It was the spring of 1965. I was sixteen, a sophomore in high school and not paying any attention to the emerging war in Vietnam. My accomplices that night included Dude, Mike, and Norm. Dude’s sister, Tana was eighteen and a senior; and that meant she could buy 3.2 beer legally. The Colorado state legislature felt that someone old enough to carry a rifle in Vietnam should be able to drink a beer before he was shipped off to stop Communist aggression. However, they were concerned about teenage drinking, so they limited the beer sold to those from 18 to 21 to a maximum of 3.2 percent alcohol compared to regular beer, which contained 5 or 6 percent. Of course someone could get just as drunk on 3.2; it just required consuming more.
Tana readily agreed to contribute to our delinquency with the stipulation that we provide enough money for her to buy a six-pack for her and her friends. We dug into our pockets and produced enough loose bills and change for two six-packs, one for her and one for us.
At the center of our town and our local economy sat an enormous brewery. It was reportedly the largest single brewery in the country. Everyone in town was linked financially to beer in some way. Most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins worked in the brewery. If no one in your family worked there, your family had friends who did. Beer accompanied our way of life. It was always in the refrigerator and was the beverage of choice at every family gathering — birthdays, weddings, and post-funeral get-togethers. My parents would have let me have a beer at home if I wanted, but I rarely did. There was no thrill in drinking by myself.
Athletes were forbidden to drink by the high-school administration, even the of-drinking-age eighteen-year-olds. The penalty for getting caught was severe — banishment from athletics for a year. There was no warning rule. First offense resulted in a year-long suspension. Smaller penalties for a first offense were not even considered. Somehow, no one seemed to think this penalty was inconsistent with the town’s culture. Every year a few athletes drank, were caught, and were suspended. Lessons needed to be learned. Examples had to be set.
We weren’t about to go on a drunken binge that warm spring night; we had six beers for the four of us, and one and a half 3.2 beers doesn’t qualify as a binge. For some reason, the four of us, all athletes and fully aware of the rules, were willing to risk a yearlong suspension to have a cold one. Was it the thrill of challenging authority and getting away with it that compelled us? More likely, we were just teenage boys looking for excitement. And we thought we were too smart to get caught.
We met Tana a block from the 7-11 where she had bought the beer. As she approached my ‘57 Ford, I nervously checked out every person walking down the sidewalk and every car that cruised past. She walked to the driver’s window, pulled the six-pack from the grocery bag, and handed it to me.
“Get that out of sight!” Dude hissed as I urgently shoved the beer under the seat; “Jesus, Tana! What are you doing?” he added, craning his neck in every direction to see if anyone saw the exchange. Mike and Norm just laughed. They were experienced drinkers. Dude and I were first-timers.
“Relax, man,” Mike told Dude; “There’s no one looking.”
Norm added, “Let’s get this show on the road. I’m thirsty.”
Second thoughts filled my head as I pulled slowly from the curb and turned left on Ford Street. I knew I would never live it down if I chickened out now. I had crossed a line; there was no turning back.
I headed north on Ford being extra careful to stay below the speed limit. We knew Officer Hal, one of the local cops, would be sitting in his patrol car out of sight and waiting for speeders. The last thing I wanted was to be pulled over for speeding with beer in the car. About ten blocks later, we spied Officer Hal’s cruiser tucked behind a pickup in the parking lane. I slowed and looked in his direction. Officer Hal caught my eye as I rolled past, glass-packs rumbling. I looked into the rearview mirror and saw the Ford police cruiser right behind me. My three companions were well aware of Hal’s tail.
“Just stay cool,” Mike advised; “Hal hates glass-packs” (glass-packs were modified mufflers we added to our cars to make them louder).
Sweat beaded on my forehead. My heart was pounding. I drove slowly to keep my Ford to a low rumble. I obeyed every traffic law and signaled every turn well in advance. Continuing north, we soon came to Golden Gate Canyon and the city limits sign. I turned west onto the dirt road that headed into the foothills and out of town. Officer Hal continued north. I took a deep breath. We were safely out of his jurisdiction.
It was getting dark as I drove slowly up the twisting canyon road. A dust plume rose from the back of the car. We passed a side road leading to Crazy Ned’s ranch with a hand-painted sign featuring skull and crossbones and warning trespassers that they would be shot on sight.
“Let’s keep moving. We don’t want to be anywhere near Crazy Ned,” Norm suggested. Everyone agreed.
A few miles later, with darkness all around, I rounded a bend and came to a wide spot in the road. I pulled in and turned the car around facing back toward town. A high ridge neatly hid us from oncoming traffic while simultaneously blocking our view of anyone coming up the road. I was not concerned; hardly anyone used this road at night.
