Memoir of a War Resister—A Novel of the 1960s

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SOPHOMORE YEAR —1968-1969 Chapter 19—"What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted?"

I took possession of an empty place inside of me that wasn’t there when Jeff was. And I took possession of the attic room. It became my refuge. My arm slowly began to heal. My heart took longer. I wasn’t sure I would ever forgive Jeff or stop missing him.

I furnished the room with a Salvation Army mattress, a table scratched at one end that wobbled without a folded-up piece of paper under the back leg, a green folding chair with a cushioned seat and a three-drawer dresser that hardly held half of my clothes. The rest of the clothes were in a pile in the corner or hanging on the row of five nails pounded into the wall to the left of the door. The window above the bed faced the side yard. The other window above the table faced the garden. From there I watched the flowers turn brown and die.

On the wall to the right of the door next to the light switch I tacked the two pictures I took off the wall at Jeff’s. I wanted to see them as he saw them. A single picture of Jeff taken during that same softball game sat on top of the dresser. He was rounding third and heading for home, laughing, his arms waving above his head. That moment was perfect.

I plastered the walls with posters. I tacked the poster with the vase of flowers that said, “What If They Gave A War And Nobody Came?” over the bed to the right of the window. On the opposite wall, above the nails that held my clothes I tacked a psychedelic drawing of four children playing on a swing set. It said, “War Is Not Good For Children And Other Living Things.” Two McCarthy for President posters filled the remaining walls.

Fall, 1968. Vietnam escalated out of control. Our dream of a President who would stop the war was as dead as Bobby Kennedy lying on that hotel floor. The choices weren’t choices at all. They rarely are.

That’s how the fall semester of my sophomore year started. I was numb.

One morning Peter came into the kitchen while I ate breakfast at the counter that separated the living room from the kitchen and simply said, “Hi.” That was the first time I ever heard him speak.

“Hi,” I said back to him.

“My name is Peter and this is my dog, Suki.” He poured some granola in a bowl and covered it with milk. He turned to me. “I’m sorry about Jeff.” I already knew that. I saw it in his eyes. That was it. Three sentences, if you call ‘hi’ a sentence.

Later I asked him why he occasionally went silent. He told me a joke about a boy who didn’t talk until age six. The parents took him to all sorts of specialists, neurologists, ENT doctors, speech therapists, psychologists. One morning at breakfast the boy took a bite of oatmeal, spit it out and said, “Damn, that’s hot!” When his parents asked him why he never talked before, the boy said, “Up to now there’s been nothing to talk about.”

It was nice to have Peter talking. He didn’t say much but what he said meant something. Unlike me. I vomited words to fill the quiet, to fill a hole too big to fill.

Classes started. I survived the first few weeks of the semester with a lot of help from my friends. My housemates gave me normalcy. Every morning someone yelled up the attic steps, “Becky, get up. You’ve got an hour until class.” Otherwise I would have slept through the alarm.

My friends took me to campus. In between classes, I sat in Hixson Lounge and strummed my guitar endlessly. They took me to anti-war meetings. They assigned me tasks to do and I did them. At night, we sat around the living room studying, drinking wine, jamming on our guitars. Slowly, ever so slowly, the world would begin to make sense again. I held on to the memory of Hook’s hug at the Democratic National Convention.

Ginger was editor of the school paper that fall. One night after dinner, two weeks into the semester she said, “Becky, you need to start writing again. I want you to write an article about Jeff. You knew him better than anyone.”

“I can’t write about Jeff.” My eyes filled with tears.

Ginger walked to the stove to put on the kettle for tea. She turned to me. “You want to be a journalist? You have to write what’s hard.”

That night I went up to my room, put a piece of paper in the typewriter and typed. “Jeff Ledford died this summer in Boston.” I couldn’t go on. I ripped the paper out of the typewriter and tore it into shreds. I started over, tears streaming down my face.

It took me four days but I submitted the article by the deadline, the only obituary Jeff would ever get. He deserved more.

Contributor Column

By Becky Jamison

Jeff Ledford died this past August in Boston, Massachusetts, in an apartment he shared with friends from his years at Northeastern University. He will be missed by the entire Lake Forest College community. Although he was only here a year, Jeff touched everyone who knew him. His love of music, his love of softball, his love of life and his passion for ending the war in Vietnam were the hallmarks of Jeff’s incredible spirit. He was preceded in death by his parents. He leaves behind dear friends who cherish the short time they had with him.

