Fleeing the War - O Canada!

5 min read

Whatever happened to the lost art of hitchhiking? As a teen, I hitched throughout New York, New England and even coast to coast using only the power of my right thumb. People were decent and generous. Also, I suppose I didn’t look too scary to the salesmen, couples, hippies and missionaries who stopped for me, each with their own story to tell. This worked well as I’m a good listener. They gave me their miles in exchange for my undivided attention. With me, they knew they had someone who listened, especially that one driver who was fleeing the country.

He was on his way up to Canada. So was I and he was good enough to give me a ride. His draft number had come up and he had made that fateful decision to flee his country. He had planned for this day but hoped it wouldn’t happen. Now he was headed north instead of South…. Vietnam.

This sounded to me like some serious business – not that my seventeen-year-old self could process all its ramifications. Then again, this guy was maybe only twenty-five, so I doubt he had a complete picture of how his life was about to change.

Talk about contrasts. Here I was with my buddy Steve, the two of us darting to Montreal on a lark. Just looking to expand our horizons before settling into our summer jobs. We’d run around a bit and then return home.

But our driver had set himself on a one-way journey. He no longer had a home, just a place to crash.

Quebecois

Expo 67 Biosphere

Why were we going Montreal? I’m not really sure, although I had been there two years earlier with my parents to visit Expo 67. That was sort of a World’s Fairish type of extravaganza, replete with a big geodesic Biosphere designed by Buckminster Fuller, plus a stack of futuristic apartments called Habitat.

What ever happened to World’s Fairs? There used to be one every couple of years. And they were always about a wonderful future. Perhaps the internet made everything too accessible. Now everyone is a pocket video producer, too hip to be wowed by someone else’s vision of tomorrow. And by the way, whatever happened to those flying cars they kept promising us? 

I didn’t know it at the time but that was the last family vacation I ever took with my parents. College and my twenties would intervene. But there had been something exotic about Montreal – it was Canada, but not. People spoke French there - just over the U.S. border and they spoke real French. Also, I heard if you kept on going you might even see the Northern Lights. That seemed like a good enough reason to take off.

Hitchhiking

So Steve and I polished off our thumbs and headed up to the Bronx and Yonkers to set ourselves squarely on route 87 and the New York State Thruway, our first leg to Montreal.

The start of a hitching adventure is always exciting. It’s all about luck and time and distance. Would we get a ride that would take us all the way to Montreal or would we hang on the side of the road until nightfall? You never knew.

I’ve had rides that have taken me a thousand miles, but I’ve also gotten stuck in one spot, just me and the crickets for a calendar day… I’m taking to you Springfield Mass. Also, most of France.

Sleepy Hollow

But our youthful energy that day must have lit up the Thruway and we got a quick series of rides taking us past the storied New York villages of Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry and Sleepy Hollow.

Now for those of you who traveled New York State from the 50’s through the 80’s, our next sighting on the Thruway will bring back memories – I’m talking about the world-famous Motel-on-the-Mountain.

Motel-on-the-Mountain

Ever since I was a kid going to camp and on most family vacations, this Japanese-Modern icon from the 50’s was a sky-high symbol of wonder and progress. Though we never stayed there, looking up at the Motel-on-the-Mountain, from the Thruway below, it seemed to embody a glorious cantilevered future right there in the middle of Suffern, N.Y.

I thought it had to be simply the best motel in the world. Someday, I promised myself I would be a guest.

Two Canadien Girls

Route 87 Montreal

We passed West Point and then Albany. It’s around here the Thruway bends west, heading for Syracuse, Rochester and the bliss of Niagara Falls. But we were staying true north. That meant we would continue on route 87, here called The Adirondack Northway.

This is a straight run up to Canada through the Adirondack Mountains, possibly the most beautiful scenery in the world. Also, home to the Adirondack chair. Possibly the best chair on earth.

Adirondack Chairs

It was getting dusky now and an old Chevrolet stopped for us. As we tumbled in, we were greeted in French by two young ladies. I figured they were practicing their French on us but upon asking their names, how far they were going, etc., they just responded in… French. They didn’t know any English, although they struggled with a few words.

They were Quebecoise, from Montreal! I was amazed they didn’t speak English. I didn’t know this was possible, right here in the U.S.

We continued driving through the last rays of sunset. The two girls chatted to each other in French, occasionally looking back at us and giggling. I tried some of my high school Spanish on them which only caused more giggles.

As we neared Lake George they explained in broken English and Spanish (to me) they weren’t going to Montreal just yet. They wanted to see the Adirondacks and the mountain lakes. This was the end of the ride.

They let us off near Fort William Henry, a British fort which saw action during the French and Indian War. This was the site of a vicious, bloody battle between Anglo and French forces. Nevertheless, the French girls still kissed us on both cheeks and bid us adieu.

                                                Fort William Henry

                                               Fort William Henry

Fast Food

Not far from Fort William Henry stood a hamburger stand. It was dark now and we availed ourselves of some Adirondack burgers and fries. At a table nearby was a fellow eating his burger. He looked to be a bit older than us. He wore a conservative sports shirt and glasses, was already losing his hair and he gave off a serious vibe.

He might have heard us talking about Montreal or maybe he saw the girls drop us off. But he leaned over and shared that he was driving there this night. We had a ride if we wanted. Of course we did and happily tore into our burgers with the gusto only teenagers can summon.

O Canada back on the road.jpg

Back on the road, he asked us what our business was in Montreal. But we had no business there; we didn’t even know ourselves exactly why we were going. We were just vague, young and full of adventure.

He, on the other hand, matter-of-factly told us of his purpose this day. He was fleeing the draft, the war, America. He had received a letter from his draft board and was told to report to a fort in New Jersey… just about now.

