Artless Dodgers

Artless Dodgers

In the first few months of 1968, it was never far from the thoughts of young men like me that one morning soon the mailman would arrive with a notice that we were to report for induction into the United States Army. Our mothers would see the return address on the envelope and know immediately what it contained. We knew this invitation was inevitable and we thought hard about what we would do when it arrived.

One possibility was to eliminate a toe. If the local draft board was especially tough it might be necessary to eliminate one on each foot. And it might have to be both big toes. Or, we could take drugs until we seemed crazy enough to fool an Army psychiatrist. But we worried this might involve swallowing so many drugs that we would risk going permanently crazy. Or there was conscientious objector status. But we weren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses and, to be honest, we weren’t that conscientious. Or there was jail, but jail was a dark and distant route nobody we knew ever took.

Or we could report for induction and serve. Carey served. Carey had grown up in South America and wrestled alligators as a kid. After he returned from Viet Nam, he didn’t say much. But every time a car backfired on the street, Carey hit the floor. Even at parties – Bang! – and Carey was on the floor. This went on for weeks, and each time, after we had helped him back up into a chair, he would tell us how his base had been overrun and he’d been one of only two survivors.

Or there was Canada.

We knew almost nothing about Canada, so when we heard there were meetings on campus about immigrating to Canada, we went. The meetings were reassuring, partly because there were so many of us there. It felt like we were Canada. But, as questions surfaced, we grew uneasy. “If I take my car, are there places in Canada where if I blow out a tire, can I, like, get new tires there?” A vision began to form of Canada as a barren and forbidding place. And if the tire question was a cogent one, we wondered what else we should be asking about. But the people running the meetings – Americans and Canadians who opposed the war in Viet Nam and wanted to help would-be draft-dodgers like us find a way out – were calm and had sharp, encouraging answers.

Of course there were tires and gas stations, donuts and beer, FM radio and more. And we learned how big Canada was, although it’s not clear why that mattered. They gave us booklets with answers to questions we hadn’t yet thought of but should have, and over the course of the meetings, immigrating to Canada became a solid idea. We studied the booklets and learned about the simple system of points measuring everything Canada wanted you to have and be to become a Canadian: points for education, points for a job offer, points for money, and points for relatives in Canada. No loyalty oath, no political drama. We were liking Canada already. So we collected our bankbooks, transcripts, and job offers. We packed our stuff and prepared to say goodbye to our parents.

Some of our parents erased us from wills. Some held mock funerals for us, the sons who were disgracing them. But mostly, our parents supported us, because by then nearly everyone sensed there was something hopeless about the war in Viet Nam: it was a tangle of knots even America the Mighty might not be able to untie. It was an overarching sense of hopelessness fed by the daily sight of dead and wounded American soldiers on the evening news.

We knew our families were sad we were leaving, and we were sad too, but we were also rather manic and unable to really imagine never being able to come home. So we said goodbye, loaded our cars with our stuff – not much stuff in most cases – and with our friends, girlfriends, and wives if we had such companions, we headed for Canada.

There were two ways to immigrate. You could cross the border as a tourist and apply from inside Canada, or you could drive to the border and apply on the spot. The idea of arriving at an international border with everything we owned and no way back was exotic and appealing.  It seemed heroic. We decided to try that route because we’d been told it gave the best odds, although the exact odds depended on which border crossing one chose. We did wonder briefly where better or worse odds fit in if the point system was all that mattered, but having momentum, we put our wondering aside and drove north.

We pulled up to the Canada border station at Blaine, Washington: me, my wife Jill, who I’d met only a few months before, and my friend Barry, who had introduced us to each other.

Jill and I had immediately fallen in love and moved in together, and Barry was my closest friend. After several years in Berkeley, Barry and I had concluded that psychedelics and listening to the Beatles were not the path to the promised land we’d hoped for. We weren’t sure what the path was – maybe Zen – but we had been working on the Canada plan together for several months, and now the plan was bearing fruit. We were at the border, the three of us looking very shiny, our papers in excellent order, and we were feeling confident. We had added up our points about 50 times and knew we had enough.

At the same time, we’d gotten slightly uneasy at the last minute when a friend warned of hostile Canadian immigration officials interviewing applicants at the Blaine station. We’d dreaded the thought of  a hostile interviewer with a large map of Viet Nam on his office wall, a map we’d be looking at as he interviewed us and decided whether to let us into our future or turn us around. After all our planning and point counting, at the last minute, this wild card had been introduced into the game.

I stopped the car and rolled down the window. A Canadian offical dressed in a blue uniform walked over and leaned down to speak to me. “What can I do for you today?” he asked softly. I answered with what I’d rehearsed: I said we wanted to apply to be landed immigrants – that was the term, “landed immigrants.”

