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Viet Nam Generation
Journal & Newsletter

V4, N1-2 (April 1992)

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Valid Offers, Technical Truth, Part I

Tom Yori

Excerpted from Twentieth Century Twosteps, a memoir of Yori's experiences as a Viet Nam War era draft dodger, 1970-1972, in progress.

The alarm clock buzzed in the dark that Sunday morning and I turned it off. I didn't turn on a light, but went about dressing in the darkness, just before 5:30 in the morning. My clothes for the trip had been all laid out the night before--Gary's pants, Gary's sweater, and Gary's socks too. Also those gorgeous wingtips. I step into them as easily as bedroom slippers; it's like putting on Daddy's boots. The shirt and tie and jacket are courtesy of Bruce across the hall. He's bigger than me, heavier than me by twenty pounds. From neck to toe I sloshed around, fitting the last few odds and ends in the carefully prepared suitcase. My own few tattered rags were packed at the bottom. They'd be seen there of course if someone inspected the suitcase but I was just exercising my half-assed psychology: I wanted the decent impressions to come first. At the very bottom were my manuscripts, saved from theft, saved through everything.

I unplugged the alarm clock and packed it in the open suitcase, Gary's suitcase. I made myself breakfast while light began to come in the windows. I ate well, I know. I think it was eggs and perhaps bacon, which we hadn't given ourselves for breakfast in our stay, and potatoes I think. And a piece of orange cake. It may have been the last. Cindy baked it the night before, and we celebrated my job offer and trip to the border where I would become a landed immigrant that morning. The night before I think we even bought me beer; we weren't going to wait for my return. When I returned, we would have a REAL celebration, unclouded by the inescapable thought of something going wrong.

If everything went right, I'd come back early Sunday afternoon, a certified real human being again. We'd take some of the forty-five dollars cash and buy beer and enough food to choke on; early Monday I'd get up with a crashing hangover and lots of moaning, go to the bank and cash my check, buy the banjo I've been looking at for two months, and board a bus and be on my way to my job as a desk clerk in British Columbia. I've been here in Van two months. In order to get Landed today I have to pull off a Spontaneous Application; that is, cross south back into the States, travel east in Washington to a quiet border crossing, then swing north and have an interview with a Canadian immigration official as though I'm coming up from the U.S. Which, technically, I am...

I am now six weeks overdue to report for induction; there may or may not have been a warrant out for me. Our intelligence was lacking on this point; the Committee gave me the name and ID of a student from London, Ontario and told me, "If for any reason your application is denied"--that is, at the Canadian side of the border--"and you have to go back"--that is through U.S. customs--"use your Canadian ID."

And if my application was denied, I would have to go to another station to return to Canada and Vancouver. To recapitulate: Into the U.S. from Vancouver under Canadian ID (which claimed I was three inches taller than my actual height and brown of eyes whereas I am actually blue), then laterally to another station to apply spontaneously (remember, there was no time to arrange an appointment) at a Canadian station for immigration. Thence, if the application is favored, into Canada, free, and to my job, where immigration officials would check on me subsequently to confirm that I was straight. And finally, if the border man crapped me, I'd return to the U.S. under Canadian ID, return to the original point of crossing, and return to Vancouver to hope for better luck another day.

Everything was ready, then, when the alarm clock buzzed. I had my immigration file in the suitcase, a gorgeous tissue of plausible lies saying I was educated, law-abiding, of high moral character, solvent. And the letter of employment from the Latvian couple.

I had forty-five dollars American cash in my pocket; I think we'd gone to the bank and withdrawn all but the last of our collected account. In my wallet I had carefully folded the $300 check from my brother. Still with my name on it. There: me.

Now. I am finishing my orange cake. There was another piece, I am giving it the eye and telling it to say its prayers. My fingers are twitching in its direction while my social conscience tells me to leave some for Gary and Cindy, but the fingers are cleaning up every remaining crumb short of that last piece, and even the crusted frosting. Meanwhile, I am Thinking Positive stuff about a bigger cake later that day. I am attempting to impose serenity upon myself, along these lines:

"There's probably not a warrant out for me yet. But if there is..."

