On Dec. 1, 1969, the U.S. held its first Vietnam draft lottery.

Peace demonstrators fill Fulton Street in San Francisco on April 15, 1967, during their five-mile march through the city. “My student deferment trumped the misfortune of being assigned a low draft number in 1969, and the end of the draft and war saved me from having to serve,” Peter Vose writes. Robert W. Klein/Associated Press, File

I was a sophomore in college and my birthday drew number 75. Men whose numbers were lower than 195 were drafted.

I was lucky – I had a student deferment.

In September 1972, I heard from the draft board that I was to report for my draft physical. I had a job teaching at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle. I was recently married, and I had been protesting against the war for years. I did not want to become a soldier. Before I was formally inducted, the draft was suspended and soon thereafter the war arrived at its dramatic end.

One of the songs that speaks to the situation of all young people from that era was “There But For Fortune,” by Phil Ochs. The first stanza makes its message clear:

Show me a prison, show me a jail,


Show me a prisoner whose face has gone pale

And I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why

And there but for fortune, may go you or I

The song resonated with me because it was so obviously true. Had I not been raised in a family that valued education and expected me to continue to college right after high school, I would almost certainly have been one of the thousands of young American men sent to fight in Vietnam. My student deferment trumped the misfortune of being assigned a low draft number in 1969, and the end of the draft and war saved me from having to serve.

Much as I would love to claim that all of the wonderful things in my life are a result of my own efforts, I know that this is not the whole story. My race (white) and class (middle) are lucky gifts that cosseted me in a life of relative privilege.

In the early 1980s my wife and I visited her mother in Florida and decided to take our daughters to Disney World. To reach Orlando, we had to cross the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. One of the most unnerving sights I have ever seen was the jagged edge of the southbound span of that bridge. It had collapsed on May 9, 1980, when a tanker hit the supports. Thirty-five people died, including 26 passengers on a Greyhound bus.


I felt lucky that morning that I had not been traveling south on the day of that horrible accident.

Survivors of such events often say, “Everything happens for a reason.”

I disagree.

Things – both good and bad – do happen, but I cannot accept the idea that some grand design or designer is in charge. In the case of the bridge collapse, stormy weather, poor visibility and another ship all contributed. So, these may explain the accident, but the survival of some people crossing the bridge that day and the deaths of others was surely a consequence of luck, or fate, or physics rather than some intelligence who decided who died and who lived.

People who suffer from what Hamlet calls “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” deserve our care and sympathy.

And those of us who avoid such misfortunes – at least for a time – must be humble about our good luck.

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