The Drifters by James A. Michener

  The Drifters is a work of historical fiction. Apart from the well-known actual people, events, and locales that figure in the narrative, all names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to current events or locales, or to living persons, is entirely coincidental.

  2014 Dial Press Trade Paperback Edition

  Copyright © 1971 by James Michener

  All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States by Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

  DIAL PRESS and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

  Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Random House LLC, in 1971.

  An extract from The Lusiads of Luis de Camoes, translated by Leonard Bacon, is reprinted by permission of The Hispanic Society of America, New York, 1966.

  eBook ISBN 978-0-8041-5149-8




  Title Page



  I Joe

  II Britta

  III Monica

  IV Cato

  V Yigal

  VI Gretchen

  VII Torremolinos

  VIII Algarve

  IX The Tech Rep

  X Pamplona

  XI Moçambique

  XII Marrakech

  Other Books by This Author

  About the Author

  This is a novel. The characters were invented by the author, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is accidental. Three of the geographical settings have also been invented: the Republic of Vwarda, Qarash Pass, and, to afford a concentration of ecological problems, the Zambela game sanctuary. All the other locales are real, although the drinking spots described therein are imaginary.



  Youth is truth.

  No man is so foolish as to desire war more than peace: for in peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons.—Herodotus

  The greatest coup engineered by the university in recent years had been the employment of Dr. Richard Conover, Nobel Prize winner in biology. He added much luster to the faculty, but his principal work continued to focus in Washington, where he was conducting experiments on nerve gases for the Department of Defense. This meant that he was unable to do any actual teaching at the university; his courses were handled by a series of attractive young men who were, on the average, two and one half years older than the university students, four per cent more intelligent, and six per cent better adjusted. Of course, students could sometimes catch a glimpse of Dr. Conover heading for the airport on Sunday afternoon, and this reassured them.

  War is good business. Invest your sons.

  The university had lost its way and everyone knew it except the Board of Regents, the alumni, the faculty and ninety per cent of the students.

  I am a serious student. Please do not spindle, fold or staple me.

  He was looking through all the markets to find a Christmas present for L.B.J. What he had in mind was a set of dominoes.

  Goddammit, I wish you’d listen to my main argument. Thirty years from now the government, the banks, the important businesses, the universities and everything that counts in this world will be run by today’s humanities majors. The scientists will never run anything except laboratories, they never have, they never can. Yet in this university we spend all our time and money training scientists and we ignore the humanities people on whom the welfare and guidance of the world have always depended and will always depend. I say this is stupidity, and if the Board of Regents and the faculty aren’t smart enough to stop it, we must.

  Better a certain peace than a hoped-for victory.—Livy

  When they conk you on the head with their billysticks, zap them right back with superlove.

  With men, the normal state of nature is not peace but war.—Kant

  Political exile has been the last refuge of many noble minds. In exile Dante Alighieri wrote his finest poetry and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov forged the ideas that were to paralyze the world. It was in exile from German militarism that Carl Schurz made his scintillating contributions to American life, and in exile from Spanish reaction that Duque de Rivas wrote his notable books. A flood of exiles from Scotland founded the intellectual excellence of Canada, and daring adventurers, thrown out of their native islands, peopled the Pacific. The brilliant minds that conceived the atomic bomb for the United States were principally Jewish exiles kicked out of Nazi Germany. For three centuries the United States profited from the political exiles who fled to our protection. It took the politicians of this generation to launch a reverse flow.

  Never pick up a girl before one o’clock in the afternoon. If she’s so beautiful, what’s she doing out of bed before noon?

  If a young man, no matter how insecure, can’t make it with the girls in Torremolinos, he had better resign from the human race.

  Zeus picked up Ganymede at the Wilted Swan.

  On his twentieth birthday Joe faced a problem of such complexity that he had to ask for help, and in this way he met Mrs. Rubin.

  His confusion had started two years earlier, when against his will he registered for the draft. He told the other fellows in high school, in the awkward sentences that characterized his attempts at communication, ‘How does that grab you? Can’t order a beer but can go to war.’

  He had always been tall for his age, rangy rather than compact, and in the style of his group, had begun to wear his hair rather long at the sides, noticeably so in the back. He had not been good enough in athletics to attract the attention of any college or sufficiently intellectual to win an academic scholarship. About the only thing he had to show after graduating from high school was a wallet-sized piece of white cardboard attesting to the fact that he had registered for the draft and been automatically classified 1-A; his real classification would come later, after he was called for his physical. Upon entering the university he had been required to show his draft card, and the professor in charge seemed gratified that he had one.

  On his nineteenth birthday he received an official letter which scared the hell out of him. It was from his draft board and was waiting for him when he got back from chemistry. For ten agonizing minutes he had been afraid to open it. ‘I’m not scared of war,’ he assured his roommate, a sallow-faced philosophy major from Nevada, ‘and I’m not a conscientious objector, but Vietnam bugs me. Jesus, I don’t want to crawl through rice paddies.’