Hook’s apartment became my second home. His demons became mine. Mine became his. Fifty-five gallon drums, dead bodies in black bags with white nametags, heat, humidity, asphalt, swamps, explosions, dead friends, rubber tubing, needles. I could make it with time and space and that’s what Hook gave me. We’d pour some wine and get out the cards.

“Gin,” I put down the last card.

“That’s ten in a row,” Hook said. “How do you do that?”

“I’ve been a card player since I was a little girl.” I shuffled the cards and dealt out another hand.

“Yeah, but gin is all about what cards you get. It’s mostly luck.” I watched as he picked up the cards and arranged them in his hook.

“Not true. My dad told me if I could beat him in gin, he’d buy me something. It took me months and I finally won.” I picked up a card and discarded a jack.

“What did he buy you?”

“A tether ball set for the back yard.”

Hook laughed. “Anything you wanted and you chose a tether ball set?” He picked up the jack and discarded a seven of spades.

That filled in my straight. I picked it up. “Any eleven-year old would choose a tether ball set. Anyhow, he gave me good tips and I still use them.”

“Give me one.”

“Okay. Never pick up a card from the discard pile unless it fills in a set or run of three.” Hook moved his hand from the discard pile and drew one from the deck.

I loved Slap Jack most of all. Try beating a hook slapping down on a card. Gets the adrenaline running.

Jeff had been dead a month. I read an article about grief for my Psychology class that said people usually grieve a month for every year they were with someone who died. So if you lived with someone for twenty-three years, you grieved for twenty-three months. It wasn’t true. I was with Jeff for less than a year. It had been a month. My grieving should be over. It lingered. Maybe because he lied to me all fall. Maybe because I preferred to not know about twisted ended cigarettes and now I knew too much. Maybe because of all the good ones I could have chosen, I chose the addict who jumped out of the tree. The sadness wouldn’t last forever. It felt like it at the time.

The third week of September I sat under that tree Jeff jumped out of strumming my guitar and thinking about how he seduced me with his eyes and éclairs. Marty sat down beside me. “Want to go get some lunch?” he asked.

I stopped playing, looked at Marty and smiled. I put the guitar on the ground next to me and asked, “Why didn’t you ask me out last year?”

“Homecoming last year. I asked you out. We were hanging up posters for the march in Lake Forest and I asked you out.”

“Seriously, Marty. That’s the best you got? As I recall, you asked me to the dance and I said that I already had a date but that I would love to go out sometime. You never asked me again. If you asked me again, everything would be different. Why didn’t you ask me again?” I strummed my fingers across the strings of the guitar lying in the grass. Then I looked at Marty. “And don’t you dare say you warned me about Jeff.”

“I would never say that.” Marty smiled at me. “I never got a chance to ask you out again. After the homecoming dance you and Jeff were pretty much a pair.”

“Nevertheless, if I said yes to you then I would have cancelled my date with Jeff and I wouldn’t have gone out with him and fallen in love with him which I’m not sure I really did fall in love with him because I’m not really sure what love is anymore and if I hadn’t fallen in love with him it wouldn’t hurt so much every single time I take a breath. But instead I did fall in love with Jeff and he died.” I took a breath. It hurt.

Marty picked up my guitar and started to play. He didn’t play often. He had TV to watch, newspapers to read, strategizing to do, plans to make, a movement to lead. But that day, under that tree, he took my guitar and began playing. I sat with my arms around my knees, my head lying on them and listened. Like when I was young and scared at night and my mom sang me lullabies. My favorite song of hers was about three babes in the wood who got lost and died. The robins covered them up with strawberry boughs.

I don’t know how long we sat there. I don’t know how many songs he sang. He laid the guitar in the grass next to me. I looked over at him and smiled. “Thanks, Marty.”

He leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. “Any time, Becky. I know this sounds stupid but you’ll make it through this.”

I looked at him again. “I know. I just don’t know how do to it.”

Marty grinned. “With one foot in front of the other.” He got up and put out his hand to help me. “Let’s go eat.”

There were more moments of normalcy scattered in between my grief, moments when I forgot Jeff was dead. One Friday night I curled up on the couch reading something for school. Peter cooked in the kitchen, brown rice and vegetables. Ginger and Marty walked in the back door and Marty tossed a pile of papers on the coffee table in front of me. “Ideas for the teach-in. It’s in a month. We need to start thinking.” My god, Marty never stopped. I think if he stopped, the earth might quit spinning and screech to a halt.

Ginger went into the kitchen to get some plates as Peter brought the pan of rice and vegetables into the living room. Everything was normal. All was right with the world.

Finishing up her plate of rice, Ginger said, “I think our focus needs to be on getting Humphrey elected. It’s our only hope of stopping the war.”

