Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Comrade and the Friend

One bitter-cold night in late March 1967, I arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba by Greyhound Bus on a one-way ticket from Chicago. I had no need for a return ticket, because I had decided to stay out of the United States forever, or at least until I was no longer eligible for military service there. I checked into a hotel around midnight and thumbed through the telephone directory, not having any idea where to begin making a new life in this city I had never even visited before. My eye was caught by an entry for the Communist Party of Canada. I jotted down the address and determined to visit them the next morning. After all, I reasoned, I like the idea of Communism, and surely Communists will be sympathetic to a refugee from the United States who refuses to go to Vietnam to fight Communists there.

I never did find my way to the Canadian Communist Party. I did, however, discover a Communist bookstore in the same neighborhood. I browsed the shelves and discovered a couple of titles that looked interesting and took them to the bookshop owner, a lean and hungry-looking young man with wild hair and horn rim glasses. He looked the part. I told him I wished to purchase these two books and to have information about people who might be willing to help an American draft dodger get established in Canada. He seemed quite uninterested in my situation, but he gave me two names of people he thought might be willing to help me. He also said he thought I had chosen two interesting books, pointing out they were published in the Soviet Union and were quite authentic.

I got in touch with both of the two men. One said he was a Communist and would be willing to billet me in a spare room in his small apartment. The other said he would be happy to see me and gave me a location where I could meet him on the campus of the University of Winnipeg. I made arrangements to meet him the following day, then found my way to the billeting Communist. The Communist made me tea and introduced me to his family and his ferocious German shepherd. The dog later bit me twice, grabbing onto my knee so firmly that I limped for several days afterward, but his wife and daughter were more hospitable. Shown to my room, I read one of the books from the Communist bookstore. The contents horrified me. I began to think I might not be a Soviet-style Communist.

The next day I went to see the university professor. Right away I told him that I was a Communist of sorts and asked if he was, too. No, he said. He was a Quaker. Naturally, I was somewhat disappointed at the prospects of being aided by some kind of Christian, but at least I knew enough about Quakers to know that they were opposed to war.

There is no need to go into further details about my first encounters with a real live Communist and a real live Quaker. Suffice it so say that after a week my disillusionment with what I had seen of Canadian Communism was matched by a new fascination with the gentleness, good humor and intelligence that I was encountering in Canadian Quakers. Although my flirtation with Communism continued on and off for several more years, my attraction to Quakerism proved much deeper and more durable. About it, more will be said in subsequent posts.