Cover image for Desertion : in the time of Vietnam
Desertion : in the time of Vietnam
Todd, Jack, 1946-
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Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Physical Description:
293 pages ; 22 cm
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DS559.8.D4 T63 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In 1969, Jack Todd was twenty-three and happy beyond his dreams. He had left behind a hardscrabble youth in a small Nebraska town, had an exciting and enviable job as a reporter on the Miami Herald, and was wildly in love with his beautiful Cuban-American girlfriend. As the war in Vietnam drew closer, he assumed that he would fight, as the men in his family had always fought, though he was increasingly troubled by America's role there. His oldest friend had just returned from Vietnam and was already showing signs of the war-caused trauma that would destroy him; he had seen and done things too terrible to describe. He begged Jack to dodge the draft, to go to Canada. Nevertheless Jack entered the army and completed basic training. On leave before his departure for Vietnam, he agonized over a momentous decision. By now deeply opposed to the war, he crossed the border into Canada, leaving behind his family, the girl he loved -- and his beloved homeland.
Now one of Canada's most successful journalists, Jack Todd is a remarkable writer of great power and vibrancy. It has taken him thirty years to come to terms with the guilt and shame of desertion, to break the silence, to tell this controversial, important, profoundly American story. In a dark century, when many "only obeyed orders," he chose not to. This is an intensely moving personal story told with passion and literary verve, as well as an eloquent account of a tortured time in American history. It is hard to put down, and impossible to forget.

Author Notes

Jack Todd is one of Canada's most gifted and successful journalists. He lives in Montreal.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Montreal Gazette columnist Todd followed an unusual path through the Vietnam years. Todd, a farm boy from Scottsbluff, Nebraska, volunteered from college for marine officer training but was discharged because of bad knees. He went back to the University of Nebraska, got radicalized, went to work for the Miami Herald, fell in love, and then got drafted in 1969. Todd hated the war but saw no alternative, so he did basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington. He decided he couldn't continue (though he'd likely have qualified as an army journalist), so he headed north and has been a Canadian citizen for most of the intervening decades. As a deserter, Todd faced special challenges on both sides of the border. In the early 1970s, he supported a valiant effort to write the great American novel by working for a chain of tabloid papers and wandered back and forth across Canada, looking for a place that felt like home. Because he renounced U.S. citizenship in 1973, Todd wasn't eligible for amnesty. A thoughtful meditation. --Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

"The effect of forced exile is felt not in any sudden tearing away but in corrosive loss, over a period of time, of too many of the things that make you what you are." The experience of exile is at the heart of this honest and very moving memoir by an award-winning columnist for the Montreal Gazette. Born into a poor farming family who sacrificed to send him to college, Todd left the University of Nebraska a semester before graduation in order to work as a reporter with the Miami Herald. He was happy with a new job and in love with his girlfriend, Mariela, but his world was torn apart when he was drafted in 1969. Although he had been an antiwar activist in college, he couldn't bear the idea of going into exile to avoid the war and decided that he would serve, against the advice of his mother and his closest friend, Sonny, who had been traumatized by combat duty in Vietnam. A breakup with Mariela and his strong feelings against the war finally caused Todd to desert just as his basic training was ending. He spent the next several years wandering from job to job in Canada, unable to cope with his feelings of loss. In a rage against Nixon, he renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1973, a decision he now regrets. Although he considers his decision to desert the "hardest, bravest thing I ever did," the author candidly depicts himself during that period as immature and unable to make thoughtful decisions or to sustain relationships with the women who loved him. Through his personal story, Todd conveys, in a voice that haunts and sings, the impact of an unpopular war on a generation of young Americans. (Apr. 23) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Award-winning Montreal Gazette columnist Todd has written a moving memoir focusing on his decision to desert from the U.S. Army because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. Using flashbacks, Todd describes growing up in Scottsbluff, NE, son of a hard-nosed