This is a small personal story that spans many years. Ultimately, it is an affirming story of a period of personal struggle and how others operate on us across time and space without having any idea of the effect of their actions.
In 1969, the military draft lottery was created. American men eligible to be drafted were already required to register with the Selective Service System. The lottery was a method numbering the 365 dates of the year. All the dates were put into a drum and drawn at random. The numbered list was of every day of the calendar year in the order they were drawn. If you were born between 1944 and 1950, your birthdate determined your ranking in the draft. If your birth date fell near the top of the list of dates, your chances of being drafted were higher. My birthdate was number 48 on the list. I knew I would be drafted.
I had decided to file for Conscientious Objector status with my local draft board, attempting to qualify for a religious exemption. This meant filing an application and having a face to face interview with my draft board in Raleigh, NC. Sometime in 1970, I believe, my application for CO status was declined.
Ever since before 1967, I had been paying attention to the various voices making public political and moral stands against the Vietnam War. One of them was David Harris, then a student at Stanford University. He had been organizing draft resistance, urging young men to neither show up to be inducted in the military upon being called, nor to flee.
According to Wikipedia, when Harris received his own draft notice, he neither reported nor fled to Canada, as draft evaders had frequently done. Harris was arrested in July, 1969, just shortly after my graduation from college, and later convicted of the federal felony of draft evasion. He was sentenced to a term in Federal Prison, serving about 15 months in various minimum-to medium-security facilities. He led several hunger strikes, providing a rationale for transfer to another prison. He was released on parole in October, 1970. By this time, he was also Joan Baez’s husband and therefore a more public figure. When he gave talks about the experience, his comments became news. He said: “In prison, I lost my ideals, but not my principles.”
What David could not have known is that I was one of the people listening. I found his public statements, his devotion to a moral stance against the war to be inspiring. They provided support and comfort to me as I approached what I regarded as an inevitable confrontation with the Selective Service apparatus.
He could not have known that as he was organizing others in prison, he was also organizing me. He could not have known that my bones were resonating with his. But we had the same intention: to overwhelm the machine with beauty, with an alternate truth, with the poetry of “no!”–even if it meant jail.
I decided that since I was going to subject myself to possible arrest, trial and imprisonment, that I should consider changing the odds by changing my geographical location to one where there was significant opposition to the war and resistance to induction in far greater numbers than in North Carolina.
I moved to Berkeley. The nearest Induction Center was in Oakland, CA., where draft refusals were occurring by the score every day. I imagined that if my legal case was ever to come to trial, the Oakland venue would put it off for the maximum amount of time, possibly until after the war had ended.
confidence is something that
can easily be mistaken for preparation
such as the confidence in your beliefs
on one side of the US Army Induction Center door
and the dizzyness on the other
the uniformed Seargent is speaking to you
the papers crossing your clammy palm
crumple in your sudden loss of coordination
the voice emitting from your body is not yours
but there you are
stumbling under the glare and full
weight of opposing justice
twenty-three and having to
decide if it is time to walk across that line
with the rest of this row of aliens
glorious in their awkward silent
–fearsome and fearful–
ready to be marched into anonymity
and the oblivion of uniformity
now you are one of them
for a precious moment
—almost–until it is time for you
to stand still saying no-
and there in an instant
the ground ceases to swerve
unpredictably in all its directions
opposite of your guts
no longer buffeted by the
ill wind that brought you here
My case was never prosecuted. I received a deferment for reasons that remain unknown to me.
Thirty-five years later, I formed a Buddhist sangha with a group of people from the Oakland area. We met weekly for several years. But as soon as I moved further away to Marin County, I discontinued attendance. Several years later, I moved back to the East Bay again, recognizing my return to the sangha by attending a 6- day retreat at a conference center near Santa Cruz. I had heard David Harris had joined the sangha during my absence. A number of the members of my sangha were planning to attend this retreat, David among them.
Shortly after I arrived on the first day, before the formal commencement of the program, I walked into the cafeteria and saw David seated at one of the tables chatting with someone. I came over and sat next to him. When the opportunity arose, I introduced myself and told him some of my story. I told him what his words and actions had meant to me so many years before and thanked him for being the powerful moral voice that he was at that time.
I had never imagined I would have such a moment. I had never sought him out, followed his activities or even knew of his whereabouts until I realized he was a member of my sangha and would be attending this retreat. It may seem a minor event, but to me it was closing a giant circle that involved a series of decisions that, for me and so many other of that time, changed the course of my life. For a short period of time, unknowingly, David had been integral to my story in a way that he could not have imagined, but which had a profound and lasting effect on mine.