It was a close day in 1971.
Summer afternoons in Central Kentucky can be that way. They portend delicious summer nights, viscous and promising.
We call a day “close” because it wraps itself around you; a lover that wants more and then more. It closes in on every cranny of you, insisting on your total attention and concentration. It obliterates free will. It obliterates independent thought and movement. It ridicules quickness. It ferrets out any remnant of energy, and smilingly, triumphantly commandeers it for its own. And you offer no objection. The southern night will soon follow…promising, remember?
This was a close day indeed.
Heat, yes… Humidity, certainly… And an impending doom or salvation in the form of a draft lottery. The air was saturated. All kinds of dew points were high.
The sidewalk was certifiably warm on Cayton’s butt as he squatted under the awning of Streemer’s at the corner of Grove and Proclus. He was waiting for the evening newspaper to be dropped at the stand.
Streemer’s was renown in the county as serving the best chili in town. The Iconic Basketball Coach at the college had pronounced it as such and was believed to consume serious quantities of the stuff every other day. Fans without season tickets, wishing to catch a glimpse of the Iconic Basketball Coach, would patronize the restaurant and dutifully order the chili, or peer into the establishment through the street windows. But today wasn’t “chili” weather and it wasn’t basketball season. It was a slow day at Streemer’s, Cayton had the sidewalk and the newspaper stand to himself.
There were two businesses across Proclos Street, a florist and a shop that apparently sold pianos and cacti. It seemed to be a slow day for them too. 86 degrees, chili, flowers, pianos, and cacti…Cayton couldn’t imagine anyone’s shopping list requiring a visit to this retail mecca. Strangely enough, his did.
He needed information; detailed information.
The results of college had been…mixed for Cayton. Classwork had been a disaster for two years, but theatre work had been challenging and exhilarating. He suspected the success in one area compromised the other – duh. He didn’t care. He loved the theatre. He loved rehearsing. He loved the emotional exploration. He loved the puzzle of script and character. He loved the audience. He loved to speak loudly. He loved to sing…yes, loudly. And, God help him, he loved to pretend to be someone else. Most people travel geographically to expand their experience – he traveled through characters and stories for same reason. For him, it was a fair trade and reasonable choice; skip Physics 101 – rehearse “Measure for Measure” instead. “Be absolute for death. Either death or life will thereby be the sweeter.” made more sense as way to spend time than bending a stream of water with a comb.
There was a “rub” in the swap, however.
It wasn’t money. These were days when student debt was a non-factor. A semester’s in-state tuition was in the $120-150 range in the early 70’s.
No, it wasn’t money.
It was freedom.
While theatre work made Cayton a bigger, happier, and more valuable person, it did not maintain his deferment from the military draft. Because of his sterling academic record, his deferment was about to evaporate.
Not to worry.
The draft lottery had been held earlier today. Each date of birth was drawn and given a random number; 1-365. Eligible men would be drafted in that order. Cayton had done the math (he was dedicated to an unusual path of study but he wasn’t stupid) and felt pretty good about his chances. 80-90 numbers is about what would be drafted. Higher numbers were assumed safe forever after that. He needed to know so he could get on with his next show. He had lines to learn.
The evening newspaper was the easiest and fastest way. Cayton didn’t have a TV and even if he did, the network news didn’t come on till six and they wouldn’t waste their precious half hour giving out all 365 results. Ditto for the AM radio news; five minutes at the top of every hour? How much detail could they provide?
Cayton was sweating. He was out of the direct sun and the odds were in his favor, but it was a close day and the moment was close at hand. His head was swirling.
“I got this. It’s OK. I’m supposed to be off book for tonight’s rehearsal. Who the hell buys a cactus from a piano store? Look at the heat waves over the street. Act two tonight – don’t have much to learn. Look at the buildings shimmer in the heat. How am I gonna explain this? I won’t have to. The odds are in my favor. No sweat. So what if I’m drafted – I’ll go to Canada. It’s cooler there. I’m sweatin’. I got this.”
The newspaper’s panel truck pulled up. The driver climbed out and opened the back and hauled out a stack of papers. He carried it over to the stand and cut the strings that bound the stack. Cayton shuffled over. The driver looked at him; “You waitin’ for these? Here, it‘s on me.” Cayton took the paper back under the awning and unfolded his future. The story was on the bottom of the front page, but the details were on page three. He flipped the pages and checked the chart for his birthday.
His number was 12.
He sat hard on the cement. The day sat hard on him. The day was no longer close – it had arrived.
He squinted out from under the awning into the glare of summer and truth reflected off the three stores across the street.
The piano store, the book store, and the florist…