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Generation Gap: The options were many in 1962 – if you could avoid the draft

When I graduated from Brown University in 1962 with a major in American literature, I had no idea how I might earn a living. But it didn’t concern me much, since the economy was booming and unemployment was low. My main concern was that of most healthy young American men at the time: how to fulfill my obligation to my country.

It was a time when Universal Military Service – aka conscription, or the draft – was in effect. After you got your draft card at age 16, the alternatives were many, and each had its advantages and drawbacks. Among them:

∎ You could go to college and get a student deferment for as long as you stayed enrolled. But all that did was delay decision making.

∎ You could also get a deferment if you worked in a defense-related industry or arm of the federal government.

∎ If you wanted to consider a military career, you could enroll in an ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) college program, get on-campus and summer training, and come out with a military commission.

∎ If you could pass the physical, you could enlist in any branch of the services for a three-year tour of duty.

∎ Again, if you were healthy, you could enlist in the Army or Navy Reserve, which would require only six months of active duty – but an additional 7½ years of monthly meetings, summer exercises, and the possibility of being recalled to active duty.

∎ If you were a member of certain religious denominations, you could register as a conscientious objector and work for two years in “a civilian capacity contributing to the maintenance of national health, safety or interest.”

∎ If your draft board was sympathetic, it might count a two-year tour in the newly instituted Peace Corps as fulfillment of the military service requirement. (If it wasn’t sympathetic, your draft board could nail you as soon as your Peace Corps service ended.)

∎ You could get married, which could put you in a less vulnerable draft category – again, if your draft board was sympathetic.

∎ You could become a father, which might put you in an even less vulnerable draft category.

Here’s what I did, and how things ended up: The student deferment got me through college and a semester of graduate school.

I dropped out and applied for the Peace Corps.

When my draft board told me it would get me as soon as my Peace Corps service ended, I withdrew that application and decided to enroll immediately in the Army Reserve.

At the physical, I was declared underweight and instructed on how to put on pounds and then return for another physical.

Suddenly a light bulb went off. If I failed to gain weight, I’d be forever free of future military obligations.

So in the summer of 1963 I began the job search. My qualifications were minimal: Because of the American literature major, I knew how to read. Because of my four years of editorial work on the school newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald, I knew something about writing. So when my future bride found work in New York City, I applied for entry-level jobs at Time and Newsweek magazines, and the New York Public Library. Within two weeks I’d been accepted at all three.

Now I had second thoughts. Neither fact-checking at Time nor book-checking at a library seemed particularly exciting. So I did what was possible at the time (and may still be today): I invented a job to fit my qualifications.

I wrote to my alma mater with a sales pitch. Brown would be celebrating its 200th anniversary in 1964 and was already announcing a yearlong series of commemorative events. The chairman of the bicentennial committee had been my senior thesis adviser. My 150-page thesis had been about Brown University in the Roaring Twenties. My Brown Daily Herald writing had been on display for four years (a lot of it editorializing against one university policy or another). So I was something of a known quantity.

I figured the university’s bicentennial committee could make good use of a writer-gofer for a year or more, so I sent a proposal to my old thesis adviser. Within a week, I had the job. Within two weeks, I had a desk and an old typewriter. Though the job paid peanuts, I also got something special in the bargain: My mentors/officemates were an old (age 32) ex-Providence Journal-Bulletin reporter and an old (age 40) ex-TV newsman from a station in Hartford, Conn.

Under the scrutiny of these savvy guys, I got better on-the-job training than I could have wished for. I wrote news releases, articles for the alumni magazine and the football program, TV scripts, and programs and brochures for bicentennial events. I helped manage scholarly conferences and dedications of new buildings. I worked the press boxes in the football stadium and hockey rink. I put together ideas for speeches by the university president. I got to shake the hand of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who visited the campus for the big bicentennial convocation.

The job lasted only a year and a half. But I got enough real-life training to keep me gainfully employed for a 32-year writing-related career: as education director for a nonprofit; as a communications manager at Princeton University and Middlebury College; and as a public relations staffer at Bell Telephone Laboratories and AT&T.

I retired with two pensions and no outstanding financial obligations on Jan. 16, 1996, at age 55. I haven’t worked full time for pay since.

(Larry Chase of Andover is a recovering corporate American.)


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