshake and a peace clasp.
“Same here,” Dawkins said. “Be careful over there.”
McGill and Dawkins waited in the car watching Frankie, standing in the snow, in jeans, combat boots, Army field jacket, a Steelers stocking cap, and holding the cardboard sign Dawkins made with PITT on one side and MILLTOWNE on the other. Right away a VW bus with a Peace Now bumper-sticker stopped. The side door rolled open, and Frankie handed in his guitar and duffel bag. Then he turned, flashed a peace sign, and climbed into the van for the first leg of his journey to Vietnam.
After Draft Night, things got back to normal for everybody except the big losers like McGill. Dawkins made it through finals and Hell Week and got brotherized, but McGill didn’t even bother studying. With a healthy body, a bad draft number, and an expiring deferment, grades didn’t matter. Instead, he read the Hobbit and all three volumes of Lord of the Rings and organized the TKO expedition to the Orange Bowl.
The plan was for a dozen guys to drive down in three cars, meeting up at the Miami TKO house. He borrowed a Chevy station wagon off the McGill Motors used car lot and the day after Christmas picked up Dawkins at his house at five am. They took the turnpike to Philadelphia, picked up Baker and Nichols, then headed south, taking turns driving and sleeping stretched out with the station wagon’s backseat folded down. The Miami TKO house was not locked, and the only guys there were some Tokes from Missouri who had the same ideas about fraternal visitation privileges that the Penn State Tokes did. It was as if the Miami Tokes had purposely left the house open; they were probably used to brothers from other chapters crashing at the Orange Bowl every year. They moved right in, and didn’t do any damage McGill knew of, though he was sure the Miami Tokes weren’t too happy when they came back and found the mess they’d left.
Penn State’s defense dominated the game and won easily, but the team ranked #1 in the polls, Texas, won its game in the Cotton Bowl. Penn State had played the higher-ranked team, and had been undefeated for two straight years. McGill was hopeful that if the sports writers voted for the best team, Penn State would be #1.
But President Nixon, in keeping with his “Southern strategy,” killed any chance of that by calling the Texas coach on national TV and proclaiming them the national champions. He didn’t even have the decency to mention Penn State’s claim to the title, which should tell you all you need to know about the character of Richard Milhous Nixon.
They slept in late, then headed north, stopping at Daytona Beach to spend the night and check out the action. They lazed around on the chilly January beach all the next day, and about eight that evening climbed into the car for the long drive home. They dropped Baker and Nichols off in Philly about ten in the morning just as a freezing rain began to fall. McGill got on the turnpike and pulled into a Howard Johnson’s service plaza to clean up and eat breakfast before the final push across Pennsylvania to Milltowne. They had been gone ten days.
There were no lines at the pumps, so they gassed up first, then used the men’s room. McGill stayed to brush his teeth and shave while Dawkins went to wait in line for a booth in the crowded restaurant, figuring to clean up after they ate. Dawkins bought a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the gift shop, got a table, and ordered two coffees. He was leafing through the paper when a headline caught his eye: “Services Today For Local Singer.” An icy despair shuddered through him when he looked at the photo and saw Frankie’s face looking back at him.
The paper said U.S. Army Private-First-Class Francis James Dombrowski, twenty-one years old, a popular singer from Milltowne, had been killed by multiple fragmentation wounds the day after Christmas while on patrol in Phuoc Long province. He had been in Vietnam for only two weeks. Services were this afternoon at Stigwood’s Funeral Home in Milltowne.
McGill slid into the booth and said, “What’s new?”
Dawkins was totally numb, hardly able to breathe. It was all he could do to just push the paper across the table. He sat in the bright orange booth and watched as McGill read about Frankie. McGill looked up in wide-eyed disbelief. Tears were streaming down his face as he read it for a second time, then McGill calmly folded the paper and said, “We gotta go.”
It was not until he was in the Army himself that McGill came to understand what might have happened: Frankie was the “FNG”––the fucking-new-guy––and FNGs were always screwing up and getting killed. Maybe his platoon came across a village of “doubtfuls,” grunt slang for peasants whose loyalty was impossible to determine. Frankie’s sergeant might have ordered him to check out a hooch, and in his inexperience, Frankie tripped a booby trap. Chances were high he never knew what hit him.
McGill raced across the sleet-covered turnpike, through the tunnels and past mountain after dismal mountain of naked black trees in the dead January landscape. He kept his foot to the floor, ninety, ninety-five, a hundred-and-five, weaving in and out of traffic, chain-smoking cigarettes, blaring the horn and flashing the lights and yelling, “Get the fuck out of the way!”
