Wednesday, April 13, 2016


I got word awhile back that my old college roommate Mary had died of a sudden heart attack, and since she’s now beyond any government’s reach, I can safely tell her story.  Understand that all this happened nearly 50 years ago, so the principals are all dead, or far beyond the statute of limitations, or living in another country.  I daresay the boat is now gone, too.

We were in college at the University of Michigan at the height of the Vietnam War, and the protests against it, working particularly to help boys escape the draft.  Yes, boys: in those days, legal age was 21 – but draft age was 18.  We got involved when our student newspaper did an expose on some professors who were in the habit of taking down the names of male students whose grades slipped to C or below, and sending them to the local draft board.  We connected with the draft-resistance people, and Mary got us into the definitely-illegal business of getting boys whose Number Had Come Up over the border into Canada.  Since I was taking Art classes, and using the techniques thereof to forge ID cards for the escapees, I had very little idea what Mary was up to…

…Right up until the Friday afternoon she dashed into our room and said: “You’ve got to help me.  There are four ‘packages’ I’ve got to ship tonight, and my usual buddy is in the hospital.”  Having a rough idea what that meant, I agreed to help.  I grabbed up four fresh IDs, we threw on our cold-weather clothes, ran down to the corner where a friend in a nondescript car picked us up, and took off.  The drive was long, and after awhile I realized that we were bypassing Detroit.

“Where are we going?” I finally asked.

“The lake shore,” said Mary.  “You don’t need to know exactly where.”

“I thought we were going to drive them across the Ambassador Bridge,” I gasped, knowing that was the quickest way from Detroit to the city of Windsor, Canada.

“We can’t do that anymore,” Mary explained.  “The cops have taken to searching the crossing cars and busses, on every bridge across the rivers.  We’re going straight across the lake.”

I gulped, knowing that the lake she meant was Lake Saint Clair, and this was autumn.

To pause for a brief geography lesson, Lake Saint Clair is the little lake connecting the St. Clair and Detroit rivers, which in turn connect Lake Huron and Lake Erie.  Detroit is at the southern end of the lake, where the Detroit River begins, with Windsor on the other side.  The lake is less than 30 miles across, but it’s still part of the most heavily trafficked waterway in the world.

“How?” I managed.

“Sailboat,” she said.  “A 20-foot sloop, very easy to steer.”

“Uhuh.  Why me?” I asked.  “I don’t know anything about sailboats.”

“You’re reliable,” Mary ticked off on her fingers, “You’re a strong swimmer, and you can at least paddle a canoe.  The Canadian Indians used to paddle canoes full of whiskey clear across Lake Superior during Prohibition.”

This didn’t reassure me. 

We pulled off the highway, drove through some very upscale neighborhoods, and down to the shore by a tree-lined road that could have been anywhere between Grosse Pointe Farms and Saint Clair Shores.  We stopped by a short wooden dock, with nothing else around but a few tree-flanked well-to-do houses, five people and a small sailboat, just at sunset.  Out on the broad water, I could see a distant ore-freighter, heading northeast. 

The wind was light but steady, flickering the furled sails on the trim little boat.  I knew nothing of sailboats, but I could tell that she looked…neat, is the best way to put it.  Her hull was painted dark green, her mast was of dark wood, and the lines I could see were slender and looked to be made of something other than common rope.

There was a gray-haired man walking about on the deck, frowning thoughtfully, tugging at the lines here and there.  He straightened up as he saw us get out of the car.  Mary walked down the dock, stepped onto the boat and started talking to him quietly.  The only words I heard him say were: “Bring her back in once piece, dammit.” 

I turned to the four other people on the dock – clearly the ‘packages’ – and began handing out the false ID cards.  The first of the lot was a stocky young man who was having trouble keeping tears out of his eyes.  The second was a skinny Black kid who looked as if a strong wind would blow him away.  The third was an even skinnier White boy who didn’t look a day older than 13, but had a new wedding ring on his finger.  The fourth, who wouldn’t let go of the third one’s hand, was a painfully young girl – also wearing a new wedding ring, and clearly pregnant.  I had to shuffle the IDs a bit to give her one with a gender-neutral name.  One didn’t ask escapees why they were willing to give up their citizenship to get away from the draft, but I could make some good guesses.

