Chapter 4, On the Rainy River Notes from The Things They Carried

Tim O'Brien
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The Things They Carried Chapter 4, On the Rainy River

Tim tells a story he has never told anyone. It is a confession. He still feels ashamed, more than twenty years later. As a child, he always wanted to be brave, and believed he would be whenever the need arose. But in 1968 he is drafted to fight in Vietnam, a war he opposes. He has spoken out about it in a mild way, writing editorials for his school paper. He never believed he could be drafted, and treated the entire war with an intellectual distaste. When he receives his draft notice, he is shocked and outraged. He is too liberal and too pacifist for the war. He doesn't deserve this. He spends the summer working in a meat packing plant. He sprays a huge water gun at dead pigs, to dissolve their blood clots. He could never wash the smell of dead pig off of him. He feels trapped, and he still didn't know what to do about his draft notice. He begins to think about escaping to Canada. He knows that his family, and his entire town, would never forgive him if he did it, but he thinks it is, in reality, the moral thing to do. He believes the war is wrong, but he knows that if he ran away he would never be able to come back to his own life. He has described these feelings before, at least partially, but he has never told the next part: he quit his job. Abruptly, he threw down his water gun and left the plant. He packed a suitcase and left a vague note. He drove north, to the border between Canada and Minnesota. He stopped at the Tip Top Lodge, owned by Elroy Berdahl. Tim is forever grateful to Elroy for what he did for him: he understood immediately that Tim was in trouble, and he took him in without questions. They spend six days together--there is no one else staying at the lodge. Tim believes Elroy knows exactly why he is there, but he never asks. Tim is terrified and nauseous, trying to decide whether or not to swim across the river and enter Canada secretly. "My conscience told me to run, but some irrational and powerful force was resisting, like a weight pushing me toward the war. What it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame." Chapter 4, pg. 52

One night Elroy decides that Tim doesn't owe him any money: because of the odd jobs Tim has been doing at the lodge, Elroy actually owes him money. Tim tells Elroy about his terrible job cleaning up pig's blood. Elroy decides he owes Tim $115.00, but gives him two hundred even. Tim will not accept it, and Elroy is insistent, calling it an emergency fund. Tim, years later, is sure that Elroy knew that Tim needed to get away but didn't have any money. On his last day at the lodge, Tim goes out in a boat with Elroy. Elroy takes him close to the other side of the lake--Canada--and then pretends to be busy with his fishing gear. Tim sits there, not knowing what to do. He knows Elroy is suggesting that he swim across the lake and escape the war. He begins to cry. This is what he is ashamed of: he could not make a moral decision, all he could do was cry. "Right then, with the shore so close, I understood that I would not do what I should do." Chapter 4, pg. 57 Elroy pretends not to notice. Tim sees and hears hundreds of people from his past and his future, cheering him on, and he cannot risk the embarrassment of letting all of them down. He knows he should protest the war, but he cannot bear doing something that will make him look bad to so many people. His crying gets louder, and finally Elroy, still ignoring it, turns the boat toward the lodge. The next morning Elroy seems to know Tim is leaving, and disappears. Tim leaves Elroy's "emergency fund" money in the kitchen and goes home, and then to Vietnam. "I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war." Chapter 4, pg. 61

Topic Tracking: Bravery 2
Topic Tracking: Truth 3

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