Chapter 42—"Oh, Canada"
I returned home Thursday night and found Peter packing his bags, Marty sitting on the edge of his bed looking at a road atlas. “I’m only taking what I can fit on my back and a few things in a suitcase. You keep the rest,” Peter said.
“When are you going?” I picked up Racer and held her tight. I couldn’t bear the thought of Peter and his radishes not being part of my life anymore. Goddamn war.
“In the morning.” He stopped for a second and looked at me “I’ve got a favor to ask you, Becky.”
At that moment I would have promised him my life. I would have gone to Vietnam for him. I would have gone to Canada with him. “Anything.”
“Take care of Racer, my radishes and my jar of guppies.”
“That is actually three favors and I hate radishes.”
“You never told me that. I thought you loved them.”
“I love you, Peter. I only appreciate radishes. The radish you gave me on the porch swing the day I got back from Boston was what I needed. Two years of radishes is enough.” I was trying to convince myself to go radish-free, Peter-free.
“What the hell am I going to do with the guppies?” I asked. Marty gave them to Peter for his birthday three weeks before. He caught them in the stream that separates North and Middle Campus,
“Liberate them. And plant lettuce in the greenhouse if you want.”
“That’s not really taking care of your radishes or guppies, is it?” Tears streamed down my face.
Peter took my hands, pulled me off the bed, and gave me a hug. “I can’t imagine life without you, Peter,” I said.
He didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer. There wasn’t an answer. There was only Peter and me standing there.
He pulled away and looked at me. “Will you drive me to the border?”
“What about your truck?” Peter had one of the best pick-up trucks around. 1957 Ford, dark blue with a red bumper on the front, a replacement for an accident that happened before he bought it.
“I signed it over to Marty. I can’t drive across the border. The guards are on particular alert.”
“How are you getting in?” Don’t have an answer, I prayed to myself silently. Tell me that you haven’t figured that out so you have to stay a few more days, let it never end.
“I’ll walk over and meet up with you somewhere. You’re the only one who can get across without a problem.”
“You can’t just show up in Canada.” I knew he could. Peter could be anywhere and be fine. I wanted him to be safe.
“A group of draft resisters, their families and a few friends live in a small commune north of Winnipeg. They connected me to someone in Pembina, North Dakota where we’ll stay for the night. They’ll show me how to get across the border. You’ll follow with the car, pick me up and drive me to the commune.”
I heard Rick come in the front door. “We’re up here in Peter’s room,” I called.
Rick walked in. “What’s going on in here?” He saw the backpack and an open suitcase. He knew before he asked.
“I’m leaving tomorrow for Winnipeg. If I don’t go now, I’ll never make it. I’m trying to convince Marty and Beck to move up there with me.” He turned and looked at both of us. I looked at Marty.
“It’s a way out, Marty.” I wanted him to say yes so he would be safe and not be killed in Vietnam. I wanted him to say no so I could stay in school, get my degree and become a journalist. I wanted this war to quit ripping my heart out.
Marty looked at me, kissed my forehead and said to Peter, “You know I can’t go. If I went, I’d never see my mom and brother again.”
Never come back. That sounded like a hell of a long time. I knew it was true. Once Peter crossed the border, he couldn’t come back. If he did and got caught, he’d be in jail for a long, long time. If he stayed here and refused they could throw him in jail for a long, long time. Neither choice was the choice of a free man.
Rick went downstairs for food and came back with a tray holding a plate of cherry tomatoes, a box of Ritz crackers, a hunk of cheese, a bottle of Pisano and four glasses. “How are you getting there?”
“Becky’s driving me.”
Rick poured wine for everyone. “To memories and to us together.”
Peter raised his glass and said, “Here’s to new beginnings.”
“I hate beginnings,” I said.
We ate the tomatoes, the cheese and the entire box of Ritz crackers. Peter finished his packing, we laughed, we cried, we remembered. “When I am braving the cold Canada winters, I’ll remember this perfect night and who we were in this house together.”
Marty was going with me. Rick promised to take care of Racer and liberate the guppies in the stream on campus.
We got on the road by seven with a thermos of coffee, some doughnuts and a lunch Rick made for us. I packed my clothes on top of Peter’s in the suitcase in case they checked it. We’d drive to the safe house in Pembina where Marty would stay. Peter would walk over the border with Suki and his backpack. I would drive over and meet up with Peter, drive him to the commune and head back to Pembina.
It was a long trip, almost eight hundred miles. We hoped to make it there before midnight.
We passed the first hour silently. There was nothing to say. Marty drove. Peter sat in the front passenger seat. I sprawled in the back, my head leaning against the door, a blanket pulled up to my shoulders. I wasn’t cold. It was security.
“Coffee and doughnuts anyone?” I poured a cup for Peter and Marty. They put them in the cup holders hanging on the window and put the powdered sugar doughnuts on napkins in their laps. The sun was fully up behind us as we headed west. I looked out the window at the Wisconsin land passing by in a surreal passage of time. I wanted it to stop. Freeze me in it. Time had never been my friend.
Outside of Madison we made our first pit stop. Then knowing we had fourteen more hours, we started singing. The Beatles. The Monkees. The Rolling Stones. The Stones told me that nothing could break a heart of stone. Problem was my heart wasn’t made of stone. It broke easily.