“What brought that on?” he asked, and I was clearly more nervous than I’d realized, because I was paralyzed by his question. I sat speechless and began to perspire. Barry and Jill smiled, and the officer, who clearly knew exactly what had brought us there, winked and smiled back. “It’s alright, son,” he said, and told us to park the car and come inside. We went into his office with all our papers. There was no map of Viet Nam on the wall, and 20 minutes later, it was done. Welcome to Canada.

* * *

As soon as we crossed the border, I began to marvel at how normal Canada seemed to be. I’d never felt the word “normal” actually referred to anything real. But as we walked around Vancouver, “normal” was the right word. Canada had everything we were used to, but in slightly different shapes and sizes. We heard somewhere that if America was a melting pot where everyone merged into a compelling but indefinable American-ness, Canada was more of a salad bowl, a place where people could live together while keeping their unique and independent identities. It was at once familiar and foreign.

After two days, we left Vancouver and traveled east along the lanky patient Trans-Canadian Highway, bound for Quebec. My idea of Canada as The Good Planet Normal grew day by day as we traveled across the country. We noted minor abnormalities – spelling “center” “centre,” the bizarre concept of red beer (tomato juice and beer fifty/fifty) separate entrances for ladies in pubs, and the serving of two beers at a time because who would come to a pub and have just one? – but these just seemed charming, probably because of their pub-centricity.

So what exactly was it about Canada that seemed “normal?” In the end, I concluded not so much that Canada was uniquely normal but that our previous American version of normal had been shrill and exhausting and we were relieved to put it behind us. Canada was the normal that normal was supposed to be.  We were calming down, and especially about where people stood on all kinds of issues, and on the war in particular. Politics were interesting, but no more interesting than the weather or hockey. If Canadians talked politics, it wasn’t about Viet Nam, it was about Pierre Trudeau, the new Prime Minister. And if Viet Nam came up, they didn’t need to know where you stood on the war. In fact, the question of where one stood on anything in particular didn’t seem to matter so much, and this kind of not mattering so much felt normal and wholesome. And that meant it might eventually become normal for us, and that was lovely.

We spent long days in the car, eager to reach Quebec and start our jobs. These were not the fake jobs as anthropologists in the Arctic Circle, which we had procured to drive up our immigration point totals, but our actual jobs. We were going to be counselors at Swami Vishnudevananda’s Yoga Camp in the Laurentian Mountains just north of Montreal. We had applied for these jobs from Berkeley, weeks before leaving the States, but hadn’t mentioned them when we crossed over. No points were awarded for yoga instructors.

After a night in Montreal, we made the short drive to yoga camp. The first person we saw at yoga camp was Billy, a young hippy we’d known in Berkeley. Billy had arrived at Swami’s about two weeks ahead of us and while we unpacked our suitcases, he gave us the lowdown. Swami had already given Billy his mantra, a secret sound to repeat silently during meditation. Billy said he’d been experimenting with his mantra. While he wouldn’t reveal the mantra itself out of respect for his promise of secrecy to Swami, through careful testing he had already concluded he could get the same spiritual benefit repeating “pork fat” to himself over and over during meditation.

Camp was chaotic and even before our private orientation with Swami, Jill and I began to question whether it would be a long-term proposition. Our doubt solidified during the first breakfast. Swami entered the dining hall softly chanting “Om” followed by “Om, campers.” This was his signal to settle down. The dining hall was packed with campers – mostly middle-aged women in colorful summer dresses, from Montreal and Long Island and New York City as we later learned – together with a small crew of hippy counselors.

Hunger and conversation overpowered Swami’s signal, so he chanted a whole series of “Om, campers,” stamping his foot with each increasingly loud and insistent repetition until everyone got the message and quieted down.

By the end of breakfast, Jill and I knew we were moving on and within a few days we left yoga camp, heading further east with our eyes on Europe. Our plan was to fly across the Atlantic and work our way eastward to Japan where we would enter a Zen monastery. We set up camp on Cape Breton Island, waiting for airfares to Europe to drop at Summer’s end. Planning the journey was stressful.  Jill wanted to make a beeline to Japan and I thought we should take our time, eat real Italian pizza along the route, perhaps taking as long as a year or even two to get to the monastic part.

Meanwhile, as we struggled to plot this next chapter of our life, we heard about extraordinary desperation sales of land all around us, land forfeited by owners who’d failed to pay their taxes. We carefully considered one tax sale that seemed too good to be true – a small island with a lovely old Victorian house, selling for $100.00. But what would we do there, 22 year-old newlyweds who hardly knew each other, living at the edge of the world with fishermen whose children couldn’t wait to leave? So we passed on the island and headed back west, in the direction we’d come from.

