Dorm History

Ron Michener '71:

It is a shame you haven't done better than me as a story-teller, because there were some interesting stories to be told. I was one of the less colorful students in the dorm, and probably didn't know half of what was happening there. Also, I got married in the middle of my junior year and moved out of Random, although I continued to drop by to visit friends until I graduated.

Somebody ought to write about the war, because there isn't any way to describe those years if you don't have some sense of it.

When I first arrived at MIT, part of our freshman orientation involved meeting with someone from the M.I.T. administration who briefed us on draft exemptions. This was 1967, and the war and the draft were going strong. The woman who spoke to me assured me smugly, as one member of a chosen elite addresses another, that "Of course, you will never have to go." I was none too eager to go slogging through rice patties while disaffected peasants tried to shoot me, but her smug assurance that MIT kept their chosen students safe rankled.

Members of my generation will remember Phil Ochs, a folk singer of some fame before he shot himself back in '75. Ochs had a number of popular anti-war songs, but one was particularly useful to us back then: The Draft Dodger's Rag. The song tells of a guy who is for the war, but when drafted gives every excuse known to man when called up by his draft board. Let me recite a stanza to give the idea.

When it came my time to serve
I knew better dead than red,
but when I got to my old draft board
Buddy, this is what I said:

Sarge, I'm only 18
I got a ruptured spleen
And I always carry a purse.
I got eyes like a bat
My feet are flat
My asthma's getting worse.

Well, think of my career
My sweetheart dear
My poor old invalid aunt.
Besides I ain't no fool
I'm a goin' to school
And workin' in a defense plant
[etc.]

This was how many of us, myself included, remembered the provisions of the draft laws. The song basically listed all the extant exemptions.

Perhaps the most talented student who came though Random in the years I lived there was a young guy named Doug Dovenbarger. Doug had mastered some pretty heavy duty math before coming to M.I.T., and in his first semester was helping some faculty member review the page proofs of a math book. While most of us found academics (and cards) at M.I.T. all we could handle, Doug didn't find it challenging enough. So one day he went down and enlisted in the Marines as an infantryman. I have often wondered, as has Mike Linehan (Doug's roommate), how Doug made out in Vietnam. We have always been afraid to look for his name on the Vietnam memorial.

Many of us took part in anti-war demonstrations. There must be some great stories on this topic in the collective memory of the alumni. Mine will be a modest beginning. Far from being a student radical, I believed the US had no pressing national interests at stake in Southeast Asia. In dorm bull sessions, I sounded more like William Fulbright than Che Guevara. The amount of Marxist rhetoric in those years was amazingly high, so I ended up closer to the right end of the M.I.T. political spectrum than the left: One of my more leftish friends dismissed me as a puritan hippie.

Not surprisingly, I was one of the volunteers who worked for Gene McCarthy in New Hampshire before the 1968 primary ("Clean for Gene"). Allard Lowenstein had come to the student center to recruit volunteers for McCarthy. I knew nothing of the man before I went to his talk, but was very impressed. "Everyone knows you can't beat a sitting president," he said, "so that we are wasting our time. But why can't you beat him? Do you personally LIKE Lyndon Johnson? Do you know anyone who LIKES Lyndon Johnson? I don't mean your liberal college friends. Do you know a relative, a neighbor back home, . . . ANYONE who actually LIKES Lyndon Johnson?" He paused for several seconds, and then quietly asked "So why can't we beat him?" At that moment, Gene McCarthy had about 5 or 10% in the New Hampshire tracking polls, but Lowenstein was convincing. I signed up.

