Billy Jewell and the Fish and the Vietnam Lottery

The first Vietnam draft lottery was conducted in December of 1969 and applied to all guys born in the years of 1944 through 1950 for induction in 1970. That was one contest you didn’t want to win. There were 366 possible birthdays, and they only ended up needing to draft numbers 1 through 195 to supply the human fodder for the military-industrial war machine cruising in high gear in Southeast Asia.

Representative Alexander Pirnie, Republican from New York, had the honor of drawing the first of the 366 blue plastic capsules containing little pieces of paper with birthdates on them out of a large glass canister as the nation listened and watched on national radio and television. Pirnie was given the honor as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, having also received the Bronze Star Medal for his service in Europe during World War II. He and a whole lot of other people thought that since we’d been on the side of good in World War II that that must also be the case in Vietnam. But things had gotten complicated.

There were a lot of complaints that first year that November and December birthdays were unfairly represented in the first draft numbers chosen. They probably forgot to mix up the little blue balls after the secretary dropped them in, and Representative Pirnie reached down to the bottom so as not to be seen as cherry-picking from the top. A bunch of boys born in November and December died as a result. Unintended consequences.

By the time they held the second Vietnam lottery in July of 1970, this time for boys born in the year 1951 to be drafted in 1971, they had done a whole lot of work to make sure the dates were truly randomized, because a lot of boys, well let’s call ’em young men if they can get sent off to war, thought it was better to go to jail or desert to Canada than be inducted in the United States military. The National Bureau of Standards designed a procedure guaranteed to randomize the order of birthdates selected. I was in that 1970 drawing, but I hadn’t done well in my second semester of calculus, so I didn’t try to understand it. That’s how complex it was.

If you had a college deferment, you couldn’t be drafted for four years from the time you first got the deferment, as long as you were enrolled in an accredited university, so in September 1970 I went back to college in Massachusetts. I’d heard things were a bit dangerous in Vietnam and wanted to avoid it if I could. I’d spent the summer hauling hay in Missouri for two months and then partying hearty with friends in Arizona all of August. We didn’t do anything majorly illegal that month, but we did go down to Mexico and meet a lot of sweet señoritas, and I left Arizona determined to learn to speak their lingo. I ended up getting a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies for no other good reason, but that was a few years later.

Back in Massachusetts, it was my sophomore year in college. That’s all I really remember. The rest is a blur. I can’t say it was the most productive period of my life, unless perhaps alcohol consumption is the measure of productivity, and I don’t recall that particular definition from any economics class. I’m sure I did some things I wasn’t supposed to do, but I escaped detection by the authorities and didn’t sustain any life threatening injuries, so I’d classify that school year as Lucky.

I got back home to Missouri in June and determined that I wasn’t going to haul hay that summer, and I wasn’t going to go back to college the next fall. I had gotten number 251 out of 365 in the draft lottery, and they hadn’t drafted higher than 195 the previous year and 125 the present year, so my number looked safe and I wouldn’t be needing my student deferment. I decided that if I couldn’t remember what was going on most of the time, I probably didn’t belong in that fancy liberal arts college in Massachusetts. I’ve got to look at my transcripts to see what I took, but I do remember something about amphetamines and term papers that must have been my saving grace.

My friend Stan in Missouri was of the same mindset as me about college, and he had a girlfriend whose sister had an apartment in Boca Raton, Florida, with a couple of extra bedrooms she needed to rent. So we packed up and headed down the highway in my 1961 Buick Special. This 10-year old car was the newest and formerly fanciest vehicle I’d ever owned, formerly fancy because some jerk had rear-ended me in Massachusetts and I’d chosen to pocket the insurance check and live with a reduction in aesthetic appearance and trunk space in exchange for an increase in party funds.

When we took off for Florida, there was a lot of baggage in the back seat and what space remained in the bashed-in trunk of my formerly fancy Buick Special. Stan’s girlfriend Suzette was the sweetest girl he ever had, which is saying something because that boy never did waste time being single. But being sweet didn’t keep her from having a lot more belongings than the sleeping bags, toothbrushes, and one change of clothes that Stan and I had. Oh — and the clear plastic bag with the fish from Stan’s aquarium that of course we had to bring with us.