“These are school IDs,” I explained.  “Memorize them.  Hide all your other IDs, and put these in your wallets.  You’ll have to get better ID when you reach Canada, but these will do if anyone stops us during the crossing.  We’ll say we’re a bunch of students, taking the weekend off to go sailing.”

At that point Mary and the gray-haired man came up off the boat.  The man walked away, not looking back, but Mary came up and gave all of us life-jackets, and me a quick list of the parts of the boat and how to work them.  It soon became obvious that Mary was going to sit at the tiller, and I’d have the job of moving the sails around.  The others were to sit in the hold and keep still.  “It’s going to be a long night,” she said, as she moved the escapees into the hold, “Even with a good wind.”

“What wind have we got?” I asked, dutifully untying the boat from the dock as the last of the sun slid under the horizon.

“Due east, and due to pick up,” said Mary.  “Call it the draft-dodgers’ wind.”

With that, she gave me a paddle so I could sidle the boat away from the dock.  I was surprised at how easily that 20-foot boat could be moved with a single paddle.  Then came more orders on how to raise and set the sails, while she worked the tiller.  The work was complicated and laborious, but again, I was amazed at how responsive the little boat was.  Finally I took two small lamps and hung them out on the bow and stern, and we set out into the dark, running – as Mary said – before the wind.

The wind did indeed pick up.  The sails filled and grew difficult to manage.  Twice the boom-crutch got knocked into the water, and I had to fish it back by the line tied to it while Mary swore at the delay.  Except for the wind, I had no idea where we were headed.  Except for the dim and tiny light from the lamps, and intermittent gleams from the three-quarter moon, I couldn’t see a thing beyond the boat.  Mary warned us that we were drawing near the shipping channel, so I kept constant watch for any lights on the water that would have meant another boat;  some very big ships cruised these waters, and not just the Coast Guard.  I trusted that Mary was steering by her compass, and knew where we were. 

I did bother to ask what speed we were making, to which Mary gleefully replied “Almost 17 knots.”  Knowing how wide Lake Saint Clair is, I did a rough calculation as to how long the trip would take us, and felt a little more reassured.

That’s when we saw the ship lights.

There were a lot of them, and they were big.  There was one ship directly ahead of us, going northeast, another beyond that heading southwest, and a third coming right toward us from the north.  Mary swore fiercely and yelled at me to take the tiller, which I did, and she got up and ran to work the sails.  I hauled right and left as she ordered, and the boat turned fiercely.  This shoved the passengers around, and the girl began to wail.  Mary yelled for quiet, and got it, and tied the sails down. 

I saw then that she’d steered us out of sight of the oncoming ship, crossing the wake close behind the northeast-bound ship, and set to likewise pass behind the southwest-bound one.  The ship’s wake made the sailboat buck, bouncing the passengers around again.  The stocky boy announced that he was going to be sick, and I snapped at him, “Over the rail!”  The girl started crying again, though quietly, and her young husband murmured softly to her.  The Black kid tried to sing jauntily about “Round and round, and-a up and down” to keep his courage up, but he was off-key.  I heard the stocky boy retching, and hoped he’d thought to do it downwind.

Mary shushed them all, a little more gently this time, and explained.  The sailboat, she said, was all wood – not enough metal for radar or sonar to notice – and this had advantages and disadvantages.  The advantage, especially in the dark, was that nobody could see us and report what they’d seen to any government agency.  Likewise, the ship being without engines, nobody could hear us if we kept ourselves quiet.  The disadvantage was that, since nobody could see us, a ship could run right over us in the dark.  The little running lights were just enough to make us technically legal, so if anyone did see us they’d be unlikely to think twice about it.  They weren’t enough to give warning to any of the big ships, such as ore freighters.  We’d have to do all the ducking and dodging ourselves.  Fortunately, our boat was agile enough to manage it.  While the kids were thinking over the implications of that, Mary went back to the tiller and I moved up to the bow to watch for more lights.

