Jack Todd’s memoir of desertion is like a coming-of-age novel – a portrait of the artist as young resister – complete with prologue of childhood friends in a pre-adolescent adventure with loaded rifles (a .22 and a shotgun) in Nebraska. Then there’s a love affair in Miami, where a precocious Miami Herald reporter is ripped away from both passion and career by a draft notice. The two boyhood friends’ lives diverge, one going to Vietnam, the other deserting from Army basic training and heading to Canada. The love affair haunts our hero through an odyssey of “twin journeys, across the heartland and back in time.”
In a time sweep Todd depicts the images of a Buddhist monk burning in Saigon, of the bodies of Vietnamese… on the back of an armed personnel carrier in pools of blood, of Green Berets and Graham Greene “who saw exactly what would happen to America in Vietnam a decade before it began…”
Todd tells the adventures of a gifted young writer landing a reporter job with the Miami Herald, after washing out of Marine Corps officer training due to a sports injury, but still getting drafted later. First, however, he gets his eyes opened about the war by his Nebraska college newspaper editor, who witnessed and led the transformation of a heartland football-crazed campus to a hotbed of antiwar radicalism.
Good luck abounds for Todd as he tortures himself about the decision: “My mother hates the war almost as much as I do… ‘You know, I think I’d almost rather have you in Canada than over there fighting this stupid war,’ she says.” And his boyhood friend Sonny, freshly back from Vietnam with a bad case of PTSD, tells him “I can’t let you get drafted. I’ll drive you to Canada myself… You can’t go through that shit. I took enough of it for both of us.”
Sonny’s nightmares become a kind of saving grace for Todd, helping to pull him away from military madness. But Todd’s own nightmares of running from the military machine haunt him years later, as he wakes night after night for years, hearing Sonny say “I told you to run, man, I told you to run.”
The recurring nightmare culminates an amazing odyssey: “In eighteen months, I’ve gone from Lincoln to Miami to Scottsbluff to Denver, Fort Lewis to San Diego to Ensenada, Los Angeles to San Francisco to Seattle to Vancouver, Vancouver to Quebec…” It’s a blur: “From a Florida apartment to an almost complete breakdown on Hastings Street [in Vancouver], from the Herald to the army to the Sun to unemployment to dishwashing in a Quebec greasy spoon to a sleazy job in the tabloid trade. The only constant seems to be this endless flight, running on and on and getting to no place at all.”
I’ve had some of these same jobs. Todd brings my own exile story back to life. He hit me in the heart.
The many adventures along the way include the well-known hell of Army basic training with its brutality and crazy confusion, which “probably go all the way up to the Joint Chiefs in Washington, who have to know by now that they are backed into an impossible corner in Southeast Asia… At our level, in the mud of Fort Lewis in basic training in 1969, it almost seems the army has given up.” He adds that “Little men in black pajamas who believe in what they are doing… are going to win this war.”
But pulling away from it all is hard. Only after learning that his Miami sweetheart dumped him did Todd finally decide to split. Even then it’s a torturous adventure, taking him south to Mexico instead of north to Canada, just to realize once he’s gone to Mexico that there’s no chance a deserter can be safe there. Hitching back up the California coast is easy as long as he wears his Army uniform. And crossing into Canada with a friend happens without a hitch. But after that it’s a roller coaster. He calls the rest of the drive “a dream ride into the future.”
Landing first in a derelict hotel on Vancouver’s Hastings Street skid row, Todd waits to be rescued by a care package from his mom, containing decent clothes and his Herald clippings that help him score a reporter job at the Vancouver Sun, which qualifies him for immigrant status. But a week after he’s hired the editorial staff goes on strike, putting his new career on hold. Then he gets a jolt when a letter arrives announcing his Miami heartthrob married someone else, and he goes into a genuine skid row nose dive – a solitary liquid diet for days into weeks, only rescued by a drunken sailor “between ships” (for years) who’s always able find a bright side.