North through Wisconsin. Towards Minnesota. We sang Dylan songs and war protest songs. At noon we found a rest stop past Eau Claire and feasted on cheese sandwiches with tomatoes and lettuce, a few radishes, grapes and a bag of Fritos.
I took over the driving and began with songs that had a state’s name in it. California, Texas, Carolina, Kentucky. We got fifteen.
We played the alphabet game. We kept track of license plates.
We hit Minneapolis at 3:30, Peter asleep in the back, Marty asleep in the seat next to me in the front. On the half hour I listened to the news. “Violence has erupted on college campuses across the country. Estimates are that nearly four million students are being affected by these student strikes, more than one-third of all college students. Thousands plan to invade Washington D.C. as protests continue against Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia.” Strange they called our protests an invasion. The newscaster went on to say that on many major campuses students occupied buildings. Police beat students. Buildings burned.
“Shit,” I thought, as Marty and Peter slept.
We pulled into Pembina at about eleven, a town of less than six hundred people, a stop on the Underground Railroad. They’ve been helping people to freedom for a long time. We located the address and were greeted at the door with hugs, juice and a pan of cheese lasagna. We would make plans in the morning. That night we slept.
We woke up late the next morning to the smell of fresh biscuits and scrambled eggs. We spent the day nervously planning, taking walks through the small town, waiting. Peter would cross the border that night between one and two a.m. about three miles northwest from where we stayed. From there he and Suki would be on their own to find the prearranged meeting spot, a small café four and a half miles up the road on the other side of the border, about a six mile walk from where we dropped him off. He had a hand drawn map, some written directions, signposts, houses to look for, a small country road to walk down, another field to go through. He would finally hit the main road about five miles up from the border if he’d done it right. A half-mile walk back and if all went well I would be waiting for him. If all went well.
We dropped Peter and Suki off shortly after 1:30 a.m. We gave him a flashlight but the half-moon lit the way. My heart was in my throat. I was scared. I was sad. I was angry. I had no idea how Peter felt. He looked calm. I hugged him and told him I’d see him in the morning. Marty hugged him longer. They both knew. If Peter got caught, he would end up in jail. Either way, they might never see each other again.
We went back to the house to wait, all night, awake, couldn’t sleep. Time went slowly, ever so slowly, tick tock tick.
I arrived at the border at 7:00.
I handed him my driver’s license.
“Where are you headed?”
“The University of Winnipeg.”
“You a student there?”
“Hope to be. I’m applying for an internship in anthropology for the summer.”
“Good luck.” He gave me back my driver’s license and waved me on. He didn’t check the suitcase. I breathed again.
I found the café four and a half miles up, sat by the front window and ordered a cup of coffee. Two cups later I saw Peter walking down the road towards the café. I threw a buck on the table and ran out to hug him. Suki practically jumped into my arms. His crossing had been damp, cold and flawless. The first thing he did was get a dry pair of socks out of the suitcase.
Winnipeg was an hour and a half ride up the road. We arrived by mid-morning. After hugs and introductions we toured the place. Fourteen people lived there. A common house held the kitchen, dining area, a big room for hanging out and a couple of small rooms on the side that served as temporary sleeping quarters for new folks or visitors. Scattered around, but near the house, were small cabins.
Behind the common house was a giant garden plot for the short planting season and an even bigger greenhouse for the winter. Radishes sprouted through the ground.
Peter knelt in the garden, picked up some soil and let it sift through his fingers. He pulled a few weeds from between the radish plants. I knelt beside him, picked a radish, wiped off the visible dirt and handed it to him. “Welcome home,” I said.
He took a bite. “Thanks.” He handed the radish back to me. I took a bite. Our private communion service. He picked Suki up, hugging her hard.
“Marty and I could be happy here raising vegetables.”
Peter looked at me and smiled. “Your life is there.”
“But what is Marty going to do? What are we going to do?”
“His path will become clear.” Peter brushed the dirt off of his hands, stood up and took both my hands to help me up.
I left early the next morning, leaving a small hole in my heart next to the one for Jeff and Hook. I didn’t want to let go of Peter. “You can’t ever come back, can you?”
“Not unless they change the laws. Don’t worry about me. I’m home.” He was.
“You’re going to miss everything,” I held him longer. “Your graduation. My graduation. My marriage. Everything.”
Peter wiped the tears off my cheeks with his bandana. “It’s okay not to be free to go into a country I wasn’t free in anyhow. I’m not angry or afraid anymore.” I never knew he was either one.
“I will write you every week. Promise me you’ll write back. And I’ll be back to visit. I promise.” I knelt by Suki and scratched her behind the ears, tickled her nose and gave her a squeeze. I was going to miss her. She was going to miss Racer. I hugged Peter again and drove away. That’s how it is with friends. You love them for as long as you can and then you keep on loving them.
I did the reverse at the border. “Where are you from?”
“What were you doing in Canada?”
“Visiting the University of Winnipeg.” They let me through.
I ate chocolate covered peanuts and cried the whole way back to Chicago. I feared what was coming next.
U.S. Soldier Body Count: 51,012