Author's Name: Robert Ernst

Title:  "Avoiding the Draft and White Privilege"

Somehow, after graduating from St. Louis University and prior to starting grad school there, I got the idea that since I was moving from my parent’s house in North St. Louis to an apartment in South City with by bride-to-be I had to change draft boards. So, one summer morning in May 1966 I called the draft board and told whoever answered the phone that I wanted to change boards. I was told I had to come in and talk to a clerk. My appointment was for the following Tuesday at 10:00 AM. Great.

That next Tuesday I put on freshly pressed dress shirt and pants, tie, the only decent sport coat I owned, a pair of spit-polished black shoes and off to the U.S. Federal building I went. When I told a young woman at the information desk I had a 10:00 appointment with a clerk she directed me down the hall to Room whatever. When I arrived I took careful note of the title on the door: Clerk of the Board. Mercy. I wasn’t seeing any old clerk but what turned out to be the Executive Director whose actual title was Clerk of the Draft Board.

I knocked and entered a room as big as a small hockey rink. The proto-typical little old white woman was seated behind an enormous desk at the far end of the room. I walked across the room, introduced myself, and shook her hand. She told me to sit and asked the reason for my visit. I told her blah, blah, blah.

She hesitated a moment and then asked what I was doing with my life. I gave her the short version. I was graduating from SLU in a week or so, getting married July, and starting graduate school in the fall. My real goal was to get a master’s and doctorate and become a university professor.

She listened patiently and then in a voice devoid of expression told me that if I changed draft boards I would be drafted within two days. Because the board into which I was moving had NO young men of draft eligible age without deferments. Holy crap. Another body to be shoved into the Army’s Vietnam meat grinder. I nearly had a stroke right there.

Then she asked if I wanted her advice. Of course, I said, after pulling my tongue out of my throat and making sure my heart was still beating. She told me I should write a letter informing her of my pending marriage and a temporary change in domicile. I should keep my parents’ house as my permanent residence because, as she said rather grimly, that year alone my draft board had more than a thousand draft eligible young men with nothing better to do with their lives than serve their country. If and when anything in changed my status all I had to do was send her another letter detailing those specifics. And she would keep my documents at the back of the draft eligible file. If the country declares war, she said, you’ll probably be drafted. But, failing an Act of Congress declaring war, I should be able to pursue my graduate program. I nearly jumped across the desk and kissed her.

That started my letter writing program with the Clerk, whose name may have been Hazel T______, though due to the fog of time I’m not 100 percent certain. I sent her a wedding announcement. A letter documenting my move to a “temporary” address in south St. Louis. A birth announcement two years later when our son was born. A copy of my acceptance letter to the doctoral program at the University of Florida. And finally, my new “temporary” address in married student housing in Gainesville.

Not long after arriving at the U of F and starting classes I got into a heated argument with a fellow leftist student in the sociology doctoral program who had an infant and had recently gotten divorced. As soon as the decree was final his vindictive ex-wife sent a copy to his Selective Service board. He was drafted a week later. He had yelled at me and accused me of taking advantage of all the poor black young men in my draft district. I disagreed, claiming I wasn’t doing anything but following the law. If the Clerk of the Board was protecting my butt it wasn’t because of anything I had done or asked to be done. It was pure serendipity on my part and I was thankful as hell no matter what reasons she had for protecting me. I had stumbled into a great deal and wasn’t about to screw it up. 

He stomped off, visibly steaming. Two or three days later he shot and killed himself rather than submit to the draft. When I heard about his death, my first thought was, why the hell didn’t he just go to Canada ? I would have in a heart beat. But those were desperate times if you hated what the American government was doing in Vietnam and rationality often went out the window.

December 1, 1969, marked the date of the first Selective Service (draft) lottery held since 1942. But because I was 26, married, and with a child, I was not eligible for the lottery, especially since Congress had never declared war. Had I been eligible, my lottery number would have been 112 and my skinny white butt would have been drafted. But all those years that the Vietnam conflict went from nearly invisible to hot on all burners, that little old lady protected me. Without her wise counsel I would have exposed my tender body to the rigors of Boot Camp and then the potential terrors of military service. 

Although it was a coincidence, before the end of summer 1966 I was 100 percent opposed to the War and couldn’t imagine what I’d do if drafted, though Canada beckoned. I had been saved by my own personal, white-haired, Fairy Godmother.

After thinking long and hard about this situation, I’ve come to the conclusion that the U of F grad student who excoriated me for elitist behavior was right in many ways. No, I had not precipitated what transpired or even thought of the possibility of suggesting it to the Clerk of the Board. But I had directly benefited from the white privilege shared by the Clerk and me. Of course, I had no way of knowing if a white or black guy from my local draft board had been drafted in my place, so whether I had benefited unfairly from her action is still somewhat up in the air. Though it is certain that my local board had many more black registrants than white, so the chance of a black guy being sucked up in the draft instead of me was high.

Did I even consider back then that I had benefited unfairly from the Clerk’s unanticipated patronage? Of course I did. But since I HATED the Vietnam War I rationalized the actions of the Clerk and my acquiescence and simply put the situation out of my mind. I was tremendously relieved at not being forced to join the military or to flee to Canada, a choice I thought about a great deal though I’ll never be certain if I would have followed through since my wife strongly opposed it. Once I was safe from being drafted I did not allow myself to think about how that security had come about. Which is yet another example of how white privilege works in the real world and how whites fail to see it for what it is. So, yes, in at least some ways I knew I had benefited from white privilege but didn’t give a rat's ass since it was my very life that was at stake. So, I rationalized my behavior and refused to acknowledge reality. A great example of white privilege hard at work.