On the Rainy River



On the Rainy River
of black Arnericans ro seizelocal enrrepreneurialopportunities is co fail
to accept our role as leaclers of our own comrntrnity. Not to dernand
thar each member of the black cc-rmmunity accept individual responsibility for her or his behavior - whether that behavior assulnes the
Tim O'Brien
On the Rainy River
form of black-on'black hornicide, gang mernbers violatins the sanctity
of the chtrrch, Lrnprotected sexual acdvity, gangster rap lyrics, whatever - is for us to function rlerely as ethnic cheerleadersselling woof
tickers frorn calnpus or sr.rburbs,rather thar-rsaying the dilficult things
rhar mey be unpopular with our fellows. Being a leader does not necessarily rneen beir-rgloved; loving one's community lneans daring to risk
esrrangelrrer-rrand alienation fi'om ir in che shclrc rttn in order to break
the cycle of povcrty and despair in which we find ourselves,over the
long run. For what is at stake is nothing less tl-ran rhe survival of our
coLrlltr y, and rl-reAfi ican- Atne rican p'teoplethetn selves.
Thosc of us on carnpus can also reach ollt ro rhose of us left behind
on rhe streers. l}e
historically black colleges and universities and Afro-
Arnerican Srudics .-leparrments ir-r ti-ris cour-rtry can ir-rstitutionalize
sophornore :rnd junior ye:rr inrernships for community developrnenr
rlrrough orga.nizations such as the Childrens Defense Ftrnd. Together
we can combat teenage pregnancies, black-on-black crime, and the
spread of AIDS irorn drug abuse and Llllprotected sexr,ralrelations, and
corrnter the spread of despair and hopelessnessin our courtnuuities.
Dr. King did not die so that half of us would rnake it, half of us perish,
forever rarnishir-rg two centuries of agitation for our equal rights. We,
the membcrs of che Talented Tenth, rnLrstaccepr our historical responsibility and live Dr. Kings crecJothat none oFus is free until all of us are
free.And rhar all of us are brothers and sisters,as Dr. King said so long
ago -
whire and bl:rck, Protestant and Caclrolic, Ger-rtile and Jew and
Mtrslirn, rich and poor - even if we are not brothers-in-law.
T i mO ' B r i e n
w a sb o r ni n 1 9 4 6 i n A u s t i n M
, i n n e s o t tao, a n i n s u r a n c e
n n d a n e l e m e n t a rsyc h o o tl e a c h e rB
. o t ho f h i s p a r e n t s
w e r ev e t e r ? f l Sh:i s f a t h e rh a d b e e ni n t h e N a v yi n l w o J i m a a n d
d u r i n gW o r l dW a r l l , a n d h i s m o t h e rh a d s e r v e dw i t h t h e
W A V E S(W om enAccept edf or Volunt eerEm er gency
Ser vice)As
. a
c h i l d ,O ' B r i e n
s p e n t i m er e a d i n g
i n t h e c o u n t yl r b r a r yl e, a r n i ntgo
p e r f o r mm a g i ct r i c k s a
, n d p l a y i n gb a s e b a (l lh i sf i r s tp i e c eo f f i c t i o n
w a sc a l l e d" T i m m yo f t h e L i t t l eL e a g u e " ) .
O ' B r i e na t t e n d e dM a c a l e s t eCro l l e g ei n S a i n tP a u l ,M i n n e s o t a ,
m a j o r i n ign p o l i t i c asl c i e n c eW
. h e nh eg r a d u a t eidn 1 9 6 8 ,h e h o p e d
t o j o i nt h e S t a t eD e p a r t m e a
n st a d i p l o m a t - b u t i n s t e a dj u, s tw e e k s
, w a sd r a f t e di n t ot h eA r m y O
a f t e rg r a d u a t i o h
. ' B r i e n e a r l fyl e dt o
C a n a d ad: u r i n gh i s t r a i n i n gi n F o r tL e w i sW
, a s h i n g t o hn e, p l a n n e d
to desert,but he went only as f ar as Seat t lebef or et ur ningback.
I n 1 9 6 9 , a t t h e a g eo f 2 2 , h e w e n tt o Q u a n gN g a i ,V i e t n a mf,i r s t
asa rifleman
a n d l a t e ra s a r a d i ot e l e p h o noep e r a t oarn d c l e r k .H e
c o m p l e t e ad 1 3 - m o n t ht o u r o f d u t y ,e a r n i n ga P u r p l eH e a r ta n d a
B ronzeS tar.
A f t e rh i sr e t u r nt o t h e U n i t e dS t a t e si n 1 9 7 0 ,O ' B r i e n
e n r o l l e idn
H a r v a r d 'dso c t o r apl r o g r a mi n g o v e r n m e natn d s p e n th i s s u m m e r s
w orki ngas an int er nf or t he Washr ngt on
Post .He becam ea f ullt i m e n a t i o n aal f f a i r sr e p o r t ecr ,o v e r i nS
g e n a t eh e a n n gasn d p o l i t i c a l
year slat er ,O 'Br ienlef t bot h his gr aduat e
events.S ever al
wor kand
hi sj ob at the Posft o pur suea car eeras a wr it er .ln a m em oirseven
n o v e l sa, n d m a n ys h o r ts t o r i e sO
, ' B r i e nh a se x p l o r e tdh e q u e s t i o n
o f m o r a rl e s p o n s i b i l iW
t yh
: oi s r e s p o n s i bfloer t h e 5 8 , 0 0 0A m e r i c a n
s o l d i e ras n d m o r et h a na m i l l i o nV i e t n a m e spee o p l ek i l l e di n b a t t l e
betw een1965 and 1975?
