Chapter 9, Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong Notes from The Things They Carried

Tim O'Brien
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The Things They Carried Chapter 9, Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong

Tim heard another story from Rat Kiley, who was given to exaggeration. "It wasn't a question of deceit. Just the opposite; he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt." Chapter 9, pg. 89 Though when you listen to him you have to calculate just how much of the story to believe, there is one story he is insistent about. Mitchell doesn't believe it, and Rat gets very upset. He swears that one soldier had his girlfriend shipped to Vietnam: he saw it with his own eyes.

When he first came to Vietnam, Rat had a job in a medical station near river Song Tra Bong. He was happy there: the work was predictable, if gory, and he didn't have to travel or carry anything. Nearby was a camp of Green Berets, ("Greenies") who did not socialize with the others. They were almost animals--silent, perfect warriors. One night the medics are talking idly, and they brought up the possibility of getting some women into their camp. They laughed, but one young man, Mark Fossie, took it seriously. Six weeks later his girlfriend, Mary Anne Bell, showed up. She was seventeen, pretty, and very friendly. The other men were jealous, and Mark explained that it was difficult and expensive, but it could be done. He and Mary Anne were childhood sweethearts, and had always planned their entire life out together. Mary Anne was curious about everything in Vietnam, and she was a quick learner. She insisted on visiting a nearby village; she didn't care that it was dangerous. Mark tried to explain the very real dangers all around her, and the rest of the men were impressed.

Rat Kiley, telling the story, gets angry whenever one of the details is questioned. He claims that women learn to lose their naïve, romantic ideals as quickly as men do, and that is what happened to Mary Anne. She even seemed to enjoy the urgency of military life: when an injured man came in, he had to be helped immediately: there was no thinking to do. Mark Fossie was amazed at what his girlfriend could now do. She still loved him, but she was less definite about their future together. Within two weeks, she seemed to change dramatically. She came home late, and then one night she didn't come home at all. Mark was in shock, and woke Rat up early that morning, sure that Mary Anne was cheating on him. They checked all the bunks together, but she wasn't with any of the men. She was with the Greenies in ambush. She returned with them early in the morning and gave Mark a quick hug, saying she was tired and didn't want to answer any questions. Hesitating a moment, he chased after her and demanded that they talk about what happened now. No one knows just what he said to her, but that evening she came to dinner looking clean and midwestern, like she had before. She was quiet, and avoided questions about the ambush. Mark told Rat that they were officially engaged, and there would be no more late nights. But their relationship seemed strained from then on. Too polite. Everyone knew it had to end, and when Mark began to make arrangements for Mary Anne to go back home, she seemed distant and depressed. Then one night she disappeared with the Green Berets again. She returned three weeks later, a different person. Her eyes had a jungle fierceness to them. Rat pauses to comment on the story so far--something that Mitchell Sanders hates, because he thinks it ruins the flow of the story. Rat explains that what happened to Mary Anne isn't really that strange: being a woman doesn't make her immune to the way war and the jungle can affect people. Mitchell thinks Rat should just tell the story--he's ruining the tone by commenting on it. Rat says, "Tone? I didn't know it was all that complicated. The girl joined the zoo. One more animal--end of story." Chapter 9, pg. 107

Topic Tracking: Truth 6

Rat continues: Mark waits outside the Green Beret's camp. Rat cautions him against bothering the Green Berets. Then they hear Mary Anne singing in what sounds like a foreign language. Mark can't wait anymore. He runs into the tent, and then everything is silent. Rat and another soldier follow him in. The tent is full of candles and has a strange tribal quality. But the most powerful thing is the smell: a mixture of incense and death. The head of a leopard sits on a post in the corner. There are bones everywhere. Mary Anne appears. Her eyes are dull, and though she wears the shorts and sweater she arrived from America in, she also wears a necklace of human tongues. She tells Mark that he doesn't understand what Vietnam really is. She says, "When I'm out there at night, I feel close to my own body, I can feel my blood moving, my skin and my fingernails, everything, it's like I'm full of electricity and I'm glowing in the dark--I'm on fire almost--I'm burning away to nothing--but it doesn't matter because I know exactly where I am." Chapter 9, pg. 111 She does not even seem to be talking to him. Mark wants to help her, but Rat understands that she is beyond help.

Rat ends the story there: he was transferred a few days later and never saw any of them again. Mitchell is furious--he says you can't tell a story without an ending. Rat smiles and tells Mitchell he knows a few things about Mary Anne that he heard from other people. But first, he says, he loved Mary Anne. So did all the other men--she reminded them of home. Then he says that this information comes from the Greenies: Mary Anne was great at night patrols. She was fearless, and seemed to be interacting with something out there in the darkness, something in nature. Then one day she simply disappeared. Nothing was ever found of her. The Greenies sometimes felt like she was out there watching them, but they could never be sure.

Topic Tracking: Effects of War 6

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