When Steve Trimm hears the plight of immigrants looking for a new home in the U.S., he can't help but feel some kinship with them.
"I am sympathetic to those folks coming across the southern border," said Trimm, who grew up in Chatham and is a long-time Albany area resident. "There are a lot of women and children trying to escape the violence in their country, and there are also a lot of young men who don't want any part of that violence either. I can relate to them."
The circumstances are a bit different, but 50 years ago in the fall of 1969 Trimm embarked on his own trip north and crossed a border. A convicted felon for resisting induction into the U.S. Army earlier that year, Trimm fled to Canada instead of surrendering himself to authorities in Albany after failing in his legal attempt to gain conscientious objector status.
"I had to make a decision, 'am I going to let them take me away, or am I not?'" said Trimm earlier this month, recalling that pivotal time period in his life. "I knew what Martin Luther King would say. I knew what Ghandi would say, and that is you take the punishment with as much dignity as you can."
Trimm, however, didn't accept the punishment and instead headed to Montreal and then Hamilton, Ontario, where he spent five and a half years. He was unable to contact his family and friends for the first four years and was living under an assumed name.
"I took off because I didn't want to go to prison for something I felt I was right about," said Trimm, who turned 21 in March of 1969. "I was also terrified. I was still immature and I just couldn't picture myself in prison. Several things might happen. One, I'll probably get raped, so I'll fight back and my non-violence stand would not hold up. And, I had also met some draft resisters that had gone into prison and come out, and they just didn't seem right. I was really scared."
While Trimm always felt comfortable with his decision to resist the draft, he continually wrestled with his choice to flee to Canada.
"I felt like a moral failure for not following through and going to prison," he said. "I felt bad about it for years, and for the longest time I didn't talk about it. I didn't know how people would react to my story. Maybe after 50 years I'll be able to tell the whole story in public and not arouse any passions."
When the topic is 18th U.S. president and Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant, talking in public is something Trimm has become quite comfortable with. Since retiring in 2006 after 25 years as a state worker in the mental health field - he returned from Canada in the summer of 1974 - Trimm has volunteered much of his time as a volunteer history interpreter at the Grant Cottage State Historic Site in Wilton.
"After I retired, I looked around for volunteer work that meshed with my love of history," said Trimm, who graduated from Chatham High School in 1966. "Always interested in the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconstruction, I felt compelled to visit Grant Cottage. It was a perfect fit for me. I get to do a lot of research over the winter and during our season I get to talk about history and Grant."
Trimm has done presentations at the Grant Cottage and throughout the area portraying Grant. Relatively short and with the same reddish-brown hair and beard, Trimm is a near-perfect physical replica of the Civil War general. There are also, however, some stark differences. At 18, Grant was in his first year at West Point preparing to become a military officer. Trimm, meanwhile, was a recent graduate of Chatham High School embarking on a career of non-violent activism.
"I tried college for a couple of months, but I had no real interest in it," said Trimm. "I felt there were greater causes and movements underway, and I felt like I couldn't hide behind a student deferment. I had to actively oppose the war, and I remember some of my fellow students told me if you walk away from college you're gonna get drafted. I said, 'yeah, I'm gonna get drafted, but I'm not going.'"
Trimm didn't actually get his notice to appear at the draft board until February of 1968. He had signed up for the draft a year and a half earlier, but his attempt to gain conscientious objector status eventually failed.
"The FBI investigated every applicant trying to determine their sincerity, and I think what they were looking for was some kind of formal religious training," remembered Trimm. "I had none. I grew up in a family that was agnostic at best and probably atheistic, and I couldn't convince the draft board of my sincerity."
Trimm spent the good part of two years protesting the Vietnam War, usually with the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action. He walked 450 miles from Boston to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. as part of a peace march, and was arrested for civil disobedience and thrown into jail for a week. On Cape Cod, he volunteered to counsel draftees, making sure they knew their rights, and he continued to protest the war around the Eastern Seaboard, including the Albany area.