" O n t h e R a i n yR i v e r "d e s c r i b easy o u n gm a nw h oh a st o c h o o s e
goi ngt o Viet namandf leeingt o Canadat o evadet he dr af t .
betw een
H e b l a m e st h e w a r o n e v e r y o n e - t h ep r e s i d e n t ,h e j o i n t c h i e f s
o f s t a f f ,t h e k n e e - j e r p
k a t r i o t si n h i s h o m e t o w n - b u tu l t i m a t e l v
t a k e sh i s p l a c ea m o n gt h e m , c h o o s i n tgo g o t o w a r . H i s d e c i s i o n
the eventsof the book,The ThingsTheyCarried,just as
s w n c o n fl i c te d e c i s i o nto g o to w arset the courseof hi s
l i f e ,f i r s ta s a s o l d i ear n dt h e na s a w r i t e r .
TheThingsTheyCarried(1990)wasa finalistfor boththe Pulitzer
P r i z ea n d t h e N a t i o n aB
l o o kC r i t i c sC i r c l eA w a r d .O ' B r i e n ' o
significantbooksincludelf I Die in a CombatZone,Box Me Up and
Ship Me Home (1973), Goingafter Cacciato(I978), The Nuclear
(1994).Ti mO' B ri enl i ves
A ge( I9 8 5 ), a n d l n th e L a k eo f th e Woods
in T exa sw i th h i s w i fe a n d s o n .H e te a chescreati vew ri ti ngat Texas
S t at eU n i v e rs i tv .
his is one story I've never rold before.Not to anyone.Not to my
I parents,not to my brother or sister,not even to my wife, To go
inro it, I've alwaysthought, would only causeembarrassmenrfor all of
us, a sudden need to be elsewhere,which is che natural responseto a
confession.Even now I'll adrnit, the story makesme squirm, For more
than twenty yearsI've had to live wirh ir, feelingrhe shame,rrying ro
puslr ft away,and so by this act of remembrance,by putting the facts
down on paper,I'm hoping to relieveat leastsomeof the pressureon my
dreams.Sdll, it's :r hard story to tell. All of us, I suppose,like to believe
that in a moral emergencywe will behavelike the heroesof our youth,
bravelyand forthrightly,without thought of personalloss or discredit.
Cercainlychacwas my conviccionback in the surnmer of 1968. Tim
O'Brien: a secrethero.The Lone Ranger.If the stakeseverbecamehigh
enough- if the evil wereevil enough,if the good weregood enough- I
would simply Ap a secretreservoirof couragethat had beenaccumulating inside me over the years.Courage,I seemedto think, comesto us in
6nite quantities,like an inheritance,and by being frugal and stashingit
awayand letting it earn interest,we steadilyincreaseour moral capital
in p''rsp2l"xtion
for that day when the account must be drawn down. It
was a comforting tl-reory.It dispensedwith all those bothersomelittle
accsof daily courage;it offered hope and gracero the repetitive coward;
it justified the past while amortizing the future.
InJune of 7968,a month afrcr graduatingfrom MacalescerCollege,I
wasdraftedto 6ght a war I hated'I wastwenty-oneyearsold. Young,yes,
and politically naive,but evenso the American war in Vietnam seemed
O'Brien * On rhe Rainy River
ro me wrong. Certain blood was being shedfor uncerrainreasons.I saw
no uniry of purpose,no consensus
on marrersof philosophyor history
or law.The very factswere shroudedin uncerrainty:Was ir a civil war?
A war of national liberarior-r
or simple aggressioniWho startedit, and
when, and whyi What realLyhappenedro rhe llSS Maddox onthat dark
night in the Gulf of Tonkini Was Ho Chi Minh a Communisr stooge,
or a nationalistsavior,or both, or neitheri What abour the Geneva
Accordsi What about SEATO and rhe Cold Wari Whar about dominoesi America was divided on theseand a thousandorher issues,and
the debatehad spilled out acrossthe floor of the United SraresSenate
and into the streers,and smarr men in pinsrripescould not agreeon
eventhe rnosr fundamentalrnactersof public policy.The only cerraincy
that summer was moral confusion.It was my view then, and still is,
that you don't rnakewar without knowing why. Knowledge,of course,
is alwaysimperfect,but it seemedro me thar when a narion goesro war
ir rnust have reasonableconfidencein the jr-rsticeand imperativeof irs
cause.You can'tfix your misrakes.Once peoplearedead,you canr make
rhern undead.
In any caserhose were my convicrions,and back in collegeI had
taken a modesr srand against rhe war. Norhing radical, no horhead
scufl just ringing a few doorbells for Gene McCarrhy, composing a
few tedious, uninspired edirorials for che campus newspaper.Oddly,
though, it was almosr enrirely an inrellectualacrivity.I broughr some
energy ro it, of course,bur ir was rhe energy that accompaniesalmost
any abstractendeavor;I felt no personaldanger,I felt no senseof an
irnpendingcrisisin my life.Srupidly,wirh a kind of smug removalthat I
cant begin to farllom, I assumedrhar rhe problemsof killing and dying
did not fall wirhin my specialprovince.
The draft noticearrivedonJune 17,1968.Ir was a humid afrernoon,
I remembeacloudy and very quiec,and Id jusr conlein from a round
of golf. My mother and farher were having lunch our in the kitchen.
