Craig Dreezen

Craig was born and raised in Nebraska and now lives in Florence, MA with the woman who came to Canada to be with him in 1970. He worked for the University of Massachusetts for 17 years before retiring only to set up his own non-profit consulting firm. He is also president of the board of trustees at the Northampton/Florence Unitarian Society.

In 1969 I was a senior at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. It took me five years to go through undergraduate school. I kept changing majors. I ended up in English after a couple of other choices, so that took five years and of course there was an undergraduate draft deferment in 1970 so I could finish school in those 5 years instead of the traditional four and still not face the draft. I was living in an apartment that was in the hometown I grew up in. I went to school in the same town. I was also married.

Everybody was anxious about the war and I was active in the protest movement. I was student body president in my last year and I had been planning to go to graduate school. That was my career choice, and of course, they drafted me right off the bat, but my plan all along was to go to graduate school. The academic life suited me and being at the university was a comfortable place to be, kind of sheltered from the storm of the war that was raging. Nebraska’s a pretty conservative place, too. At the university there was a cluster of people who protested the war and supported opposition to it, but the surrounding state was very conservative. There was definitely that clash of values there. I was active in student government so I was connected with most of the people who were working against the war and had explored conscientious objector status, but a friend of mine had sought it and been rejected. This guy had a lot more formal credentials than me. He had been active in a church that was anti-war and at that time, the draft board in Nebraska interpreted the conscientious objector very narrowly. You had to be a lifetime Quaker, something where there was a creed that required pacifism so I didn’t even apply. It would have actually been smart if I had done so because later on, having applied and been rejected was grounds some people used to have their status changed.

My parents were and are still conservative Republicans and Nebraskans don’t talk about things too much. I got along more with my father by not talking about politics or religions or environmental issues. They probably presumed that if I were called I would go. We didn’t talk about it. They supported the war in principle and I imagine that, to some extent, they were just hoping that it wouldn’t come up. That was probably the prevailing attitude. When I decided to go to Canada and told them about it, they were incredulous. I’m sure there were lots of feelings going through their head. Shame comes to mind. I don’t know if that were the word they would have used. Perhaps they would express it as disappointment that I would be protesting, but then they probably also felt relief that I’d be safe. Those were not talked about. It was mostly stunned silence at first and then, what will you do and will we see you kinds of things. So that became a jarring break. It was the only thing I had ever done that struck them as oppositional. There was no warning that it would be like that.

The fact is, Nebraska was pretty tame compared to some places. There were a couple buildings occupied, but I didn’t actively do that. As for the lottery, it’s funny. I don’t remember the number at all. When I talk to people—most men can name their number—I cant remember that. I can remember that it was well within the range of what they were accepting. I’ve got real strong memories of getting the number because there was no chance that I wouldn’t get called. I went into kind of a shock. I didn’t sleep for a couple of nights. I was pretty bent out of shape trying to figure out what to do and didn’t eat. I went into a precipitous physical decline, lost weight and looked pretty haggard. Then I was filled with all kinds of ways to try to escape the draft. In those days everyone had schemes so I decided that I would pretend to be a drug addict. I poked a pin into my arm to make it look as if I had been shooting drugs and went to talk to a counselor at the University to tell him that I had a friend with a drug problem to try to figure out what some of the symptoms were of doing drugs. I said he was doing cocaine. So I went in for the physical. I hadn’t been sleeping and hadn’t been eating so I looked pretty drug-addicted. I claimed to be having a drug problem, but that didn’t bother the doctors at all. They were going to straighten me right out. It was not a cause for exemption.

From the moment I got to the physical I felt like a pawn in a system. It is a very demeaning process. They make you run around in your underwear and stand up and talk to people behind desks in a way that introduces you to the idea that you are about to become cannon fodder. I was very frightened and alarmed. It’s hard to know whether my convictions about non-violence get mixed up with my own fears for personal safety. I like to think I was taking the high ground of a moral stand against violence, which is true, but then that’s tempered by not only the fear for personal safety, but also facing becoming part of a demeaning system like the military is. Every bit of doing it ran against my grain. Every dimension – philosophically, morally, fear for my own safety, and just not wanting to subject myself to that military hierarchy and the demeaning mode that you have to operate within. The whole process of the induction hammers at that from the moment you receive the first letter – you’ll report at this time and you’re treated as if you are already in the military. I passed my physical.

