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On the Rainy River

by Dave Gourdoux

On The Rainy River is a short story by Tim O’Brien, from his landmark collection of Vietnam War stories, The Things They Carried.  Part memoir, part fiction, in The Things They Carried, O’Brien intentionally blurs the lines between fact and fiction in search of truth, with the result being probably the greatest literature ever produced about the most complex and misunderstood chapter in American history.

Most of the stories in The Things They Carried follow a platoon of soldiers through their experiences in Vietnam.  On the Rainy River, however, takes place back home, in O’Brien’s Minnesota, in the time between receiving his draft notice and reporting for duty.  Nowadays, in 2013, after so many books and movies have described in detail the hell that fighting in Vietnam was, it’s easy to form some kind of image of what it must have been like over there.  On the Rainy River, to me, is so important in that it gives a sense of what things were like here at home, and, compared to now, how different the times were and how differently our wars were fought.  It’s a story that’s seldom told, and, in these days when we sweep our dirty little wars under the rug and hide them from public consciousness, it’s a somber reminder of what’s really at stake.

On the Rainy River is the fourth story in the collection, the first three plunging us right into Vietnam and introducing us to the platoon.  On the Rainy River  takes us back to the States, in the summer of 1968.  O’Brien has just received his draft notice.  As a storyteller, he doesn’t hesitate to break rules.  For example, right from the beginning, he starts a conversation with the reader, breaking what is often referred to as either the third or fourth wall in storytelling, the wall that exists between the story being told and the reader.   He begins the story with:
This is a story I’ve never told before.  Not to anyone.  No to my parents, not to my brother and sister, not even to my wife.  To go into it, I’ve always thought, would only cause embarrassment for all of us, a sudden need to be elsewhere, which is the natural response to a confession.  Even now, I’ll admit, the story makes me squirm.

We get the point.  He is reluctant to share what he's about to tell us, and embarrassed and ashamed of it.  On first read, before knowing what the story is about, I had the sense that it was going to be about one of the many wartime atrocities that have become such a staple in Vietnam war literature.

The real story starts in earnest with the following succinct sentence:

In June of 1968, a month after graduating from Macalaster College, I was drafted to fight a war I hated.

He then goes on to describe the many and valid reasons he had for hating the war, including "Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons", and concluding with "Once people are dead, you can't make them undead".   This is an important paragraph, because it's vital to remember that Vietnam was only one generation removed from World War II.  Still fresh in our consciousness, World War II was perhaps the one war that was fought for certain reasons, and our victory was possibly the nation's greatest triumph.  The fact that we seemed to be rewarded with long sought and unprecedented economic prosperity only made the black and white lines our certainty was drawn in bolder.   

Those black and white lines began to fade and grew gray when our leaders had difficulty articulating why we were in Vietnam and what our goal was.  Meanwhile, television news showed us bits and pieces of what the war was like, and it wasn't pretty.  Young people were dying, and with the uncertainty of purpose or direction, it was unclear what for.

Increasingly unpopular, the war was manned by personnel from the selective services draft.  The draft was actually originated in 1948, as a way of maintaining military levels in the post World War II and Korean War years.   One of its goals was to ensure fairness and parity in those selected to fight, by introducing an element of randomness to the process, which would eventually evolve into the draft lottery.   O'Brien's reaction to getting his draft notice describes one of the reasons why the draft was implemented:

I was too good for this war.  Too smart, too compassionate, too everything.  It couldn't happen. I was above it.  I had the world dicked - Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude and president of the student body and a fill ride scholarship to grad studies at Harvard.  A mistake maybe - a foul-up in the paperwork.

The dichotomy at work in the draft was this very element of randomness. In an effort to share the cost and burden of war, to introduce some level of class fairness, the insanity that is war was perpetuated--that to live or die was a matter of the luck of the draw.

In the summer of 1968, O'Brien worked in an Armour meat packing plant in his hometown.  For eight hours a day his job was to remove blood clots from the necks of dead pigs.  He describes the job in disgusting detail, and how even after hot baths or showers and hard scrubbing, he couldn't remove the odor of dead pig that had "seeped into my skin and hair".  All the while, he was obsessing over what to do about his draft notice.   Options narrowed; the government had ended most graduate school deferments, the waiting lists for the National Guard and Reserves were "impossibly long", his health was good, and he didn't qualify as a conscientious objector--there were no religious grounds or prior history of being a pacifist.  It came down to a choice of serving in the war, or a lifelong exile in Canada. 

The Canada option gradually became more real, more viable, until it got to the point where he was split, between his fear and reservations about the war, and the loss of friends and family and their respect by fleeing to Canada. 

