MONTARA, CALIF. -- The lady at the draft board gave me an odd look when I told her that summer day in 1967 that I wanted to be drafted. "Have you thought about this?" she said.
I had. I hated the Vietnam war, but I wanted to be a journalist and felt I could not write as well about my generation if I shirked this particular obligation. I assumed I would meet young men whose views on the war were different from mine, or perhaps had no real opinion on the war at all.
Never for a moment did I dream that I would meet anyone like Keith Mather.
He had a cool, hard-edged look that first day we met in a chilly concrete army reception area in Oakland. A cigarette hung from the side of his mouth and his sideburns were a bit longer than I was accustomed to. There was not much time for talk before we climbed into the dark bus for the long overnight trip to Ft. Lewis, Wash. In that dank, cold wasteland we would begin learning something about ourselves, and, I think, about what we should think of men, faced with war or the possibility of war, who insist on their own personal code of conduct no matter what the consequences.
We have heard a great deal of comment, both admiring and defaming, about Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, who ran an allegedly illegal contra aid operation, and peace activist Brian Willson, who sat down in front of a naval weapons train and lost both legs when he failed to get up quickly enough. Both are Vietnam veterans who have become symbols of a national debate over a new, troubling threat to American values and interests in Central America. Both are said to have let their obsession over this issue -- on opposite sides to be sure -- blot out good sense and respect for the rule of law.
Thinking about Keith, I wonder if such passions and extreme actions are not a necessary part of any important decision in this democracy. People like North or Willson -- or Keith -- do not fit in. To some, they may seem mildly insane. Yet in a national crisis they force us to make up our minds. Either way we are moving, taking a stand. We need goads, and having recognized that, we ought to think twice before we damn such people for their bullish stubborness, or put them in jail.
Keith and I made an odd pair in 1967. He was an unmarried high school dropout with a GED degree. Although nearly 21, he had no serious long-term goals or strong political opinions, other than wanting to avoid shooting anyone or being shot. I was 22, had married and graduated from college three months before, and had a great many opinions on everything, including the worthiness of my own opinions.
Mather's and Mathews' eight weeks together as basic training bunkmates -- the army did everything by the alphabet -- scraped off some of those surface differences and exposed something that seems to me important now, since Vietnam has become in hindsight an "era" distinguished by its mass movements and mass emotions. I have a very different impression. To me, it was a time of millions of very personal decisions, like North's and Willson's more recent unusual choices. I think that most of us accepted them -- no matter how vigorously we disagreed with some -- as part of the debate.
In a certain context, Keith is truly a dangerous man. I have no doubt that he would have been among the first musketeers at Lexington if someone he knew had died in the Boston Massacre. It is only the peculiarities of his era that made him what the newspapers out here called the "last prisoner of conscience" of the Vietnam War.
My letters from basic training to my wife, stuffed away in their original envelopes in an old file drawer, indicate I was first intrigued by Keith's tale of being in a fight outside a bar in Millbrae and knocking a sailor unconscious. I had not seen one person punch another since I was 15. Now I was living in an army barracks where fights were an accepted means of resolving conflict. I had a bunkmate who knew all about it, and yet, I remember clearly, he thought the whole thing was silly, kid's stuff, something he had outgrown.
In one letter to Linda I expressed surprise that the army criminal investigation division summoned Keith to explain his statement on several forms that he would refuse to serve in Vietnam. I did not want to go to Vietnam either but I would never have confronted the issue so directly. I wanted to find a way to do something that interested me, and perhaps limited my chances of being killed, but I would work within the system. That was what had led me to volunteer in the first place.
Keith took a much more elemental stand. He would not go. No hard feelings, but Vietnam was not on his list. He said much of his feeling at the time came from his mother, a pacifist who loathed what armies and wars made young men do.
At Ft. Lewis we slushed through the mud and gravel together, enjoyed the ghetto patois of one drill sergeant, endured the drunken rages of another -- including one bizarre weekend when we were ordered to move every stick of furniture in the barracks out to the parade ground. We did our best to score low on the rifle range -- me by intentionally missing, Keith by shooting other people's targets.
