Standing by the side of the road, the passage of the past four decades can almost seem palpable: some days it seems like only a moment has passed, and other days the journey seems like it happened eons ago. It was the July 4th weekend of 1971. Joe and Judy and Dawn and I were on the road. More accurately, as Judy likes to say now, it was “our” road trip. How magical to be coursing up through the middle of Connecticut, out through the Berkshires of Massachusetts, along the turnpike snaking up into the higher Taconics of New York, and then finally out onto the open rural highway that cuts along the backbone of New York between the Adirondack and the Green Mountains of Vermont toward the Canadian border.
This nation and world were still very political (in the most positive sense of change) places then. Abbie Hoffman summed up the zeitgeist of the era best when he said (and I paraphrase here) that it felt like you could jump on the earth and it would jump back in response. What heady times to be an activist!
I drove Dawn’s ’67 green Ford Mustang, not entirely an inappropriate machine for a road trip. Our destination was Renfrew, Canada, about 90 miles north of Ottawa in the province of Ontario. We were going to visit my friend Donny who was building a house among the open spaces of Renfrew, beside a river that was bordered by mountains to the west. After finishing an enlistment in the Navy, Donny had searched the globe looking for a place to escape the culture clashes of the ’60s and early ’70s. He was doing what had come naturally to tens of thousands of expatriates before him. Some went voluntarily, while others were on the run from the military and conscription.
Our first encounter with the ever-present culture wars took place at a small restaurant just south of the Canadian border in upstate New York. We had stopped for dinner as night fell and sat in a booth along a wall in the back of the establishment. This eatery was frequented by locals and our presence immediately drew the interest from a group of men who sat at a counter near the front of the restaurant. “Hey, look at all of those girls sitting back there.” I imagined that many who had fled the grasp of the military and draft during the Vietnam War had stopped at places just like this one before crossing the border to freedom. And the locals were probably well aware of that reality that was stoked by a hatred of long hair on men and everything to do with the counterculture. Not one to pull punches, Joe immediately countered the harassing statements.
All of these years later, Judy remembers the raucous climate that this interaction caused. She relates how we were escorted out of town by the local police. I have no such memory of that event, but trust that Judy’s recollection is quite accurate.
Within an hour or two, we crossed the Canadian border. I felt a sense of relief since I had developed a visceral dislike for “patriotic” holidays and all of the national chauvinism that went with them. I had been in the antiwar movement for three years at that point and I had stopped attending Army Reserve training meetings months before. I was just beginning to formulate a defense to the inevitable order to active duty that was certain to come as an answer from the government to my resistance to the outrages of the Vietnam War and militarism.
We spent the night in adjoining rooms in a motel beside a lake. Everything in the place reeked of humidity and sleeping on or between the sheets was what it must have felt like sleeping on a layer of fresh glue.
Donny’s house in Renfrew was under construction (he was building it himself with the help of friends). All that existed of the edifice was the deck of the ground floor and a kitchen area that was covered. An outhouse had been built at the edge of the property. We spent our first night in Renfrew in a van that one of Donny’s friends had driven up from the States, as we lasted only minutes outside under the barrage of mosquitoes and other night flyers who descended upon us with the intensity of those who knew the Canadian summer only promised a short life.
Day two proved to be the most interesting day of the trip from my perspective. Dawn and I went out with a real estate agent looking at small parcels of land nearby. The agent also carried plans for small houses along with him in his car. We hadn’t actually decided to move to Canada, and just wanted to find out what the costs were in making such a Herculean move. In any case, the real estate agent was much more interesting than the land or houses that he had to sell.
Who could have guessed that we would quickly become involved in discussing issues of war and peace, but such were the times. The real estate agent was a veteran of the Nazi war machine during World War II. He quickly sensed that our search for land and a home was a little more involved than an ordinary client that he might encounter. I clearly remember his words four decades later. “What could I have done? To resist the Nazi war machine would have been a death sentence for me.” Here, all of these miles from home, was the gist of any argument to resist war. What does an individual do in the face of the immorality of war?
The ride back to the U.S. was notable only for the fact that Dawn and I were broke and hungry, having used Dawn’s gas credit card for the many purchases of fuel needed for the roundtrip. I remember how ghostly the apparitions the trees alongside the road made as Dawn and I drove out of east-central Connecticut back to Rhode Island where we had been briefly staying with my parents.
I wonder if anyone takes road trips these days? With the draft long abolished and endless wars being fought, I think that the questions of individual conscience and the immorality of all wars still pose the same moral dilemma in an age when innocent civilians bear the brunt of all conflicts.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of “Notes of a Military Resister: Looking Back From a Time of Endless War: (2011).