It was about a 24-hour drive from Missouri to Florida and we were cruising along, about halfway there, on a beltway around Atlanta, Georgia, when the Buick Special all of a sudden became pretty unspecial, as a matter of fact not even ordinary anymore. It stopped moving. The engine was running but the car wouldn’t go anywhere as we rolled to a stop on the shoulder of I-285. Stan and I opened the hood and looked under it as if we were going to fix something, like the men we were. That’s just what men did we figured, opened the hood and stared uselessly at the engine. Fortunately, Suzette had the right tool for the job, a AAA card her dad had given her before we took off on the trip. Free towing. And some kind soul stopped to help and promised to call AAA for us from the next payphone. Cell phones hadn’t been invented yet if you can believe that, so we waited on the side of the road, wondering if he really had called. The speed limit was still 70 everywhere, so cars and trucks were whizzing by at at least 80 and it wasn’t real relaxing.

Wonder of wonders, a tow truck pulled up pretty soon and off we went with the three of us in the front seat crammed in next to a driver who wouldn’t do less than 80 mph. He never did look at us, as we anxiously kept an eye on our unspecial Buick Special bouncing along behind. Finally, he got off the interstate somewhere and pulled up to a sign that said “Jewell Transmissions” and unceremoniously dumped our vehicle with all our belongings in the parking lot. It was Saturday afternoon, but there were customers and mechanics enough around to give us the once over and determine that here was a trio of helpless hippies that were about to get an education.

We stepped into the air-conditioned office, and the owner stepped out from behind the counter and shook my hand, “Hi there, I’m Billie Jewell, Jewell Transmissions. What seems to be y’all’s problem?” Explaining in my highly technical automotive language that the car wouldn’t go forward, it was determined that it might be a transmission problem. Actually, the tow truck driver had already determined that, but it was just beginning to sink in on us.

Billie Jewell of Jewell Transmissions had his guys push the Buick Special into a mechanics’ bay and, after a careful procedural diagnosis, came back with the unwelcome verdict: the transmission was shot. Hmmmm. That was not in the plans. Our shoestring budget had not included a new transmission in Atlanta, Georgia, so we stood around staring at each other trying to figure out what the heck we were going to do.

As Billie Jewell was giving us some space to absorb the bad news and figure out our next move, one of us struck up a conversation with a customer who must have had long hair or looked scraggly, because he offered to give us a ride downtown where we might find a cheap vehicle and could definitely crash for the night in the Salvation Army. Billie Jewell was nice enough to agree to keep our vehicle inside for the night while we tried to find a place to stay that evening and see how we could come up with the $500 which it would cost us to repair the transmission.

It wasn’t quite dark when we got dropped off down on Peachtree Street with our sleeping bags and of course Stan’s fish in the clear plastic bag. We were fortunate to be early enough to get bunks in the Salvation Army. We stashed our valuable fish and sleeping bags and headed out to take a stroll on the streets, all of which were named Peachtree this or Peachtree that. There were a lot of trees around but I never saw one dam peach, maybe it was just wishful thinking or copycat streetnamers or who knows. The thing about all these Peachtree streets was that on Saturday evening in 1971, and maybe every evening in 1971 for all I know, they turned into a complete retail drug bazaar.

The first guy walking by looked at us an said nonchalantly, “Reefer?” The next guy down the street had a better offer. “Acid, speed?” he muttered as we walked by. There was mescaline, hash, mushrooms, cocaine, and other things I’d never heard of. I’d never seen anything like it.

All I wanted was a used car, and instead I had a choice of every illegal drug I wanted and some I didn’t want. For once, good sense got the best of me, and I didn’t engage with any of the street vendors. Hell, where I was from, a drug transaction was done behind closed doors or in whispered tones at least. Where were the cops in Atlanta? When I told a friend about this scene, he suggested they were probably stoned, too, but it seems they’d just given up and decided to cede this zone in downtown Atlanta to be like a farmer’s market for druggies. And engaging with the crowd along Peachtree Street, we did find one guy who told us he had a used car he’d sell for $150 and would bring it by at 10 in the morning. We hit the hay with hope in our hearts that we’d make it out of Atlanta the next morning.