I remember opening up the letter, scanning the firsr few lines, feeling
rhe blood go rhick behind my eyes.I remembera sound in my head.It
wasnt rhinking,jusr a silenrhorvl.A million rhingsall ar once- I was
rco good for rl-riswar. Too sffrarc,too compassionate,too everything.
It couldn't happen.I was aboveit. I had the world dicked- Phi Bera
Kappa and summa cum laude and presidentof rhe srudenrbody and a
Full-ridescholarshipfor grad studiesat Harvard. A mistake,maybe- a
1 , 7 4 M o D E LT E X T sF o R w R r r E R S
foul-up in the paperwork.I was no soldier.I hacedBoy Scouts.I hated
campingout. I hated dirt and tents and mosquiroes.The sight of blood
made me queasy,and I couldn'r tolerareauthority, and I didn't know
a rifle from a slingshot.I was a liber,tl,for Christ sake:If rhey needed
freshbodies,wl-rynot draft someback-to-rhe-srone-age
hawki Or some
dumb jingo in his hard har and Bornb Hanoi burron, or one of LBJs
pretty daughrers,or Wesrmoreland'swhole handsomefamily - nephews and niecesand baby grandson.There should be a law I thought. If
you support awar, if you think ir's worth rhe price,rhat'sfine, bur you
have to Put your own preciousfluids on rhe line. You have to head for
the front and hook up with an infantry unir ar-rdhelp spill the blood.
A'd you have ro bring along your wife, or
),our kids, or your lover.A
law, I t houg h r.
I rememberrhe rage in my sromach.Later ir burned down to a
snrolderingself-pity,rhen to numbness.Ar dinner rhat nighr my father
askedwhat my plans were.
"Norhing," I said." Wait."
I spcnrrhe surnmerof i968 u'orking in an Armour rnear-packing
ir-rrny homero'uvnof Worrhington, Minnesora. The planr specialized
in pork products, and for eighr hours a day I srood on a quarrer-mile
assemblyline - more properly,a disassemblyline - removing blood
clots frorn the necksof dead pigs.Myjob rirle, I believe,was Declotter.
After slaughrer,rhe hogs were de.:apitated,splir down the length of the
belly,pried open,eviscerated,
and srrlrngup by rhe hind hocks on a high
conveyerbelr. Then gravityrook over.By cherime a carcassreachedmy
spot on the line, che fuids had rnostly drained ouc, everyrhingexcepr
for thick clots of blood in rhe neck and upper chest cavity.Tor.,nou.
the stuf{, I used a kind of water gun. The machine was heavy,maybe
eighry pounds, and was suspendedfrom the ceiling by a heavy rubber
cord. There was some bouncero it, an elasricup-and-down give,and
the rrick was ro maneuver rhe gun with your whole body, noc lifting
with the anns, jusr lerrir-rgrhe rubber cord.do the work for you. At
one cnd was a tigger; ar rhe muzzle end was a small nozzle and a steel
roller brush. As a carcasspassedby, youd lean forward and swing the
gun up againsrrhe clors and squeezethe tigger, all in one morion, and
rhe brush would whirl and water would come shooring our and youd
hear a quick splarering sound as rhetlots dissolvedinto a fine red misr.
o On rhe Rainy River
It was nor pleasanrwork. Goggleswere a necessicy,
and a rubber apron,
but evenso it was like srandi.g for eighr hours ^ i^yunder
a l,rk"warm
blood-shower.At nighr Id go home sleiling of pig.It wouldn'r
go away.
Evenafter a hot barh,scrubbinshard, rh" srink *i,
,h..I _ like
old bacon,or sausage,
a densegreas/ pig-srink thar
soakeddeep into
rny ski'and hair.Arno.g ocherrhings,I rernernbecir was
tough g.rrirrg
datesrhar summer.I felr isolared;I spent a lor of cimealone.
A"; rhere
was also chardrafr norice tucked awayin my wallet.
In rhe eveningsId somerimesborrow my farher's car
and d,rive
aimlesslyaround rown, feelingsorry fo, *y.eli rhinking about
the war
and the pig factory and how rny life seemedro be collapring
slaughter.I felr paralyzed.All around me the oprions seemed
ro be
narrowing, as if I were hurrling down a huse black funnel,
rhe whole
world_squeezingin righr. Tlrere was no h"ppy way our. The
government had ended mosr graduareschool defermenrs;the wairing
iirt, fo,
rhe National Guard and Reserveswere impossiblylong; my
health was
solid; I didn't qualifyfor co srarus- no religiousgrounds,
no hisrory
as a pacifrst.Moreover, I could nor claim ro be c-rpposed,
war as a
matcer of generalprinciple. -fhere were occasions,i believed
, when a
nation wasjusrified in using nrilitary force to achieveirs end,s,
ro srop a
Hitler or some comparableevil, and I told myself thar in such
circumstancesI would've willingly marched off to rhe battle. The
though, was thar a draft board did not let you chooseyour
Beyond all this, or ar rhe very cenrer,was the raw fact of
terror. I
did nor wanr ro die. Not evcr.But certainlynor rhen, not
in a wrong war. Driving r-rpMain srreer, pasr rhe courrhouse
and che
Ben Franklin srore,I somecirnesfelr rh" i"a. spreadinginside
me like
weeds.I irnaginedmyself dead.I imagined myself doing things
I could
not do - charging an enemy position, caking aim at another
Ar somepoint in mid-July I beuanthinking seriouslyabout
Canada. 1o
f}e border lay a few hundred miles norrh, an eight-hour
drive. Boch
my conscienceand my insri'crs were telling ffre make
a break for
it, just rake off and run like hell and never srop. In the beginning
idea seemedpurely absrract,the word canada printing ir."f
o,rr ii -y
head;bur after a rime I could seeparricula.shap"sorrdl-"g"s,
rhe ror.y
details of rny own future - a horel room in ivinnip eg, a-battered
suitcase,rny fbrher'seyesas I rried ro explainmyself ou., ,h.