They somehow made it to the funeral home alive before the procession left for the cemetery. Dawkins had only known Frankie for a few days, and wasn’t sure he even deserved to be there. There were hundreds of somber people, heads hung low, all in their Sunday best. Dawkins felt like a Slobovian jerk in jeans and a sweatshirt, with two-days of stubble on his face. He hadn’t even brushed his teeth.
An organist was playing music that made it seem ten times worse. A group of old friends saw McGill and came over, the girls crying and hugging, the guys speaking in whispers. Frankie’s two little brothers, Jeff and Jerry, about seven and eight years old, saw McGill and raced up yelling, “Mom, Dad, Stick’s here, Stick’s here!”
McGill bent down and wrapped them in his arms, and Dawkins followed him to where Frankie’s mom and dad were accepting condolences. Frankie’s dad was wearing medals on his suitcoat, showing that he too had served his country. Frankie’s mom wore was a single Gold Star, pinned on her black dress, which was awarded to mothers whose sons were killed in the line of duty.
The casket was covered with an American flag, and it was closed, so Frankie must have been torn up pretty bad. Flowers were everywhere, and there were pictures of him around the room: at four, in a cowboy hat; at seven, in a Superman cape, pretending to fly; at ten, in a Little League uniform with a baseball bat over his shoulder; at twelve, with his first guitar; at sixteen, in a tuxedo for the junior prom; at eighteen, with his Fender Stratocaster slung low to his waist and belting out a song under a Frankie and the Dynamos banner.
It struck Dawkins that Annie Chambers probably didn’t know what had happened, and he had a sharp pang of guilt, thankful it would be McGill, Frankie’s close friend, who would have to be the one to tell her.
McGill talked to Frankie’s mom and dad for a few minutes, then introduced Dawkins. “This is Bob Dawkins. He met Frankie when he came up to see me right before he shipped out.”
Dawkins had no idea what to say to the parents of a guy he barely knew who had just been killed in the war. “I…I only knew Frankie for a few days, but I really liked him.”
Frankie’s dad seemed to understand how awkward it was for him, and curling the corners of his mouth up in a sad smile, said, “That’s how Frankie was, son. Everybody liked him.”
Others were waiting in line to offer condolences, and as they moved away McGill said, “Bob, stay here. I need to have a talk with Frankie.”
McGill saw Frankie’s two favorite electric guitars, his Stratocaster and his Les Paul, both with flaming sunburst finishes, sitting on guitar stands next to each other at the head of the casket, a musical island in the sea of flowers. It was as if Frankie was between sets, just taking a break, and he would stroll up any minute, strap one on, and launch into his gritty version of “Susie Q.”
Frankie never could decide which guitar he liked better. McGill picked up the Les Paul and strummed a chord. It was in tune. Then he picked up the Strat and strummed a chord. It was out, so he knelt down, rested the guitar on his knee, and meticulously tuned each string. When it was right, he played a few chords, and carefully placed it on the stand.
The casket was draped in an American flag and guarded by two soldiers with ceremonial rifles. A big photo of Frankie, with his wavy black hair and his Elvis Presley good looks, smiled out from a gold frame at the head of the casket.
McGill put his hands on top of the flag covering the casket, and just like he always did, said, “Hey, Frankie, what’s happening?”
He was silent for a long minute. Then he picked up Frankie’s photo and began talking to it and shaking his fist as he reamed Frankie out for flunking French and getting his ass blown away for nothing.
After a while he put it down, thumped his fist on the casket with a dramatic WHAM! and shouted, “Attention! I need your attention. And cut the organ. Frankie hated that crap.”
The music stopped instantly as everybody froze, their eyes fixated on McGill. There wasn’t a sound as he took out his wallet, removed a piece of paper, carefully unfolded it, and held it above his head.
“Frankie came up to see me right before he shipped out, and he gave me this for safe keeping. It’s his induction notice from the draft board. I promised I’d buy him a beer and we’d burn it together as soon as he got back. I’m pissed I can’t buy him a beer.”
McGill held Uncle Sam’s “Greeting” in front of Frankie’s photo, making sure Frankie could watch. He sparked his Zippo, touching the fire to the lowest corner. The crinkled paper burned slowly at first, then flamed-up in a bright orange whoosh before dying out in a puff of white smoke and a flutter of gray ashes that came peacefully to rest on the Stars-and-Stripes draped over Frankie’s coffin.