It did no good. My letter to Linda of Nov. 13 is very sad: "People are beginning to get clues to their orders, but nothing for me as yet. Poor Keith Mather got infantry -- to train here. He seems to be taking it well at the moment, probably because they sweetened it a bit by telling him he had qualified for leadership school . . . . If Keith keeps his wits about him, he may get himself sent to drill corporals school and thus save his bod. Let us hope."
I was also told to report for infantry training. But my orders were delayed so that I could testify at the court martial of a fellow trainee who had been harassed unmercifully for his refusal to take bayonet drill. Later they assigned me to the base newspaper at Ft. Ord, Calif.
Keith went off to infantry training. At first he thought the best way to survive was to become the best soldier possible, but he quickly discarded the notion. A brush with the real world at home during Christmas left him determined to get out of the army, or at least avoid Vietnam. He returned to Ft. Lewis late, hoping that his scuffed shoes and unpolished brass would put him on a list of undesirables. If that did not work, he had also stuffed several pouches of marijuana in his pockets.
His army superiors brushed the violations aside. They sent Keith back to the M-60 drill and kept him at the machine gun for hours, yelling in his ears, until he acquiesced and fired it the way they wanted him too. Convinced he had no alternative, he finally went AWOL, losing himself in the undergrowth of the San Francisco Bay Area draft evaders, deserters, anti-war organizers and their many sympathizers.
He probably could have stayed there. Many others did. In a few years they would no longer be sending American draftees to Vietnam and, eventually, the Carter administration amnesty would allow almost all to resume normal lives.
When I look at old television news clips of what Keith did next, I am astonished at how young he was, and I was, and wonder how we could have forced such boys to make such decisions. But that was part of the meaning of that era. People made all kinds of odd decisions at a time when the world seemed open to any eventuality, from death and murder to a flower strewn paradise on the hills of San Francisco.
It impresses me now how much respect there was for each man's choice in this regard. My wife's hatred for the war surpassed my own, but she did not make my decision to volunteer for the draft an issue between us. A friend who had preceded me into the army by a year, and had gone to Vietnam, wrote to assure me that no one would think less of me if I tried to avoid serving in the war zone. Nearly everyone, he said, was trying to do the same thing.
Keith's own unique decision to leave the underground was chronicled in most of the nation's newspapers. He chained himself to an assortment of clergymen and AWOL servicemen at the Howard Presbyterian Church in Marin County and became one of the "Nine For Peace."
The television news clip of his arrest shows him leaning over to the young MP leading him the squad car and saying, "Don't worry about it." He was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to four years in prison. They sent him to the Presidio stockade in San Francisco while his attorneys pursued the usual appeals which would, much later, reduce the sentence to 18 months.
Having made this first rather remarkable choice, Keith did not appear to have much difficulty making several even more risky ones during the next few months of his life. In July of 1968, when he had been arrested, I had been absorbed in my own grief over orders to Vietnam, and had missed the news. I did not discover what had happened until Christmas of that year, when I sat in the whirring air conditioning of my office in Long Binh and read a story nobody could miss.
On Oct. 11 an emotionally disturbed Presidio prisoner was shot and killed while trying to run away from a guard. Several of the man's friends, including Keith, agreed to stage a sit-down in protest. When an older soldier who promised to lead the demonstration froze at the critical moment during roll call, Keith stepped through the line and sat down in front of a startled sergeant. Twenty-six other prisoners joined him. They sat for 45 minutes, singing protest songs and reading a list of demands, before they were dragged back into their barracks and into anti-war history as the "Presidio 27".
The army considered this a mutiny, and seemed determined to send Keith to prison for a very long time. What he did next stunned me momentarily and elevated him to legendary status in the anti-war movement, although it probably revealed as much about the cheerful sloppiness of the American army as it did about Keith's resolve and daring.
On Christmas eve, Keith and a friend ended a work detail and persuaded the young orderly assigned to keep watch that they had to return their tools to a shed outside the compound fence. The guard had to stay outside the shed to watch a gate. The two prisoners banged away with their hammers for a few minutes, pretending to build a new shelf for the tools. They slipped out a back window, with Keith banging on the window sill a few more times to maintain the ruse. They ran through the Presidio golf course, scaled a remote section of old fort's high wall, flagged a taxi and found friends who could drive them out of town.