Instead, he told us, he was leaving all this Vietnam stuff and his previous life behind. He was going to live in Canada, where they gave refuge to war resisters, also called draft dodgers depending on your take on the war.

Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, father of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had recently announced that Canada “should be a refuge from militarism” and welcomed all Americans seeking to flee the war. Canada had passed a law allowing Americans to immigrate no matter what their military status. Estimates were up to 40,000 young war resisters, dodgers and deserters fled to the welcoming arms of our neighbor to the north.

                                             Trudeau - Père et fils

                                            Trudeau - Père et fils

I had heard about these resisters but had never met one. His quiet manner was impressive. I had thought I was on some sort of adventure. But this was much bigger and somehow, I was a small part of it.

That Constant Hum

From my pre-teens, through adolescence and right into young adulthood, the Vietnam War was like a dull constant hum in the background of my life. And, I suppose I wasn’t alone.

Starting around age 11, I heard on the news about this place called Vietnam. We had troops there and were fighting the Communists. This sounded bad, but like most Americans I just assumed we would soon win and went about my 11-year-old business – building models, riding my bike, buying new Beatles albums. The only invasion I was interested in was British. 

Entering Junior High, this Vietnam thing was still with us. Shouldn’t we have beaten the Communists by now? The war kept injecting itself into my day, a regular irritant, like homework. But I could still choose to ignore it… except the older brothers of friends were nearing draft age and were starting to get nervous. What was this war about? And what seemed to be the problem? 

Now I was in high school. We were growing up, with all of life’s bumps and joys and yet this war wouldn’t let us be, like a dark reminder – all is not well. You may think you aced that test or got that date but remember, there’s still Vietnam lurking.

Kodak commercial.jpg

The war played on TV every night like a dark, twisted Kodak commercial - “Turn around, turn around, turn around and you’re a young man…” But not so fast - there’s still Vietnam waiting for you…. Don’t get your hopes up. Just put that other bright, happy Kodak future on hold.

Vietnam Protests

Some of the guys in my school enlisted and went over. But my friends and I chose to protest with marches and moratoriums. Soon I would have to register for the draft. And to think, all of this had started back when I was a little kid, just riding my bike to school. It was hard to remember the war not ever being a part of our world.

And yet I didn’t have much contact with anyone directly involved in the war. Until tonight.   

Adirondack Park

Adirondacks

Route 87 travels through the six million acres of Adirondack Park. Perhaps had it been daylight I would taken more interest in its pastoral repertoire of lakes and mountains. But it was night and our driver had turned this journey into something more.

He seemed calm and accepting about this next step he was taking. I was trying to process it: Where was he going to stay? Did he know people in Canada? What kind of work would he do? 

He said there was a network of people that would help him. Also, a friend of a friend – that sort of thing. He just didn’t seem as concerned as I was.

Looking back, I think he wanted someone to bear witness to this moment of his life, hence our ride. Perhaps he didn’t want to exit America alone. He may have been more frightened than he let on and needed our company.

None of that, of course, registered with me. I couldn’t imagine his need for us. What I saw instead was a small window into life ahead. This was what it was like to be in one’s twenties - to set out and chart the course of your life. I hoped I’d be ready when I got to be his age….

Montreal

We breezed through the Canadian border. They were naturally more concerned about the transport of drugs than any violation of U.S. draft laws. Welcome to Canada and leave your marijuana in New York.

Montreal Night

When the lights of Montreal came into view Steve and I had to figure out where to be dropped off. We had very little money between us – something like $50 or $60 dollars total, so we didn’t want to waste it on lodgings. We figured a train station would be good place to sleep the night.

But a sketchy bus station was all we were able to find. When our driver dropped us off we wished him good luck. Yes, he was evading the draft and the war. But his decision took its own kind of courage.

Within the hour he’d be with people who would help him make Canada his new home. Also, within the hour, a pair of Montreal cops would pick up me and Steve at the bus station, depositing us at some kind of home for wayward boys.

Pumped up from our adventure, we couldn’t get to sleep and woke the other boys there with our talking and laughing… for which we were scolded.  

Northern Lights.jpg

Montreal turned out to be lots of fun and we did get to see the Northern Lights – that silent electric dance of the solar wind lighting up the sky with its pulsing colors. I had never seen anything like it.

Turn Around

In 1970 I registered at my high school for the Selective Service. Because I had graduated early and was not yet officially enrolled in college I was classified 1-A, eligible for service

In 1973 fighting officially ceased in Vietnam. But then two years later, the North Vietnamese overran Saigon and South Vietnam surrendered, ending the decades-old war.

Jimmy Carter

In 1977, on his first day in office, President Jimmy Carter pardoned the American war resisters. But tens of thousands who had fled to Canada chose to stay, happy in their new lives there.  

Biosphere on Fire

Around this time, the giant geodesic Biosphere from Expo 67 caught fire and was partially destroyed. Ironically, it was later restored as a water museum and also featured in “Battlestar Galactica”.

Also, in the late 70’s, the Motel-on-the-Mountain closed. I never got to stay there.

Twenty years after the fall of Saigon, in 1995, President Bill Clinton announced renewed diplomatic relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Hanoi

Vietnam is now a major tourist destination and I hope to go there someday. In the meantime, I’ve had business with companies in Hanoi. Which initially felt very strange – Hanoi being the epicenter of my conflicted youth. But I was surprised how quickly I got used to it.

The final coda to this story came in 2013 when the Eastman Kodak Company filed for bankruptcy protection, having been too slow to move from its print film business to the digital age.

Its executives couldn’t fathom a world where those special Kodak Moments would now appear as mere electronic pixels and yet… still make us cry.

“No army can withstand the power of an idea whose time has come.”

-         Victor Hugo 

 

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