A Case of the Human Condition: How Selective Service Made a Man of My Son — Without Even Trying

Cover of 1998 US Selective Service draft registration pamphlet.

Selective Service notice — I left it at the post office.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

It was a colorful pamphlet, standing at crisp attention in its rack in the post office lobby. “MEN 18-25 YEARS,” it read. “You can handle this. REGISTER. It’s quick. It’s easy. It’s the law.”

I was busy. Christmas was a week away and our annual holiday letter needed mailing. But the block-lettered words, “MEN 18-25 YEARS,” stopped me in my tracks. In two weeks my son Peter would be eighteen.

Teenaged boy in tux ready for prom. Photo by BF Newhall

Peter — ready for the prom. Photo by BF Newhall

I took the insistent little pamphlet from its rack and opened it. All male U.S. citizens must register for Selective Service – aka the draft – within thirty days of their eighteenth birthday, it said. “Young men convicted of failure to register may be fined up to $250,000, imprisoned for up to five years, or both.” A registration form was attached.

Six weeks. Peter had six weeks to fill out this form and get it into the mail. “Not registering is a felony,” the form said. “Failure to register may cause you to permanently forfeit eligibility for certain benefits.”

I was a good mother. I’d made sure my son had had his polio and tetanus shots right on schedule. He’d been signed up for soccer in the fall and Little League in the spring. And just a few months earlier, I’d bought Peter not one, but three, college guides and taken him on a week-long tour of college campuses. Back home as he completed the applications, I’d proofread them, written the checks, dug the stamps out of my wallet and licked the envelopes.

And now, as his parent and the person Peter had been able to rely on to sign him up punctually for everything from nursery school to orthodontia, as that responsible adult, I ought to have stuffed this brochure into my purse, taken it home and stood over Peter while he filled it out and signed it. I should have licked the envelope.

But I didn’t. It’s not that I was pacifist. I wasn’t and I’m not – quite. The trouble was, I was Peter’s mother.

The values and scruples I’d held dear over the years – loyalty to my home country, my sense of duty, my sense of fair play – were nothing compared to the dearness to me of my son. This was 1998, and there seemed to be little chance that Peter or any other young American would be drafted any time soon.

Still, the brochure felt like a death warrant in my hands. It was about war. It was about Peter going

A teenaged boy at the wheel, starting the engine for first solo drive. Photo by BF Newhall

The teenaged Peter’s first solo drive. Photo by BF Newhall.

to war. And if anyone was going to send Peter off to war and into harm’s way, it sure as heck wasn’t going to be me.

At age seventeen, Peter and his friends were still boys. Their beards were soft, their fast-growing arms and legs more bone than muscle, their voices scratchy and tentative. They were boys, which meant that they could be both flattered by the Selective Service System’s carefully chosen “Men 18-25” and intimidated by its “Register . . . It’s the law.”

The powers that be at the Selective Service System must have spent a fortune getting the wording just right for this brochure. Lead with flattery, close with a threat. They were good at what they did, and they were after my son.

They would get him in the end. Peter was, as the pamphlet announced, a man. Or close to it. He could handle this. He could sign himself up. But he wouldn’t be doing it with my help.

I put the pamphlet back in the rack and stepped out of the line of command.

My son Peter is thirty-one now, and he manages his own life just fine.  Read about Peter as a little guy at “When Your 6-Year-Old Wants to Talk Money.” 

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