Vietnam. The Vietnam War. The Protest War. It stole more people than the official body count. It stole more people than we know. My friend Diggory was one, one of the ones lost to the Protest War. But I don’t think he realized that. I don’t think he realized the toll his “low number” and his hatred of war took in his psyche. I don’t think he realized how it tore him apart and lead finally to his acrophobia and his eventual death, accidental or suicide.But that’s the end of my story, the beginning is what books are made of, a story of a dashing young man full of passion and excitement.
We met in college. That small music school in Danbury Connecticut. Western Connecticut State College to be exact. Even though it was a music school I was majoring in English. Not my best subject but my father insisted. If I maintained a decent grade average I’d be exempt from being drafted. And as a decorated WWll veteran he did not want his son in war, in this useless war anyway, so off to college I went. Unlike me, Diggory followed his passion when enrolling. He majored in music and acting.
We met as roommates that second year. First year was dorm life and I maintained my average. Second year I arrived with my sleeping bag, my guitar, and moved into the first house I could find. That’s when we met. We rented the first floor of an old farmhouse, with the landlady living upstairs. Five of us living together in that rather small space. Diggory, the potential actor, his girlfriend Jane, me, Ralph, the guy planning on being a priest, and the landlady’s grandson. All students, and all of us excited yet enraged by this time in our lives.
After classes we’d often huddle around the old television set and watch the news. Vietnam was always on. Casualties and smear campaigns. And we’d watch the protests. We watched in horror the events of Kent State. We watched and we remained silent. We watched the protests around the country, especially coverage on the ones in Washington D.C.. We watched as tear gas was thrown into the crowds and long-haired hippies were dragged away in handcuffs and we watched as the news flipped to soldiers bloodied and torn being carried out of the jungle on stretchers.
Occasionally, we’d go to student union meetings. We read their hand-outs and we definitely sympathized but we couldn’t run the risk of being arrested. At least I couldn’t. My father would kill me. I had a low number, too. I couldn’t afford to jeopardize my college admission. I sat watching and listening and Diggory sat playing mournful Pete Seeger tunes on his guitar. And we thought and worried and we sympathized. At least that’s what I did. Diggory just kept playing those tunes keeping his thoughts to himself.
It was towards the end of our second year and the war was still in full swing with massive casualties and massive protests. Joan Baez’s husband, David Harris, was sentenced to three years in federal prison for draft evasion. Then, right before summer break, Diggory made an announcement that shocked us all.
“Well, I spoke to the draft board in Connecticut and then I spoke to the draft board in California. The guys in Connecticut said I’d better stay in school or I’ll be drafted. The guys in Berkeley said if I just keep moving the paperwork will never catch up to me. I’ll be safe. Yeah, it’s a bit of a risk but not much of one.”
Pushing his long blonde hair out of his face he plucked on his guitar. “You know, I’m tired of doing nothing. I’m tired of studying and watching tv and doing nothing. Joan Baez is singing protest songs. So are Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Why, they ride the rails and sing songs. That’s what I’m gonna do. And Jane here is coming with me. Besides, I can’t afford the tuition anymore. Just can’t cut it. So, we’re heading West.”
We were speechless. We looked at Diggory, we looked at Jane and we looked down at our feet. Diggery was taking a stance.
In a flash they were gone. Backpacks, sleeping bags, a beat up acoustic guitar, a harmonica. and a case of canned hash and they were gone. Off to San Francisco to sing ballads on the street to sing protest songs to anyone who would listen.
We were sad to see them go. In many ways they were the life of the party. They made our little flat come alive. In the following days and weeks we looked at each other sheepishly knowing Diggory had the courage we lacked. Soon we didn’t party together, and our living room remained empty.
I found solace in the library. Why my father encouraged me to major in English was anyone’s guess. In fairness the school didn’t offer guitar and I had learned to hate clarinet in high school. So I put in long hours studying to maintain my simple B- average. There was no way I’d go to war. Despite the draft I still knew the system was unfair. Not everyone had a dad like mine, not everyone could take advantage of the deferments.
The highlight of my weeks were the occasional letters from Diggory. I cherished them like they were the best grades I’d ever receive. I read them and reread them, until they were torn and crumbled.
“Hi, old bud!” Each letter began. “How’s old Danbury doing without me? We had a hella night last night. We jumped the train and managed to keep the door slightly ajar so we wouldn’t get lock in. Well, we didn’t, but we nearly died anyway. Went through this mile long tunnel somewhere in Pennsylvania and the diesel fumes almost killed us. Had to lay flat on our bellies and barely breath. Jane was terrified, and I can tell you, bud, I was a bit nervous myself. Pretty nearly had one of my panic attacks. Damn this war! Signing off.”
