A Vietnam Era Underground Railroad Conductor “Takes It To Jesus”

From “Quakers & Resistance” — by Ken Maher

[First posted in January, 2018]

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is from a newly-published, double issue of Quaker Theology, #30 & #31,  on “Quakers & Resistance.”

Ken Maher now lives in Rochester, New York. He may be unique among living American Quakers as the father of seven and grandfather of seventeen (and still counting), not to mention his longtime support of Friends for a Pro-Life Peace Testimony. His blessings also include a Roman Catholic wife and Quaker meetings that have tolerated his quirky Friendship for 50 years, including serving Rochester Meeting as Clerk.

Ken Maher, in disguise as a respectable, indeed natty paterfamilias.

Ken is a product of Friends World College and spent ten years teaching English as a Second Language in Kisii, Kenya; Cuernavaca, Mexico; Humacao, Puerto Rico; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; El Paso, Texas; and Tyson’s Corner, Virginia.

In this episode, though, he was making waves closer to home, during the unpopular Vietnam War, when thousands of young American men were fleeing the military draft, even wanting to leave the country. . . .

Ken: In the late 1960s, I underwent what might be described as a born-again experience. At meeting for worship every First Day and at many other times during the week, I found myself thinking such remarkable sentiments as “Jesus saves” and “Jesus is the answer” and “Give it to Jesus.”

I didn’t often verbalize these thoughts, because Jesus was my little secret. Another member of the Buffalo New York Meeting had given me Jesus as a gift.

He told me that, in case I happened to know anyone involved in the new Underground Railroad, we might want to call this serendipitous, fly-by-night network of Quaker meeting houses and other more or less subversive waystations by the acronym JESUS.

That is, “Just Escape from Servitude in the United States.”

During the Vietnam War, the meeting house in Buffalo served as headquarters for the Western New York Draft Counseling Center, which operated probably 50-80 hours a week during the height of the war.

Upstairs, the meeting house resident couple opened their home as a commune to assorted bohemian types, myself among them. Soon after moving into the meeting house in the fall of 1968, I was asked to take responsibility for the increasing numbers of young men who showed up at the meeting house door looking for a friendly face.

These were not the young men looking for draft counseling.

I was to take care of the growing numbers who came unsolicited seeking help to emigrate to Canada.

Although many of the draft counselors and many of the members of Buffalo Meeting were sympathetic to these young men who wanted to leave the States, working with them in the Draft Counseling Center could have seriously jeopardized both the Draft Counseling Center itself and the Buffalo Friends Meeting that housed its endeavors.

Editor’s Note: this manual was an underground bestseller. I had a copy, which I studied and considered carefully.

So I was given a list of people in the Buffalo area who had offered to help young men escape the draft. And that was the beginning of the Underground Railroad station that operated unofficially in the Buffalo Friends meeting house at 72 North Parade Avenue.

Our station was directly affiliated with the Toronto AntiDraft Programme (TADP), run by Bill Spira and Naomi Wall.

TADP’s non-luxurious office on Spadina Ave.

And we soon became incredibly well organized for an operation such as ours that was run by a bunch of “commsymphippie-pinkofaggotfreaks.”

The Canadian government had a very clear and detailed immigration policy at that time, based on a point system. Anyone who wished to emigrate to Canada had to achieve a certain minimum number of points based on education, profession, family members living in Canada, and other criteria.

addition to providing food, temporary housing, and often substitute parenting for our guests, my job was to make sure that we sent to the border only those young men who had enough points to guarantee their admission.

To this end, we offered quite a makeover service. We provided haircuts for the long-haired hippie types, straight-looking clothes, and a packed suitcase for those who showed up with no luggage.

We had a $500 revolving cash fund, which Canadian Immigration considered enough to live on while resettling in Canada. This money was returned to the driver after passing the Immigration interview and was then available for the next emigrant.

Nancy Pocock, a Canadian Quaker legend. She and her husband John helped thousands of refugees and emigrants before, during and after the Vietnam War.

