David Thompson (unedited – not in CALLED TO SERVE)
David lived in southern California from age 8 through high school. He was a counselor and administrator at Northfield-Mount Hermon School in Northfield, MA for over 30 years. He retired in 2005. He is the father of three grown daughters and a fourteen year old son who he and his wife adopted from Guatemala.
I was in college from ’64 to ’68. That’s when the build-up of troops occurred in Vietnam and those were probably the biggest four years in terms of things looking worse and worse. There were still student deferments for those of us in college. But in ’66 or ’67 I started realizing that I could be vulnerable when I got out of college and I started thinking about conscientious objector status. I talked to people in New Haven where I was in college, and it looked like I would have a shot at that. I had been raised as a Methodist and that happened to be one of the denominations that was listed on the form. You didn’t have to be a Quaker.
I was kind of surprised because I never thought of Methodists as being pacifists at all, but I guess some of them were. I started drafting statements so that when I got a draft notice I would be ready. It was scary. I thought that even if I was a conscientious objector, I would still be drafted and would be put in a medical corps. I could still be sent to a dangerous place in Vietnam. I remember thinking that if I could find some way not to have to go to Vietnam, that would be the only gift from God I’d ever ask for. Then my life would be perfect.
I was planning to go to law school, but I don’t even remember thinking whether law students got deferments. I was accepted by the law school that was my first choice, but I didn’t have the energy to just go straight from college into law school. So I deferred for a year, despite the fact that I had no job or graduate school plans. I graduated in the spring of ’68 and that summer I worked at the Northfield Hotel in Northfield, Massachusetts. I can’t imagine what I was thinking, because I was just a sitting duck. I had no deferment. Late in the summer I got a job as a teacher, but I don’t even remember considering if it qualified for a deferment or not. Fortunately for me it gave me a deferment until the end of the school year, June ’69.
Because my draft board was in southern California and I was living in Massachusetts when I got my first notice for a physical, I asked if I could switch it to Massachusetts, so I didn’t have to go to California. Bureaucracy being what it is, it got delayed. The next year I was in divinity school, which might have provided a deferment initially, but clearly not after the lottery was initiated in December of 1969. So back I went to my home draft board in California’s conservative Orange County.
So much had changed while I’d been away at college, and I had changed so much also. When I’d arrived at Yale as a freshman, I’d been a Barry Goodwater supporter. Born and raised as Democrats, my parents were born-again Republicans who supported Nixon and voted for Goldwater in ’64. They were definitely part of the group, the so-called “moral majority” that was saying, “I’ve got to support my country right or wrong”. Even people who didn’t like the war weren’t about to say, “Bring the troops home,” in the early/mid-‘60’s. Then there were the people, God bless them, whose family members had been killed, and instead of saying, “Bring the troops home, this loss is unacceptable,” they said, ‘We’ve got to keep killing more people, to avenge their loss’”. But then finally John Kerry asked, “Do you want to be the last person to die for a mistake?” It was already ’71 when he said that, but what a great line. It really captures a lot of what people were thinking, of what I had begun to think during those first three years in New Haven.
William Sloan Coffin was chaplain of Yale in the ‘60’s. I not only had the opportunity to talk to this progressive man in person, but certain books, authors, and courses opened my mind to thinking more inclusively about the role of government, capitalism, and religious thought. I remember learning about Martin Buber, the whole difference between I/Thou and I/It..
There’s a book called 1968. That was the year I graduated from college. That was my year, and the things that happened that year, I mean I can still just cry. The assassination of Martin Luther King and then Bobby Kennedy… I was a Bobby Kennedy supporter. I remember I was lying in bed at our family summer cottage when there was an announcement on the radio that Bobby had been shot. It just felt unbelievable. I had a sense of the world going entirely to hell. I certainly thought the War in Vietnam was evil. Of course, I didn’t get it all at the same time, but by my senior year, strongly influenced by my deep love for Thoreau, I was writing my thesis on the roots of non-violent civil disobedience. It was an evolution over the course of three years, perhaps the most significant one of my life.