Damn the war was right. Protests and dead soldiers and guilt and confusion. One of my friends from high school died. The paper said he’d been caught unaware. He was a nice kid, favored art. The jungles of Vietnam were no place for him. The town had a big funeral and called him a hero. I didn’t go.
The next letter from Diggory came a few weeks later. “Hi, old bud,”. he began as usual. “You’ll be happy to hear we’ve made it to San Fran. Pretty nice out here. I didn’t report to the draft board since the guys in Berkeley told me to keep moving. So right now I’m just like a rolling stone. Say, maybe that’s what Dylan was referring to. Well, I’m rolling. Strumming on my trusty guitar and blowing on my harmonica. I’m playing on Fisherman’s Wharf, right by the cable car turn around. You’d like it here bud, come and visit. Signing out Dig.”
That March I went home for our Spring Break. I got a couple of quick painting jobs to tide me over for the semester and lined up a few more in the summer. I kept August free. Maybe I would visit San Fran and Diggory and Jane. If I could make enough cash that was. No train hopping for me.
Back at school I put myself on a strict budget. Cheap food, cheaper dates and no frills of any kind.
Another letter was waiting for me when I got back. Our apartment was never the same without Diggory and Jane. Kinda like a hollowed shell of a tree. Once tall and bright but ravaged by fire into a blackened empty stump. A bit graphic but that’s how I felt. I missed my friends and I worried about them, too. His newest letter caused me even more concern and I was even more determined to go West in August.
“Hey, bud. I heard your pal from high school died. Somehow Jane gets the list. Oh yeah, Jane’s gone now. Couldn’t really handle the lifestyle. Can’t blame her, I guess. Sleeping on couches and oh yeah, get this, a roof. It’s flat and comfortable but she just couldn’t handle it. Singing is pretty good. I get decent tips so I pay for my cigs and a meal or too each day. Fisherman’s Wharf has these Street Artists and they attract tourists and these tourists dig my music. Pretty neat scene but the war still has me scared and I get those panic attacks more than I’d like. But the music is cool. Real cool! See ya bud! Dig”
This letter I read and reread. I looked up Fisherman’s Wharf and questioned a professor of mine. He had done some studies at Berkeley and loved the place. Why he settled in Connecticut I’d never know. But he made me feel better about Diggory. The place was more liberal, more accepting, he said. But I knew the United States government wasn’t liberal and wasn’t forgiving. We were in war, despite protests, despite changing time.
I made it to August and connected with a classmate of mine who wanted to visit San Fran as much as I did. We drove in my Dodge, the one I’d painted red white and blue and made it in three days. What a trip. What a ride.
I found Diggory on August 4th. He looked a little worse for wear but not bad. Not bad for someone who slept on rooftops.
I had found a cheap motel which I had rented for the month. Only one bed and the bathroom down the hall but I offered Diggory the floor. He was grateful.
Looking back, that was the best month of my life. We stayed up to all hours laughing, smoking and writing songs. Then, I’d watch him perform the next day. Sometimes I’d even harmonize.
“Ah, bud! This is the life. This is the life,” he’d say with a cig dangling between his lips. Girls loved him. He had charm. He had charisma. He was my best friend. He was Diggory.
A good day was fifty bucks in tips. The tourists roamed the streets until the sun set and Diggory played until the last ones had gone. Playing beneath the lamplight, across from the Buena Vista Bar, he was a folk hero. He had realized his dream.
I was sad to leave. Diggory went back to his roof and the free showers in Aquatic Park. He kept up his singing but he never landed a steady job. He was a draft dogger. One of those young men who had a low draft number and couldn’t stay in school. So he kept up his routine and his letters.
Eventually the war ended. No one had won. A pointless war. Accept for the casualties. In the jungle, in the in hospitals, and on American soil. Diggory was one casualty I believe.
The end didn’t change that much for him. He kept playing music. He got a job as a night clerk in a downtown motel. Part of his pay was a room. He even had girlfriends. But the war changed him. It rattled his nerves. He was diagnosed with acrophobia and eventually became a recluse.
I had visited San Francisco again after college and spent another summer with my good old bud. After that we’d keep in touch, but the monthly letters got fewer and fewer yet we still remained friends. Until, one day, I got a letter from a different hand. Opening it I read my old friend was dead. Alone in his room he had choked to death. The landlord had found him. Next to his body he found a letter written to me. Stamped and addressed ready to go. “Hi old bud. Life is great. Don’t go to the streets so much anymore but still composing my songs. Here’s one for you bud.”
Tears streamed down my face as I read,
“Oh, we don’t need war no more no more. We need bright lights and sunny days and dancing in the streets. Oh, we don’t need war no more. Love ya bud, come visit sometime.”
Dedicated to my husband’s friend Diggory Parks who was a folk singer/hero on Beach Street in San Francisco and one hell of a guy!