ex-fighter and horse-trainer father and sympathetic, pacifist mother. Drafted in his early twenties from a good job as a reporter for the Miami Herald, the antiwar Todd reluctantly went to basic training, then deserted while on leave. The book focuses on his experience in Canada as he moves from job to job to unemployment, attempting to write about his life and his decision. In a powerful conclusion, he talks about the death of his childhood friend, Sonny, who never recovered from his service in Vietnam. In spite of somewhat unconvincingly described love interests, Desertion is a powerful, well-written account. Highly recommended for all libraries. A.O. Edmonds, Ball State Univ., Muncie, IN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Prologue: Waiting for Charlie Nebraska, 1958 Sonny is ten, I am eleven, and we have a plan. We're going to kill Charlie Starkweather. It's almost the end of January 1958. One of those dead cold winter days when there is no snow on the ground and the pale brown grass in the morning bends under a white frost and goes snap-crackle- pop as you walk. The sidewalks are slick with frost, so you can run a few steps and slide, run and slide all the way to school, your breath making little white puffs in the cold blue air. After you run awhile the cold glues your nose shut and you pull your jacket up and breathe inside it, warm secret breaths like under the covers in the morning, when your mother says you have to get up but you burrow down deep under the pillow and try not to think about the way the cold floor is going to feel when it hits your feet. Every time we stop to catch our breath we stand and whisper, making plans for Charlie. The rumor is all over town: Charlie Starkweather is coming to Scottsbluff. To our jail. To our little jail, in our little town. Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. Not prowling for kids to kill this time but prisoners now, in handcuffs and leg irons, surrounded by deputy sheriffs and cops. This, we are sure, is a temporary condition. True desperados can't be held in something as small, as fragile, as inconsequential as the Scottsbluff jail. Their escape, the escape that will be on every radio station in America tomorrow, vibrates like death in the air, like an arrow so close you hear it hiss before it bites deep into the bark of a cottonwood tree and sticks there, quivering. If our plan works, Sonny and I will make the front page of every newspaper in America with our pictures under big, black headlines screaming "Hero Kids Foil Starkweather Escape!" The first time we talk about getting our guns, Starkweather and Fugate have already killed ten people, starting with her parents and baby sister in Lincoln and a kid working in a gas station who wouldn't let Charlie buy a stuffed animal for Caril Ann on credit. They're being hunted all across the state and up into Wyoming. Pop has to walk my sisters across the street to church because they're scared Starkweather will get them. Pop was a boxer, a pro with a big right hook. His hands are broken and his nose is bent up and he's almost sixty, but he still knocks people out when they cross him. He's not afraid of Charlie Starkweather or anybody else, so when Pop walks the girls to church we know it's serious. We're scared first and then angry, the way people are when they're frightened. We know as much about Charlie as we know about Superman. He's a nineteen-year-old garbageman and Caril Ann is his fourteen-year-old girlfriend and you spell her name "Caril" with an "i" not "Carol" with an "o." Starkweather is five foot two in cowboy boots and has bright red hair which he combs like James Dean's, and he wears pegged black pants and a leather jacket. He can't see anything without his glasses, which are so thick it looks like his eyes are swimming back there somewhere, goldfish in an aquarium. In our nightmares he's the killer with the Coke-bottle eyes. Charlie Starkweather can't be held in a small-town jail. Anyone can see that. He will bust out with a pistol in each hand and jump in that big shiny black 1956 Packard he stole after he killed the rich guy in Lincoln. The car will be waiting just outside the jail and Starkweather will come flying down West Overland Drive past our house with the cops in hot pursuit, like on Highway Patrol with Broderick Crawford, and we'll be waiting for him. We're going to get Starkweather before he gets us. We take our time walking home from school, working out the details. Sonny has a .410 shotgun and I have a .22 single-shot rifle. We both have plenty of ammo because it's winter and we don't shoot much in winter. We'll do our homework, eat supper, meet on the street, and wait for Starkweather, because for sure he won't break out until after dark. We have the perfect place to hide, where they dug the holes for new houses and sewer lines across the street. The backhoes piled up big heaps of dirt and when winter came they left a trench where we play World War II, fighting the Nazis from our foxhole. It's perfect. The hardest part will be explaining to our parents why we're taking our guns