Here’s a very personal experience from San Francisco Bay Area author and journalist Barbara Falconer Newhall. Personal, but probably not uncommon to other boomers. She calls it Selective Service: My Son Could Handle It. I Couldn’t.
A colorful pamphlet was standing at crisp attention in its rack in the post office lobby. “MEN 18-25 YEARS. You can handle this. REGISTER . . . It’s the law.”
In two weeks my son Peter would be eighteen.
I took the insistent little pamphlet from its rack. All male U.S. citizens must register for – aka – within thirty days of their eighteenth birthday, it said. “Young men convicted of failure to register may be fined up to $250,000, imprisoned for up to five years, or both.” A registration form was attached.
Six weeks. Peter had six weeks to fill out this form and get it into the mail. “Not registering is a felony,” the form said. “Failure to register may cause you to permanently forfeit eligibility for certain benefits.”
I was a good mother. I’d made sure my son had had his polio and tetanus shots. I’d signed him up for soccer in the fall and Little League in the spring. I’d taken Peter on a college tour. Back home as he completed the applications, I’d written the checks, dug the stamps out of my wallet and licked the envelopes.
And now, as his parent and the person Peter had been able to rely on to sign him up for everything from nursery school to orthodontia, I ought to have stuffed this brochure into my purse and stood over Peter while he filled it out. I should have licked the envelope.
But I didn’t. It’s not that I was pacifist. I wasn’t. The trouble was, I was Peter’s mother.
The values I’d held dear over the years — loyalty to my home country, my sense of fair play — were nothing compared to the dearness to me of my son. The military draft of the Vietnam War years was no more. Peter was not likely to be drafted. Still, the brochure felt like a death warrant in my hands. It was about war. It was about Peter going to war. And if anyone was going to send Peter into harm’s way, it sure as heck wasn’t going to be me.
At seventeen, Peter and his friends were still boys. Their beards were soft, their fast-growing arms and legs more bone than muscle, their voices scratchy and tentative. They were young, which meant they could be both flattered by the Selective Service System’s carefully chosen “Men 18-25” and intimidated by its “Register . . . It’s the law.”
The powers that be at the Selective Service System must have spent a fortune getting the wording just right for this brochure. Lead with flattery, close with a threat. They were good at what they did, and they were after my son.
They would get him in the end. Peter was, as the pamphlet announced, a man. He could handle this. He could sign himself up. But he wouldn’t be doing it with my help. I put the pamphlet back in the rack and stepped out of the line of command.