In two days they were in Canada, where Keith would remain for 12 years.
By the time Keith was permanently settled in Canada, I was out of Vietnam and in graduate school. By 1979 his marriage to a Canadian woman had broken up and he decided his two children, of whom he had custody, ought to grow up near their relatives in the States. He hoped that time and bureaucratic inattention would give him the anonymity he craved. He successfully applied for a drivers license and joined the Carpenter's Union, a suitable occupation for someone who wanted to work for himself.
His smooth transition into middle age did not change his view of the war. When Saigon fell, he was only mildly regretful, a feeling he attributes to a lifetime of seeing Hollywood GIs win their wars. Vietnam was, and would always be, pointless to Keith. The boat people, the fall of Cambodia and Laos, the bankruptcy of Vietnam's socialist economy and its camps full of political prisoners would not change his mind.
A few of us who had opposed the war noted these developments and wondered if the conflict had not had a point after all. Keith remained confident that he had made the decisions that made sense at the time, and put his mind to more immediate problems of feeding and housing his family.
Politically, Keith had stepped out of his era and not stepped into any other. He resolved to do some military counseling, but otherwise was a friendly, family-oriented anachronism, which generated a measure of comic irony when the army, by accident, found him again.
When the man from the county sheriff's office telephoned, Keith had not even noticed his missing driver's license. Apparently, it slipped out when he was paying a bill at a local gas station. The polite request to come down to the office and pick it up set off a soft alarm in the back of his head. He told his mother where he was going: "I hope I get back by Christmas, Mom."
"Could we see you back here, Mr. Mather?" the deputy asked. Just as he feared, they had run his name through the computer and found the old federal warrant. The army picked him up and took him down to Ft. Ord near Monterey, where no one was quite certain what do do with him.
"What are you in for?" someone asked the man next to him at the special Ft. Ord barracks set aside for discipline cases. "AWOL," the man said.
"Uh, . . . 19 months, I guess."
"How about you," someone asked Keith.
The company commander was fascinated by this living dinosaur and reminisced with Keith about his own childhood memories of the 1960s. He treated Keith like the celebrity he was and granted him several passes to go home weekends. The company sergeant considered Keith a stable family man with just the sort of responsible attitude he wished to cultivate in his young troops. He asked Keith to share his wisdom with young soldiers and mulled over personnel problems with the help of this friendly 39-year-old deserter and mutineer.
When the word came down that Keith would have to serve the remaining 18 months of his original sentence, both captain and sergeant expressed their personal regrets. While carrying a mattress downstairs, Keith lost consciousness and fell for reasons that remain unclear. He suffered a severe head injury. His name jumped into the newspapers again. His old admirers from the anti-war movement demanded his release.
After only two months at Ft. Riley, Keith's attorney and the army appeal system found a way to turn him loose. In exchange, he accepted a dishonorable discharge, which he was amused to find printed on yellow paper. Keith took it home, to a cheering crowd of friends and relatives. He framed it and put it on the wall of his den.
I admired it when I came here to see him in his house overlooking the foggy, cold Pacific Ocean beaches just south of San Francisco. We looked at the old videotapes of that small part of his life that had been captured on the KRON-TV 6 o'clock news.
Our political views might have diverged, but otherwise we seemed much more alike now than we did in basic training. Our hairlines were receding at the same rapid pace. We both puzzled over the nature of teenaged children. We shared a preference for jobs with minimal supervision from above.
And we had both seen how millions of individual decisions -- many bolstered by Keith's innocent single-mindedness -- had gotten America out of Vietnam, not gracefully, but at least with enough national cohesion to attend to its other responsibilities.
Nations enmeshed in such tragedies often require a collapse of government, a revolution or civil war, to extricate themselves. We did it a better way and, I think, treated each other well in the process. Perhaps that is the best way to assure that as few as possible die in defense of liberty, and the right to say no.
Jay Mathews is chief of The Washington Post's Los Angeles bureau.