When the dust settled, we rolled down the windows, and the sweet smell of spring filled the car. We sat there talking about nothing in particular for a while. We wanted to be sure the coast was clear.
Ten or fifteen minutes later, Dude stated the obvious, “It’s time for a beer!”
I fished the six-pack from under the seat, pulled a cold can from the cardboard package, punched a hole in the top with a can opener, and took a big drink. I passed the can to Dude, who did the same. He in turn gave it to Mike and then Norm. Just as I was about to hand a beer to everyone, I looked up to see the glow of headlights coming in our direction from the other side of the ridge.
“Shit! Who’s that?” I yelled.
“It’s got to be Hal!” Dude yelled in reply, forgetting all about police jurisdictions.
Panicking, I opened the door, took the six-pack with its five remaining cans, and placed it under the car. Norm threw the empty into the trees. I started the engine, turned on the lights and, not wanting to be seen stopped suspiciously on the side of the road, started rolling slowly forward. The lights of the oncoming vehicle drew closer, and we could hear the roar of the engine. A second later, Crazy Ned’s ancient pickup raced into view. He slid around the bend, passed us, and continued up the canyon, not pausing for a second. I don’t think he even saw us.
Just as the old truck moved out of view, we heard a popping sound followed by hissing coming from under the car. Fearing a broken brake line, I jumped out to see what had happened. The smell of beer and mud wafted from beneath the car. The squashed six-pack lay crumpled under the rear wheel. I had managed to run over the remaining five beers.
“You idiot!” Dude, Mike, and Norm screamed in near-perfect harmony. After a few more choice comments about my character, my family, and even my dog, Mike and Norm fell silent. They sat in the backseat looking despondent. Dude stared through the windshield. I was secretly relieved.
I started the car and headed back to town. We left the six-pack in the road where it had died. Dude passed a pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum around and we all chewed loudly, hoping to eliminate the odor of the 3 ounces of beer we had each consumed.
Back in town, we cruised down Jackson to where Officer Hal had set up shop behind a large shrub. We waved as we passed and turned into the Methodist church, where a dance was just getting underway. As we walked into the dance, we ran into Tana, who wanted to know all about our evening. “Don’t even ask,” Dude commanded, looking accusingly in my direction.
Four days later, first Mike and then Norm were pulled into the athletic director’s office and were questioned about drinking. The word spread quickly through the school, and anyone who had ever shared a beer with Mike and Norm began to sweat. They withstood the interrogation for hours before finally confessing. But they refused to give up their accomplices. Mike and Norm were wrestlers. They had learned to endure pain during long hours of punishing practice in the high school wrestling room. Nothing the athletic director threw at them could break their code of silence. They stood tough and in due course were suspended from athletics for a year. Shamed by the administration, they were hailed by their friends and cohorts. The majority of students held them in the highest regard for not caving.
Sometime after their sentences were handed out, I found Mike and Norm at the 7-11 drinking cokes and eating hotdogs. When I asked why they didn’t give Dude and me up, they told me it wouldn’t have made any difference in their suspensions. They were going down regardless of whom they gave up.
“And three ounces of beer isn’t worth a year,” Mike added.
I gave up beer from that moment until I was 18 and finished with school athletics. Dude did the same, as did most everyone in our class. A cold beer was not worth the heat.
I turned 18 on December 25, 1966, so like every good American boy I registered for the draft. I did so on the first day after Christmas break, I reported to the assistant principal’s office, just as I was beginning my final semester of high school. The Vietnam War was escalating, and Golden High graduates a year older than me were now being drafted. With the signing of the draft registration form, things changed for me. I started paying attention to the news where, night after night, Walter Cronkite reported on the war. Every night the screen was filled with footage of battles in jungles on the other side of the world as U.S. soldiers fought to keep Communism in check. Other shots focused on flag-draped coffins containing the bodies of dead servicemen coming home in in the bellies of aircraft; most of them were only a few years older than me. Signing up for the draft was putting skin in the game.
By the spring of 1967, many politicians and some of my classmates began to question the war. What were U.S. boys dying for? I wondered about Communist aggression and if Vietnam collapsed, would the rest of Southeast Asia follow? Did we really care? While I was undecided, I did not actively protest the war.
I was accepted at Colorado State University. With college acceptance confirmed, the assistant dean explained student deferments. Anyone could avoid the draft if they were enrolled in college and maintained good grades. I applied for a student deferment and shortly thereafter, I received a letter from my draft board granting me a one-year, renewable deferment, as long as I stayed in school with passing grades. With a deferment in hand, I began to wonder about my classmates who weren’t college-bound. How would they fare and how fair was this system?