At this point I made the decision to leave for Canada. My wife was very supportive, but the marriage was not great. It’s not the marriage that I have now. The marriage didn’t last. I don’t think my facing the draft was the critical factor, though. She followed me up to Canada. Throughout this whole process, from receiving the low number to the physical, I had been investigating Canadian immigration. I explored any kind of exemption I could get. I hoped not to pass the physical and that didn’t work. There was a network of people who could aid men to get to Canada. In those days there was no internet, so it was telephone calls and letters. I was connected with campus politics. There was literature and bulletin boards and tables set up in the student union. I called a number with information about leaving for Canada and got coached on what it would take to get accepted as a landed immigrant and even the border passages that were the most supportive, the least likely to be confrontational. I quickly assembled as much cash as I could. I sold everything I owned, but I was a college student so I didn’t have any capital. I still wish I had my coin collection. I sold my childhood collection and books and records.

We decided that it would be a sort of back-to-the-land move. This was a time when people were questioning their lifestyle choices, so we decided when we headed to Canada to go into the deep woods. I was reading about survival and organic gardening and acquiring camping gear and trying to get in better physical shape, walking around with a backpack full of books, which was the only heavy thing that I owned. We assembled some cash. Our stockpile was a couple thousand dollars, maybe three at the most. We began poring over Canadian maps. We picked out a remote fjord, although I don’t think they call it that in British Columbia, which was our destination. There were months of preparation; assembling cash, getting together equipment, stripping life possessions, getting a vehicle that would be fit to travel a good amount. I never considered any of the other more distant possibilities – Sweden, for instance. I’m not by nature a traveler so it was the same language, the same continent, less risk, more familiarity that drew me.

We went to Alberta to cross the the border guards were very polite. They wanted to know that we wouldn’t be taking welfare soon, but an English major doesn’t have that many obvious job prospects. I talked about my hopes and I didn’t talk about the back-to-the-land idea. I explained that I was going to seek a job, which wasn’t my intention, although it proved to be my plan eventually. It was the best part of the journey because the welcome was gracious. I told them what I was doing – avoiding the draft – and I’m pretty sure that’s why I was directed to that crossing because the folks there were sympathetic to that.

There were six of us traveling. The others were just fed up with the country. They weren’t evading the draft. They thought my departure would be an occasion for them to do something adventurous, too. We all crowded into a van. We crossed the border at different points and times and then merged because nobody else had the same legal problems that I did. We headed up to Bellacoola, British Columbia, which was a couple hundred miles north of Vancouver on the coast and it proved to be an absolutely beautiful place. But it was a long way from anywhere else and I learned later that people didn’t drive in, they took a boat in or flew in. But we drove in and left the muffler along the way because it was several hundred miles of gravel road. As you merged down the mountain into the valley, there was pavement and lawns and suburban homes and so it was very disappointing when we got there that this was not as isolated as it had seemed on the maps. Of course, there was no land to be bought. It was expensive and there was no work to be found. We spent a few weeks there trying to figure out what would work, and of course, nothing would work. We had to go back down to Vancouver. We had this really naïve view what it would take to get settled. My three thousand dollars was diminishing. We were living on peanut butter sandwiches and rice. The cash that would buy the land was diminishing. We stopped at a campground – we camped all the time – and somebody said to us, “There’s cheap land in western Ontario.”

So we headed to Western Ontario. It was summertime and fall was coming so we knew that we couldn’t go into a Canadian winter unprepared. We were sort of burning our bridges behind us. There was a sense of anxiousness about this, but we continued on. Coming from west to east, the first part of Ontario in Canada, northwestern Ontario, is lakes and forests, the Canadian Shield. It was very beautiful. We stopped in a town called Dryden. It’s a pulp and paper town, really stinky. We stopped at a real estate agency to see if there was anything and found this little farm for sale. We had pretty high standards. The conventional wisdom there was that it took a dirt road off a dirt road to get isolated enough. With other realtors, we had looked at lots that were just bush and beaver swamps and just horrible places, but found this farm that an elderly couple had to sell to move into a nursing home and the price was $1500 for 140 acres with a river running through it. It was just perfect. We bought it and that brought our cash down to about two hundred dollars.

