Outbound Train

"Mike and I had both earned college scholarships with our performances as high school distance runners and were formulating plans for our lives that did not include Vietnam or our home state, which is why he had agreed to drive me to the Canadian National Train station in Windsor, Ontario."

Outbound Train
Canadian National Train, Eastbound Through the Northern Rocky Mountains

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” - Leo Tolstoy

The water from atop the bridge was a cold and steely blue and even though I was barely an hour from home I felt as if I were abandoning all I had known. The emotional response was uncontrollable and I looked back over my shoulder at the skyline of Detroit beginning to shimmer and fade in the December snow flurries. When I turned back to stare through the windshield, little Windsor was rising up to fill the glass with shadows and red taillights as we rolled into the border customs checkpoint on the Canadian side of the Ambassador Bridge.

“You act like you’re going away forever,” Mike said. “I doubt that will be the case.”

“Not on this trip,” I said. “But it could happen if they come for me. I’m just not going. I don’t know why anyone would.”

“Me neither. But I can’t leave behind my family. And my life. Not forever.”

“You could leave everything behind if you end up dead over there,” I said. “Your choices would be made for you.”

“Oh Christ. Shut up. You’re always so goddamned melodramatic.”

“Because war is serious, especially to guys our age.”

“Yeah, that’s profound.” Mike’s sarcasm was usually not so blunt and I assumed he, too, was tired of having to think about the draft and politics.

“Look, think of this as a serious scouting trip,” I said. “I’ve been up there once before but I was on vacation with my sister and brother-in-law and I was still young enough to think the war would be over before my turn came up.”

1970s Windsor, Ontario, Canada

Mike and I had spent uncountable hours talking about the War in Vietnam between breaths as we ran the gravel roads winding around the lakes and through the hills and forests of Michigan. We had both earned college scholarships with our performances as high school distance runners and were formulating plans for our lives that did not include Vietnam or our home state, which is why he had agreed to drive me to the Canadian National Train station in Windsor, Ontario. We had crossed over the narrow stretch of the Detroit River and I was immediately bound for North Sydney, Nova Scotia, to catch an overnight ferry to Newfoundland, the island home of my mother.

My motivation had much to do with my fear of premature death in combat. The threat to my life had become more than existential. Body counts shown on the TV news in daily reports never seemed to abate and Americans were still believing the former president’s nonsensical rhetoric about stopping communism “over there before it gets here.” The previous year, my birthdate had been included in the lottery for the military draft and the fact that I drew number 36 meant that I was certain to be conscripted into service. I remember gathering in the basement of my dormitory at the university with other male students to watch the surreal horror of our lives being submitted to a game of chance conducted by men in suits spinning a tumbler filled with plastic capsules containing dates of the year written on slips of paper. Before I left the room, even more fearful of dying in a remote tropical jungle, I heard several students scream, and one had passed out with fright. Vietnam was accomplishing nothing but destruction and death and most of my generation wanted no participation in its great lie.

1970 Draft Lottery Tumbler with Birthdates Written Inside Plastic Capsules

After I bought my ticket, I went through the passenger gate and examined the train, which seemed to me an improbable mechanical beast that had come from the Pacific Ocean and Vancouver, over the Canadian Rockies, across seemingly endless plains and then north of Lake Superior to turn south and skirt Lake Huron before arriving in Windsor. I found a window seat on the southward facing side of a passenger car, hoping to catch glimpses of Lake Erie as we tracked to the northeast toward London and Toronto. I did not see big water, though, until we had reached Hamilton and passed through the industrial sections of town and the train had climbed up on the Niagara Escarpment and began trundling through the residential communities south of Toronto.

1970s Era Canadian National Passenger Car

Along the St. Lawrence Seaway as we approached Montreal in the night, I looked out across the river and saw solitary lights of isolated homes set upon the American side and tried to envision viewing my country as though I were a foreigner. I felt like something inside of me had cracked, but was not yet broken, and I knew I did not understand all the complications, emotional and intellectual, of becoming an ex-patriot of the United States. Although I had Canadian birthright citizenship from my mother, I was still in my teens and my short years had been spent saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag every morning before school classwork began and getting dewey-eyed with each singing of the National Anthem. I believed I had been fortunate to be born on American soil and I was part of something special, even if rote performance of a pledge was also a kind of indoctrination to the notion we were the greatest land of all. Perhaps, I thought, we all ought to gather our own evidence, and race riots, disease, adventurous wars, and poverty were institutional contradictions.

A nineteen-year-old is not prepared to make decisions like avoiding the draft by moving to another country. The implications were beyond my ability to assess, but I was self-aware and determined enough to know that I was not going to war. Too many boys become soldiers from my factory town were pictured in the local paper as casualties and I stared at their faces wondering what else they might have been rather than KIA. One of them had been found dead of a heroin overdose while holding onto the grips of a large gun in the back of an armored vehicle as it entered battle. The overwhelming majority were from economically disadvantaged families, disproportionately Black, and did not have a chance to attend college. Being unable to enroll in a full credit load at a college or university automatically exposed you to the draft. Only a physical problem or a college student deferment kept them from the almost certain odds of landing in Vietnam, and carrying an M-16 into the jungle.