Barry had left for Vancouver directly from yoga camp, so it was just Jill and me, pounding out the prairie miles in the VW in a sustained private stillness we hadn’t really experienced during the short course of our relationship. There was nothing to stop for along the way and whatever Medicine Hat and Winnipeg had offered our first time through was no longer intriguing. During our long westward days together in the car some of the dust from the changes in our lives was finally beginning to settle.

Soon after returning to the West, Barry, Jill, and I moved to a commune on the North Coast of British Columbia. We lived there for four years before returning to Vancouver, where we took up more conventional lives. A few years later, Barry broke his neck in a freak accident and was wheelchair-bound for more than 30 years before he died.

It was the recent arrival in my mailbox of my first Medicare card that reminded me of when I, and tens of thousands of other young men like me, watched our mailboxes for our draft notices, which did arrive and set in motion choices that shaped our lives and in some cases hastened our deaths. At the time of my departure, America was profoundly polarized. Friends and families were divided by passionate feelings about the war in Viet Nam and I was relieved to move to Canada and put the polarization and anguish behind me. Nonetheless, despite my alienation and gratitude for the country that gave me such a kind and gentle welcome in those turbulent times – the “normal” Canada that took me in –  Jill and I decided to move back to the States nine years later.

Ater such a long absence, the America I returned to, like the Canada I had moved to, felt at once familiar and foreign. Americans were louder, crankier, and more opinionated than Canadians. Canadians were polite and Americans were intrusive, but in a way I found both irritating and strangely endearing. Jimmy Carter was elected President the year we returned, and in short order pardoned all American draft dodgers. While I hadn’t personally required the pardon (an obscure legal technicality enabled my return) it provided some relief and a sense of closure.

And yet America’s trauma around the war didn’t seem to have fully healed. U.S. troops had left Viet Nam in 1973 but I found many Americans still struggling with what the war had meant and especially with how it had ended. Had the country made a mistake? Had America been defeated? Were the war protesters and draft dodgers right all along, or were they traitors who had undermined what might otherwise have been a successful effort?

A couple of my old friends had served in Viet Nam, but none had died there, and most had found a way out – a medical escape, Canada, or some technicality. But we rarely talked about the war. It had been a long and painful episode and we wanted to get on with our lives, our normal American lives. Even now, decades later, I rarely mention those times. And when I do describe the choice I made as a just-married 22 year-old in 1968, mostly people respond with little emotion and a simple comment of some kind.  Usually something like, “Good for you.”

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  1. Peter Coyote says:

    this was so true and so right in tone. I STILL feel that Canada is a grown up America, and when you think about it—same language, same religion, same history, etc. the only thing that’s different are the social policies. Hmmmm.
    I applied for a conscientious objector status in 1957 when I was 18. Said I would serve as a medic but would not carry a gun. I was rejected and went to college and stayed in college through a portion of grad-school until I determined that I would rather be killed than remain in school a day longer. I got my ass in gear and went to recruiting station to sign up. Everything went swimmingly, until I encountered the Army psychiatrist. He asked me something inane and I said, “Look, I’ll do it. One proviso, I keep what I catch.” He looked at me a moment and said, “I beg your pardon?” I said, “War is about rape, looting, and killing. I’ll do all of it for you, but I keep what I catch….and I kill anyone that tries to hurt me.” He looked at me levelly, while I waited for the obvious to sink in. “Do you understand”, he said smoothly, “that in some circumstances that ‘someone wanting to hurt you might be construed as your commanding officer?”… “That’s their problem” I said without blinking.
    He considered the sorry human before him, then said something to the effect of, “These psychiatric studies can take a long time to resolve and involve many tests and visits.” He looked at me. “Now”, he continued, “If you were a homosexual….” the ‘wal’ syllable was barely out of his mouth before I shouted, “….and I fuck men, too.” I left with a 1-Y card as psychologically disabled and never had to kill anyone, and during the ensuing years, while running the DIgger Free Store in the Haight, helped many young soldiers who entered the store, drop off their uniforms and leave in civilian clothes, with a spanking new completely correct draft-card identifying them too as 1-Y.

  2. Ryan says:

    This is such a wonderfully written essay. The reserved, reluctant narrator who actually has an important, engaging story to tell allows for the essay’s ending to really resonate.

  3. Andrea Beltran says:

    Artfully composed.

  4. Jill Klein says:

    Compelling and humorous at times. Having lived near the U.S. side of the Blaine border station for years, I can relate to the narrator’s apt description of the subtle but real differences between the U.S. and Canada.

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