In recovery Todd finds the Vancouver Committee to Aid American War Objectors, and is ushered into the serious world of antiwar exile counseling, and the exile struggle for survival. “The committee exists to help draft dodgers and deserters come to Canada, and the people who run it do their jobs with remarkable efficiency, given the political tenor of the times…” He finds a deep difference between middle class draft dodgers – college grads who decided after careful planning to go to Canada, and his own group. “Deserters are different,” Todd writes. “We tend… to be less educated, more troubled… Deserters turn up alone in their fatigue jackets and combat boots, gaunt and desperate, with no belongings except what they can stuff in a duffel bag. Deserters usually come without college degrees, often without a high school diploma, and sometimes they’re wanted for other crimes in the army…”
Recommended for You
Todd tells of the trials and tragedies of deserters with the familiarity of being one himself, even though his education and professional background set him apart. It’s a luck he has to grapple with alongside the intense battle with his own demons. But his advantages definitely help. “No more than 25 percent of all the American war resisters who head north actually get legal status in Canada,” he writes. “Some return to the U.S. because of family pressures, because they change their minds, or because they can’t stand the homesickness; many more don’t have the education or can’t find jobs in a Canadian economy that is in a deep recession…. Many war resisters will try again and again before they are forced to make a choice: live underground in Canada or the U.S. or turn themselves in…”
This is a true story, not something Todd made up. I have lived it, and as part of the Amex-Canada magazine collective that led the movement for amnesty, I became deeply familiar with the reality he describes. His story is still wrenchingly real. His life on the Hastings Street skid row includes dealing with junkies and drunks who at times are shadows of himself. Dragging himself out of skid row, Todd scrapes money together by selling a radical newspaper, the Georgia Straight, on the street. He finds friends like himself, one rung further up the ladder, people who read and share food and support each other to build a culture and a future. “There are so many freaks, acid-heads, hippies everywhere that it feels like we really have taken over, that something spontaneous and joyful will eventually rule the world.” Even some of his old college friends from Nebraska show up in the wake of Nixon’s 1970 invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State.
When the strike at the Sun ends after some months, Todd gets back to journalism, only to find himself reporting on a police riot aimed at this new friends, giving him flashbacks of the police riot in Chicago during the convention of 1968. His report is rejected by the editors, causing him to resign: “If this is how they are going to handle one story that is worth writing, then I want out.” It’s a fateful decision that sends Todd on another odyssey, this time across Canada, hitching first to Toronto then Montreal then a little Quebec town north and east of Montreal… then back to Montreal where he settles, ultimately becoming a sports writer for the Montreal Gazette.
Todd’s exile odyssey doesn’t really end peacefully. News of a friend’s death in Vietnam suddenly makes him “feel I have abandoned my generation, walked away from the great conflict of our time, the war to stop the war. Like many of the war resisters in Canada I have left active politics and tried to forget about Vietnam, but now the war is back with a vengeance, the particular horror of a single death weighing far more than all the body counts…, the rows of body bags awaiting shipment home.”
The horrors from the war cause Todd to make another fateful decision, to renounce his U.S. citizenship. He realizes his “impulsive nature is carrying me into a self-destructive, unnecessary blunder,” but “I just can’t stop myself.” As he does it he thinks, “having deserted from the army, I have to take a further step now and signal my absolute opposition to an America I no longer recognize as my own. If this is the great sacrifice that is required to stand up for what I see as the most basic of freedoms – the freedom to refuse to fight an unjust war – then it is a sacrifice I am required to make by the very patriotism I feel for the United States of America.”
Not long afterward Nixon is forced to resign. In the following months, “successive waves of amnesty from Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter mean that most of my friends can return to the U.S. if they choose.” One friend returns to the U.S. to get his discharge processed, so he is free to work on either side of the border, but he chooses Canada. Todd says “it is not the choice I would have made… Had I not signed away my citizenship in a fit of pique with Nixon, I would have applied at every newspaper in the U.S., beginning with the Miami Herald.
As a Canadian citizen he is legally able to return home for visits, and in 1981 he returns to Scottsbluff, Nebraska, to see his folks, “finding my mother, gray and stooped and frail… the son she hadn’t seen in six years hugging her old bones then, in a wash of tears and lost time. An hour later I’m out bucking hay bales with the old man as though the world since 1963 had remained fixed and unchanging…” Then he takes his ailing vehicle to a mechanic shop, where his old friend Sonny surprises him like a ghost from the past. Their tearful reunion leaves him thinking: “My God, Sonny, what happened to us? One minute we were out there with our guns… then you were showing me pictures of GIs wearing Viet Cong ears for necklaces and oh, my, look at us now. No way out, no way to rework it so that it didn’t happen, to get back to Scottsbluff in 1964 when the world had ways it could go that would not lead to this…”
Todd’s friendship with Sonny is the binding force in a tragic story they agree to write together, but Sonny doesn’t live long enough. On another visit to Scottsbluff in 1999, Todd hears “the official cause of death was listed as hypothermia, but the truth is Sonny just crawled down inside himself and drowned. He was fifty years old, and he never got over Vietnam.”
Of himself, Todd writes “I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to that young man” – the guy back in British Columbia in the early seventies working hard at writing fiction and poetry. “Exile wore me down,” he writes. “That sudden separation from all the things I knew and loved, the growing sense of powerful but unfocused guilt, the absurd decision to renounce my American citizenship… -- all these things took their toll.”
Todd says he has spent half a life on each side of the border, and feels American and Canadian in roughly equal parts, knowing there’s good and bad in both countries.” But he still finds “the home you find at true north on the compass will always be here, for me, in this dry place out on the big toe of Nebraska.”
I find a lot of truth in Jack Todd’s memoir. I’m very glad he found success, love and peace in his life in Canada. And his recognition that he really has two homes feels very true to life.
Dee Knight is the author of My Whirlwind Lives: Navigating Decades of Storms, a memoir and manifesto.