They were across the border with no place to hide and no place to run. The passenger knew hiding and running were not real options. It was easy to cross the world’s longest undefended border from America into Canada in those days when a mere driver’s license was the ticket north. The border security officer looked at his father’s identification and accepted their reason for visiting Canada.
“How long are you going to be in Canada?” the officer asked the driver.
“Just a few days.”
“Are you bringing agricultural products into Canada, sir?” he asked.
“No,” the driver answered.
“The purpose of your visit?” he inquired.
“My brother lives in northern British Columbia,” he replied.
“Have a safe trip,” the officer said as he waived the car across the border.
The 1958 Oldsmobile 88 accelerated north as the young passenger leaned forward to look in the rearview mirror, wondering when he would return to what was behind. The Selective Service had issued a Draft Notice to the young man just a week prior, demanding the lucky recipient report for a physical. Two years earlier, an Army recruiter assured his high school civics class that the expeditionary force in South Vietnam was an all-volunteer effort. There were plenty of soldiers in 1965 who wanted to fight the communist aggressors to protect democracy. Now it appeared the communists in the north had even more volunteers as the war escalated beyond the capacity of volunteers in the U.S. Army and South Vietnam combined.
“How many hours?” the draftee asked his father, as the American AM radio stations faded from the car radio.
“Long drive,” was the unhelpful response.
It had already been a long drive from home to the border. The trip to the Canadian branch of the family was not familiar to the young draftee. He recalled visiting his cousins on the ranch a couple of times back when he was in primary school. The Cariboo Highway was a winding gravel road beside a wild river cutting through a rock canyon, punctuated with frequent stops for construction crews. Towns and villages along the route were named after places where frontier travelers could stop for the night, names like 100 Mile House, and 108 Mile Ranch.
“Does Uncle Stan know I’m coming with you?” he asked.
“I called ahead.”
“Does he know I’ve been drafted?” he asked, hoping this would draw out an answer to what was on his mind.
“That is why I told you to bring the Notice.”
It was getting dark as the car followed the trail that construction crews were slowly turning into a road. The work crews had shutdown for the night, leaving orange cones and unpainted wood barricades to warn drivers of the risk of driving on partially paved roads. There were potholes and washboards on the gravel sections, and in the paved portions, there were no centerlines or fog lines.
“Are Canadians getting drafted too?” the passenger asked.
“They know better,” his father answered.
His father was himself an Army veteran, having served in World War Two in Europe. His Uncle Stan was also a veteran, but his family had emigrated to Canada a decade after the war. A grandfather had fought in World War One. His mother’s sister had served in a MASH unit in Korea. At family reunions, conversations usually gravitated to military duty, and war stories.
“Mom told me Uncle Stan might need help on the ranch,” said the passenger.
“I’m sure he will need help with the hay harvest,” his father said with a smile.
“Not in late May,” the young man suggested. There was no reply.
It was now nightfall, and the overcast sky blocked the moonlight as the two men watched for signs of construction work, broken pavement, and potholes. They were only able to see what the headlights revealed as they passed along the winding road. Occasionally they could hear the roar of water rushing through rapids, reminding them that the riverbank was only a few inches from the road edge.
“When are we going back home?” he asked.
“I’m planning to come back in two days,” his father replied.
The son brushed long hair out of his eyes and paused before responding. “What about me?” he asked.
A northeast wind started to blow through the canyon, shaking the car. The father turned on the car heater and shut the driver’s side vent window he kept open when he smoked. The gusts of wind now were strong enough to drown out the sounds of the river.
“I only packed for a few days,” the draftee reported to his father.
“We are in Canada now,” his father responded. “You need to make your own decisions about a return home, and when.”
Rain started to splash on the windshield, and the driver turned on the wipers, which seemed only to make visibility worse.
Canada was refusing permanent residency to American men who were draft-eligible and had not served in the military. That changed the following year as Canada opened its borders without questioning men about their draft or military status. The pejorative term for Americans seeking residence in Canada was “draft dodger.”
“Can I think about it?” the young man asked.
“You will have time, which is one of the reasons to be up here. No pressure from recruiters, from peers, or family–including me,” his father explained.
“So, the plan is to let me live with Uncle Stan’s family for as long as I want, or go home and report for my physical, is that right?”
“Does Mom know about this?” he asked.