How un-serene.

"If the application is refused, I'll just come back... and pay the rent in two days..."

So that shoots the bankroll in the ass. And then I'll have to hunt another job...and I've already run into devout annaCommanists offering jobs...

"Hold on kid. You live in a roachless kingdom. You don't have to go out on street corners and panhandle. You wear Gary's clean clothes. You get enough to eat. All right allright: almost enough to eat. So you dream about ten-cent hot dogs--you're not eating wallpaper, the way they did in Leningrad."

Leningrad! Here's a thought: Latvia is a country overrun by Communists. I am opposing a war against Communists; in this I am being aided by...Latvians. A reassuring irony, no?

Somehow I remain unserene. I can't forget that we cross the street only at corners. Because the Mounties stop jaywalkers. "But they don't set up roadblocks in the street and demand your papers," I argue. "You've been here two months--they haven't come to the door once."

No. They sat at the curb outside. Sometimes in the night they turned on the lights of the patrol car and let them shine in the dark.

"Wait! What are you afraid of?"

In Gary's case, being returned back to the stockade at Fort Leavenworth...

"That's him. What about you?"

Well. Basically, I guess I'm afraid of having to fight for myself. I'm a good Catholic kid; I don't believe I deserve anything.

Thus my serenity that Sunday morning. I polished that rotten cake plate until it shines, my mind a dull scab holding back a gush of pus. And then I put on the clothes that weren't mine. I had shaved the night before, when Gary and Cindy and I hoked up Gary's suitcase; books, a razor, personal items that added (we figured) to reflect a normal person. A Bible. A Bible man.

I could really learn to hate myself. Nixon does these things!

And this is what angers me most, this shameful, absurd, repulsive act of the Pharisee. It's this relentless, nauseating demand that I advertise myself and parade and exaggerate and cosmetize and proclaim myself and my ordinary nature into something extraordinary. That I primp myself out like a cheap whore and jiggle out that 20th Century Twostep.

It is this relentless act of prostitution, in gaining employment or admission to college--even to stay out of prison--that has characterized my every adult moment; it has become my personal devil. Sometimes I think this devil is Wealth; sometimes I think he is America. What I call the simple truth always works somehow to my disadvantage-- sometimes because money doesn't work that way, and sometimes because America doesn't.

Therefore, my devil is always whispering to me: Lie. Be a realist.

As I left the apartment, Gary and Cindy came from the bedroom (I slept in the living/dining room/kitchen) and wished me luck. Cindy and I hugged. Gary had been in prison; we shook hands.

It was about six-thirty in the morning now, Sunday morning. The streets were still and calm; the gardens in front yards still in flower. Birds twittered, before the noises of the street drowned them out. I only had a walk of half a mile before me, but I remember being pretty sweated when I arrived and knocked at the front door. From this house I would be taken to the crash pad the Committee kept, a couple miles away; and from the Committee's crash pad I would be taken to the house of an adult Canadian who volunteered to ride people like me to the border. And back, of course.

But the first house I arrived at didn't respond to my knock. I scurried back to the street to check the address: yes, it was the right place. I knocked again. Then again, louder. Finally I heard a voice responding within. The door was answered by a sleepy male about my age. I told him that so-and-so was supposed to give me a ride to the crash pad. So-and-so wasn't home.

But that was all right, the person who answered the door would give me the ride. The clock on the mantle said 6:50. So I was still early. That was good: it was important to get me to a border station early that morning in order to get myself an interview, while they weren't busy. The later I arrived, the more likely that they'd be too busy to take me...or that they'd say so.

I waited at this house fifteen or twenty minutes. A little something hadn't gone according to plan. The door- answerer had to call the owner of the Volkswagen outside to come and give me a ride.

Finally he came. We rode to the main house, the Committee's crash pad. I stepped in. There before me was a floor of bodies sleeping in bags. In the kitchen, in the doorway, wherever you put your foot, someone was sleeping on the hard wood floor--way down on the comfort scale, just a notch above concrete.

I hope most of these guys will just be here a few days. Asleep here are some of the best: good soldiers, loyal friends, guys with wives, guys with kids, guys whose families won't send them a nickel or a word of love. Somewhere in this room there may well be playing--right now--a nightmare of the Nam. How will these guys make it?

