from A Squandered Life / Ohio '67
…..clearly unnerved by what might lie in store for him on the other side of the Pacific.
I crossed the border into the US at Detroit. I encountered a particularly nasty border guard who asked me if I was prepared to serve in Viet Nam. I said I was only visiting and didn't think that should amount to a commitment to fight a war. “So,” he said, “you want all the privileges and none of the responsibilities” and gave me a 14 day visa. This was unheard of in those days. Canadians and Americans were always crossing back and forth visa-less with only the occasional vehicle search to dampen the enthusiasm. It profoundly affected my plans to spend the year heading down to California. I had to re-think my whole strategy.
As the guard was emptying the contents of my car on to the tarmac, I concluded I would have to head north again and cross the Canadian prairies. Maybe then head south from British Columbia.
But first I went to Toledo in response to an old invitation from some friends of my parents. As it turned out, they were welcoming but in the throes of leaving for a few days. Nevertheless they invited me to stay and handed me over to the care of one of their young daughters and the Welsh house maid.
I can't remember their names, but we had a whale of a time. The maid produced supper and proceeded to slope off. I asked where she was going and she said “Back to the kitchen. I don't eat with the family.” I looked at the daughter. She looked embarrassed. I asked if it was okay for us all to eat together. She said sure.
So for a couple of days the three of us ate together, listened to Sergeant Pepper, drove around in my car with the roof open, and discussed current events. The great Welsh slag heap disaster at Aberfan had taken place the year before and the maid was still very anxious about people she knew back home.
Then the parents came back and the atmosphere changed dramatically. The maid didn't eat with us any more, of course, and the parents were clearly having second thoughts about the chastity of their daughter in my footloose presence.
I said my good byes and, as per my Plan B, headed west round the Great Lakes and then veered north to the Manitoba border.
Somewhere en route I stopped for lunch in a small town bus station diner. As I leaned into my hot turkey sandwich, I became aware that I was being observed. A young guy, about my age, was hovering in the middle distance, looking unsettled and troubled. He finally sat down at the counter about two seats away. After a moment or two, without introduction, he turned to me and said, “I've just received my draft papers.” I looked at him. “What do you think I should do?” he asked.
In my bourgeois stupidity, I couldn't think of anything useful to say. Apparently he'd clocked the plates on my car and, in the absence of anyone else to discuss this with, felt it was safer to discuss with a Canadian stranger than with any of his American friends or family. This was the first actual draftee I'd ever met. I mumbled something about why not go to Canada, but didn't have anything useful to offer about what that might entail.
He talked about commitment and patriotism and honouring his family, but was clearly unnerved by what might lie in store for him on the other side of the Pacific. “I don't want to die,” he said.
My brother, I'm so sorry I was that gormless, that green, that naïve, that stupid. I should have said, jump in the car and come with me, but I was just too dumb, too unclear. I desperately hope you found the strength to dodge that draft.
© 2013 Deacon Martin