Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Moving Target is Harder to Hit

“You can’t solve your problems by running away.”

“Everyone feels oppressed sometimes. Why don’t you talk to your boss/master/president/prime minister/parents/husband and work things out.”

Is this a joke?

Why are some Great Migrations considered heroic?

When I was growing up, my family had an illustrated coffee-table book of American folk songs. On special occasions, Mom would practice her keyboard-playing on the pump organ while the rest of us sang the words.

I fell in love with Sweet Betsy from Pike, travelling to California by covered wagon during the Gold Rush of 1849 with her lover Ike.

“The alkali desert was burning and bare,/ And Isaac’s soul shrank from the death that lurked there./
‘Dear old Pike County, I’ll go back to you.’/ Said Betsy, ‘You’ll go by yourself if you do.’”

I visited the alkali desert, briefly. I wondered if I would have had Betsy’s courage.

In the Case for Running Away and not going back, I call these witnesses.

Britannia, 60 AD:
We would rather be alive under Roman rule than killed by our Queen, ruler of the Iceni and sworn enemy of the Romans. The Romans think we’re savages, but their prejudice can work in our favour. They want to rule us from afar, not live among us. Our Queen wants to destroy every one of them and every one of us who lives in a Roman town. All able-bodied men who aren’t killed are forced into her army.

Our land is blessed with forests. My wife has been blessed with a child in the womb. Look for us tomorrow, and we will be gone.

If you’re still here when the soldiers come (hers or theirs, it hardly matters), tell them we were taken by evil spirits. Tell them the whole town is cursed. If you value your life, don’t tell them that war itself is the curse.

Maryland, 1855:
For three nights, I been dreaming about the General, sitting up real straight on the seat of a buckboard in a poke bonnet that pretty near hides her face. They call her Moses. That would make us the Children of Israel in Pharaoh’s land. Huh. What did they think we would learn from that story?

Uncle Bo says we can meet the General, but we have to sneak out at night and make our way to the safe house where some Quakers will take care of us until we move on. Some say there’s gonna be a war between North and South, but if there is, it won’t be about us. No sir. The men who write the laws up north are white men, same as the ones here. They all look after themselves.

They say there’s no slavery in Canada since 1830-somethin. That’s where I want to go. I don’t care if there’s so much ice and snow on the ground you can’t hardly plow a field. I can hunt what I can’t grow.

I ain’t scared of the cold. I rather feel that than the heat of a whipping on my back.

Saskatchewan, Canada, 1970:
I don’t really think I’m chickenshit, or Benedict Arnold or anything like that. I’d be willing to fight for my country if we were invaded, but I don’t see why I should go into a jungle in Vietnam to kill a bunch of people who aren’t threatening me.

I can’t walk into a bar and get a drink until I’m 21, but Uncle Sam could send me to war at 18. Just like that. The government could send me to jail for not showing up where my draft notice told me to go.

Yeah, my parents are pretty shaken up, but they’d rather keep me alive in some other country than send me off to kill or get killed. They got your name and phone number from the Johnsons. They know Jim Whatsisname who used to teach at the state college.

I have a girlfriend, and we were planning to get married someday. I guess I’ll never see her again. She’d have to come here, and I don’t think she would. Her parents wouldn’t let her if they could help it. I know what they say about draft-dodgers.

Thanks a lot for taking me in. I guess living here won’t be so bad if I can find a job. I miss everybody I left, but I really hope I won’t get sent back.

Saskatchewan, Canada, 1978:
Joan offered to pick us up and take us to the shelter. Her friend Geraldine was driving. Otherwise, I had just enough change to afford a taxi.

I hope neither of them ever regrets rescuing us. I know I had to get out of the house. He threatened to take the baby to his own country and give her to his relatives to raise, to get her away from the evil white woman who happens to be her mother. If he had smuggled her out of Canada, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get her back.

We missed him by minutes. When he phoned around to find out where we were, he admitted that he didn’t stay in class because he hadn’t had a drink that day. He needed his fix.

I know now that before the Charter of Rights became law in 1982, there was still a fugitive wife law on the books, left over from a past era. It hadn’t been applied for years, but in theory, he could have had the board and staff of the shelter charged for taking us in. And then my parents.

That night, Joan wouldn’t stay in her own apartment. She stayed with friends he didn’t know. I don’t think he ever met Geraldine. I hate to think of the weight of my guilt if I had put anyone else at risk.

“But he’s your husband.”

“He’s a nice guy. He was very concerned about your post-partum depression.”

“I’m sure he would never do anything to harm you or your daughter.”

But I know what I know. Sometimes you have to get out when you have the chance.


  1. An excellent post. I'd have run, too.

  2. Powerful examples - sometimes, though, cutting and running works just as well in less difficult circumstances.

  3. Strong and personal. I'd be interested to know what this fugitive wife law was. Was there a law that forbid wives to run away or be taken in?


  4. Thanks for your comments, all.
    Garce - yes! Believe it or not, there was a law re runaway wives that was parallel to the old laws re runaway slaves - in the 19th century, a wife belonged to her husband, so anyone who took in a fugitive could be considered a thief or at least a troublemaker. Older Canadian laws tend to be identical to British laws, so I suspect this one had British roots. It was prob. still on the books when Chiswick Women's Aid opened in England in 1971 - first shelter for battered women that I know of. Old, obscure laws tend to stay in the records even when no longer enforced (e.g. you can't hitch your horse to a post in front of City Hall). I'm glad the Canadian Criminal Code got an overhaul in 1982.


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