In 1971, the Vietnam war spilled over into Laos and Cambodia. President Nixon had reduced American troop strength there to 196,000, the lowest level since 1966, but the war was clearly an unmitigated disaster and the Harris Poll reported that 60 per cent of Americans now opposed the war. Americans were walking on the moon, an American named Ray Tomlinson sent the first email over what was then called “ARPAnet” and an American named Charles Manson was convicted of a particularly heinous series of murders in California. The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, exposing the pretext for American involvement in Vietnam’s civil war as a complete fraud.
I turned 18, making me eligible for the military draft.
I had no intention of going to college. I’d barely graduated from high school. I hated school, so the student deferment was out. I was 5’11” tall, weighed 125 pounds, and was skidding blindly over the high side into a moderately severe amphetamine psychosis owing to my reckless youthful overindulgence in crystal meth and various hallucinogens and deliriants over the preceding three years.
“Conscientious Objector” status was really tricky to obtain and entailed establishing a religious conviction and affiliation opposed to war in general. I had no such convictions, I simply thought the Vietnam war was an unconstitutional scam and wanted no part of it.
They used a lottery system to determine who got drafted in those days. Each day of the year had a randomly assigned number. The assumption was that a number under 200 would get you drafted, and a number under 100 was a sure-fire ticket to Nam. My number was 38.
I couldn’t even conceive of living in exile in Canada, although I’d done some volunteer work with a group called the Philadelphia Resistance assisting others in doing just that. I was fairly frantic about the whole issue by the time I had to register with the local Selective Service office in my home town of Camden, NJ.
I smoked a lot of weed to steady my nerves for the registration process. As I was filling out the form, rethinking the whole Canada concept, it came to me like a diamond through my forehead. There was a small margin, maybe a quarter-inch, around the edge of the form. After I’d completed the thing, I wrote in the margin, in tiny letters: “I have taken LSD over 200 times I will shoot the first officer that gets in front of me when I have a loaded gun FREE CHARLES MANSON!!!”
I handed it to the little old lady staffing the desk. She looked at it, blanched, turned beet-red, and gave me a look that could cut glass.
“Get out of here,” she snarled.
And that is how Charles Manson kept this American out of Vietnam.
ALAN CABAL is somewhere in California. He might be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org