I went to the dining car, hoping that a meal might ease the draft and war obsession on my mind and found the only empty seat to be across from a man who appeared to be in his sixties. He smiled and seemed to welcome the company.

“May I?”

“Of course.” He gestured at the seat.

The waiter came and I quickly ordered, hoping to avoid small talk with a stranger. A book was next to his silverware as he waited for his food but I was unable to discern a title, and he made no move to pick it up and read. I felt like he was taking my measure, though, for some reason and I was almost instantly uncomfortable, which increased when he finally spoke.

“I suppose you are one of them,” he said.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh, I think you do.” His voice was more conspiratorial than confrontational. “We get a lot of you boys over here these days. We understand, too.”

“I’m just on vacation to visit family,” I said.

“You know, you don’t need to try so hard to assimilate. I’d lose the watch cap, if I were you, and the plaid flannel. You appearance looks a little contrived. We aren’t all lumberjacks.”

“I dressed for the weather.” I took off the knitted cap. “I don’t usually sit to my meals wearing a cap, though, so thanks for reminding me.”

“It’s a big decision,” he said, after a long pause. “I don’t envy you the choices. Can’t say what I’d do, either. Nobody wants to die or go to war, but they both happen.”

“They don’t have to happen to me,” I said. “At least not right now. There might be things worth fighting and dying for, but the lost cause in Vietnam sure as hell isn’t one of them. I’m not going to waste my only life over there.”

I had gotten emotional and he did not respond as his food was served. He smiled at me, quickly, and picked up his fork to have a go at the pasta dish. I noticed he was several days unshaved and his nose was straight and narrow above thin lips that made me think he was urbane and educated, assumptions that immediately seemed foolish. He finished his first few bites and turned his attention back to me.

“I hope you enjoy your vacation, or whatever it is,” he said. “Look around closely. Canada is a lovely place to build a happy life.”

Presently, my grilled cheese and chips arrived and we did not talk further as we ate. After his meal, he got up and left with a quick, “Good night,” and I finished and returned to my recliner seat next to the window to sleep. Snow had begun swirling in thick flakes and I saw accumulations along the tracks when we passed over grade separations from roads. When I awoke after a restless night, the train had stopped and snow appeared to have drifted up the sides of our passenger car. When I raised my seat out of the reclined position, a conductor walked into the car and made an announcement.

“Attention everyone. If you haven’t noticed, we are stuck in snowdrifts on a siding just outside Rivière-du-Loup, in Quebec, just north of the U.S. state of Maine. We don’t know how long we will be here but a plow train is working its way toward us from the south, which is the direction we were about to turn when the snow became too much for us to overcome. We have plenty of fuel and electrical power to keep you warm and although this is no fault of our own, Canadian National Railway will accommodate your food and drink until we start moving again. I will update you with any information when it becomes available to me.”

Present Day Canadian National Route Map

In the dim morning light of a blizzard, I noticed more people moving in the direction of the bar car than the dining room. I lost a full day waiting for the snow to be cleared and my trip had been planned for a narrow window of time. My unease increased over the course of the rest of my journey. The 24-hour passage across the Gulf of Newfoundland from North Sydney, Nova Scotia was marked by inordinately large swells coming across the Atlantic and the giant ferry felt as though it kept slipping sideways and away from the port of Argentia. My nausea made sleep impossible and when my Uncle Brian picked me up at the bus station in St. John’s, I wanted only a nap.

“What are you doin’ up here this time of year, b’y?” he asked. “No time to be after visitin’ this rock.”

“I know. But I just wanted to look around on my own, not as a tourist. See what winter’s like, ya know?”

“Seen enough?” He waved his hand out the front of the windshield at the huge drifts of snow and cars buried curbside in spoiler piles from graders trying to make way.

“Looks pretty tough,” I said.

“Yes, me son. Let me show you a bit.”

We drove up a hill, tires spinning and losing traction, and finally parked in a narrow, cleared space before walking a few blocks. Brian stopped and made a dramatic swing of his arm again, and pointed to a tunnel through a mountain of white.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Our business district, b’y. Go ahead on in.”

“What do you mean? Looks like a tunnel into the snow.”

“Z’it, b’y. Walk down through there and you can turn into other tunnels that reach the doors of the businesses. Gotta know which one ya needs, though.”

I stepped inside what looked like a long, white hallway, and saw dozens of other people walking in the dark passage, carrying bags and ushering along children. They were so heavily garbed many of them appeared almost as creatures lost in an Arctic wilderness. Faces were barely distinguishable under hoods and hats and scarves. I looked in a few doorways and saw weak illumination cast out onto the footprints of shoppers but I grew quickly claustrophobic and sought comfort back out in the wan light of a Maritime midday.

