A Good Fight is Hard to Find

The Taste of Metal: A Deserter’s Story

Published on April 1, 2001

The Taste Of Metal: A Deserter’s Story
Jack Todd

Harper Flamingo

Most Montrealers who’ve read Jack Todd in The Gazette over the last dozen years or so, first as a city columnist, now as a sports columnist, know that the number of times he’s been right about one thing or another pretty much matches the number of times he’s been wrong. As a judge of character he’s had his good and bad days too. If he likes you, you’re a hero; if he doesn’t, you’re a zero. If you wait long enough you’ll probably end up being both.

But then Todd, who was born in Nebraska but is now a Canadian citizen, never claimed to be a model of consistency. “What makes me a loudmouth columnist is American, what makes me regret it is Canadian,” he admitted over lunch recently at a favourite downtown Indian restaurant.

Todd is no model of cautious restraint either. He has burnt out in public – his final city column in 1993 was a kind of masterpiece of self-recrimination – and he’s apologized in public too, though probably not often enough. He wears his heart on his sleeve and his foot in his mouth.

Of course, all this goes with his job. Put your opinions down in print, even smudgy print, a few times a week and eventually you’re going to have to learn to pronounce mea culpa. Still, reading Todd’s new memoir The Taste of Metal: A Deserter’s Story, it’s evident he comes by his impulsive, half-cocked charm naturally.

In retrospect, Todd’s decision in 1969 to go AWOL and head for the Canadian border looks unimpeachably reasonable. But how he finally, wrenchingly, got to that point – leaving behind his family, his country, his future, and the woman he loved – is what makes The Taste of Metal a bittersweet and intriguing document.

In 1967, for example, Todd tried to join the Marines. Despite his doubts about the war, he was prepared to fight and even die for his country. (He was eventually discharged because of his bad knees.) Two years later he was drafted by the army and didn’t want to go. He wouldn’t have had to, either, if he’d stayed in school or just kept a record of how many times his knees had been drained. Once he was in the army, he could have avoided combat by working as a journalist, but he passed on that too.

In Canada he would get more things wrong. He gave up a good job with a newspaper in Vancouver and ended up broke and on skid row; he also believed Nixon would never resign and that the American government would never pardon deserters and draft dodgers. In fact, he was so sure he’d never be allowed to return home that he renounced his American citizenship, even though everyone he knew at the time, including a fellow deserter, implored him not to. The decision was typically Todd – part principle, part dumb impetuousness.

Throughout the memoir, Todd, who was 22 when he came to Canada, demonstrates a pattern of mistakes and miscalculations that should have gotten him killed or ruined or at the very least embarrassed into shutting up any number of times. That it didn’t is a testament to Todd’s good fortune but also to his brash resilience. The Taste of Metal shows how far you can get believing in something intensely and, yes, a little foolishly.

Turns out Todd wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’d rather write something with passion and have to tell you two weeks later that I was wrong than say it without passion and be really cautious. I never write anything I don’t think at the time even if I might think I was a blooming idiot later on,” Todd says.

Todd’s greying a little and he’s thicker around the waist than when he was on an athletic scholarship at the University of Nebraska in the mid-sixties, but, at 6’6”, the former basketball player and high jumper still exhibits some of the gangly nervous energy of an athlete. No doubt, some of that nervousness is also due to the publication of The Taste of Metal, which is coming out simultaneously in the U.S. with a different title, Desertion in the Time of Vietnam.

Todd has invested most of his adult life in writing this book, or wanting to write it anyway. “I’ve dinked around with this thing for the last 30 years. It was always pregnant with portent and symbolism and all that crap. I was reading too much Malcolm Lowry and James Joyce.

“Telling my story as a simple narrative just seemed like such a weenie thing to do. But what happened was every time I would take another run at the story, it would get closer and closer to what actually happened.

“It first started rattling around in my mind as a memoir in 1995 when I did a piece about deserting for The Gazette. I was really surprised by the reaction. I also did another piece about my father that got a good reaction. So the initial idea was to combine the two, and then when my friend Sonny died, that cinched it.”

Todd’s boyhood friend Sonny is a recurring and haunting presence in The Taste of Metal. In the prologue Todd and Sonny, 11 and 10 respectively, come up with a plan to bump off serial killer and local bogeyman Charlie Starkweather. They even hide out with their rifles near the local jail determined to do the right thing, fight the good fight. (Starkweather never shows.)

Later on, a good fight proves harder to find. Sonny comes back from Vietnam with a straightforward warning for his friend: Don’t go, no matter what. He even shows Todd some photos which illustrate just how bad things are in Vietnam. The photos should be enough to make up Todd’s mind to dodge the draft, but they’re not. Throughout The Taste of Metal, Todd never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. By the end of the memoir, Sonny is dead, a victim of depression, drink, and Vietnam.

Todd’s intention is to make this memoir a tribute, a heartfelt cry for all the lives destroyed, in one way or another, by the war. But The Taste of Metal is, like its author, more impulsive and quick-tempered than meditative or elegiac. The old scars – from the lover he left behind when he was drafted and keeps pining for to the country he loved, hated, and lost – are still fresh. Narrated at a feverish pitch, The Taste of Metal reads like a young man’s book, like the book Todd meant to write three decades ago.

Getting over all that happened has been a long struggle, Todd admitted. “I feel like a lot of time was lost,” he explains. “I sulked over the war a lot more than most people. Part of the problem was that when I was drafted I was 22, working for the Miami Herald, in love, and I had almost everything I thought I wanted. Then two months later, I’m living on skid row with no girlfriend, no money, no job. So for a long time I was afraid to get settled and to assume anything was going to last. I kept thinking the rug would be pulled out from under me. And when you think that way, you tend to pull it out before it happens. To say, ‘Oh, this job is going okay, I’m out of here.’”

The main challenge Todd faced with The Taste of Metal was to remove “the gallons of self-pity” still around from the book’s earlier drafts. If writing the book taught him that he needed to be passionate about a subject to take it on, finishing the book taught him that he also needed to control his passion. Mostly, though, he realized he wasn’t interested in symbolism and deep meaning. He just wanted to write something people wanted to read.

“I knew I at least had a few good yarns,” Todd says. “I’ve been telling them for 30 years at dinner parties. I should have them pretty well polished by now.” mRb

Joel Yanofsky is the author of Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.



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