(apologies for any transcribing errors)
This is one story I've never told before. Not to anyone. Not to my parents, not to my brother or 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. For more than twenty years I've had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to push it away, and so by this act of remembrance, by putting the facts down on paper, I'm hoping to relieve at least some of the pressure on my dreams. Still, it's a hard story to tell. All of us, I suppose, like to believe that in a moral emergency we will behave like the heroes of our youth, bravely and forthrightly, without thought of personal loss or discredit. Certainly that was my conviction back in the summer of 1968. Tim O'Brien: a secret hero. The Lone Ranger. If the stakes ever became high enough, if the evil were evil enough, if the good were good enough-I would simply tap a secret reservoir of courage that had been accumulating inside me over the years. Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down. It was a comforting theory. It dispensed with all those bothersome little acts of daily courage; it offered hope and grace to the repetitive coward; it justified the past while amortizing the future.
In June of 1968, a month after graduating from Macalester College, I was drafted to fight a war I hated. I was twenty-one years old. Young, yes, and politically naive, but even so the American war in Vietnam seemed to me wrong. Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons. I saw no unity of purpose, no consensus on matters of philosophy or history or law. The very facts were shrouded in uncer¬tainty: Was it a civil war? A war of national liberation or simple aggression? Who started it, and when and why? What really happened to the USS Maddox that dark night in the Gulf of Tonkin? Was Ho Chi Minh a Communist, nationalist savior, or both, or neither?
What about the Geneva Accords? What about SEATO and the Cold War? What about dominoes? America was these and a thousand other issues, and the debate had spilled out across the United States Senate and into the streets, and smart men in pinstripes agree on even the most fundamental matters of public policy. The only thing that summer was moral confusion. It was my view then, and still is, that make war without knowing why. Knowledge, of course, is always imperfect it seemed to me that when a nation goes to war it must have reasonable con the justice and imperative of its cause. You can't fix your mistakes. Once people are dead, you can't make them undead.
In any case those were my convictions, and back in college I had taken stand against the war. Nothing radical, no hothead stuff, just ringing a few bells for Gene McCarthy, composing a few tedious, uninspired editorials for the newspaper. Oddly, though, it was almost entirely an intellectual activity. Some energy to it, of course, but it was the energy that accompanies all abstract endeavors; I felt no personal danger; I felt no sense of an impending my life. Stupidly, with a kind of smug removal that I can't begin to fathom, that the problems of killing and dying did not fall within my special province.
The draft notice arrived on June 17, 1968. It was a humid afternoon, I recall cloudy and very quiet, and I'd just come in from a round of golf. My mother and I were having lunch out in the kitchen. I remember opening up the letter, scanning the first few lines, feeling the blood go thick behind my eyes. It wasn't thinking, just a silent howl. A million things all at once-I wasn’t for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything. It couldn't happen to me, above it. I had the world dicked-Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude and of the student body and a full-ride scholarship for grad studies at Harvard. A maybe-a foul-up in the paperwork. I was no soldier. I hated Boy Scouts and camping out. I hated dirt and tents and mosquitoes. The sight of blood made me sick and I couldn't tolerate authority, and I didn't know a rifle from a slingshot.
I remember the rage in my stomach. Later it burned down to a smoldering pity, then to numbness. At dinner that night my father asked what my letter said, "Nothing," I said. "Wait."
At some point in mid-July I began thinking seriously about Canada. It lay a few hundred miles north, an eight-hour drive. Both my conscience instincts were telling me to make a break for it, just take off and run like the devil and never stop. In the beginning the idea seemed purely abstract, the word Canada printing itself in my head; but after a time I could see particular shapes and images, the sorry details of my own future-a hotel room in Winnipeg, a battered old suitcase, my father's eyes as I tried to explain myself over the telephone. I could almost hear his voice, and my mother's. Run, I'd think. Then I'd think, Impossible. Then a second later I'd think, Run.
I was bitter, sure. But it was so much more than that. The emotions went from outrage to terror to bewilderment to guilt to sorrow and then back again to outrage. I felt a sickness inside me. Real disease.