The following year, fall of ’69, I was in California at divinity school as I’ve said. There I met this incredible man who soon became the mentor, guru, sacred person of my life; a man named Allan Hunter. We just bumped into each other at a Quaker meeting one morning and became good friends. He’d been a pacifist since the First World War and had helped start the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He was definitely the most amazing human being I had ever known and contributed greatly to my changing thinking.
Then, into the midst of my evolution and what’s going on around me, comes the lottery. I think the government did a lottery to assuage all of the people who were complaining about how unfair the draft was. All the rich educated people could get deferments. Maybe they knew support for the war was going to really decrease and they thought this might be a good way to salvage a little more of it, make it look more democratic. As for my situation, I had moved back east to be with a woman there and was watching the lottery on TV in Massachusetts
They did the first ten numbers on T.V. and the fourth number was February 14th, my birthday. I was just incredulous. There was this feeling of devastation, but here was a way in which things got a lot clearer. I felt sorrier for the people whose number was 150 – the uncertainty that they sustained. If you were 200 and up, you could take a sigh of relief. 100 and down you knew what you were up against, but for folks with numbers 150-180, there was this tremendous uncertainty. I knew that I had no deferment. The lottery had screwed me and my best friend who received number 5, so now it was just a matter of time.
I was 1-A at that point so I got called for a physical. I got called for a physical twice. The first physical happened in California. In those days, I wore hard contact lenses and the effect of a hard lens on the eyeball actually decreased your vision. You were blinder with them off and they told me to remove my contact lenses 72 hours before the physical so they could test your eyes as they really were. Consequently, I miserably failed the vision test. I hadn’t flunked the physical, just the vision test, so they had to schedule me for another one.
The next physical I had was in Springfield, MA, after I returned to the east. This time they referred me to an eye specialist. I went to him and he asked, “How did you scratch your cornea?” I said, “What are you talking about? I don’t know anything about a scratched cornea.” For some bizarre reason a scratched cornea got me a 1-Y deferment.
Then it becomes something like “The Twilight Zone” because a few years later, I was having a regular eye exam and I said to my eye doctor, “How’s my cornea?” And he said, “What are you talking about?” So, I said, “Well, I was told I had a scratched cornea.” And he said, “You don’t have a scratched cornea. You never had a scratched cornea.” Maybe it’s the type of thing that never heals and even if it heals, it’s a scar, but he was adamant. I realized then that the first doctor had been my guardian angel, and I couldn’t believe the Selective Service had sent me to him! The phrase too good to be true comes to mind, just a gift from the universe. However, there’s some guilt too: 500,000 people didn’t get the CO or an eye specialist with a heart.
Now that we’re dealing with the Iraq War, I do want to say something about my feelings about the politics of it all. The people who are so gung-ho, so military, I don’t dismiss all of those people as Neanderthals or evil or anything like that, because I think it’s important to have good people in the military. I’ve had students who have made their careers in the military, not many but a few intelligent ones. I’m thinking, well, if our government is going to send troops to various places, let’s have as many enlightened ones as possible. So it’s not that I’m just anti-military. I don’t think I would even describe myself as a pure pacifist, in the sense of never using force. Even though Allen Hunter was a hugely important influence on me, I would probably whack the intruder with a baseball bat to protect my kids.
I also realize that another aspect of all this is racism: I’m talking about the people of color in the military who had no other option—they were either going to be on the street or in the military, because they hadn’t finished school, whatever the reasons. They’re just victims of the system and this is their only out. I have enormous respect and admiration for the ones that are serving their country from any sense of idealism. I also think even the one’s who don’t start out as idealists need to find a way to rationalize it, so they can at least think they are choosing to do a good and noble thing. While I can see these positives in people in the military, I’ve also noticed that a lot of them, especially those who were glad to go, thought the rest of us were just a bunch of wusses and not patriotic, not strong, not brave, not smart, just all hopeless losers. I can understand why they think that way or need to think that way to justify what they are doing, but given my spiritual and moral beliefs, I can’t agree.