M o D E LT E X T SF o R w R r r E R S
I could almost hear his voice,and my morhers. Run, Id think. Then Id
think, Impossible.Then a secondlater Id think, Run.
It was a kind of schizophrenia.A moral split. I couldn't make up
my mind. Ifeared the war, yes,but I also fearedexile.I was afraid of
walking away from my own Iife, my friends and my family, my whole
history, everythingchat matceredto me. I fearedlosing the respecrof
my parents.I fearedthe law. I fearedridicule and censure.My hometown was a conservativelittle spot on the prairie, aplacewhere tradition
counted,and it was easyto imaginepeoplesitting around a rabledown
at the old Gobbler Caft on Main Streer,coffeecups poised,the conversation slowly zerorngin on the young O'Brien kid, how rhe damned
sissy had taken off for Canada. At night, when I couldn't sleep,Id
sometimes carryon 6erceargumentswith those people.I d be screaming at them, telling them how much I detestedtheir blind, thoughtless,
automatic acquiescence
to it aIl,their simple minded patriotism, their
prideful ignorance,their love-it-or-Ieave-itpladrudes,how they were
sendingme offto 6ght awar they didn't undersrandand didn't wanr ro
understand.I held them responsible.By God, yes,I did. AIlof rhem - I
held them personally and individually responsible- the polyestered
Kiwanis boys, the merchantsand farmers,the pious churchgoers,the
chatty housewives,the PTA and the Lions club and the Veteransof
Foreign Wars and the 6ne upstanding gentry our ar rhe country club.
Th.y didnt know Bao Dai from the man in the moon. Th"y didn't
know history. Th"y didn't know the 6rst thing about Diem's tyranny,
or the nature of Vietnamesenationalism,or the long colonialisrnof the
French- this was all too damned compli car.ed,
it required some readirg - but no matter, it was a war to stop the Communisrs, plain and
simple,which was how rhey liked things, and you were a rreasonous
pussy if you had secondthoughts abour killing or dying for plain and
simple reasons.
I was bitter, sure.But it was so much more than thar. The emotions
went from outrage to terror to bewilderment to guilt to sorrow and
then back againto outrage.I felt a sicknessinside me. Real disease.
Most of rhis I've rold before,or ar least hint ed ar,bur what I have
nevertold is the full rrurh. How I cracked.How at work one morning, standing on the pig line, I felr somerhingbreak open in my chest.
I don't know what it was. I'll neVerknow. Bur it was real, I know rhar
much, it was a physicalruprure - a cracking-leaking-popping
C)'lJrien * On the ll.ainy River
rememberdropping my wacergun. Quickly, ahnosrwirhout rhougl-rt,I
took offmy apron and walked our of rhe planr and drove home. Ir *",
midrnorr-ri'g I remember,and the housewas empry.Down in my chest
therewassrill rhat leakingsensarion,
somerhingverywarln and precious
spilling out, and I was .ou.r"d wirh blood ;rnd hog-stink,
for a
long while I just concentratedon holding myself rogetl-rer.
I rernernber
taking a hor shower.I remernberpacking a suitcaseand carryingir our
to the kitchen, standing very srill for a few rninures,looking carefully
at the familiar objectsall around rne.The old chrome roasrer,rhe telephone,the pink and whire Forrnicaon rhe kitchen counrers.The room
was full of brighr sunshine.Everythingsparkled.My hor_rse,
I thoughr.
My life. I'm nor sure how long I srood rhere,bur later I scribbledour a
short note to my parenrs.
whar ir said, exactIy,Idon'r recallnow. Somerhingvaglre.Taking oll
will call,love Tirn.
I drovenorth.
It's a blur now as ir was then, and all I rer'ernber is a senseof high
velocity and rhe feel of rhe steeringwheel in n-ryhands. I was ri.ling
on adrenaline.A giddy feeling,in a way,exceprrhere was rhc drcamy
edgeof impossibiliryro ir-like runnir-rga dead-enc-l
rnaze-no way
out - ir couldn'rcome to a happy conclusionand yet I was doing it
anyway becauseit was all I could rhink of ro do. Ir was pure llighr,
fast and mindless.I had no plan. Jusr hir rhe border at high .p""d
and crash rhrough and keep on running. Near dusk I passedrhrough
Bemidji, then rurned northeast toward L-rternarionalFalls.I .p..rr rt"
night in the car behind a closed-downgesstariona half mile from rfie
border.In rhe morning, afrergassing'p, I headedsrraighrwest along
the Rainy River,which separaresMinnesora frorn Canada,and which
for me separatedor-relife from another.The l:rnd was mosrly wilderness.
Here and thereI passeda morelor bait shop,but otherwiserhe counrry
unfolded in great sweepsof pine and birch and sumac.'lhough ir -a.,
still August, the air alreadyhad the smell of Ocrober,foorb"il season,
piles of yellow-redleaves,everyrhingcrisp and clean.I rernernbera huge
blue sky.off ro rny righr was the Rainy River,wide as a lake in places,
and beyond rhe Rainy fuver was Canada.
