Home > The Crowd > Standing Room Only

Standing Room Only

September 28, 2010

by Tony Press

It was on December 1st that Jacob and 100% of his floor-mates, sixty college freshmen, plus the R.A., the upper-classman who had his own room, and in return the responsibility for holding their hands when needed, packed the television room to watch the lottery. The lottery. Five years ago, at fourteen, he’d read Shirley Jackson’s chilling story, “The Lottery.” As he maneuvered into a niche near the back, he massaged his head to rid it of Jackson’s tale. By wordless consent the young men pushed the furniture to the walls and stood for the entire show. “The show” was an odd term for what they were about to see, yet that’s what had been on flyers in the dining hall and the elevators: “The show: Be there: Get Lucky or Kiss Your Ass Goodbye.”

Fall quarter thundered toward finals and he had barely kissed a girl, much less “get lucky” in the way everyone else seemed to be doing. Every weekend another friend boldly or shyly bragged about sex, real sex, and all he did was read about it. He wasn’t sure he could stand four years of this if fiction was the closest he’d ever get.

The boys who would be men were scared. They hadn’t done this before. Nobody had done this before, not since the dinosaur days of 1942. In minutes somebody was going to pluck little cylinders out of a drum. Inside were all the possible birth dates to be matched to a list of the numbers from 1 to 366 on the wall — they didn’t forget Leap Year. The date that matched with number one, every nineteen year old boy in the country with that birthday would be first in line to be drafted. The dream date would be number three hundred and sixty-six; those guys wouldn’t see a drill sergeant until the Red Army marched from San Francisco to and across the Mississippi River. The story was if your number was in the first third, you were cooked. If you were in the last third, you were golden. If you drew an in-between number, roughly one-twenty to two-forty, you hadn’t learned a thing. You were still stuck in the middle with little clue how to plan your life. That was the whole idea, they said, that by giving young men this information, they could in fact plan their lives without the uncertainty of the current stunningly random draft system.

It was true that as long as they were in college, taking and passing a full load of classes, they were safe. Safe until they graduated, or dropped out, or sneezed in the wrong place. No, that latter happenstance, the sneezing in the wrong place, was the sort of thing that was no longer a factor. As long as you or your parents could afford college, okay. Of course, the sweeping changes had no effect on the upper class — even in the chaos of 1969, some things remained sacred. Nobody had any illusions that a rich kid couldn’t avoid the whole deal, and nobody had a single illusion that ninety-nine percent of them wouldn’t do exactly that.

Safe, then, until they graduated, or dropped out. Jacob had no clue what his own plans might be, even apart from the threat of Vietnam.  School was okay but it was no passion. Was he where he belonged? Six high school friends were on their way to Vietnam. Another, two years older, had burned his draft card and was in prison. Still another was feigning homosexuality, but also applying to divinity school, covering all bets. Jacob didn’t know anyone in Canada but he knew people who did.

The room was usually noisy, to watch football games — this was different. Jacob thought he knew everyone at least on a some-name basis. One guy everybody called “Cowboy.” Several others were last-name guys, like Grauman and Preston and Rippinger, and Jacob couldn’t have said their first names on a bet. In September he had nudged his own name from Jacob to Jake, but sometimes he forgot that it was him they were calling. He knew he would always be Jacob at home.

Street performers had hit campus earlier in the week:

Join the army, see the world: Kill a gook, screw a girl.
Get the clap, a purple heart: Some penicillin, a brand new start.

He didn’t want any of that, not that way, and he certainly wasn’t a killer, of “gooks” or anybody else. Was he lucky or unlucky? He couldn’t say. Maybe his luck was waiting for something really important, like this lottery.

One of Cowboy’s big hats perched on the television and everyone had dropped a dollar into it. The money was a consolation prize for the sucker whose birthday was drawn first. Jacob never wished ill on anyone but he implored the gods of fate to spare him that one.

He was nineteen. Somebody thought he was a man. Who was he to plan his life?  Washington’s good intentions, if that’s what they were, were wasted on him.

