Draft Dodger

by | Jan 27, 2022

We spent the summer sailing between Tahiti and the Leeward Islands of French Polynesia. In Mo‘orea, Rory fell in love with a French girl named Sabine, who worked at the Club Med. She got Rory a job as a water-skiing instructor, and as we sailed off our anchor in the back of Papetō’ai Bay, I waved good-bye to Rory and Sabine. Standing on the small beach in the idyllic cove, she had an orchid in her hair and a flower-print cotton wrap around her waist and Rory wore only swimming trunks and was barefoot. I didn’t see him again for twenty-five years, until I looked him up in the Bay Area where he lived with Sabine and where for years he had been a captain of pilot boats escorting ships in and out of San Francisco Bay.

It took three weeks to sail the Zephyrus to Honolulu. Clarke flew back to the mainland, and before leaving I made a deal to take care of the boat in exchange for living aboard. I thought my life on the Chance was good, but living aboard the Zephyrus was even better because Clarke entrusted me to take the boat out for a sail whenever I wanted.

It was the fall of 1968 and the University of Hawai‘i campus—like most university campuses across the country—was in turmoil with student protests against the war in Vietnam. The family that lived on their boat across my dock subscribed to the newspaper, and they gave it to me at the end of the day. In high school, I had followed the news sporadically, but now I read all the articles about the war. The North Vietnamese Tet Offensive at the beginning of the year had challenged the assumption that US military dominance was inevitable; by that summer Lyndon Johnson, driven by doubts, announced he would not run for re-election, opening the nomination to challenger Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was opposed to war; there were violent anti-war protests at the Democratic convention in Chicago, led by a firebrand group of activists labeled The Chicago Seven.

That winter I sailed to Lahaina, inviting a woman in her early fifties I met through mutual acquaintances named Barbara Butler. Her husband, Willis Butler, was a well-known Island physician and one of the leading anti-war activists in Hawai‘i. Barbara was herself widely known; I had read an article about her in one of the recent surfer magazines. She and Will had their main residence in Kailua, not far from my father’s rental, but they also had an A-frame at Rocky Point on the North Shore, and Barbara was den-mother to many of the big-name surfers of the day, giving them food and shelter. The surfers called her Ma, and she insisted I do the same.

Ma Butler and I hit it off. She was skinny, with leathery sun-browned skin. She had short salt-and-pepper hair that she cut herself, scissors in hand looking in the mirror. She chain smoked filterless Camels, and her voice was raspy, and so was her laugh. She wore baggy shorts and holed shirts, most of the time was barefoot, and she loved to sail. In Lahaina, after we moored the boat she grabbed my arm and led me to the Pioneer Inn for a guava juice and rum, her favorite. On the way we passed a large banyan tree and under it a guru in a white robe leading his congregation, all prostrate before him.

“Isn’t he beautiful,” Ma said.

“I guess so. You know who he is?”

“Oh yes. He’s my son.”

Chris Butler, already a noted guru, would go on to build a cult that I still read about (he most recently was in the news as an alleged Rasputin-type puppet-master behind the rise of the presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard). Ma’s other son was a successful businessman in the Bay Area manufacturing and distributing LSD. Back on O‘ahu, Ma invited me to her house for the weekend. Will greeted me with a hug, and included me in this circle of activist friends.

I started spending weekends at the Butlers’. Ma and Will had been married most of their adult lives, but they acted like newlyweds. He would sneak up behind her and put his arms around her and she would turn and kiss him. The house was always packed with guests, and Will was always inviting them to join him admiring how beautiful Ma was, usually while she was at the stove, dressed in her holed clothes and smoking a Camel. Ma specialized in cooking institutional-sized stews and chilies, and I usually worked as her sous-chef, in part because being in the kitchen I could listen to conversations instead of being pulled into participating; I was hesitant because I didn’t consider myself as well-read or as fast-thinking.

Will Butler was an intellectual. Every room in the house was overfilled with books on history and politics, sociology and current events. Will’s house guests were the left-wing intelligentsia not only of Hawai‘i but the country. For the first time in my life, I was meeting people I had read about in the newspapers.

Abbie Hoffman had co-founded a political party called the Yippies, but he was bombastic and always put himself in the center of conversations. I was helping Ma in the kitchen listening to Hoffman pontificating, wondering if Ma felt the same way about him. Before I could ask, she leaned to my ear and said, “He’s so full of shit.”

