My story has no cosmic implications, and may seem trivial to others. But it’s memorable to me, anyway, as someone who has now spent many decades pondering and re-re-re-pondering Vietnam, for its little bitter taste of capricious irony.

Myself, I was already headed for the Navy as an ROTC student. But I was nevertheless caught up in the drama of that lottery drawing. Many of us listened on the radio in my room on the first floor of Wannamaker. My roomate was my high school friend Doug T., who was then still far from slated for the Marine Corps, where he eventually landed as a lawyer.

His birthday was November 17, as I recall. And you know that counter-intuitive statistical oddity where, if you have several people in a room, chances are you’ll find some coinciding birthdays? Well, Scott M. and one other guy–I can’t remember who–also had Nov. 17th birthdays. This meant that as the evening moved along, the three of them got safer and safer. They felt pretty good about it. But you might also remember that there was one birthday for which the lottery drawing had been mistaken. It turned out that this date had a pretty low number after all. It was Nov. 17. Imagine the psychological reversal in those three men’s minds when the correction was announced after high numbers had already been reached.

I was born and raised to be a naval officer, but because of Vietnam, I served out my four years and left. My last C.O., on a little oiler in the Mediterranean, was a young officer named Mike Mullen. He’ still in uniform. Maybe you’ve heard of him–pretty impressive guy. Among the crew, even the most Vietnam-era-disaffected liked him.

Often I think about those days in the late 60s at Duke, and in the early 70s in the Navy, including in the Gulf of Tonkin, on my first ship. (Note: nobody was shooting at me). Something about the bizarre capriciousness of the lottery incident makes that particular evening’s story often cross my mind.

There is of course a lot more that I could say about those days. A whole lot more. One thing I often say is that I’ll spend my whole life never really getting all the way out of the Navy.

[Ed. note: The correct lottery number for Nov. 17 was 143].