out in January. That's all we have to do, get out of the house with our guns and our ammo. If we make it that far, when the jailbreak happens we'll be right there, waiting for Charlie. "You're not going to shoot that thing tonight," my mother says. It's a question, not an order, so I keep on cleaning the single- shot Savage .222 rifle in our kitchen, liking the smell of cleaning solvent and gunpowder, the way you push the rod through the barrel with the little white clothhhhh patches on the tip that come out the other side black and then less black until the rifle is clean. Working in the light from the single bright bulb dangling from the buckled and swaybacked ceiling over the cracked linoleum floor, the cord that holds the bulb wrapped all the way down with black electrician's tape over the frayed spots where the wires stick out. My mother doesn't like the .22, never did. She gives me a look over the top of her glasses, busy with the dishes, not liking the rifle in her kitchen. "Just going to shoot some targets with Sonny." "It's awfully cold out there and it's pitch-dark." "I know. We just want to do some target practice. We ain't going to be long and we got streetlights now." "You're not going to be long and we have streetlights now." "Yeah. We're not going to be long." "Is your homework done?" "Yep. I done my homework and I done my chores." "You did your homework and you did your chores." "Yep." She won't stop me. Pop would, for sure, but he's asleep in the chair next to the heater in the living room, and everyone will be quiet and let him sleep because the one thing we're afraid of more than anything on earth, even Starkweather, is waking him up. He had way too many fights when he was boxing, so his brain is a little fuddled and if he hears a noise he'll come up out of the chair saying, "What-what-what-what the goddam hell?" and he'll have his fists up, ready to punch somebody. He never hits us even when we're bad, but he's so scary we go around on tiptoe even when he's awake. I don't lie to my mother, exactly, I just don't happen to mention Starkweather or Caril Ann Fugate or the plan to shoot Charlie when he comes barreling down our street. I finish cleaning the rifle, take a box of .22 long-rifle shells from the cabinet on the back porch, pull the bolt back, and slip one into the chamber as soon as I step out the door. Sonny comes sauntering up the street, shotgun over his shoulder, grinning the way he always grins when we're out after magpies or rabbits. Sonny has even done a little planning--he's slipped out of the house toting a couple of sleeping bags. We walk back up the far side of the street away from our house so Mom won't see us if she happens to look out the kitchen window. We find a place where the backhoe has piled the dirt up high and we dig in behind it so no one can see us. We both know this is a little bit pretend and a little bit real, but it feels a whole lot more real once we start making a comfortable space for ourselves, with the .22 and the shotgun pointed out so we can cover the street. The ground is hard and cold, but we're warm enough after we crawl down into the sleeping bags. We pull them tight around our shoulders but don't zip them up because we want to be able to move quick in case we don't get Starkweather with the first shot and he climbs out of the car and comes after us. We're close to the corner so we can see the traffic on West Overland, and any cars coming down Avenue F will come right past our little dirt bunker, where we can get a good look at the driver and pick him off clean. We try sighting our guns on the street, figuring the most likely distance for a shot and where we can squeeze it off. We have to get the sights set right for the distance and figure out how far ahead of him we'll have to aim if he comes fast, and how much lead it will take if he's slow, thinking it will be better to take him through the windshield when the shot is head-on instead of waiting until he's closer, when it'll be like trying to shoot a rabbit zigzagging through the brush, when all you can see is a flash of cottontail. It's cold and our breath makes little white clouds that hang in the air and we're shivering already, even though we're both wearing parkas and stocking caps and gloves and we've put on long underwear and two pairs of socks. Mittens would be warmer, but with mittens on you can't squeeze a trigger. "You OK?" Sonny asks. "Fine. But if they're going to come I hope they come quick. It's cold out here." There's no traffic at all at first, only cars that go by on West Overland without slowing down, nothing at all that looks like a big black '56 Packard. Finally a station wagon passes, and we can see we have a problem. Cars turning right off West Overland shine their headlights into our eyes, especially if they have the high beams on like the station wagon, and the light blinds us for a couple of seconds. By the time we can see again the car is right there, fifteen feet away, so if it's Starkweather we have to shoot as soon as he turns the corner or take our chances up close. After the station