Then one morning in late August, while working declotting pigs, the pressure got to be too much and he "cracked," walking off of the line and driving home. In the empty house he showered, packed his clothes, and scribbled a short note to his parents.  Then he drove north.  He drove through the night, and the next morning he headed west along the Rainy River, which marks the border between Minnesota and Canada.  He eventually stopped at an old fishing resort called the Tip Top Lodge, a broken down old place with several run down cottages.  Already past the tourist season, the place was empty except for the eighty one year old owner, Elroy Berdahl, one of the most memorable characters in any short story.

The two of them spent the next six days together, in the daytime, hiking in the woods or splitting firewood; playing Scrabble or reading at night.  The old man never asks O'Brien any questions about why he's there, but O'Brien suspects that he knows.  He gives O'Brien enough space and quiet companionship to let him sort things through. 

On the final day, the old man takes O'Brien out fishing on the wide Rainy River.  He charts a course straight north, and cuts the motor about twenty yards from the Canadian shore. 

I'll never be certain, of course, but I think he meant to bring me up against the realities, to guide me across the river and to take me to the edge and to stand a kind of vigil as I chose a life for myself.

As O'Brien describes how close and vivid the shoreline was, he again breaks the third wall and addresses the reader directly:

And I want you to feel it - the wind coming off the river, the waves, the silence, the wooded frontier.  You're at the bow of the boat on the Rainy River.  You're twenty one years old, you're scared, and there's a hard squeezing pressure in your chest.

Would you jump?  Would you feel pity for yourself?  Would you think about your childhood and your dreams and all you're leaving behind?  Would it hurt?  Would it feel like dying?  Would you cry, as I did?

Then the discomfort O'Brien expressed at the beginning of the story is explained.  He's ashamed and embarrassed that he didn't have the courage of his convictions required to run:

And what was so sad, I realized, was that Canada had become a pitiful fantasy.  Silly and hopeless.  It was no longer a possibility.  Right then, I understood that I would not do what I should do.  I would not swim away from my hometown and my country and my life.  I would not be brave.

This is where the story really starts to display its power.  It gets to the complicated reality that anyone asked to go to war really faces.  It takes courage and bravery to go, but it also takes courage to flee, to not be a part of the madness that is war, to leave everything behind to stand for a principal.  From a distance, it's easy to pass judgement, one way or another, on the choices that were made.  But up close, with everything at stake, it's a different story.  This is why it was so important for O'Brien to break that wall and directly address the reader.

A vision presents itself, and he sees his whole life "spill out into the river, swirling away from me, everything I had ever been or ever wanted to be".  He sees, in the water and on the shoreline, everybody and everything he's ever known, a parade of people from his past, various mass culture celebrities, even people from his future, his wife and unborn daughter:

All those eyes on me--the town, the whole universe--and I couldn't risk the embarrassment. 

I would go to the war--I would kill and maybe die--because I was embarrassed not to.

He sits in the front of the boat, crying, softly at first, then louder.  Elroy sits quietly fishing in the back, and without passing judgement, he simply says, "Ain't biting" and pulls in his line and turns the boat back to Minnesota. 

The next morning, at breakfast, he tells Elroy he'll be leaving.  By the time he finishes packing, Elroy is gone.  O'Brien then leaves, closing the story with:

The day was cloudy.  I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again.  I survived, but it's not a happy ending.  I was a coward.  I went to war.

These days, with the war in Afghanistan largely an afterthought, what with our all volunteer army and with the same reservists on their second, third, or fourth tour of duty, it's easy to overlook that these soldiers are facing the same thing O'Brien faced, the disruption of their lives, and the insanity of war, of human beings killing other human beings.  With such a small percentage of the population impacted, war has been moved to the margins of our collective consciousness, and we show our "support" for our troops with hollow and insincere sentiments about what heroes they are on occasions like Memorial Day or Veteran's Day.  Then it's back to the day to day, and we don't notice when five, then seven, then excess of ten years have passed and soldiers are still dying for whatever they're dying for this week in the remote and foreign mountain passes.  We don't pay much attention when banks foreclose on these heroes, when they return home mutilated and sick to substandard military hospitals, we don't notice when the suicide rate among them skyrockets to obscene levels. 

Tim O'Brien
Before we start waving the flag again and sending the next batch off to wherever insanity flares up the next time, it'd do us each good to read On the Rainy River and remind ourselves what's really at stake.

We live in interesting times.  In so many ways, we seem to be going backwards, regressing, while at the same time, we're making remarkable strides forward.  We have an African-American president serving his second term.  A majority of the population now supports gay rights.  These are things that many thought we'd never see in our lifetimes.  Having come this far, maybe it's possible that someday, we'll recognize the sheer insanity that war is, and we'll banish it forever.

For more on Tim O'Brien, go to:  www.illyria.com