For a while I just drove, noc airning ar anything, rhen in rhe lare
morning I begar-r
looking for a placeto lie low for a day or rwo. I was
exhausted,and scaredsick,and around noon I pulled inro an old fishing resort calledthe Tip Top Lodge.Actually it was nor a lodge ar all,
just eight or nine tir-ryyellow cabinsch-rsrered
on a peninsulathar-jutted
northward into the Rainy River. The placewas in sorry shape.There
was a dangerouswooden dock, an old minnow rank, a flimsy tar paper
boarhousealong the shore.The main building, wl-richsrood in a cluster of pir-reson high ground, seemedro lean l'teavilyro one side,like a
cripple,rhe roof saggingroward Canada.Briefly,I rhoughr abour rurning around,jusr givingup, buc rhen I gor our oi rhe car and walked up
to the fronr porch.
The man who openedthe door rhar day is chehero of my life. How
do I say rhis withour sounding sappyi Blurr ir our - rhe man saved,
me. He ollered exactlywhat I needed,wirhour questions,withour any
words at all. He took me in. He was there ar rhe crirical cime- a silent,
watchful Presence.
Six dayslarer,when ir ended,I was r-rnable
ro find a
proper way ro rhank hirn, and I neverhave,and so, if norhing else,tfiis
story representsa small gesrureof gracicudetwenty yearsoverdue.
Even after two decadesI can closemy eyesand return ro that porch
at cheTip Top Lodge.I can seecheold guy sraringar me. Elroy Berdahl:
eighry-oneyearsold, skinny and shrunken and rnosrlybald. He wore a
Ilannelshirt and brown work pants.In one hand,I remernber,
he carried,
a greenapple,a small paring knife in the other. His eyeshad the bluish
graycolor of a razor blade,the sarnepolishedshine,and ashe peeredup
at me I felt a strangesharpness,almost painful, a curting sensarion,as
if his gazeweresomehowslicingme open.In parr,no doubr,ir was my
own senseof guilt, but evenso I'm absolutelycertainrhar rhe old man
took one look and went right to the hearr of rhings- a kid in rrouble.
When I askedfor a room, Elroy made a little clicking sound wich his
rongue.He nodded, led me our ro one of the cabins,and dropped a
key in my hand. I rernembersmiling ar him. I also rememberwishing I
hadn't.The old man shook his head as if to tell rne ir wasn'rworrh rhe
"Dinner ar five-thirryi'he said."you
I said.
Elroy grur-rredand said,"Illbet!'
we spenr six days rogerherar rlre Tip Top Lodge.
Jusr rhe rwo of us.
Tourist seasonwas over,and there were no boarson the river,and the
m On rhe Rainy River
wildernessseemedto withdraw into a greatpermanent stillness.Over
those six days Elroy Berdahl and I took most of our mealstogecher.In
the rnorningswe sornetimeswent out on long hikesinto the woods,and
at night we playedScrabbleor listenedto recordsor sat readingin front
of his big sconefireplace.At times I felt the awkwardnessof an incruder,
buc Elroy acceptedme into his quiet routine without fuss or ceremony.
He took my presencefor granted,the sameway he might've sheltered
a stray ca(.- no wasted sighs or pity - and there was never any talk
about it.Jusrthe opposite.Whar I remembermorc than anythingis the
man'swillful, almosrferocioussilence.Inall that time together,all those
hours, he never askedthe obvious questions:Why was I therei Why
alonei Why so preoccupiediIf Elroy was curiousabout anyof this, he
was carefulneverto put it into words.
My hunch, though, is that he alreadyknew.At leastthe basics.After
all,it was 1968,and guyswereburning draft cards,and Canadawasjust
a boar ride away.Elroy Berdahlwas no hick. His bedroom,I remember,
was clutteredwith books and newspapers.He killed me at the Scrabble
board, barely concentrating,and on those occasionswhen speechwas
necessaryhe had a way of compressingIargethoughts into small, cryptic packetsof language.One evening,just at sunset,he pointed up at an
owl circling over rhe violer-lightedforest to the west.
"H"y, O'Brien,"he said."There'sJesus."
The man was sharp- he didn't miss much. Those razor eyes.Now
and then hecl catch me staring out at the river,at the far shore,and I
could almosr hear rhe tumblers clicking in his head.Maybe I'm wrong,
but I doubt it.
One thing for certain,he knew I was in desperatetrouble.And he
even the right
knew I couldn't talk about it. The wrong word
word - and I would've disappeared.I was wired and jittery. My skin
felt too tight. After supperone eveningI 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 begansweatingand couldn'rshut
it ofl. I went through whole days feelingdizzy with sorrow.I couldn't
sleep;I couldn'r lie srill. At night I d ross around in bed, half awake,
half dreaming,imagining how Id sneakdown ro the beachand quietly
push one of the old man'sboatsour into the river and starr paddling my
way toward Canada.There were times when I thoughr Id gone offthe
psychicedge.I couldn't tellup from down, I wasjust falling and late in
the night Id, lie there watching weird pictr-rresspin rhrough nry l-read.
Getting chasedby the Border Patrol- hclicoptersand searchlighcs
and barkingdogs- IA be crashingthrough rhe woods,I d be down on
rny hands and knees- peopleshoutins our my name- rhe law closing in on all sides- my hornetown draft board and the FBI and the
Royal Canadian Mounted Police.it all seemedt^zy and irnpossible.