It was early September so it was getting a little bit cold and we had no firewood. The place was essentially a little shack. Our companions decided that winter would be too rough and they went back. Eventually they came back up for a brief period and two of them bought property nearby and settled there and the other two lived with us, but eventually all of them left and went back to the States. That first winter we were alone. In addition to all the drama of trying to avoid the draft and trying to find a place to live, my first marriage was falling apart. It had started before we left for Canada. I had known Diane by that point and so she followed me up to Canada and joined us and my former wife went back to the States. Diane had a great leap of faith to follow me up. I think we knew each other three weeks. When I realized my marriage wasn’t working. I called her up and said, “Well, would you like to join me?” To my amazement she said yes. It’s been a great marriage, but it certainly started with a very odd circumstance.
She and I loved each other and I think she was looking for something – not this, but she expected to go to Boston and become an airline attendant. Instead she found herself in rural Canada.

It was a beautiful little farm, but there was no water. The well had been filled in. There was no electricity. There was, of course, no phone, no joys of any kind. No firewood. There was a river, but the well had gotten polluted and they just filled it in. We hauled water from a spring a couple of miles away. Our friends who owned the only vehicle among us said they could only stay for another few weeks so we went to Winnipeg, which is of course a city. You have to understand this was 250 miles away from a city. There was a town twenty miles away, but it was tiny. We went back to Winnipeg to buy a vehicle, but we only had a few hundred dollars left. We got a $50 truck, a crank starter, drove it about a hundred yards and it died. The guy returned our money so we bought another little truck, a little more modern. We went back to the farm and our friends went back to the states. Winter was coming on. We were now down to about $50. By that time, I realized I had to get a job. I went into town looking for work and immediately got stopped by an Ontario police officer. The car wasn’t insured and the fine was $50. We were faced with having no money whatsoever. We were just eating rice and mixing dried soup mixes into it to give it flavor and this is poverty. I had been imagining subsistence farming, but this was a hard land. That first winter it got down to 40 below frequently. Winters are long , but we didn’t even consider asking for money from our families. When I left, my parents were quite disappointed and Diane left her family just a note. They were away on vacation so she left a note that she was leaving. Having made such a break it wasn’t like we could call for help.

I finally got a job as a paper handler at a paper conversion factory. There were a few weeks were we were destitute, but over the years we found our place there. I worked at this paper conversion factory for a year probably, shift work and interestingly saw the other side of society I never would have seen. Manual labor and tradesmen and shift work and working class people, all of which had not been a part of my experience. Diane took a job as a secretary in a clinic and then a pulp paper mill, and she had a steady salary as I tried other things. But that first winter – I think we still have a picture of our Christmas tree. We cut this straggly little tree and hung paper ornaments and popcorn on it. It was so cold that we just lived in one room of the house. We had a little tin stove and the firewood. Someone took pity on us and brought us firewood. The neighbors were kind, but also very curious about us. We were the first people who hadn’t been born there. So people brought us firewood, but it was wet. We would struggle to get fires burning. Routinely the pail of water would freeze in the kitchen and the old truck wouldn’t start because it was so cold. To start it, we had this elaborate ritual. On the very, very coldest days, I brought the battery in and put it on the stove to keep it warm. I would take a scoop shovel and put twigs on and pour some kerosene and light it with the shovel underneath to heat the oil and then put the battery in and then it would usually start. By this time I had a job so I had to make it work. I remember one morning when nothing made it work. I put the battery in a wheel barrow, lit a kerosene lamp, put that in the wheel barrow and wheeled it three quarters of a mile to our nearest neighbor to plug it into his charger. I then went back to the house and returned an hour later to get it and wheel it down the road, put it back in the truck and finally got it going.

It definitely was an adventure. There was a part of us that was excited about it, but it was just such hard work. I don’t remember being discouraged. Diane got discouraged, and while I was going into town to work that first winter, she was just there in this little cabin. There was no electricity, no phone. There was no way to call anybody and no radio, not even a radio. I’d come back from shift work, hard physical work, just exhausted and we’d crawl into bed and she’d want to talk. I’d say one word and be asleep and that drove her nuts. She was very brave. I’m sure there were some times when we were just really frustrated, but we were committed and for me, I didn’t see an obvious alternative. For me, the decision was made and so we just lived with it.

We were cut off from what was happening in the States. There was no television. I think we probably got Canadian broadcast. There was only one radio station, the CNC. So there were many years where we were completely unaware of the news. That first winter was the lowest point and then things got significantly better. We met other people our age and found close friends. They were all Canadians, but very sympathetic to our circumstances. In fact I don’t think we’ve had as close friends since that time. Thanksgiving just passed and it was just the three of us, but there we would gather with many people. One family had converted a church into a house so there was this big hall and we would put the tables together until we had enough for 20 or 30 people, friends who gathered. There was a lot of that, and there was nothing else to do and we had no money so visiting friends was the entertainment. The work that I did at the paper factory only lasted about a year and then I started doing carpentry work. We had given up the idea of subsistence farming, but we liked the idea of craftsmanship and we decided that we would be craftspeople and that eventually became my career of 15 years.