  When he finally opened the letter he found nothing but a mimeographed statement: ‘In view of your enrollment in the university, you are classified 2-S, which you will keep until you graduate. However, you must inform this board of any change in your educational status.’ A new card was enclosed, which he had to show to college officials and bartenders.

  Even though he had managed good grades as a freshman, his sophomore year was proving difficult. The university he had chosen was no brain-train like Berkeley nor a mod-squad like Stanford; it was one of the numerous solid institutions that dotted California and accounted for that state’s superiority in so many fields; where a state like Pennsylvania provided a college education for thirty-one percent of its high school graduates, California educated seventy-three, and this difference had to tell. Joe held his own with the competition, drawing down grades that kept him in college and out of the draft.

  It was this latter that engendered his moral crisis. Four ugly events accumulated in a short period of time. They haunted him, could not be dismissed; of itself, each was trivial, a thing young men would have
been able to dismiss ten years ago. Now, in the autumn of 1968, they coalesced to form a dreadful incubus.

  The first event was accidental. His roommate, who got almost straight As and had done so throughout high school, was visited one day by an older boy named Karl, who had graduated the previous year. He was a big, able fellow who dropped by the room and lounged on the bed with a beer can. ‘No matter what they tell you,’ he pontificated, ‘take three education courses. The wise guys laughed when I dropped out of pre-law and took Elementary Ed … Diaper Changing III, they called it. All right, they’re in Vietnam. I’m salted away in an elementary school in Anaheim. I’m safe from the draft for the duration.’ He lolled back against the pillows, swigged his beer, and repeated his admonition, ‘Take education.’

  ‘How do you find teaching?’ Joe asked.

  ‘Who gives a goddamn? You report in the morning. The kids are raising hell. You keep them from tearing the place apart. You go home at night.’

  ‘What do you teach them?’


  ‘Won’t you get fired?’

  ‘I’m big. The kids are afraid of me. So I keep reasonable order. The principal is so grateful for one quiet room he don’t give a damn if I teach ’em anything or not.’

  ‘Sounds pretty awful,’ Joe said.

  ‘I’m out of the draft,’ the teacher said.

  Later, Joe’s roommate dragged him along on a visit to the elementary school to see if the principal might have a job for them when they graduated, and they watched children, many of them black, roaring up and down the halls. The principal was a kindly man, about forty, with falling hair. ‘Your friend is one of the best teachers we have,’ he said enthusiastically. ‘If you qualify for the California certificate, we would be most pleased to add you to our staff.’

  The second experience was disgusting. One night their door burst open with a bang and Eddie, a burly football player good enough to hold down a scholarship but not quite good enough for the first team, rushed in to announce with obvious triumph, ‘By God, I finally got her pregnant! We’re gonna get married next week.’


  ‘Yep. She saw the doctor and it’s official. Morning after the wedding I go back to my draft board and pick up that good old 3-A classification … and I’m home free.’

  Other students came in to congratulate him, and he said expansively, ‘Maud and I studied the rhythm system till we had it pinpointed. During the period when she could be knocked up we screwed three, four times a day. You remember how I fell down in the Oregon game? Hell, I was so weary I couldn’t stand up. I screwed her twice that morning. Coach gave me all hell, but I think that was the morning I rammed it home. Anyway, she’s pregnant and I’m out of the draft.’

  One of the men asked, ‘You think your 3-A classification will hold?’

  ‘It’s the sure one. All you guys ought to get married. Lots of girls over there would be glad to shack up with you. Screw ’em to death. Get ’em pregnant. Tell the government to go to hell.’

  ‘Is it worth it?’ someone asked.

  ‘Who gives a good goddamn? When this nonsense passes, get a divorce and go about your business.’

  ‘Would you get a divorce?’ Joe asked.

  The football player looked at Joe, started to hand him a wisecrack, reconsidered, and said, ‘If the girl you got pregnant happened to be someone you loved, you’d be ahead of the game.’

  ‘Yours wasn’t?’ Joe asked quietly.

  ‘Mine wasn’t,’ the big man said.

  The third experience made a moral confrontation unavoidable. On the floor above was a pitiful jerk named Max who studied every weekend, with never a chance of understanding calculus or Adam Smith. He was a fat boy from Los Angeles with a bad complexion and he wanted to be a doctor, as his mother said, but his professors quickly saw that this was out of the question, so he had shifted to business, but this was also impossible.

  ‘You’ve got to stay in college!’ his parents bellowed. ‘You want to disgrace us? You want to fail and go into the army?’

  His mother had arranged for him to transfer to education. ‘So you can get a job teaching in Los Angeles, like Harry Phillips, and you’re safe.’ He had switched to education but lacked even the intelligence to pass those courses, and now it appeared that he was to be dismissed from the university, lose his draft deferment, and return to 1-A.

  At this crisis Max waddled through the dormitory, looking for someone who would be willing to slip into the examination room and write a critical test for him. ‘The questions are easy,’ he explained, ‘but I just can’t organize my thoughts.’ When he found no one on the second floor willing to take the risk, he came back to Joe and said, ‘Even if you haven’t taken the course, Joe, you could answer the questions. I know you could.’ It was a pitiful performance, and after the exams were corrected, Max got the bad news. He was out. His deferment was ended. He must go into the army.

