The recent rocket launch in North Korea and the resulting international stress over it made me think about how volatile the world seemed to me when I was 18 years old.
In 1980, Congress reinstated the requirement that all men 18-25 register with the Selective Service System -– “The Draft.” The 1980s were the height of the Cold War, when the two most powerful nations the world had ever known had thousands of thermonuclear missiles aimed at each other. I turned 18 in the summer of 1985, and for a while, to me, every international incident reported in the news seemed a prelude to global war.
I remember receiving a phone call –- which I took on the kitchen wall phone with the 10-foot curly cord –- where some government official reminded me that I had to register within so many months of my coming birthday. For a few years, there had been television commercials reminding everyone of their duty to sign up. Before I turned 18, those commercials were just a normal feature of TV -– like the PSAs nowadays about reckless driving.
Then I turned 18. Suddenly, the realization that I had to sign up for The Draft became unnerving. There was always some international military incident in the news. In the grand scheme of the world, these incidents were minor things, but to a young man due to sign up for The Draft, they were scary warnings that the world was not safe and one could be conscripted into the army and sent to war.
The military and war were terrible things in the general 1980s cultural consciousness. The last war America had been in was the Vietnam War, and most movies and tales about that conflict were very negative with scenes of bloody Hell. And to top off the fear of war, it was believed that the next war would be a nuclear holocaust. So, you see, signing up for The Draft was no light-hearted act. To an 18 year old in the mid 80s, there was real fear of The Draft being enacted, tomorrow!. I remember being really nervous for a few days before turning 18, and for a few days after.
I went to the post office with one of my best friends (he was 17) to fill out the form for the Selective Service. We stood in the hallway of post office boxes while I wrote my information. My friend was normally a very “laugh at anything” kind of guy (as was I, generally), but even he asked me how did it feel.
“I’m nervous,” I said.
“Yeah, I bet,” he said. “I’m not the one signing the form, but it feels weird.”
It was all totally teenage self-centered angst –- the world revolves around me, everything that happens directly affects me. The intermittent nervousness lasted about a week in all, and when the world didn’t explode soon and I didn’t get called to the army quickly, my teenaged mind went back to the normal distractions: friends, girls, and games (not necessarily in that order).
But it was an interesting, if short, feeling of dread that I’ve often wondered if other 18 year old guys felt. Maybe I was just hyper-prone to worry? General cultural ideas about war and the military has changed since we banished the Vietnam War bogey man from our national consciousness. Maybe guys don’t fear war as Hell now, as many did then.