Since we lived on a river, we used to say we either needed a bridge or a boat. We decided a boat would be more useful. There was an old man who made boats living nearby and we heard he made a canoe so we decided we wanted to become canoe builders. I went to visit him and find out where I could get materials for canoes. I was going to build a fiberglass clad canoe and he persuaded me that that wasn’t the kind of canoe I wanted and I should build a traditional canoe. I kept hanging around long enough that he handed me a hammer and said, “Well, help” and that ended up being about a four or five year relationship. I would have called it an apprenticeship if I had known that is was called that, but I was just helping. Eventually he paid me. At first, since I was hanging around so much, he put me to work and he eventually paid me. I helped him build these traditional fishing boats. They were oak rimmed and cedar planked and they’re used at fishing camps. I helped him build those, but I really wanted to learn how to build a canoe. I built one canoe under his supervision, but his methods were a little hybrid. He used his boat building methods to build canoes, which were quite unusual. He was self-taught in that regard. He’d apprenticed with a master boat builder to learn how to build the fishing boats. Diane and I took apart an old canoe to learn more about how it was built in the traditional ways. She and I became canoe builders. First with him and then we had our own shop and for ten years we built cedar strip canoes.

Then two things happened. First in the mid-70s, there was an offer of alternative service. I’d been indicted soon after we left and there was an offer that I could do some alternative service and I didn’t take that seriously at all because we had a good life, we were happy, we had friends, we had a home. There was no need. Then, when Carter was elected and offered amnesty, it sounded enticing, but even then we never seriously considered returning. We stayed until ’84. We had every intention of being lifelong Canadians although we never took the step of citizenship. We researched and learned that Canadian citizenship meant renouncing US citizenship. We weren’t prepared to take that step. I suppose it was because family was here and our roots were here.

In about 1982, Diane was getting restless. She said pretty strongly, “Well, I want to leave. You’re coming too?” She kept asking, but for me there was the business. We made canoes and we made toys and she was a wood trimmer. It was still subsistence. The very best year we grossed $13, 000 and with that you can just barely get by, but it was possible. So, I kept saying, “Well, next year we’ll do better, Next year we’ll do better.” And eventually she said, “Well, there have been a lot of these years when we should have done better and I need more.” She wanted to go back to school so we agreed and in ’82 we went to Toronto. She went to school and I worked at the Ontario Craft Counsel. That was my first professional job and that launched my arts management career. We worked there two years and in those two years, we asked, “What is it we want to do next?” Canadians are very accepting of Americans, but still there was that hint of resentment. Without citizenship and with our American heritage… Canadians are in the shadow of the United States and our culture dominates, our politics dominate, our economy dominates. Some Canadians were very resentful of that. Still we had great friends. I wasn’t limited in my profession at all, but there was always this kind of sense of we weren’t quite fitting in and again, Diane was thinking that she wanted to get home. She had gotten us off the farm and now she sought to persuade me to go back to the United States.

For a year we would talk about it over dinner and discuss what we should do next. She has a great draw here because her family owns a summer cottage in New Hampshire that always felt more like home than any other place else to her. She missed it a lot and by the time we came to Toronto we would come down to visit. Before that time we had no money and until amnesty we couldn’t legally go. One time we did come back illegally. I borrowed somebody’s library card as a proof of citizenship and snuck across the border to visit my family for Christmas time. The guard at the border looked at my ID and kind of smiled and handed it back to me. It could have been otherwise. When we got to Nebraska my parents were so nervous. They didn’t want me to leave the house while I was there. They had been to visit us in Canada before. After the first couple of years, they’d come often, but I remember my mother reporting that the FBI called, trying to figure out where I was and she was having a hard time which is very unlike my mother. They came up and visited us often and once amnesty had cleared we’d go back and visit. That started our leaving for the United States and Diane wanting to be in New England again tipped the scale. We moved back. That summer home in New Hampshire which she went to every other summer is such a beautiful place. It had a very strong magnetic pull for her and eventually for me and that’s why we’re here.