Through the Toronto Friends Meeting and the TADP, we arranged for a job offer, worth ten points (or ten percent) of required Immigration Department points, for almost every emigrant. Our most vigorous supporters in the Toronto Meeting were the late John and Nancy Pocock.

We had personal letters of reference sent to the meeting house from sympathetic clergy, teachers, and employers associated with our guests. And all of these documents, along with the money and the revolving clothes closet, were gathered in the suitcase that we handed over with each young man to the volunteer driver. Our drivers were nuns and priests and other clergy and ordinary citizens who looked as straight as the most prominent Quaker of the day, Richard Nixon.

The Toronto Anti-Draft Programme helped us keep track of the changing Immigration Department shifts at the four US-Canada bridges in the Buffalo area. TADP kept records of Immigration officers who gave our young men a hard time, and we avoided using those bridges on their shifts, especially for those young men with only a marginal number of points who would thus need to rely on the discretionary ten points that the Immigration officer personally controlled.

How did those heading for Canada know to come to the meeting house door? Well, a number of young men were sent to us from Toronto, because it was necessary to apply for landed immigrant status at a border or at a point of disembarkation.

But instead of being told to follow the drinking gourd, most of those who arrived at the Buffalo meeting house said that they had been told by someone in the peace movement something to the effect that they could find Friends in the telephone book of any big city.

And once they had found Friends in one city, they were referred to other Friends along their route north. So I heard stories of men moving from one meeting house to another to get to Buffalo. Unlike the Underground Railroad of slavery days, however, the stations along the Vietnam era railroad were much more loosely connected, largely because of the very real threat of infiltration and prosecution.

When I obtained my FBI file after the Freedom of Information Act was passed, all my fears were confirmed and in fact multiplied. Almost all of my antiwar activity was documented with a lot of hearsay records that could only have been provided by agents who had actually known me personally.

We were rather sure at the time that all the phone lines into the meeting house were tapped, and the later evidence confirmed those fears.

Who were these young men going to Canada? At first when Canada was accepting only those avoiding the draft, they were largely college-educated, middle class whites with great futures if they could stay away from Vietnam. Then Canada decided to open its borders as well to military men who were absent without leave, and the whole picture changed.

We were suddenly flooded with younger men, some of whom were not white, most of whom had barely a high school education and were much harder to place because of their general lack of education and needed job skills. I remember one of them, a young farm boy from Kansas, who actually told me that all he ever wanted was 40 acres and a mule, and he was sorry that he would have to go to Canada to get it.

In the late summer of 1969, we had a report from TADP that one of the young men we had helped and who had stayed with us in Buffalo for about a week reported a very suspicious incident when he arrived in Toronto. When he came out of the Canadian Immigration Office after his interview, he recognized a car and its driver sitting outside the office. He told TADP that he had seen the same car and driver over a week earlier outside the Syracuse Peace Center and again outside the safe house he had stayed at in Syracuse, New York, over 100 miles from Buffalo.

Somehow, the unidentified driver of that car from Syracuse had known where and when the young man was crossing into Canada.

That was the end of my being a conductor in Buffalo. I handed over my contact list of drivers and safe houses, the suitcase, and the money to one of my most supportive drivers, a suburban homemaker, and left town for a few months.

Later that fall, TADP sent me to Detroit to set up another Underground Railroad station there. Both of these stations continued operating to some degree until supply and demand allowed them to be laid down.

And that is the story of how I worked for Jesus during the Vietnam War.





This true story is excerpted from the new double issue of Quaker Theology.  You can read it online for free  here.


2 thoughts on “A Vietnam Era Underground Railroad Conductor “Takes It To Jesus””

    1. Not really, Val. You could order a copy from me, but I would get it from Amazon, which has a print-on-demand subsidiary which has been very useful, economical & (in publishing terms) liberating for many small producers like me. I know some don’t like it, but concealing the truth of this connection doesn’t really work for me.

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