Twenty-oneyearsold, an ordinarykid with all the ordinarydreamsand
ambitions,an.1all I wanted was to live the life I was borr-rro - a mainstreamlfe- I lovedbaseballand harnburgcrsand cherryCokes- and
now I was offon the marginsof exile,leaving
my counrry forever,andit
seemedso impossibleand terrible and sad.
Iin not sure how I rnadeit rhrough those six days.Mosr of ir I can'c
remember,On two or three afternoons,to passsome time, I helped
Elroy get the place ready for winter, sweepingdown the cabins and
hauling in rhe boats,lirrle choresrhar kepr my body moving. The days
were cool and bright. The nights were very dark, One morning rhe old
man showed rne how to splicand stack firewoocl,and for severalhours
wejust worked in silenceor,rrbehind his house.Ar one poinc,I remcrnber, Elroy put down his maul and looked at rne for a long rime, his lips
drawn as if framing a difficult question,br-rtrhen he shook his head
and wenc back to work. Thc rnans sel{-controlwas antazing.He never
pried. He neverput me in a position that requiredlies or denials.To
an extent,I suppose,his rericencewas rypical of thar part of Minnesoca,where privacysdll held value,and even if I cl been walking around
- l'11 s111s
with some horrible defbrmity - four arms and three heac{s
the old man would'vetalked about everythingexceptthoseexrraarms
and heads.Simple politenesswas parr c-rfit. Bur even rrrorerhan that, I
think, the man understoodthat words wefe insufficient.The problem
had gone beyond discussion.Dtrring that long sun-unerI d been over
and over the variousargumenrs,all rhe pros and cons,and ir was no
longer a questionthat could be decidedby an act of pure reason.Intellect had come up againstemotion.My conscience
told rne ro run, bur
some irrational and powerful force was resistine like a weighr pr-rshing
me toward the war. What it came down to, srupidly,was a senseof
sharne.Hot, scupiclsharne.I did nor wanr peoplero rhink badly of me.
Not rny parents,not my brother and sister,not even rhe folks .lown ar
the Gobbler Cafe.I was ashamedto be rhere at ttre Tip Top Lodge. I
was asharnedof my conscience,
as[amed ro be doing the righr thing.
o On the Rainy River
Sorne of this Elroy must'veunderstood.Not the details,of course,
but the plain fact of crisis.
Although the old man neverconfronted me aboucit, there was one
occasionwhen he came closeto forcing the whole thing out into the
open.It was earlyevening,and wedjust finished supper,and over coffee
and dessertI askedhirn aboucrny bill, how much I owed so far. For a
long while the old man squinteddown at the tablecloth.
"We11,che basic rate','he said,"is fifty bucks a night. Not counting
rneals.This rnakesfour nighrs,righti"
I nodded. I had three hundred and twelvedollars in my wallet.
Elroy kept his eyeson the tablecloth."Now that'san on-seasonprice.
To be fair,I supposewe should knock it down apegor twol'He leaned
back in his chair."What'sa reasonablenumber,you figurei"
"I dont knowj'I said."Forty?"
"Forty's good. Forry a night. Tl-renwe tack on food - say another
hundredi Two hundred sixry cotali"
"I guessl'
He raisedhis eyebrows."Toomuchi"
"No, thar'sfair. Its fine.Tomorrow, rhough . . . I rhink Id betrer take
Elroy shruggedand began clearingrhe table. For a time he fussed
with the dishes,whistiing to himself as if the subjecthad been settled.
After a secondhe slappedhis hands together.
"You know what we forgoti" he said."We forgot wages.Those odd
jobs you done. What we have to do, we have to figure out what your
time'sworth. Your lastjob - how much did you pull in an houri"
"No[ enough,"I said.
bad one?"
"Yes.Pretty badi'
Slowly then, without intending any long sermon,I told him about
my days at the pig plant. It began as a straight recitation of the facts,
but before I could stop myself I was talking about the blood clots and
the water gun and how the smell had soakedinto my skin and how I
couldn't wash it away.I went on for a long rime. I told hirn about wild
hogs squealingin my dreams,the sounds of butchery,slaughterhouse
sounds,and how Id sometimeswake up with that greasypig-scink in
my throat.
When I was finished,Elroy nodded at me.
"we11, ro be honesri' he said, "when you firsCshowed up here, I
wondered about all chat. fhe aroma, I mean. Smelled like you was
awful {amned fond of pork chopsi' The old man almost smiled. He
mad"ea snuflling sound, then sar down wirh a pencil and a piece of
paper."Sowhard rhis crud job pay?Ten bucksan hour? Fifreeni"
" Les s i'
Elroy sl-rookhis head."Let's make it fifteen.You pur in twenty--{ive
hours 6ere,easy.Thar's three hundred seventy-fivebucks total wdges.
we subrracrrhe two hundred sixty for food and lodging,I still owe you
a hundred and 6fteen'
He took four fifties out of his shirt pocket and laid them on the
"Call it eveni'hesaid'
"Pick it up. Get YourseLfahaircur''
The mon-eylay on the table for the rest of the evening.It was still
rherewhen I went back to my cabin.In the morning, thorrgh,I found an
envelopetackedro my door. Inside were the four fifties and a two-word
nore rhar said EIr,4ERGENCY
lne l-ltan Knew.