I drove north.
For a while I just drove, not aiming at anything, then in the late morning I began looking for a place to lie low for a day or two. I was exhausted, and scared sick, and around noon I pulled into an old fishing resort called the Tip Top Lodge. Actually it was not a lodge at all, just eight or nine tiny yellow cabins clustered on a peninsula that jutted northward into the Rainy River. The place was in sorry shape. There was a dangerous wooden dock, an old minnow tank, a flimsy tar paper boat house along the shore. The main building, which stood in a cluster of pines on high ground, seemed to lean heavily to one side, like a cripple, the roof sagging toward Canada. Briefly, I thought about turning around, just giving up, but then I got out of the car and walked up to the front porch.
The man who opened the door that day is the hero of my life. How do I say this without sounding sappy? Blurt it out-the man saved me. He offered exactly what I needed, without questions, without any words at all. He took me in. He was there at the critical time-a silent, watchful presence. Six days later, when it ended, I was unable to find a proper way to thank him, and I never have, and so, if nothing else, this story represents a small gesture of gratitude twenty years overdue.
Even after two decades I can close my eyes and return to that porch at the Tip Top Lodge. I can see the old guy staring at me. Elroy Berdahl: eighty-one years old, skinny and shrunken and mostly bald. He wore a flannel shirt and brown work pants. In one hand, I remember, he carried a green apple, a small paring knife in the other. His eyes had the bluish gray color of a razor blade, the same polished shine, and as he peered up at me I felt a strange sharpness, almost painful, a cutting sensation, as if his gaze were somehow slicing me open. In part, no doubt, it was my own sense of guilt, but even so I'm absolutely certain that the old man took one look and went right to the heart of things-a kid in trouble.
We spent six days together at the Tip Top Lodge. Just the two of us. Tourist season was over, and there were no boats on the river, and the wilderness seemed to withdraw into a great permanent stillness. What I remember more than anything is the man's will, almost ferocious silence. In all that time together, all those hours, he never asked the obvious questions: Why was I there? Why alone? Why so preoccupied? If Elroy was curious about any of this, he was careful never to put it into words.
My hunch, though, is that he already knew. At least the basics. After all, it was 1968, and guys were burning draft cards, and Canada was just a boat ride away. Elroy Berdahl was no hick. His bedroom, I remember, was cluttered with books and news¬papers. He killed me at the Scrabble board, barely concentrating, and on those occa¬sions when speech was necessary he had a way of compressing large thoughts into small, cryptic packets of language. One evening, just at sunset, he pointed up at an owl circling over the violet-lighted forest to the west.
"Hey, O'Brien," he said. "There's Jesus."
The man was sharp-he didn't miss much. Those razor eyes. Now and then he'd catch me staring out at the river, at the far shore, and I could almost hear the tumblers clicking in his head. Maybe I'm wrong, but I doubt it.
One thing for certain, he knew I was in desperate trouble. And he knew I couldn't talk about it. The wrong word-or even the right word-and I would've disappeared. I was wired and jittery. My skin felt too tight. After supper one evening I vomited and went back to my cabin and lay down for a few moments and then vomited again; another time, in the middle of the afternoon, I began sweating and couldn't shut it off. I went through whole days feeling dizzy with sorrow. I couldn't sleep; I couldn't lie still. At night I'd toss around in bed, half awake, half dreaming, imagining how I'd sneak down to the beach and quietly push one of the old man's boats out into the river and start paddling my way toward Canada. There were times when I thought I'd gone off the psychic edge. I couldn't tell up from down, I was just falling, and late in the night I'd lie there watching weird pictures spin through my head. Getting chased by the Border Patrol-helicopters and searchlights and barking dogs-I'd be crashing through the woods, I'd be down on my hands and knees-people shouting out my name-the law closing in on all sides-my hometown draft board and the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It all seemed crazy and impossible. Twenty-one years old, an ordinary kid with all the ordinary dreams and ambitions, and all I wanted was to live the life I was born to-a mainstream life-I loved baseball and hamburgers and cherry Cokes-and now I was off on the margins of exile, leaving my country forever, and it seemed so impossible and terrible and sad.