“Of course, she is your mother. She was offered the opportunity to join us but wisely declined,” his father replied.
The wipers had cleared most of the bug smears off the windshield, but visibility was still marginal. Even on high beam, the headlights barely displayed the road surface through the rain that was now blowing horizontally. Just before midnight, they came to the private dirt road to Uncle Stan’s ranch, passing over a cattle guard that was in alignment with the barbed wire fence on each side. The car bumped across the guard, which woke the passenger. It was the first time he realized he had fallen asleep. Lights were still on in the log home when they turned off the road into the driveway. As the driver turned off the engine, Uncle Stan came out wearing a woven wool poncho and black cowboy hat. The big man stood in the rain and opened his arms, making the poncho look more like the mainsail on a mast. He greeted the two guests and helped them bring bags and suitcase into the house.
“Come in and get yourselves dry,” Uncles Stan instructed. “We are glad to have you both. It has been too long.”
The next morning after breakfast, the cousins got ready for school. The three men loaded into a pickup and headed to the barn. The draftee noticed a rifle with a mounted scope hanging on a gun rack in the rear window. The rain had stopped during the night, but the air was crisp. There were still patches of snow on some of the foothills around the ranch. Uncle Stan drove the pickup into the barn to a large stack of bailed hay. He handed leather gloves to his guests, and the three men got out of the pickup. Uncle Stan climbed into the bed of the truck and told them to toss bails to him. The father and son team struggled to lift the hay bails above the tailgate of the pickup. Uncle Stan lifted and stacked them like a man who had done this more times than he could count. After the truck was full, they drove out to one of the pastures and spread the hay among the cattle.
The day was exhausting for the Americans. Even with help from the cousins who worked on the ranch after school, it seemed the chores never ended. After dinner, Uncle Stan invited his guests into the living room as the cousins went to their bedrooms to do homework. He put more wood on the fire in the stone fireplace and opened three bottles of Canadian beer.
“Tell me about this war in Vietnam,” Uncle Stan said to his brother.
“Not like the war we fought,” was the reply. “We walked into it after the French figured out it was an endless war, and our politicians can’t seem to tell us the truth. He paused. “I hope history proves I’m wrong.”
Uncle Stan looked at his nephew, “I hear you have been drafted.”
“Yeah, I need to report for a physical in a couple weeks,” he replied.
“I’m sure you will pass, except for the bad haircut,” Uncle Stan replied. “Listen, we like Canada and the people here like us. Your cousins and aunt would love to have you join us, and as you can see, we need the help. This is not just a job offer; it is a family offer. The bedroom you are sleeping in now is yours if you want to stay.”
The draftee thanked his uncle for the offer but said nothing more. The conversation drifted into talking about other family members and old memories until it was time to call it a night. Uncle Stan adjusted logs in the fireplace to allow it to burn down, picked up empty beer bottles, and said goodnight.
The young man laid in bed and thought about the offer and the decision that only he could make. Staying in Canada meant saying goodbye to his family, friends, and everything he knew. Indeed, his mother, father, and siblings would visit him in Canada, but would his country ever let him return? He would become an official draft dodger and suffer all the legal implications involved. The thought of dying in a Vietnam jungle made the downside of being a draft dodger rather attractive.
There was a tradition of military service in his family. His father and uncle were not conscientious objectors. Why were they giving him this alternative? Why would two veterans want to live with the label of draft dodger on a family member? His mother probably didn’t come to Canada because she would start crying no matter which decision he made.
Some of his classmates were already drafted or enlisted in the armed services. He was no better than them. These were his friends, and they had the guts to serve, why should he be different?
He went to sleep with the thought that he did not have to make a decision either way.
“Ready for another day?” Uncles Stan asked as his nephew wandered from the bedroom into the kitchen. “Put some coffee in you, and you will be ready to go.”
“I think I wore out those new leather gloves yesterday,” said his father with a smile.
“Oh, we have more gloves for you,” Uncle Stan laughed.
After breakfast, the cousins went to school, and the three men repeated the chores performed yesterday. They repaired a couple of fences and looked for cattle that had wandered away from the herds. As they drove down a trail, Uncle Stan pointed to something as he drove across a field to what appeared to be a calf on the ground. He parked the truck, reached for his rifle behind his passengers and waited for them to get out.