Looking back afrer rwenry years,I sornetimeswonder if the eventsof
th"t ,,rl-er didn't happen in some other dimension, a place where
your life existsbeforeyou ve livedir, anclwhere it goesafterward.Nonc
of ir ever seernedreal.During nly titne at the Tip Top l.odge I had the
feeling that I d slipped out of my own skin, hovering a few feeraway
while sornepoor yo-yo with nry name and face tried to make his way
toward a furure he didnt understandand didn't want. Even now I can
seemyselfasI was then. It'slike watchingan old home movie: I'm young
and tan and fir. I've got hair -lots of it. I don't smoke or drink. I'm
wearingfadedbluejeans and a white polo shirt. I can seernyselfsitting
on Elroy Berdahls dock near dusk one evening,the sky a bright shimmering pink, and I'm finishingup a letrer lo. my Parentschat tells what
to do and why I'm doing it and how sorry I am thar I d never
found the courageto talk to thernabout it. I ask them not to be angry'
I rry to explainsomeof my feelings,but there aren'tenoughwords, and
so I just r"y th"r its a thing tharhas to be done.At the end of the letter
I talk abour the vacationswe usedto take up in this north country,at a
On the Rainy River
placecalledWhitefish Lake, and how the sceneryhere reminds me of
ihor. good times. I tell them I'm fine. I tell them I'11write agairtfrorn
Winnipeq or Montreal or whereverI end up.
On my lasr full day, rhe sixth d:ry,che old man took tne out fishing
on tlre Rainy River.The afiernoon was sunny and cold. A stiff^\reeze
came ir-rfrom the north, and I remember how the little fourteen-foot
boat made sharp rocking motions as we pushed ofl from the dock. The
current was fast.All around us, I remember,there was a vastnessto the
world, an unpeopledrawness,just the treesand the sky and the warer
reachingout toward nowhere.The air had the brirle scentof October'
For ten or fifteen minucesElroy held a courseuPstrealn,the river
tl-renhe turned straightnorth and put the engine
and silver-gray,
on fr-rllrhrotrle. I felt the borv lift benearhme. I rememberthe wind in
my ears,the sound of the old outboard Evinrude.For a time I didn't pay
arrention to anything,just feeling the cold sPrayagainst my face,but
then it occttrredto ffIe that at solnepoint we must ve passedinto Canadian waters,acrossthat dotted line betweentwo differencworlds, and I
remembera sudden cightnessin rny chest as I looked up and warched
the f'ar shore come at me. Tl-riswasnt a daydrearn.It was tangible and
real.As we came in toward land, Elroy cut the engitre,letting the boat
fishtail lightly about twenty yards off shore.The old man didn't iook at
me or speak.Bending down, he openedup his tacklebox and busied
hirnself with a bobber and a pieceof wire leader,hurnming to himselfl,
his eyesdown.
It struck lne then that he lnustve planned it. I'll neverbe certain,
of course,but I think he tneant to bring me uP againstthe realities,to
guide rne acrossthe river and to take me to the edgeand to stand a kind
of vigil as I chosea life for myself.
I remember staring ar the old man, rhen at my hands, then at
Canada.The shorelinewas densewith brush and tirnber. I could see
tiny red berrieson the bushes.I could seea squirrelup in one of the
birch trees,a big crow looking at me frorn a boulder along the river'
Thar close- rwenry yards- and I could seethe delicatelatticework
of the leaves,the texture of rhe soil, the browned needlesbeneath the
pines,the configurationsof geologyand human history.Twenty yards'
I could'vedone it. I could'vejurnped and startedswitnming for my life'
Inside me, in my chest,i felt a terrible squeezingPressure.Even now, as
I write this, I can scillfeelthat tightness.And I want you to feel ic - the
wind coming off the river, the waves,the silence,the wooded frontier.
You'reat the bow of a boat on the Rainy fuver.You'retwenty-one years
old, you'rescared,and there'sa hard squeezingPressurein your chest.
What would you do?
Would you jumpi Would you feel pity for yourselfi Would you
rhink about your farnily and your childhood and your dreams and all
behindi Would it hurt? Would it feel like dyingi Would
you re leavir-rg
you cry,as I did?
I tried to swallowit back.I tried to smile,excePtI was crying.
you can understand why I've never told this story
Now perl-raps,
the embarrassffIentof tears.That's part of it, no
doubt, but what embarrasseslne rnuch rrore, and alwayswill, is the
A moral freeze:I couldn't decide,I couldn't
paralysisthat took rny l-reart.
act,I couldn'tcorxport rnyselfwith evena Pretenseof modest human
A11I could do was cry.Quietly, not bawling,just the chest-chokes.
At the rear of tl-reboar Elroy Berdahl pretended not to notice. He
held a fishing rod in his hands,his head bowed to hide his eyes.He
kept l-rumminga soft, monotonous little tune. Everywhere,it seemed,
in the treesand water and sky,a greatworldwide sadnesscame pressing
down on me, a crushingsorrow,sorrow like I had neverknown it before.
