The Things They Carried Chapter 15, Speaking of Courage
After the war, Norman Bowker doesn't know what to do with himself. He drives around the small lake in his hometown one evening, thinking. He has driven around this lake many times, with girls, or with friends, having philosophical debates. One of those friends drowned in the lake. His girlfriend from high school is married. He doesn't seem to be able to connect with anyone anymore, including his father, who just watches sports on TV now. He doesn't know what to say to anyone, so he doesn't talk much. He thinks about how he almost won the Silver Star. He would like to tell his father the story, but he doesn't know how. He imagines telling the story: the Song Tra Bong River flooded during the rainy season, and as they camped along it, the men were overwhelmed by the smell. They couldn't sleep because of it. Norman knows that no one in his town wants to hear about this. "[The town] had no memory, therefore no guilt....It did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know." Chapter 15, pg. 143
Norman remembers the night they camped in a field that turned out to be the village bathroom. The rain made the stink unbearable. Norman drives around and around the lake. It is a hot night, the fourth of July, and he knows no one in the town could handle hearing this story. Courage, he thinks, is not black and white. Sometimes you can be brave about very dangerous things, but other things are frightening for unexplainable reasons. Norman could not find it in him to be brave in that stinking field. They were attacked one night in the field, and everyone dove under the muck for cover. Norman heard shots, then he heard Kiowa screaming. He crawled in the direction of the screams, and saw Kiowa sinking. He started to try to pull him out, but the stink and muck got to be too much for him, and he let go. Norman knows that it was the smell that destroyed his bravery. He drives away from the lake and orders a burger from a fast food restaurant. He eats, thinking about looking for a job the next day. Then he pushes the intercom button at the drive-thru window. He tells the cashier he's done eating, then starts to tell him the story of Kiowa and the field, but doesn't finish. It is unclear whether he is hallucinating or not. He goes back to the lake, knowing that Kiowa was alive when he let go of him, and knowing that he will never tell the story. He wades into the lake, tasting the water the way he tasted the field in Vietnam. He watches the fireworks, thinking the show is pretty good.