I'm not sure how I made it through those six days. Most of it I can't remember. On two or three afternoons, to pass some time, I helped Elroy get the place ready for winter, sweeping down the cabins and hauling in the boats, little chores that kept my body moving. The days were cool and bright. The nights were very dark. One morning the old man showed me how to split and stack firewood, and for several hours in silence out behind his house. At one point, I remember Elroy put down his maul and looked at me for a long time, his lips drawn as if framing a difficult question, but then he shook his head and went back to work. The man's self-control was amazing. He never pried. He never put me in a position that required lies or denials. Simple politeness was part of it. But even more than that, I think, the man understood that words were insufficient. I was ashamed to be there at the Tip Top Lodge. I was ashamed of my conscience, ashamed to be doing the right thing. Some of this Elroy must've understood. Not the details, of course, but the plain fact of crisis.
On my last full day, the sixth day, the old man took me out fishing on the Rainy River. All around us, I remember, there was a vastness to the world, an unpeopled rawness, just the trees and the sky and the water reaching out toward nowhere.
For a time I didn't pay attention to anything, just feeling the cold spray against my face, but then it occurred to me that at some point we must've passed into Canadian waters, across that dotted line between two different worlds, and I remember a sudden tightness in my chest as I looked up and watched the far shore come at me. This wasn't a daydream. It was tangible and real. As we came in toward land, Elroy cut the engine, letting the boat fishtail lightly about twenty yards off shore. The old man didn't look at me or speak. Bending down, he opened up his tackle box and busied himself with a bobber and a piece of wire leader, humming to himself, his eyes down.
It struck me then that he must've planned it. 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. I remember staring at the old man, then at my hands, then at Canada. The shore¬line was dense with brush and timber. I could see tiny red berries on the bushes. I could see a squirrel up in one of the birch trees, a big crow looking at me from a boulder along the river. That close-twenty yards-and I could see the delicate lat¬ticework of the leaves, the texture of the soil, the browned needles beneath the pines, the configurations of geology and human history. Twenty yards. I could've done it. I could've jumped and started swimming for my life. Inside me, in my chest, I felt a ter¬rible squeezing pressure. Even now, as I write this, I can still feel that tightness. 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 a boat on the Rainy River. You're twenty-one years old, you're scared, and there's a hard squeezing pressure in your chest.
What would you do?
Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and 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?
I tried to swallow it back. I tried to smile, except I was crying.
Now, perhaps, you can understand why I've never told this story before. It's not just the embarrassment of tears. That's part of it, no doubt, but what embarrasses me much more, and always will, is the paralysis that took my heart. A moral freeze: I couldn't decide, I couldn't act, I couldn't comport myself with even a pretense of modest human dignity.
All I could do was cry. Quietly, not bawling, just the chest-chokes. At the rear of the boat Elroy Berdahl pretended not to notice. He held a fishing rod in his hands, his head bowed to hide his eyes. He kept humming a soft, monotonous little tune. Everywhere, it seemed, in the trees and water and sky, a great world¬wide sadness came pressing down on me, a crushing sorrow, sorrow like I had never known it before. 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, with the shore so close, 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. That old image of myself as a hero, as a man of conscience and courage, all that was just a threadbare pipe dream.
It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! they yelled. Turncoat! I felt myself blush. I couldn't tolerate it. I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn't make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that's all it was.
And right then I submitted. I would go to the war-I would kill and maybe die-because I was embarrassed not to.
Around noon, when I took my suitcase out to the car, I noticed that his old black pickup truck was no longer parked in front of the house. I went inside and waited for a while, but I felt a bone certainty that he wouldn't be back. In a way, I thought, it was appropriate. I washed up the breakfast dishes, left his two hundred dollars on the kitchen counter, got into the car, and drove south toward home.
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 the war.