And what was so sad,I reahzed,was that Canada had becomea pidful
fantasy. Silly and hopeless.It was no longer a possibiliry.Right then,
with the shoreso close,I understoodthat I would not do what I should
do.I would not swim awayfrorn rny hometown and my country and my
life. I would not be brave.That old imageof rnyself as a hero, as a man
of conscienceand courage,all that was just a threadbarepipe dream'
Bobbing there on the Rainy River,looking back at the Minnesota shore,
comeovcr mc, a drowning sensation,
I felt a suddenswellof helplessness
as if I had toppled overboardand was being swePt away by the silver
waves.Chunks of my own history {lashedby. I saw a seven-year-oldboy
in a white cowboy hat and a Lone Rangermask and a pair of holstered
six-shooters;I saw a twelve'year'oldLittle League shortstop pivoting
to turn a double play; I saw a six[een-year-oldkid decked out for his
first prom, looking.pifry in a white tux and a black bow tie, his hair cut
shorr and flat, his shoesfreshlypolished.My whole life seemedto spill
out into the river, swirling away fr0in me, everything I had ever been
* On the l{ainY River
or ever wanted to be. I couldn't ger my breath; I couldnt stay afloat;
couldnt tell which way to swim. A hallucination,I suppose,but it
as real as anyrhing i would
from rhe faruhorii.,". I saw rny brother and
the rnayorand the entire Chamber of Commerceanclall n-ryold teachgirlfriends and high schoolbuddies.Like some weird sPorting
evenr:.ri.rybody ,.r"arrrir-rgfrotn the sidelines,rooting me on a
stadium roar. Hotdogs and PoPcorn stadium
A squad of cheerle"d"r, did carrwheelsalong the banks of the Rainy
R.iver;they had megaphonesand pompoms and smooth brown thighs.
righr. A marching band playedfight songs.
The crowd swayedl"i,
All my aunrs and uncleswere there,and Abraharn Lincoln, and Saint
George,and a nine,year-oldgirl namedLinda who had cliedof a
,tl-o-l. back in fifth grade,and severalmembers pf the United States
Senate,and a blind plet scribblingnores,and LBJ, and Huck Finn,
Abbie Hoffman, ar",J rhe dead soldiersback
many rhousandswho were later to die villagerswith terrible
little kids withour arms or legs- Yes,and tl-reJointChiefs of Staffwere
there,ancla coupleof popes,and a 6rst lieutenantnanledJimrny Cross,
and rhe last survivi,',gu.t"r"n of the Ame rican Civil War, andJane
dressedup as Barbarella,and an old man sprawledbesidea pigpen,
rny grandfather,and Gary Cooper, and a kind-faced woman cxrying
and a rnillion ferociousciti.r*br"lla and a copy of Plato'sRepublic,
shapesand colors peoplein hard hats,people
zenswaving flagsof
in headbands- they were all wl-roopingand chanting end urging
toward one shore or the otl-rer.I saw facesfrom rny c-listantpast
distanr future. My wife was rhere.
and my rwo sons hopped up and down, and a
Blyton sneeredand shot up a frngerand shook his l-read.There was
choir in brighr purple robes.There was a cabbiefrom the Bronx.
was a slim young man I would one
red claytrail outsidethe villageof My Khe'
The litrle aluminum boat rocked softly beneathme. There was the
wind and the sky.
I tried to will mYselfoverboard.
I gripped rhe edge of rhe boat and leaned forward and thought,
I did try. It just wasn'tPossible.
A11 those eyes on me - the rown, the whole universe- and I
couldn'crisk cheembarrassment.
ft was as if therewere an audiencero
my Iife,that swirl of facesalong rhe river, and in my head I could hear
people screarringat me. Traitor! they yelled.Turncoar! Pussy! I felt
myself blush. I couldn't rolerare it. I couldn'r endure the mockery,or
the disgrace,or the parrioricridicule. Even in my imagination,the shore
just twenry yards away,Icouldn'r make myself be brave.Ir had norhing
to do with n-rorality.Embarrassmenr,thar'sall ir was.
And right chenI submitred.
I would go ro the war - I would kill and maybe die - becauseI w:rs
embarrassednot ro.
That was the sad thing. And so I sar in rhe bow of rhe boat and
It was loud now. Loud, hard crying.
Elroy Berdahl remai'ed quier. He kepr fishing. He worked his line
with rhe tips of his fingers, pariently,squinring our ar his red and whice
bobber on rhe Rainy River.His eyes were flat and irnpassive.He didn't
speak. He was sirnply rhere, like rhe river and the late-sLrmlnersun.
And yet by his presence,his mure warchfulness,he made ir real. He
wasthe true audience.He was a wirness,likeGod, or like the gods,who
look on in absolutesilenceas we live our lives,as we make our choices
or fail to rnake thern.
bitingi' he said.
Then afrcra time the old rnan pr-rlledin his line and turned rhe boat
back toward Minnesota.
I don't remember saying goodbye. Thar lasr nighr we had .linner
together,and I went to bed early,and in rhe morning Elroy fixed breakfascfor rne.When I rold him Id be leaving,rhe old rnan nodded as if he
alreadyknew. He looked down at the table and smiled.
At some point later in the morning ir's possible thar we shook
hands - I j u s t d o n ' t re m e m b e r-b u r I do know rhat by rhe ti me Id
finished packing the oid man had disappeared.Around noon, whe' I
took my suircaseour ro rhe car,I noticed rhar his old black pickup truck
was no longer parked in front of the house.I went inside and waired for
a while, bur I fek a bone cerr.ainrythar he wouldn'r be back. In a way,I
thought, it was appropriate.I washed up rhe breakfasr dishes,lefr his
* O n r h e R : r i r . r yR i v e r
two hundred dollars on the kitchen counter,got into the car,and drove
south toward home.
The day was cloudy.I passedthrough towns with familiar names,
tlrrough the pine forestsand down to the Pralrre,and rhen to Vietnam'
wlrere I was a soldier,and then home again,I survived,but it's not a
hrppy ending.I was a coward.I went to the war'

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