Uncle Stan got down on one knee to examine the remains of the animal. “Wolves,” he said.
His brother looked around the areas and said, “I think we scared them off.”
“Time to go hunting,” Uncle Stan declared. “Ever hunted wolves before, lad?”
“Don’t have many of those in the lower 48,” the young man replied.
“That may explain why we got more than our share,” Uncle Stan said. “Once they get the taste of beef, they start to specialize. That makes them more dangerous, but it also makes them more vulnerable. Any wolves we see hanging around are likely the pack that killed this calf, and they want more.”
“Uncles Stan looked over at his brother, then said to his nephew, “Take this rifle, and you ride in the back. We don’t want to waste any daylight.”
The ranch was several dozen acres of fenced land and a couple hundred more of unfenced along a lake. Wolves knew no boundaries and ignored fences. In the ancient battle between ranchers and wolves, the government in British Columbia was on the side of the ranchers. Wolves were a common enemy, so when the predators hit one rancher, all ranchers were inflicted. Similarly, during a wolf hunt, property lines were ignored by ranchers.
The draftee sat on the bed of the pickup with the rifle in his arms as the four-wheel-drive vehicle went from local roads to private driveways to cattle trails. When they came to a neighbor’s gate, his father would jump out, open the gate, and Uncle Stan would drive through. The three men discussed strategy through the open sliding rear window as they hunted. At the crest of a hill, they saw movement and stopped the truck. The armed passenger stood up, turned around, and looked over the top of the cab just in time to see two wolves running along a fence line.
Uncle Stan slowly drove the truck closer to the wolves, stopped, and quietly said to the shooter, “Use the cab roof as a platform and fire when ready.”
The draftee removed the safety on the rifle and put his elbows on the cab for support, swept his hair behind his ear, and looked through the scope at the lead wolf, which he estimated was about 200 yards away. He used the bolt action to chamber a round and put the wolf in the reticle crosshair of the scope. As the wolves gracefully trotted along the fence, the rifleman slowly started to put pressure on the trigger. The rifle fired, the wolf flipped in the air and let out a yelp. The second wolf reversed direction and ran away from its fellow pack member. The rifleman quickly loaded another round in the chamber, put the scope on the second wolf, and squeezed the trigger. The second wolf went down.
Uncle Stan pounded on the steering wheel and yelled, “You got them!” He swung open the pickup door, jumped out, and used his hands to make a shooting gesture at the two dead animals, “Well done, lad,” he yelled. His father got out on the passenger side and smiled at his son as they . . .
The draftee woke up and realized he had been dreaming about hunting wolves. He sat up and thought about the dream, recalling as much detail as possible. The clock by the bed said it was just after five in the morning, but it was still dark outside. He was a hunter! He killed two predators. There was a sound coming from the kitchen, so he got out of bed and dressed.
“There he is, ready for some coffee, lad?” Uncle Stan asked.
“Your uncle thinks he can get another day of work out of us,” his father explained with a grin.
The young man decided to keep his memory of the dream to himself for the present. After breakfast, the three men fed hay to the cattle and worked on repairs to roads and ditches that had been washed out by the storm two days prior. After lunch, Uncle Stan drove them to the nearest town to pick up mail and supplies. The rifle was still in its place in the gun rack, and the draftee noticed Uncle Stan did not lock the doors of the pickup when they walked around town.
At dinner that night, the young man announced he had made a decision about his future. “In a dream, last night, we went on a wolf hunt, and I was the designated rifleman shooting from the back of the pickup. I killed two wolves with one shot each,” he explained.
“So, you want to be a hunter?” Uncle Stan suggested. “Wolves are problem up here, and we can use your skills.”
“That is not what the dream said to me. What I liked was being part of the group, working as a team together to make the hunt successful. It wasn’t about the kill or the thrill of the hunt; it was about belonging and having a focus. I was with two men who trusted me with a mission. I was part of the pack, and that is what I think has been missing. It is time for me to go home.”
The drive home on a sunny day provided unlimited visibility. Somehow the road seemed smoother, with the draftee driving the Oldsmobile.
“It was a good trip, Dad,” the draftee said as they crossed the border.
His father, now the passenger, smiled and looked over at his son, “You need a haircut. If you pass the physical, Uncle Sam will pay for the next one.”