This morning his US History professor told a story: Just before World War One, the Great War, “remember, the war to end all wars until the next one came along,” the famous Washington D.C. cherry trees were planted, thanks to the Japanese Ambassador, who brought cuttings from the even more famous Tokyo cherry trees. The trees, thousands of them, were the gifts of the Japanese people. Then in World War Two, the United States bombed the hell out of Tokyo, wiping out the trees, and a large amount of people, too, so after the war, the U.S. sent cuttings of the Washington trees back to Tokyo. Nothing to replace the people.

The crowd crept even closer to the television to hear the first date. Jacob saw guys holding hands. He heard someone praying. He heard his own heartbeat.

“September Fourteen.” Dave Rippinger — that was his name, Dave! — cursed and kicked the table, sending television, hat and cash flying to the floor, before storming out.

Fifty-nine remained.


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If he walks one block west and 78 steps up, Tony Press can see the Pacific, if he’s home. His fiction appears in Rio Grande Review, Menda City Review (also here), Foundling Review, Temenos, MacGuffin, The Shine Journal, Lichen, Boston Literary Magazine, and in the UK anthology Crab Lines off the Pier. Poetry appears in the UK anthology Heart as Origami, as well as 34th Parallel, Contemporary Verse 2, Spitball, The Aurorean, and Turning Wheel.

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  1. Greg
    September 28, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    Thank you for this memory. My leap year birthday in 1952 came up #366 — the only lottery I ever won, with happier consequences than any MegaMillion. But I chose not to watch “the show,” conflicted over my unwillingness to accept a small number, should it come up, only hearing of my good fortune by phone the next day.

  2. September 29, 2010 at 11:41 am

    Dear Tony: A wonderful piece. I actually don’t remember my lottery number other than it was low. In the teens I think. I had, by the time of the lottery, clearly resolved not to be part of the war machine. I lost my student deferment after one quarter of college — so by December 1967 I was 1-A. Shortly there after I started a three year effort to be declared I-O. My next door neighbor (now a minister in Oklahoma City) and I were the only Conscientious Objectors in little Muncie Indiana. I carried by I-O card in my wallet until sometime (about 1980) when the paper card finally disintegrated around the time that Carter restarted draft registration. Sort of cosmic, I guess.

  3. Ascanio
    October 1, 2010 at 8:12 am

    Tony,

    What an evocative story! As someone who filled out Carter’s draft registration form and fretted through the Reagan years, your piece sounds eternal truths about the vulnerability of little people everywhere to the whims of gods and those who play them on TV. Thanks for sharing it with us. You seem like you’d like baseball too.

  4. Sid
    October 3, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Hey Tony – crisply written story that helped me connect to a period I had only experienced through the evening news. As one who went to college about 10 years after the draft had ended, I never knew the fear of “the lottery.” As our country’s soldiers are now fighting in two wars, there are an entirely new set of experiences I only hear about third hand. Young people are still losing their limbs and lives, while I get to hear about it on NPR while I commute to work in my air conditioned hybrid. I feel a twang of guilt that I can stay away from the fray, while others feel they must don fatigues and body armor to provide for their family.

  5. Tony Press
    October 3, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Thanks to each of you for entriching this page, I deeply appreciate it.

  6. Andy Press
    October 22, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Dad- This is a great story. Written clearly and with symbol in a way that makes it easy to feel as though I’ve been in that room, though I obviously haven’t. I do recognize the college student feel though, I’ve been there before, for many years… Thanks.

  7. December 2, 2010 at 5:24 am

    This is a terrific story. Thanks for including credits to TSJ-It’s appreciated.

    Pamela

  8. Davida Adedjouma
    April 11, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    Hi. I just wanted to let you know that I read your flash fiction story, Sunnyside Apartment, and marvel at your skill with evocative words. That story was incredible, and hit so close to home. I can’t wait to read more of your work.

    • Tony Press
      April 12, 2011 at 2:47 pm

      Such lovely words to find today. Thank you very much, I’m honored. Davida, I’ll pass your thoughts back to Pam and Finding Meaning with Words, too.

  1. April 11, 2011 at 3:32 pm
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