  His distracted parents came to collect him, and in the privacy of his room, gave him hell, so that he left the dormitory red-eyed and trembling. He broke away from his parents to say goodbye to Joe. ‘You were a good friend,’ he said. Then, shuddering, he walked toward the car.

  The fellows talked about Max a good deal and agreed that if there was ever a man who ought not go to war, it was Max. A pre-med student said, ‘How’d you like to have him as your buddy on patrol through a rice paddy?’ Another said, ‘It’s criminal to pick soldiers because they were dumb in college.’ But Joe’s philosophical roommate offered a correction: ‘The crime began when our nation permitted college to serve as an exemption from a service which for others was obligatory.’

  When the crowd broke up, Joe and his roommate continued the discussion till well past midnight, and for the first time Joe heard a literate man propound the theory that the whole system was immoral. His roommate argued, ‘As you said the other day, for Karl to ruin the lives of his students so that he can escape the draft is an obvious immorality, but it’s caused by a greater. The immorality of the United States waging an undeclared war which has never been authorized by Congress.’

  ‘What do you mean?’ Joe asked.

  ‘Take that loud-mouthed football player who was boasting he’d knocked up a girl he didn’t love in order to escape the draft. That’s obviously immoral, but it couldn’t have happened unless our democracy had first been degraded. Officials who are elected to represent us allow themselves to be by-passed, then applaud when our President acts illegally.’

  ‘What are you going to do about it?’

  ‘I don’t know. But I do know that a man cannot cooperate indefinitely with an immoral situation without becoming contaminated. And I do not intend to contaminate myself.’

  He spoke quietly, but with such deep conviction that Joe had to determine for himself how far he would permit the self-contamination of avoiding the draft by hiding in college.

  It was the fourth experience that crystallized his attitude, a thing of itself so trivial that to an ordinary man in ordinary times it would not even be remembered. Joe had gone to a bar in the rougher part of town to hear a musical group, and on the way back to the dormitory he happened to pass a crowd of Negroes lounging at a street corner, and one of them in military uniform had said, ‘Hiya, Whitey. See you in Vietnam,’ and another said, ‘Not him. He’s college.’ Joe laughed, cocked his right thumb and forefinger like a pistol and shot at the soldier, clicking his tongue as he did. The soldier fell back two paces, clutched his heart, and said, ‘Damn, he shoot straight.’

  That was all. Joe passed on, but the meaningless incident kept reverberating in his mind, day after day—the horrible fact that in this war black men who could not afford to attend university were drafted and white men who had the money were not. It was indecent, immoral, infuriating, and everything said by the leaders of society, men like General Hershey and J. Edgar Hoover, simply exacerbated the basic wrong. Negroes were drafted, white men weren’t; the poor were hauled off to war, the
rich weren’t; the stupid were shot at, the bright boys weren’t. And it was all done from an immoral premise in prosecution of a war immorally founded.

  Perplexed by these confusions, Joe entered the final month of the year, unaware that his roommate, thanks to his training in philosophy, had arrived at certain important conclusions that Joe would not reach for some weeks to come. Shortly before Christmas a group of students opposed to the war announced a peace rally. It was scheduled for two in the afternoon at the main quadrangle, and by one the campus was crowded with spectators from the town. Special campus police were on hand, with instructions to prevent physical violence. They were supported by regular police, also determined to forestall trouble. When these saw a parade approaching with signs like Love America or Leave It, U.S.A. All the Way, and Back Our Brave Men in Vietnam, they quietly diverted the marchers from the campus.

  Through a bull horn, one of the policemen told these counter-demonstrators, ‘The peaceniks have a constitutional right to their say. You can’t take those signs on campus.’ The signs were confiscated but the marchers were allowed to disperse through the crowd in the quadrangle.

  When Joe’s roommate looked down from their dormitory and saw the strangers and the two groups of police, he said, ‘Things may get tough. I want you to know that what I’m going to do this afternoon isn’t done hastily. I’ve been thinking about it ever since that day we saw Karl teaching in his school.’

  He and Joe walked down to the quadrangle, where they parted, because Joe always backed away from public demonstrations. As a freshman he had refused to attend football rallies and he felt the same about campus protests. ‘You do your thing,’ he told his roommate. ‘I’ll watch from over here.’

  The demonstration proceeded peacefully. Joe, perched on the base of a statue commemorating the founder of the university, listened to the loudspeakers as a wispy little professor of chemistry, Dr. Laurence Rubin, tried to explain that the war was damaging America’s posture at home and abroad, but hecklers from the parade kept shouting, ‘You wanna surrender?’ Rubin had anticipated such a charge, but when he tried to explain the difference between surrender and planned withdrawal from a non-productive situation, the hecklers would not allow him to give it, shouting, ‘Ending the war is Nixon’s job. Shut up and let him do it.’ So Professor Rubin was driven from the microphone with his basic thesis unstated.

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