“I disagree.” I closed my English book and put it on the table. “Most of the students here can’t even vote yet. The only states that allow eighteen-year-olds to vote are Georgia and Kentucky. We need to keep the focus on the war.”

“By the way, have you applied for your absentee ballot?” Ginger asked as she scooped up a pile of rice, covered it with vegetables and poured soy sauce over the whole thing. What I wouldn’t give for a big hamburger. “You’re from Kentucky.”

“I don’t have the energy to. Doesn’t matter anyway. It’s only one vote.”

“Every vote matters,” Marty said. “I’ll make a deal with you.” I didn’t trust deals. Deals are always broken. “I’ll call and order you an absentee ballot, put it in front of you, give you a pen, show you where to sign it and then I’ll mail it. Deal?”

“You have to buy the stamp.”

“Deal.” We shook on it.

It felt normal to work to stop the war. Planning teach-ins was normal. Eating brown rice was normal. Making deals with Marty was normal. Ginger’s note-taking was normal. Marty’s pacing was normal. Peter’s summarizing it all into a neat package was normal. It was as it should be.

“I think Hook should tell his story. If we want to get the students fired up we need to put a face to what they see on TV,” I said.

“I bet Jake would come and speak about his CO status,” Ginger said.

I missed having Jake around campus all the time. There was that thing about Jake being true to who he was, always being genuine, always being him. There was that thing about how he made me want to be genuine. I know I wasn’t me right now. Having him come for the weekend, well, maybe that would help. Maybe that would bring me back to myself.

“I agree with Becky,” Peter put down a freshly popped bowl of popcorn and continued. “Keep the focus on the war.”

Marty paused, his hand in the popcorn bowl. “Sounds perfect.” In the end, we decided that October’s teach-in/be-in would be a two-day affair. A teach-in on Friday, classes cancelled. A be-in on Saturday, music, games, food.

I felt normal and alive.

When I woke up the next morning, Jeff was still dead and that dark hole engulfed me again. I couldn’t understand why I could be so normal one moment and so empty the next. I wanted to pull the blanket over my head and slip back into the darkness. I picked up the joint I always kept on the nightstand by my bed then dropped it back in the ashtray. This hole was too deep. Nothing would help me crawl out of it this time. Not wine. Not dope. Not anything. Nothing except the fact that I really had to pee.

I dragged myself to the bathroom, hoping I wouldn’t encounter any of my housemates along the way. I didn’t want to hear, ‘good morning,’ or ‘there are pancakes on the table,’ or ‘the coffee is brewing.’ I wanted to pee, get back in bed and pull the blanket over my head.

I didn’t encounter anyone on the way to the bathroom. I encountered something far worse. I got up from the toilet and turned the water on in the sink to wash my hands and rinse out the horrible taste I had in my mouth. I looked in the mirror. I stared back at myself. It looked like me but it wasn’t me. It told me that it was time to pull myself together and get over it.

“Shut up,” I told the person in the mirror. “You can’t tell me how long I get to grieve. I can grieve the whole rest of my miserable life if I want to.”

She looked back at me. She didn’t look scared, alone and miserable. She kind of looked like a sixteen-year old me, when I had my first kiss, when I felt like a woman for the first time because I figured out how to put a tampon in. She looked like me when I heard I had been accepted into Lake Forest.

“Leave me alone,” I told the mirror. “I am not that person anymore.” I lifted my arm to throw a paper cup at the mirror when she smiled at me. I knew that smile. That was the smile I had when Jeff taught me how to dance in a small room off the library after we shared five-flavored lifesavers, when he first kissed my sticky orange lips.

That smile didn’t fool me. I turned the water back on and splashed water on the face I knew was mine. When I looked back in the mirror, I was gone. It was just me with my horrible tasting mouth, stringy hair, and water dripping off my chin. I knew that me. That me would leave me alone.

“Good riddance,” She wouldn’t come back until I was ready. I had to go deeper, go darker before I let her back.

I stayed in bed until noon. Marty sat at the counter eating yogurt and fruit with granola on top when I emerged. He looked up at me. “God, you look terrible.”

I gave him a sneer. I felt terrible. I was terrible. “Will I ever feel normal again?” I picked up an apple from the fruit bowl.

He looked up and smiled. “You never were normal.” I threw the apple at him. Lucky catch. “Seriously. Your life is forever changed but you will feel okay again. That I promise you.”

On warm afternoons, Hook and I often walked to the beach, hook in hand. It was crazy, I know, but I felt comfort holding on to his hook. It was solid and steady and it couldn’t die.