This was the spring of 1968, a few weeks after the Tet offensive. It also was just after an announcement that graduate student deferments were to be ended. Many of the people who went to New Hampshire with me (on my first trip) were grad students. One amusing sidelight about this trip was that the organizers, expecting to recruit plenty of Harvard and Radcliffe students, had arranged for us to rendevous and meet our rides at Elsie's restaurant up in Harvard Square. When we showed up, there wasn't a single Harvard/Radcliffe student among us. It was practically an all-M.I.T. crew. McCarthy's campaign sent us way up into northern New Hampshire. At that time, most of New Hampshire's Democrats were blue-collar workers in the Manchester-Concord area. In a small town in northern New Hampshire, there might be a total of 20 registered Democrats in the whole town, and Johnson's people were ignoring them entirely. So when groups of Boston college students showed up to canvass the voters, we were practically celebrities. While the campaigning was fun, we were far from being effective campaigners. We slept on the floor of someone's living room, woke up late, and spent the better part of our mornings sipping coffee and reading our own press clippings in the New York Times. If memory serves correctly, the headline in the Times that first morning reported Westmoreland had requested another 250,000 combat troops.

In the time we did spend talking to people up there, it became clear that Lowenstein had been prescient. Nobody liked Lyndon, and few really liked the war. Many felt a patriotic duty to support both, but kids from these towns had gone off to war, and what they were writing home from Vietnam reinforced the message from the Tet offensive. Victory was not in sight. Our major contribution to McCarthy was just being there and letting the folks in these small towns know that McCarthy had not forgotten them. We used to joke that we got votes by approaching people and asking them to vote for McCarthy, and when they said "I didn't even know Joe was still around!" we'd assure them he was and that he needed their support. This was just a joke: New Hampshire's voters were better informed than I had anticipated.

Two or three times I went up to New Hampshire to do scut work for the McCarthy campaign. The last trip was on the night of the primary, and on that trip I took some folks from Random with me, including Jim Hudson (my bridge partner) who drove. We served as poll watchers and reported raw vote totals back to McCarthy's headquarters in Concord. When we finished our job, we drove down to Concord as fast as we could, hoping to take part in the victory party. It was snowing that night, and the slippery roads slowed us down. By the time we arrived, we found nothing but an empty meeting room littered with confetti. (For those who don't know their history, McCarthy narrowly lost the popular vote in New Hampshire to Johnson, but in the delegate races almost all McCarthy's delegates won. This was because McCarthy had only as many delegates on the ballot as delegates to be elected. Johnson had allowed too many local pols to appear on the ballot, splitting his votes. McCarthy did much better than expected, due to overwhelming support from the small towns in northern New Hampshire!) I remember coming back to the dorm at sunrise and blaring Bob Dylan's "The Times, They are a' Changing" down the air shaft. The joke was on me. This was March 1968: in April Martin Luthor King was assassinated; in June, Bobby Kennedy.

In the spring of 1970, Nixon invaded Cambodia, and all across the nation there were campus protests. At Kent State, some nervous, trigger-happy National Guardsmen gunned down four students, which greatly increased tensions. Many schools, including M.I.T. went on strike. The administration offered a deal where anyone passing a course could take a "pass" and the course was over. If you wanted to, you could complete the course. If you were not passing, and wanted to get a passing grade, you had to complete the course. Had Nixon not invaded Cambodia, I would have failed statistics. This has proven to a great irony in my life, since now I teach statistics. I stopped going to my other classes, and spent the last several weeks of the semester cramming statistics for the final exam.

By this point, US participation in the war was winding down. I had not been to any of the famous anti-war rallies in Washington, so when a rally was announced in Washington -- for the next day! -- I decided to go. By then I was married. My wife and I drove over to Random and found 3 other students willing to accompany us. We piled into my 1964 Ford Galaxie, and took off for Washington around dinner time. The roads were jammed with cars as we approached Washington in the wee hours of the morning. Disheveled torsos were popping out of car windows to wave clenched fist "power to the people" salutes as we converged on the city.

