By John Urban
Buffalo was the name he gave, preferring to keep his real name to himself. He was a deserter from the US’s war on Vietnam, and he had made his way to Montreal. The number of draft dodgers and deserters in Montreal was swelling in the late ‘60s and early ‘70’s, and they had established organizations such as coops and resource centres to help the stream of newcomers get established.
One such centre was just up the tree-lined street near where I lived, and so I happened to meet a few these men, socially. I soon learned that there was a difference between draft dodgers and deserters. The dodgers were ok, but the deserters were somewhat desperate, and they would steal. They soon developed a bad reputation because of that. People were still sympathetic to them, but they were now more careful, and guarded.
I began to notice one fellow in particular, our paths crossing here and there. He may have come to visit someone in our large rented house…I forget how we met. But I do remember sitting down with him once, and as we got to talking, Buffalo began to tell me something about the last few years of his life.
Buffalo was from a Southern state, and he got drafted into the Army. In training, it was discovered that he was a pretty good shot, and was given specialized training to prepare him to be a sniper. He said there were a lot of Southern boys among the snipers, and they were allowed to use whatever kind of rifle they were most used to, and could even bring their own .22 gauge squirrel rifle if they wanted to.
So, he was taken to Vietnam. I don’t remember any war stories but one, the last. He was perched up high in a palm tree, and well-camouflaged. There was a big battle, and the US side got pushed back, losing a lot of men. The Vietcong forces flowed in, and searched the area for salvageable weapons, ammo, survivors, etc. Buffalo was still up in that palm tree, and the enemy occupied the ground below.
He managed to remain unnoticed, and after three days, the Vietcong pulled out. After waiting a bit longer to make sure they were really all gone, he climbed down from his hiding place, and carefully found his way back to the Army base.
He found a number of his buddies were no longer alive, and the consensus among the foot soldiers was that they were not winning. They were losing this war because they were not getting much help from the Vietnamese they were supposedly helping. In fact, they were constantly being sabotaged and undercut. So, Buffalo decided that he was going to get out of this war somehow.
Time passed, and there were more battles, and more close shaves, and more buddies dead. He was on good terms with his commanding officer, and somehow induced him to authorize a temporary return to the US for him, perhaps for some compassionate family reason. He was supposed to return after a few weeks, or so.
Well, his return flight to the US was to Chicago, and while circling the airport, he could see tanks, and soldiers in the streets, and large crowds of people lined up against them. Something serious was going on, and it didn’t look good.
He found out soon enough, though, as right there in the airport, his plans were thwarted by martial law, and he was taken away and temporarily placed within a unit of the National Guard. Several weeks later, after the Democratic National Convention was finished and the demonstrations had died down, he was finally free to continue on his way.
He made it into Canada, and headed for Toronto, where he settled in for a while, preferring to blend in and hang out amongst the students at the university. He spent a year or two in Toronto, and one day, in one of the common rooms where students relaxed and socialized, he met a recently-arrived student from China, who spoke passable English.
They got to talking, and Buffalo learned that this student was fresh out of the Chinese Army. He too had been drafted, unwillingly, in spite of having applied for admission as a freshman student at the University of Toronto. After almost two years in the army, he had finally been accepted, and then he was able to apply for, and receive an educational deferment, following which he was released from the army, and came to Canada.
Now, at this time, China had been giving North Vietnam a lot of assistance. They did not admit it yet, but they had also been secretly providing Chinese soldiers to work and fight along with the North Vietnamese, in their army. It wasn’t too long before Buffalo and the Chinese student figured out that they had been at the same battle, but on opposite sides. That was the battle where Buffalo had found himself stranded up in that palm tree. And neither of them had wanted to be there.