Some of the worst are here too. Jerky flag-burners. Yippie kids full of countercultural sturm und dreck.

Also--wanna bet?--an undercover agent.

Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters. Cross only at corners.

It's after seven o'clock now. The driver who rode me here is waking up someone else who will ride me to the place where someone else will ride me to the border and across; this second driver required rousting from sleep and a cup of coffee. Finally, we go off in his battered Volvo.

We arrive, maybe ten miles later, in a suburb of Vancouver and stop before a suburban house. The man who will drive me is forty or fifty, about my height and weight but bald all over his dome. As soon as he begins speaking I feel comforted and reassured by him. George is a white-collar sort, very middle class, very respectable--a very different part of the spectrum from the usual beard. He's volunteered to perform this chore for the Committee to Aid American War Resisters, and I'm also reassured to learn I'm not his first case. But my palms still sweat and my stomach quivers.

There is another delay here. A telephone call has to be made--I only remember the sweat of my palms slipping on the phone. What was it? Was this where I mentioned not cashing the check, was I seeking that last-minute advice? Or were we attempting to reach a border station to arrange a hasty appointment? Perhaps the call was initiated without consulting me and I was explaining that, no, I couldn't cross the border to arrange an appointment from the States after staying there a few days, I had to go now.

At this point, I may not have been able to remember after a lapse of ten minutes. I was trying to grasp my Character the way I used to before going onstage in high school, but the character is me and I have no understanding whatever of what is going on. All I remember clearly is asking the operator the toll charges, and leaving change on the telephone table. At least to this extent, I can pay my way.

Finally we leave. We ride in a clean Volkswagen van. The melange of voices directing me through the driver has given us our plan: we will cross at Bellingham, then go east fifteen or twenty miles where I'll make my big pitch. My driver and I chat calmly. Certain facts stick in my mind, but I can now recall not one detail of the scenes we passed through. Until we arrive at the border.

The highway to Bellingham, Washington is busy; a line of vehicles is before us waiting to enter the United States. But the line creeps forward steadily and our turn arrives. The officer asks a few questions of the driver and then peers at me, his face low in the window for a good look.

If adrenaline were fire we'd all be in hell. I remember to look the official in the eye; thank God I don't stumble over the simple story. I'm going to visit friends of my driver's in Bellingham for a few days. Yes, we know each other. I'm not a dastardly hitch-hiker.

"OK," he says and waves us on. God.

Jesus, I'm on my way to do this again. We turn off the highway a few miles south, and head east. We come to the back country. As the wheels hum their tunes along the bumpy road and as we pass farms, I cast my eye at the fields and barns and Holsteins. I am a melodic phrase in the symphony of motion and travel. A half-seen face that flits by these cows somewhere in the figure between their morning statement and evening reprise. I am the world that passes by these struggling farmers and their half overgrown fields, the consumer who drinks their milk, the laborer who builds their silos, the radical they would slam behind bars, the prodigal son, the unfaithful servant, the sympathizer for their long days and hard work, powerless to stop their downhill slide. I'm a man, like any other man. I don't see the end and half forget the beginning and I go along, doing the best I can, the best I can, the best I can, and the wheels pace off the concrete's tarry seams.

We stop at a country store. It sells clothes, food, beer, a little of everything; its floors are wooden and the other people are in their work clothes. I buy two packs of Camels for Gary--he loves those lung-murderers. The people are what I am hearing referred to, more and more, as "rednecks." On TV commercials they're greasy leering slobs. But I just see people with tired faces, trying to stay decent. In an area like this, they hate the unions; they're sure it's the Left that screws them. And they vote for Goldwater and Wallace and Nixon. Folks, I'm giving up. America: save it or screw it.

What time is it? I don't know; nine, ten o'clock by now. We close in on the crossing of our choice. Everything is ready. We pass the United States customs station, cross the border separating two of the world's largest nations, the New World in two versions, and stop at Canadian customs. OK, let the ramp of this LST down, let me face the man that's gonna...ask me some questions.

Continue to Part II

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