One day we stood on the edge of Lake Michigan. Jeff’s face, streamed in gold, flashed through my mind. I picked up a flat stone and threw it in the water. It skipped twice.

“That was pathetic. I could do better with the hook.” Hook put a stone in his hook and tossed it, five skips.

The rocks always sank. Healing came slow.

We'd go back to Commons to buy ice cream sundaes. Hook always put dimes in the juke box and pressed A7, “All You Need is Love.” It was the worst of times.

Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, was coming to campus the day after the election to talk about the life-altering implications of the book we discussed during freshman orientation. It seemed so long ago. One night I picked up Jeff’s dog-eared copy, crawled into bed and started to reread it. As I read the best first line of any book ever written, “It was love at first sight,” a piece of bright green neon paper folded into quarters fell out. I turned it over and saw my name written on the front. I started to open it up then stopped. I was still angry at Jeff. “Fuck him,” I thought, and got up to put the note on the table. I crawled back into bed, picked up the book and read the line again, “It was love at first sight.” Then I read it once more.

“Love at first sight?” I thought. “Never has been, never will be.” I’ll never know why I put the book down, got up, walked over to the table, picked up the bright green paper folded into quarters, opened it up, inhaled sharply and started to read. But I did.

“I knew that if you got to Boston and you had the chance, you would take the book. I am sorry it ended like this. I tried all last year to beat this thing. I couldn’t do it. It had me too hard. So I figured I’d come to Boston and see if I could do it here.”

He was going to tell me that he thought Linda could help him but she got caught up in it too. He was going to say that because he couldn’t beat it, it beat him. That he loved me. That he was sorry. I couldn’t read any more. I couldn’t stop.

“Then I got the letter from the draft board. I flunked out of Lake Forest and the draft board was out to get me.” Flunked out? You never told me you flunked out. I was talking to a piece of neon green paper. Oh and by the way, you never told me you were an addict, you asshole.

I couldn’t stop reading. “I went for my physical and passed. Apparently, drugs aren’t a ticket out anymore. They would simply send me someplace to get clean. I couldn’t go to Vietnam. I couldn’t stop using. I was trapped. I know this was the chicken way out. You have to know that you were the best thing that ever happened to me.” Shut up, Jeff. My tears spotted the neon green paper. I waited for the dramatic ending, what it all led up to. I was pretty pissed by now. “I lied a lot to you last year.” No shit. “But this is not a lie. I loved you completely with every fiber of my body, every part of my heart.”

There was more but I couldn’t finish. I wrinkled up the neon green paper and threw it on the floor under the table. He hadn’t accidently overdosed. He planned his own death, without telling me. I couldn’t breathe. Every inhale was painful and stopped half-way down. I was convinced I was going to die. I crawled to the door, opened it and tried to yell. Nothing came out. I kicked at the door, anything to make a sound. I kicked harder. God, please, somebody hear me. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of destroying me like this. Then I gave up, curled up and prepared to die.

Ginger found me in the doorway breathing hard and fast but not getting any air. “Marty, bring me a paper lunch bag fast,” she yelled down the stairs. By then the lack of air turned into panic. Marty appeared and Ginger put the bag to my mouth. “Breathe,” she said. I obeyed. My whole body hurt. “What happened?” I couldn’t talk with my mouth stuck to a paper bag so I pointed to the rolled up green neon paper under the table.

Marty picked up the wrinkled piece of paper, straightened it out and read it. “Son of a bitch.” Once I started breathing normally again Marty carried me downstairs. I leaned my head against his shoulder and cried. He put me on the couch and Ginger covered me up with an afghan her grandmother made. She went to boil water for tea.

Ginger read the note. “Goddamn son of a bitch,” she said. I agreed. That said it all. He dies and then he reminds me of it. Just when I was beginning to have a good day every now and then. Just when I was starting to feel normal again. Fuck him.

The darkness took hold of me again and turned into a deep black sadness. I walked around but it wasn’t me walking around. I couldn’t shake it. Hook walked me to the lake to throw stones. That didn’t help. He played gin with me. That didn’t help. Ginger made tea. The deep dark blackness held on tight. Peter fed me brown rice and vegetables while Suki lay on the couch next to me, her head in my lap. It hung around. Marty drove me to school and to anti-war meetings. I’d take my guitar to Hixson Lounge on campus and play for hours. It didn’t help. I needed a bag of chocolate-covered peanuts. I needed a lifesaver. I needed my mom and dad but even talking to them on the phone didn’t help. I was too ashamed to tell them the truth about Jeff.

U.S. Soldier Body Count: 32,219

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