In the fall of 1969, when he had run out of things to do legally to avoid the draft, Trimm finally headed north.
"I was supposed to surrender myself on this certain date and time, and instead of doing that I just didn't show up," remembered Trimm. "Our little Albany community had helped a fugitive, a military deserter, get to Canada and they knew where he was up in Montreal. So I used somebody else's ID, I got myself across the border and went to his place."
In his 1993 book, "Walking Wounded: Men's Lives During and Since The Vietnam War," Trimm documents his story and that of three others. One, like him, was a anti-war activist. The other two, also high school friends of Trimm's from Chatham, wound up leading platoons in Vietnam. The book looks at the struggled faced by activists and veterans after the war.
"I was looking over my shoulder all the time I was in Canada," said Trimm. "I never knew how much pressure I was under until it was lifted. When I finally did come back after receiving a presidential pardon, I couldn't talk to anybody. It was like I'd been beamed down from Mars. I felt like I was inside a glass wall."
Trimm got a job working the third shift at Albany Medical Center when he first returned to the area, and from 1981 to 2006 he worked as a counselor for the Capital District Psychiatric Center. On rare occasions, he spoke in public about his personal story. His first try was at Siena College.
"About 10 years after the war a professor at Siena invited me to come to his history class and talk about the Vietnam War, and a large number of the students whose fathers had gone were furious at me," said Trimm. "I came back a second time, about 10 years later, and I felt like the students were interested in what I had to say and many were sympathetic. I went back a third time and the students were all looking at their cell phones. I felt like they were saying, 'who is this guy?' I felt like it was meaningless to them."
In his book, Trimm stresses how he and most everyone in the anti-war movement hated the war, not the soldiers. And while he doesn't compare his story to what those men and women who fought in Vietnam experienced, he does feel like he and others who resisted the draft were also victims.
"My book was about healing," he said. "I had a big map of Vietnam on my office wall that read, 'you were never the enemy.' When I started working at the Psychiatric Center in 1981 many vets were despised, and it wasn't just those that were captured that suffered. All the vets coming back home suffered for years. I would set up gatherings with veterans and activists and have them share their stories. It was all about reconciliation and things did get better. But to a degree I also felt like I lost almost 10 years of my life to the war. I was always afraid about telling people my story. I didn't know how they would react. But talking about it and sharing it with people can be therapeutic."
Trimm isn't necessarily looking for opportunities to tell his story, but these days if somebody asks, he's much more receptive to the idea. His volunteer work at Grant Cottage and his gig as a Grant impersonator has prepared him well to speak in front of the public according to Bob Conner, another Grant Cottage volunteer.
"Steve Trimm does a great job portraying Grant as well as many other people associated with Grant Cottage," said Conner, whose historical novel released last year, "The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant," told the story of his final days on Mount MacGregor. "Grant is not the only arrow in his quiver. His well-researched talks on a wide variety of topics are always worth attending."
Should Trimm choose to talk about the events in and around 1969, his authenticity and a genuine desire to help people heal will be clearly evident. Scotia's James Murphy, a former Catholic priest and social activist who marched in many anti-war protests, met Trimm back in the 1960s before he headed to Canada, and described him as "serious, concerned and committed to justice and against war."
Trimm amassed quite an array of memorabilia from his days as an anti-war activist, and much of it is now part of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.
"I guess I would like to share some of these stories, because they are relative to the lessons we're learning today," said Trimm. "They're also good therapy for me. I spoke at Hudson Valley Community College about a year ago and I read a couple of letters from my book. One of my friends was in a firefight and told me about it for the book. There were some vets there listening to me. They sat there politely. There was also a nurse there who recognized my friend's name and came up to me after the talk. She told me her brother was killed in that firefight. She burst into tears telling me, but she said she was also glad she came to my talk. She said it was therapeutic for her."