We sold off our belongings. We were in Toronto by that time. I gave my notice at work and we went back to the farm. We had tenants and we prepared the place to sell. We spent a few weeks getting organized. We packed up our belongings, sold a lot of stuff, which proved useful because that became our capital in getting established. We rented a truck and filled it up with what was left and drove back. At the border crossing, they asked the usual things. They asked how long you’ve been away and I said twelve years. The guard smiled and invited me into his office and checked his computer screen. That was the first acknowledgement that I’d had that I actually was granted amnesty. The government doesn’t send you a letter telling you that you’re granted amnesty. You read about it in the newspapers. I was a little nervous about whether the official record would be enforced, but the newspaper said that it was fine and the guard smiled and said, “Welcome back.”

We were headed right toward the Amherst/Northampton area. In that last year in Toronto, I had hired somebody to teach a class for a conference I’d planned who came from Amherst from the arts extension service. She did a great job and she also admired what I was doing. In that last year when we were debating about whether to leave, I corresponded with her and actually came down to the Amherst/Northampton area to visit. We made visits to Portland, ME, Portsmouth, NH, and here. We actually put a compass on a map and drew out 50, 100, and 150 mile circles around the little island in New Hampshire where the summer house was located. In Portland, we arrived and it was a holiday and the town was deserted. Before it’s resurgence it looked kind of gritty and it wasn’t nearly as attractive as it is now. Portsmouth we loved, but we couldn’t figure out how to make a living there. Concord was too tiny. One reason we left the farm was because Diane wanted to be in college and to get a degree. She went to a community college in Toronto for a while. We decided we wanted a college town, and so the Amherst area was very attractive. When we visited the Amherst area, the woman I had hired up in Toronto to teach toured us and had a party for us. It was very welcoming. In addition to its inherent factors, we also had a great contact. When we decided in Toronto that we were going to leave, I called my contact here and said we’re coming and she said, “It’s funny you should ask because we just opened up a part-time job opportunity.” It was actually a contract. We had already decided to come, but before we packed the truck, there was an offer, which included a two day a week contract to do consulting, which gave us just enough to make it work out and it did.

The truth of the matter is I never would have done any of this had it not been for the draft. I have no regrets. My life would certainly have been a whole lot different. I’m sure I would have gone to graduate school and then have gotten an academic teaching post. That was my career track and the career I would have been most suited to. In a way I’ve hatched something like that anyway, but without the tenure track position. I found a university to work in and I became a teacher. I did research. I published, but all from outside of the academic career. I worked in continuing education so I was always trying to act like a professor. But it worked fine. I would have liked to have a cluster of students around me and the security of tenure. Instead I had a soft money position. I had to raise the money for it, and when I wanted to publish a book I had to raise money to print it. So it was much different than it would have otherwise been, but it’s been very rewarding. I have no regret. As far as having children is concerned, for the first ten years in Canada we were poor. We couldn’t afford it. The last two years there, we were in transition and the first years here we were in transition. We experienced a way of life we would never have lived, subsistence living, working in a factory. Those years in Canada had a lot of great things. We lived in the wilderness. We could hear wolves, We could see the northern lights at night. We could ski out of our backyard. We learned where water comes from. We had to dig the well by hand. We had to pull by hand to get electric poles up and cut down woods to make a path. We were aware of what it takes to survive in a way we never would have been. So that was good. The biggest impact on the negative side is that we had no savings. I was almost 50 years old before we started making retirement savings, and so that’s been a scramble, trying to prepare.

Given that there was a draft, I can’t imagine any fairer way to do it. Now with the threat of another one, my daughter and I have been talking about it and she pointed out that in the absence of the draft, it’s the working poor who end up being in the military. With a draft, everybody has to share the risk.

As for me it was a decisive event of my life. It’s probably the single deciding event. I mean you don’t often get a distinct choice. It made me do things I never would have done, but I don’t have regrets. With my marriage, once we were up there, it would have been a big step not to be together. Whenever there was a rough period, we only had each other. We worked it all through. When she wanted us to leave she did ask if I would come, but I think she just put it in strong terms so I would know how serious she was about it. She did not want us to be apart.  By that time, I had worn out my excuses of “next year, next year things will be better.” We love each other a lot and always have. She just was making it clear that I’d run out of next years.

We continue to have periodic reunions with our Canadian friends. We’ve gone up there a few times. We’re hoping this summer that some of our closest friends will join us again in New Hampshire.