By Christmas break my freshman year at CSU; I knew I had chosen the wrong college. I decided that I wanted to major in architecture and CSU didn’t offer that major. I transferred to the University of Colorado, the only university in the state to offer a degree in architecture. As I changed colleges, the war continued to escalate and many of my classmates who didn’t attend college including Mike and Norm ended up drafted or enlisting. If you were able-bodied and not in college, chances are you were in the military during those times. While they were fighting, my deferment was extended at CU.
On December 1, 1969, understanding that the draft system was unfair, the Selective Service Administration conducted a lottery in which every day of the year was drawn from a drum while the numbers 1 through 365 were drawn from another simultaneously. My birthday, December 25, was assigned number 84. It was commonly known that anyone with a number lower than 116 was highly likely to be drafted.
I immediately petitioned my draft board for an extension to my student deferment, since the bachelor of architecture program was being terminated at CU. I was in the last class to receive a bachelor of architecture, a five-year professional degree, and I had three years to go. If I had been drafted in 1969, and if I had been lucky enough to return to school after my military service, the bachelor of architecture program would have been over. I would have been forced to pursue a bachelor of environmental design and a master’s degree in architecture, taking more time and money. My draft board acquiesced and extended my deferment—one year at a time, for the next three years.
The 1969 draft lottery only increased resentment of the Vietnam War and the draft. Even with the lottery, young, well-educated, healthy men with low draft numbers like me found ways to extend student deferments, or to avoid military duty altogether. As the anti-war movement grew, some burned their draft cards and refused to serve, resulting in prison time. Many American men fled the country and moved to Canada to avoid the draft. I spent that tumultuous time at CU finishing my degree. I came to disagree with the war, but I was not ready to burn my draft card or flee to Canada.
Four classmates died in just over two years while I enjoyed the benefit of that student deferment. Mike was the second to die. He was shot in the head while attempting to rescue a helicopter crew that was downed and under heavy fire on June 3, 1969. I was working construction at Coors Brewery on summer break from the University of Colorado when I heard the news. Norm was the fourth of my classmates to die in Vietnam on April 17, 1970, while I was in a design studio building models of buildings that would never be built.
December 15, 1972, was the last day of my college classes. I was to present my final design solution to faculty and advisors. With a passing grade, I would complete all the requirements for the bachelor of architecture degree. My presentation was in the afternoon. On the way to the car, I stopped at the mailbox. As I sorted through the bills and flyers, I came to a telegram. “Greetings from the President,” it began, and went on to tell me that I was to report in 60 days for a pre-induction physical to determine if I was physically capable of serving in the military. If physically qualified, I could expect to report for active duty in another 30 days.
I gave the presentation and passed, but that telegram took something out of me. My heart just wasn’t in it. I had other things on my mind. Afterwards, my professor asked if something was wrong. I showed him the telegram. He just shook his head. Two weeks later, I got my final grades including an A for my design presentation.
I spent the next few weeks trying to get into military reserve units, but everything was filled. I finally decided I would enlist and try to get into the Air Force or Navy’s Officer Candidate Schools. That would mean serving longer, but I thought it would be better than being in the Army infantry like Mike and Norm. Then on January 28, 1973, just days before I was to show up for the pre-induction physical, I found another telegram in the mailbox, “Greetings from the President,” it began again, and then went on, “Please disregard all previous notices.” President Nixon had ended the draft on January 27, 1973.
Thirty years after my college graduation, I was on a work assignment in Washington D.C. I had the evening to myself and decided to visit the Vietnam War Memorial. It was dark, hot, and humid. As I approached the Memorial, I came upon The Three Servicemen statue depicting three soldiers—Hispanic, Caucasian, and African American. They are in the jungle and dressed for the oppressive heat. One wears a sleeveless jacket, and the sleeves on the other two are rolled up. Their collars are open, and a towel hangs from one neck and a cartridge belt from another. Condensation dripped from the soldiers and they appeared to be sweating. I was sure they were staring at me, silently questioning. There wasn’t a sound around me; it was eerie. I looked at the faces of those three bronze soldiers for a long time, and then moved to the wall of names, completely unnerved.
It took some time, but I found Mike’s and Norm’s names etched deeply into the black granite. It was after midnight when I found a bench and sat down exhausted from the search and the emotions that evening had brought. I put my head in my hands and wept.
Mike and Norm were good friends. We were classmates from first grade on and teammates on basketball and football teams from fourth grade on. Those guys hadn’t ratted me out for drinking with them when they were suspended from athletics. They died so that boys in college with passing grades did not have to serve; boys like me. It wasn’t fair or right. They will always be heroes in my eyes. The weight of the guilt I felt in 1969, and feel to this day is so heavy.