Like Hoffman, David Dellinger was also one of The Chicago Seven—he was widely regarded as the group’s leader—but unlike Hoffman he was polite and a good listener. He was about Will’s age—mid-fifties—with a wide forehead and an avuncular smile. He must have sensed my reticence; he made a conscious effort to pull me into conversation, wanting to know more about my passions for sailing and climbing, which Ma had described when we were introduced. He told me he knew about living under the stars because during the Depression he rode the rails with hobos, looking for work. I knew from Will that David had been friends with Martin Luther King, and listening to David describe the injustices of the Vietnam War, I began to understand the important distinction of activists who were also pacifists.

David Dellinger was my direct conduit to the war. He had traveled to North Vietnam and had witnessed the death and destruction (later in the war, David would be an important interlocutor between Washington and Hanoi, negotiating the release of prisoners). I began to see the war not as an article in the newspaper, not as prima facie confirmation of the domino theory, but as a conflict that was killing and maiming people, and not just American soldiers, and not just South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, but North Vietnamese as well.

After a weekend at Ma and Will’s, before returning to the Ala Wai Harbor I stopped to see my father.

“I don’t know, Dad. When I first came over here to go to school, I was on the fence. But the more I’ve learned, the more I’m convinced we have no business in that war.”

“I understand, son.”

“You do?”

“All you young people, the protesters. I’m starting to think you may be right.”

* * *

I spent part of my junior year studying abroad, in Mexico, and when I returned to Hawai‘i, in 1970, I joined anti-war marches. I volunteered for the US Senate campaign of an acquaintance named Neil Abercrombie whom I met through friends in the political science department at the university. I joined one rally that was covered by a television crew, and afterward I pedaled my bicycle back to the harbor, to the boat of a neighbor with a TV. Watching the evening news, I was excited to see myself for the first time on television, and my harbor friends all got a laugh when they saw my placard: “Down with Boob Tube Politics.” Neil lost, but later in the decade he won election to the US House and later became the governor of Hawai‘i.

Ever since I had started college in 1967, I had been protected from the draft by a student deferment. As the war escalated and President Richard Nixon committed more troops—and the ability of the military to fill its needs for soldiers from volunteers was strained—student deferments ended and I received notice I had been drafted. I had two weeks before I was to report to Honolulu’s Fort DeRussy for my physical exam.

I walked to the breakwater and watched the surfers at Ala Moana. I wasn’t afraid of fighting. Even though I was early in my experiences as a climber and sailor, I had been in enough dicey situations to know I didn’t shy from risk, and that I seemed to have a knack for knowing how to manage physical risk. If I wanted to be, I could be an effective soldier. But I didn’t want to be a soldier because I didn’t want to support a war I knew was wrong.

If I had to, I would move to Canada, even if that meant for the rest of my life I could never return to the United States. With a little over a week before I had to report for my physical, I spent the weekend with Ma and Will. When I told them I was going to move to Canada, Will said that was nonsense.

“We’ll get you a Four-F,” Will said, referring to the draft classification for physical and psychological unfitness. Since I was physically fit, that left the psychological part. Will arranged to have me examined at the Waikiki Free Clinic where he worked as a volunteer physician. In my folder he wrote that I suffered from emotional instability and drug habituation that including LSD (with which I had indeed experimented). “I am not sure about heroin,” Will wrote, “but suspect occasional exposure.” Then he arranged counseling with other anti-war activists who coached me how to go through the screening process for my upcoming physical.

I stopped bathing and shaving. I stopped brushing my teeth. I stopped using toilet paper. At Fort DeRussy, when I stood in line with the other conscripts, they kept a distance. When it came my turn, the examiner, with a pinched face, shook his head. When he asked if I used drugs, I said I did, and told him I had been getting medical help at the Waikiki Free Clinic. He gave me a referral to an Army psychologist.

When it was time for the interview, I cleaned up and dressed in the best clothes I had and caught the bus to Tripler Army Hospital. The psychiatrist had my dossier on his desk, and I noted his double-take when he saw me. He went through his list of questions. They were all ones I had been counseled to anticipate, including the last question.

“Do you want to go into the Army?”

I had my hands clasped on my knees, my head down. I nodded affirmatively.

“I think so. I think maybe the Army is just what I need.”

I didn’t look up. I could hear his pen as he wrote into my dossier. He didn’t say anything, and neither did I. Finally he spoke.

“I’m going to have to recommend that you don’t go into the Army.”

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t lift my head. I didn’t move. Finally, he got out of his chair and stepped next me and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Son, don’t think that you couldn’t do it.”