When our new friend came by in the morning, Stan and I went for a test drive while Suzette stayed at the Salvation Army doing something with the fish to get some oxygen in its water, leaving the vehicle selection to us knowledgeable 20-year old men. The vehicle was a pretty decent Ford station wagon, early sixties model, but in pretty good shape, certainly a more spacious ride to Florida than our Buick Special.

I was sitting in the back seat and the window was rolled down and wouldn’t roll up which I thought would be a bit uncomfortable on the highway, and for some reason there were bits of glass on the floor that I would have to clean up. I let Stan do the test drive. Once when he stalled the car while pulling away from a stop sign a few blocks after we took off, the owner had to get out of the passenger seat, pop the hood, and do something with a couple of wires to start it. The key wasn’t in the ignition but he would get that along with the title if we were interested in the car.

When we got back to the Salvation Army, Stan and I were talking over the deal, while the guy waited nervously beside the car, and I noticed he had a bit of a rash on his left arm that he was kind of scratching. We weren’t really that streetwise, but the deal somehow seemed like it might not add up and we told the guy thanks but no thanks. Scratchy arm, no key, no rear window with shattered glass on the floor — just maybe this was a junky selling us a stolen car it occurred to me. Nice guy though — -see you later.

Billie Jewell had been considerate enough to give us his phone number and said to give him a call if we were looking to buy a used car, maybe he could fix us up. We really didn’t trust this redneck with a thick Georgia accent, but at this point we didn’t have a choice, so we gave him a call. “Sure, come on over boys, I’ll meet you at the shop at noon.”

I’m not sure how we got there, but we were there when Mr. Jewell arrived in his pickup. Of course in his pickup. Did you think I was going to say this redneck mechanic showed up in his Toyota Corolla?

Billie Jewell of Jewell Transmissions had a deal for us. “You see that old ’58 Chevy down there behind the storage shed? I tell you what. You give me $200 and leave me your useless Buick Special, and you’ve got a set of wheels that’ll get ya’ll all the way to Florida, and back again if you want. I guarantee it!” Walking over to the Chevy, I’d have to say that the exterior wasn’t exactly perfect, nor the interior immaculate, or even halfway immaculate, and when we fired it up a cloud of smoke came pouring out of the tailpipe, thick and black at first, then just a steady stream of light brown haze after it warmed up. Billie Jewell had an explanation, “You see this beauty’s been sitting for several months now and them rings in her have kinda dried up a bit. I’m telling you though, you get on down the road to Florida a few hunderd miles or so and those babies’ll pop right back to life. I guarantee it!”

At this point the great negotiator in me stepped right up and countered at $150 plus the Buick Special which still had a great engine I told him. Billie Jewell knew I had no choice, but being a civic-minded individual, he probably wanted to do some community service and make sure three more hippies and their fish didn’t settle permanently in the vicinity of Atlanta, Georgia, so we finally agreed on $175, plus of course the Buick Special, because what the heck were we going to do with it?

What about the papers? It was Sunday. How were we going to exchange the titles and get the Chevy registered in my name? “I’ll tell you what, boys. Let me fix you right up,” and Billie Jewell unceremoniously removed the two Missouri license plates from my Buick Special and screwed them on the front and back of the ’58 Chevy. “There you go, sonny, whattaya say?”

We transferred our worldly belongings to the ’58 Chevy and headed on down the road. Funny thing was, even after Billie’s few hunderd miles, those rings never did pop back to life, and that Chevy burned a heckuva lot of oil. But Billie Jewell was right — it made it all the way to Florida and would have made it back, too, if we’d ever wanted to come back his way. Plus we learned something valuable about vehicle registration that day. You see Missouri requires two license plates and Florida only requires one. So one weekend when we added an $80 Buick Roadmaster we found along the highway in the Keys to our transportation fleet, we simply utilized the second Missouri license plate for title transfer and registration, just like Billie Jewell taught us that Sunday.

If you’re wondering about the fish — the news is good, it made it all the way to Florida and was soon back home in a palatial fish bowl after spending three days in a plastic bag. So my advice is, if you’re ever broke down in Atlanta, and you’ve got a fish depending on you, it’s better to buy an unregistered car from a redneck mechanic than a stolen station wagon from a nice guy junkie. I didn’t go back to college for a couple of years, but I was learning valuable lessons in the meantime.