There were more of them, all through the next hour.  Fortunately none of them were close enough to make us zig and zag so fiercely again, and the wind stayed reliably steady.  The only real problem we ran into was the passengers needing bathroom services, and we had only an empty coffee-can.

When the ship-lights thinned out, Mary checked her watch and guessed that we were approaching her landing-point on the Canadian shore (remember, this was long before GPS locators).  Now I looked for dim stationary lights, far apart, and eventually I saw them.  Mary traded places with me again and went to lower the sails.  Then followed a miserable hour of tacking back and forth along the shore, looking for a particular light.  “Look for a campfire,” Mary said, and we all looked, but saw nothing.  Eventually Mary decided we were too far north, so we turned and floated on the current for a couple miles – for which I was very grateful, since my arms were about to give up. 

Finally we saw the campfire, on a narrow stretch of pebbly beach.  We lowered the sails completely, broke out the paddles – and I recruited the stocky boy to help – and rowed toward the fire until the boat’s hull scraped on the pebbles.  A half-dozen people left the campfire and came running down to the water to secure the boat and help the escapees off onto land.  Our passengers needed the help;  they were all wobbly on their legs.

For that matter, so were we.  Mary secured the anchors, and broke out two sleeping-bags.  “Get some rest,” she said.  “We’re going to have to sail back again, remember.  It’ll be easier by daylight, but we don’t know what the wind will do.”

While I was gratefully spreading out my sleeping-bag, one of the receiving crew brought us a picnic basket full of sandwiches and thermos bottles of hot herb tea.  By the time we’d finished, the receiving crew had vanished -- after shoveling and raking away every sign that they’d ever been there.  We rolled up in our sleeping-bags and got to sleep before dawn.

By the time we woke, it was nearly noon and the wind had shifted;  now it was light and northwestward.  I was stiff with cramps, and I suspect Mary was too, but we crawled out of the sleeping-bags, hauled in the anchors, broke out the paddles again and pried the boat off the pebbles.  50 yards out, we put up the sails and started back toward Michigan.

It was a much slower cruise, going home.  There were more ships, large and small, but plenty of time to see and avoid them.  There were also many sailboats, much like ours.  Nobody paid us much attention, and we didn’t lose the boom-crutch even once. 

It took only an hour to find our original launch-site, which showed me that Mary had sailed this route before, but I didn’t ask.  The gray-haired man was waiting at the dock, eager to help tie up the boat and inspect it for damage, and very relieved to find no harm done except some scratches in the paint.  He and Mary went off for a brief talk while I sat down to wait for our ride back to school.  It occurred to me that I still had a whole day to study for Monday classes, and that seemed incredible.

In later years I told this story a few times, but I mislabeled our actual route.  That was really the only time I sailed with Mary on the draft-dodger wind, but I don’t doubt she made many other trips.  I eventually wrote a song about it, which disguised the details even further.  I’ve often wondered if the old Who song, “Wooden Ships”, wasn’t a vague reference to the liberation sailboat system, for I doubt if Mary was the only such sailor.

What I do know is that the war eventually ended without any government agency catching, or possibly even learning about, the little sailboats that all their diligence couldn’t see or hear.       

            And there is no such thing as outdated technology.
            Knowledge forgotten puts freedom in sight.
            We sail out unnoticed by radar and sonar,
            And take you to freedom tonight. 


... said...

Amazing. I had no idea, as young as I am, that such an underground "railroad" existed. You leave me wanting to learn more.

Leslie Fish said...

Come to think of it, nobody has yet written a history of the draft-resistance during the Vietnam War. Hmmm... No, aside from my own limited participation, I don't know that much about it, not enough for a decent history. ...Hey, why not you? I can at least tell you where to start searching. Start with a group called the Mobilization Against the War, called "the Mobe" for short.

... said...

Sure! I'll work on it inbetween watching my soaps. -_-

Actually, there is someone I know who is a historical fiction writer that might be interested. These kinds of things are right up his alley. I'll email you.

Technomad said...

Sounds like a revival of the old "Italian Navy." During Prohibition days, there were a lot of boats bringing booze across that lake, and the locals would joke that the "Italian Navy" was out in force.