Here is where we missed our 15 minutes of fame. That night, Nixon was extraordinarily distraught. Unable to sleep, he finally got up at 5 A.M. and to the shock of his secret service detail, insisted on going out to meet some protesters. He arrived at the Lincoln memorial shortly after 5 and surprised an inarticulate bunch of dopers, who were too stunned at his presence to say very much. We had arrived in Washington at about 4:30 A.M. Being unfamiliar with the city, we just kept following signs for national monuments, and finally parked along the mall a few hundred yards from the Lincoln memorial. Then we spread out to try to find a place to sleep. Someone told us we could sleep on a gym floor at American University, so we got back in the car and headed there. Had we been a half an hour later, a contingent of stone sober M.I.T. students would have confronted Nixon at the Lincoln Memorial. Oh, how I wish we'd been there. I had some questions I was dying to put to him.

We got a couple hours of sleep, and then we were briefed for the demonstrations. Many of the protesters came with gas masks (the anti-war movement was well-equipped by this point). They showed us how to retreat upwind until those with gas masks could toss the tear gas canisters back into the police lines. At about this point, we decided we'd attend the demonstration, and then get the heck out of town before dark!

The demonstration, when we finally got there, was pathetic. There were plenty of people, but the speakers were mostly spouting turgid Marxist slogans. Only a handful of people were listening to them. Most people were playing frisbee, listening to music, getting a tan, or wading in the reflecting pool, or in one of the many fountains found in front of Federal buildings. The protestors and police all seemed pretty apolitical -- it was a big party, in which more effort was being expended trying to score some good dope, or maybe get laid, than anything else. The moratoriums had been well planned and well executed demonstrations (according to what I was told, anyway) -- the crown jewels of the anti-war movement. But this demonstration had been thrown together in a hurry, and seemed like a pointless caricature of a real demonstration. A foretaste of things to come: the 70s proved to be pretty much a pointless caricature of the 60s.

In the fall of 1969, the first draft lottery was held. All the old deferments, except the undergraduate 2-S deferment, were being eliminated, and you were either going to be drafted, or passed over, depending on the result of a lottery. Like every other male college student, I was listening to the lottery as it happened. Jim Couglan, who had been my Eastgate roommate and hallmate in Random had left M.I.T. and was then attending the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Kenway Wong (another Eastgate roommate now living in Random) and I decided to drive up that evening and pay him a visit. The first snow began to fall just before we left, and I remember Kenway helping me put snow tires on the back before we left. As we drove, we listened on the radio to the numbers being drawn. A number under about 195 meant you were drafted; above that meant you were home free. They got me at number 77. Kenway's number was something like 320. I was morose. Poor Kenway, trapped in the car with me, was too polite to celebrate. Most of the people I know who "won" the draft lottery managed to manufacture a physical ailment to escape the draft. The Boston selective service examining station was notorious for allowing people to escape military service, reflecting the general anti-war sentiment in Boston. The draft dodging scams seemed dishonorable to me. I made no effort to fail my physical and thereby passed. I enlisted in the Air Force, and ended up serving as a medic at Nellis Air Base in Las Vegas. I thought I had picked a "safe" branch of the service. But had the war not ended before the Air Force considered me fully trained, I would have been sent to Vietnam and taken part in "Dust Off" missions, as the more experienced medics I served with had done. A "Dust Off" mission, for those too young to know, works like this: a medical evacuation helicopter drops into a hot LZ, medics scramble to a wounded soldier, remove the smashed teeth from his windpipe (Don't forget this, the experienced hands warned me!) and load the wounded man on a helicopter, all while battle-hardened NVA regulars use the Red Cross on the side of the medical helicopter for target practice.

Oh, one final irony. I had a bum ankle, but nothing I had ever had documented, so I figured it was useless as a way of escaping the draft. While working night shift at the Nellis Emergency Room, I started describing my symptoms to the orthopod who was working the ER that night. He recognized my symptoms immediately, and put a name to the condition. "Would it," I asked him, "have gotten me out of the draft?" "Almost certainly," he replied. As things worked out, I am just as glad I went into the Air Force. Working night emergency room was a blast, and I went to grad school on the G.I. Bill.

Yours,
Ron Michener


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