“God Guard Thee, Newfoundland.”

“What now, me son?”

“Can we go down to the Southside, and have a look before we go home?”

“Yes, a quick one, but first I has to make me a stop. Only be a minute.”

My mother’s youngest brother parked near an old brownstone, told me he would be right out, and left me sitting with the engine and the heater running. When he finally returned, about a half an hour later, the car filled with the smell of alcohol when he grabbed the wheel. I thought of asking if I could drive but we had only been together on one other trip and I worried as much about offending him as I did my safety. The ride to the Southside of St. John’s Harbor was uneventful, though, and I got out and walked along the docks my father had patrolled as an MP before being shipped to the European Theater of World War II. He had met my mother there in a house near the wharves where she lived with her three siblings and my widowed grandmother. The house was no longer standing and I did not know what I expected to see but there was a dizzying feeling of disorientation to think a chance meeting on a palisade of this remote North American port city was the encounter that led to my existence.

My two uncles, aunts, and cousins had no idea what had brought me to Newfoundland in the hard heart of winter and they were as surprised by my abrupt departure after less than a week as they were by my arrival. By the time I had returned to Michigan, I was certain Canada’s cold did not offer the life I had dreamed of, though I would choose it if necessary to avoid the war. I had already hitchhiked to my first protest march in Washington and I intended to remain active in the movement to end the tragedy of Vietnam while awaiting a decision on my conscientious objector status before my hometown draft board. During my last year at the university, I ignored three induction notices to get my draft physical and worried constantly about legal consequences.

A CO status never came in the mail from my draft board despite the fact that I felt I had built a solid case of moral, philosophical, and political resistance to the war. My best friend Gary and I, during our high school years, had been walking our factory worker neighborhood handing out anti-war pamphlets to displaced Southerners who were not exactly receptive to hearing troubling facts about their president enriching himself and his consorts as boys came home in metal caskets. My good fortune held out, though, when peace talks began in Paris and the draft ended as Henry Kissinger and representatives of Ho Chi Minh bickered over their seating assignments around a conference table. Young Americans continued dying in the rice paddies, villages were being blown up by ordnance, and Vietnamese lives were obliterated as the diplomats fretted over language. I was due to graduate and become draft-eligible less than two months after the peace process had launched.

My goals were modest because I knew so little about the way the world truly works and I began a career as a broadcast journalist wandering between small-town radio and television stations. Eventually, I made my way to major market outlets and my work gained more exposure, which led, ultimately, to time with a cable network as an on-air political analyst. My nature had always been to ask questions and that never changed from the time a Texas governor stuck his finger in my chest to lecture me after I inquired if he should not be more concerned about his drilling platforms spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico, or to the TV debate where I confronted a future president about how he got into the National Guard and avoided combat in Vietnam. I wanted my country to be better, more honest, and transparent in a manner that voters would be motivated and informed enough to make the right decisions.

We cannot ever accurately measure the value that journalism affords a democracy. While I traveled on presidential campaigns and reported on scandals like Iran-Contra, I wondered if I or any reporter ever truly reached the public. Who really listens to us? If people were processing information, and making wise choices, would America presently be confronting the potential of authoritarianism? I have written books about a deceptive president lying us into war over non-existent weapons of mass destruction and his Svengali-like political consultant who would sacrifice his country’s blood and treasure on the altar of political victory and power; I have frequently provided analyses and opinion pieces for cable news networks and national and international publications, and stood before network cameras to explain what the facts are and how they might be spun to deceive, but I have never sensed any impact from my work. I am sure other reporters experience at least some frustration from lack of perceived value to their endeavors.

The cumulative effort of journalists must surely serve to inform at least a portion of the American electorate but deception has now become a part of the craft. One network simply manufactures stories from rumors and threads of overheard conversations and delivers them to its audience as a form of political gospel. When they are ultimately challenged, their response is to shrug their editorial shoulders and say, “Never mind,” then move on to their next fantasy of pedophilic pizza joints and people waiting in downtown Dallas for a dead president to return and lead us out of the wilderness. The loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in a lawsuit seems not to have even slightly chastened these people who desire ratings and money more than a stable and prospering country in which to live.

I do not know where it stops unless it is November of this year, but lies have destroyed confidence in the integrity of our electoral system and half the country no longer believes in the validity of the outcomes. There is likely to be more raging on the right and a level of discontent and agitation that may prompt the kind of violence that makes the January 6th insurrection look like a dust-up between bullies in a schoolyard. I can write and watch and think and analyze and publish like others of my ilk, but I have no sustaining confidence any perspective I offer will make an impact. I have felt for the last decades of my writing and reporting career that I and other journalists are shouting into a howling wind that will inevitably blow us all down. Maybe too much is broken and cannot be fixed.

But is now the time to quit?

James Moore is a New York Times bestselling author, political analyst, and business communications consultant who has been writing and reporting on Texas politics since 1975. He writes frequently for CNN and other national media outlets and can be reached a jim@bigbendstrategies.com.