I wonder what would have happened if, instead of a draft, they had just made it so that no college would even look at any (male) applicant who didn't have either an other-than-dishonorable discharge, or written proof that he had tried to join the military and been turned down for good cause? When I was in college, the difference between the veterans and those who'd come straight from high school was like the difference between diamonds and creek pebbles. (FWIW, I was a creek pebble myself, so I know whereof I speak.)

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Nomad. I often wondered why the army was so frantic to draft 18-year-olds, myself; it contributed to one of the great complaints about the war, that boys were drafted to fight in wars they couldn't vote on. I've also thought that it might be a good idea to give kids a year of work experience before shunting them straight into college. I believe Switzerland has a system sort of like yours, and it hasn't done them any harm that I can see. For one thing, you don't see all the Politically Correct idiocy in Swiss colleges that you see here.

Technomad said...

Part of the problem with Vietnam (and Korea, although to a lesser degree) was that Our Beloved Leaders thought that they had found the ultimate solution to war: Lots and lots of stalwart citizen-soldiers, with only a leavening of professionals. After all, that was how we won World War II. Victory can be worse for a military establishment than defeat, in the long run; those who were defeated take long, careful looks at their militaries and techniques, and ruthlessly cull the things that didn't work out.

The draft worked all right in World Wars One and Two because everybody in the country pretty much agreed with the wars. Anti-war sentiment was minimal in WWI, and all but nonexistent in WWII. Korea was less popular, but a lot of the guys who went were WWII veterans, and there was a large cadre of veteran NCOs and officers. Vietnam, OTOH---the WWII vets were mostly retiring, and the ones who were still in were mostly the ones who hadn't been promoted in earlier wars and had stayed in because it was easier than civvy street. (Anthony Herbert's book Soldier has some enlightening stuff about this.)

Also, there was a lot less support for the war, and what with social upheavals going on at home, it was a bad time to be fighting a "war of choice," particularly since the people in charge were not very competent to be in charge of a war.

The antiwar movement, OTOH, hurt itself by allowing open communist sympathizers to have prominent roles, which set it way back with a lot of Americans. I still think that going with the early John Birch Society line that the Vietnam war was a commie plot to get America bogged down would have been a better idea. "LBJ's a commie rat, parlez-vous! LBJ's a commie rat, parlez-vous! LBJ's a commie rat, so's Macnamara, come to that! Hinky-dinky parlez-vous!" And protesters outside the White House with signs saying that LBJ was Khrushchev's puppet would have been funny.

Leslie Fish said...

Another problem with the Vietnam war was threatening to draft kids in college. College kids knew how to do research, and bothered to research the history of Vietnam. I remember the first big Teach-In at U. of Mich, and the facts the scholars had dug up were amazing. Ho Chih Minh used to love America; he was our best friend in Asia during WWII, based his new constitution on ours, and wanted to stay pals with the US -- right up until we sold him out to the French, who had done damn-near nothing in WWII. And never mind what the Diem family was like! After the bad taste left by the Korean war, fighting for the wrong side was a bit much for anybody who knew the score.

The antiwar movement started out by banning communists -- the SDS membership card had a pledge on the back not to support "any totalitarian regime or ideology" -- but that got pushed aside when the movement started getting desperate for members. Bad mistake, agreed. I've seen that same lack of caution bring down other grassroots political movements since. The only solution I can see is to be very clear on your ideology, and strict on membership qualifications, right from the start. If that means an occasional purge, so be it.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Small countries and empires on the rise fight huge existential wars that tend to have popular support. Powerful empires, on the other hand, have the luxury of fighting small wars on the borders to deal with potential threats long before they become existential. Because there is no clear and present danger, such wars cannot be fought with conscripts unless their families and friends are so unimportant what they think does not matter (USSR in Afghanistan, for example).

After WWI, the US tried to let the rest of the world run itself. That didn't work well, it took 21 years until "all the world war upturned in war". Post WWII the US became an empire, but we resist the change and try to pretend otherwise.

KateGladstone said...

What’s the song that you “at the end? Where may I see/hear it in full?

KateGladstone said...

The reputed origin-story of “Wooden Ships”: (clock the top of the page, where there is a black box.)