wagon it's quiet for a while until old Tom Martin makes the turn in his pickup truck. Once the headlights are out of my eyes I can see Tom chomping his cigar the way he always does, never lighting it but just chewing it up, with flecks of tobacco stuck to his lips and to the stubs of his dark brown teeth, where he still has teeth. I can't see his teeth, but I can see the cigar all right once the headlights are past, which means I'll get a clear shot if the driver is a killer in a black Packard. We wait a long time, shivering, talking in whispers, trying to keep warm. Finally a black Dodge comes up West Overland slow and turns right and comes toward us in low gear. "'Fifty-two Dodge!" Sonny whispers. I nod and tighten my finger on the trigger. There's something wrong about the way the Dodge is moving, slow and like the driver doesn't know where he's going. Maybe Starkweather couldn't steal the Packard so he grabbed this Dodge. I raise the .22 and get him in my sights, get the spot weld on the stock with my cheek the way my brother Red taught me, take a deep breath, let it out, hold it. Don't jerk the trigger, just squeeze. Don't breathe at all, just hold it real steady and squeeze till you hear the shot go off bang! then breathe and throw the bolt and reload, wishing now more than ever that I had a repeater in case the first shot doesn't get him and we have to keep firing. The headlights are in my eyes and for two or three awful seconds I'm blind, not knowing who or what is on the other side of those lights, not knowing whether to shoot or run, hide or freeze. Then the Dodge is right beside us and I can see the driver, a fat old man hunched down over the wheel, looking back and forth like he's lost. I take a deep breath and lift a stiff finger off the trigger. I can hear my heart pounding whoomp!-whoomp!-whoomp!- whoomp! even through the parka, so loud I figure Sonny can hear it too. I'm sweating, cold as it is, and I feel like I'm going to pee my pants. The black Dodge turns into a driveway and the driver kills the engine. I hand the rifle to Sonny. "Keep the street covered. I have to pee." I scramble down the pile of dirt and over to the far side of what will be the basement when a house goes up here next summer and pee in the corner, shivering from cold and fear and that strange thrill you get when you're a kid and you go outside at night, looking up at the stars. "This is dumb," Sonny says when I get back. "They ain't gonna come." "You don't know that." "They ain't gonna come." I know he's right but I don't want to give up. A big car comes barreling down West Overland going way too fast. We don't get much of a look but I say I thought it was a Packard and for sure it was black. "If that was him, we missed him," Sonny says. But if that was him we'd know it by now. There would be sirens, police cars screaming by, lights coming on all over the place, people wanting to know what was going on and wondering if Starkweather is on the loose. Instead there's nothing at all. Just the night and the chill and the cold stars a billion zillion miles away, tiny like the light you see when a guy strikes a match on the far side of the river. Finally my mother starts calling. We ignore her, but a couple of minutes later Pop steps out onto the porch in his slippers and hollers, "Jackie, get the goddamned hell in the house!" and I'm up and running, Sonny's footsteps fading down the street as he runs too, both of us sprinting for safety. "What on earth were you doing out there all this time?" my mother asks. "Nothin'." It isn't a lie. We haven't done a thing except wait, holding our guns, cold and scared. Mom makes me a hot chocolate and sends me to bed. I stay awake a long time, listening to everybody snore, waiting for the police sirens which will mean Starkweather is on the loose, figuring out exactly how I will get the .22 and slip a long- rifle shell into the chamber and go back to my post to wait for the killers in the Packard. I know I won't do it, though. I'm fresh out of brave. The next day all the papers run a picture, Starkweather handcuffed and smirking and surrounded by cops, still trying to do the James Dean look even though he's a dead man, bound for Lincoln and the electric chair. We can't believe how short and harmless he looks. Later they'll call him the "natural-born killer" and write songs and make movies about him and Caril Ann, making it like Charlie Starkweather is some kind of twisted American hero, but really there's nothing deep about him. He's just a vicious little schnook who kills people for no reason at all. We're quieter walking to school. More grown-up, closer to being men because we almost did something very stupid together. Closer to each other, too. Not talking about the guns and the way we waited, because when you really do a thing you don't talk about it. Proud anyway because if Charlie Starkweather came down our street in Scottsbluff that night, we were ready to fight. Copyright (c) 2001 by Jack Todd Excerpted from Desertion: In the Time of Vietnam by Jack Todd All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.