The Things They Carried, the Viet Nam War related book by Tim O’Brien, is once again the focus of community reflection. Chosen as Missoula’s Big Read of 2014, he will appear on October 28th, 2014 as part of the University of Montana’s President’s Lecture Series. He will speak about his book and the process of writing about war.
Date: Tuesday, October 28th. 8:00 pm-10:00 pm
Location: Dennison Theatre, University of Montana, Missoula.
Tim O’Brien appeared in Kalispell, Montana in the fall of 2010, as author of the Big Read 2010 in that city. The following are my reflections on that occasion.
Viet Nam is a long way from Missoula, Montana, but I remember. I remember those nights in the mid-nineteen sixties watching nightly newscasts with body bags stacked neatly ready for repatriation, and grainy film footage of young men dressed in muddy camo, leaves and twigs stuck in the top strap of their round helmets, marching through jungle and paddy fields, carrying M-16s. I remember a campaign to send ditty bags with socks, candy, drink mix, and a good read to soldiers far away, who might send you a thank you letter if you inscribed your name and address on the inside cover. They were lonely and so far away from home. I, at home, imagined their anguish and felt my confusion about a war that was not carefully defined, growing deadlier every month. The young man from my church, shot down in his fighter jet, missing. MIA for 15 years.
I remember the iconic image of the young Vietnamese girl, naked, skin burning from napalm, standing in the road, crying, afire. Napalm our planes dropped— collateral damage we would name it now. Fellow students protested, marched down the freeway in Seattle, invaded college offices, held sit-ins, protested. I watched from the sidelines, always balancing the viewpoints. One day I bought a southern-accented soldier-boy from Georgia, poised to depart from Ft. Lewis for Nam, a meal in downtown Tacoma, and wondered if he came back in one piece, or at all. It was 1969.
Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried was one of those soldiers. O’Brien, a diminutive man of 64 now, speaks again of the stories he wrote and the truth he morphed into fiction, as the headliner for the Big Read in Kalispell in 2010. He speaks of the line between truth and fiction, of actualities and imaginings, of feelings and realities. He has a soft voice, wears an orange baseball cap that reads Hiram College, with a long bill, as if to protect him from the looks the audience give as they remember that time. Speaking to a room packed — with veterans, adults over 50 from the communities surrounding Kalispell, students and news reporters– he is introduced and the room falls deadly silent. No one drops a pin, or wiggles or coughs during his hour on stage, all ears straining to find meaning in his words, his gestures, his emotions.
He begins by reading one of the shortest stories in the book — The Ambush. It is a haunting tale of fear, surprise and the reflexive killing of a young enemy soldier, on a jungle pathway, by one member of a U.S. Army ambush patrol. O’Brien reads the story slowly, his voice betraying a time when he could have been the soldier, confused hiding in the brush, peering though fog, watching for the ghost enemy. It was silent that morning, and a figure emerged wearing black clothing, rubber sandals, a gray ammunition belt, shoulders slightly stooped, his head cocked to the side as if listening. The young US soldier automatically pulls the pin on three grenades, swallows to keep the rising bile from rising in his throat, and throws a grenade “just to make him go away” to “evaporate him”, to quell the immense fear he feels. The enemy soldier falls, a star-shaped hole where an eye used to be, his right leg crumpled beneath him.
Most of the audience knows the story, you can tell. Faces around me nod remembering. Perhaps they don’t remember that the killing is repeated, slight variations in the telling, but always the same dead Vietcong soldier, in four of the stories within chapters of the book. Each time it is framed from a slightly different angle of view or character perspective. The story matters enough to keep reframing it, re-examining it, considering if the outcome was just. Tim O’Brien has not decided, it implies. Then he speaks of the surprise. “The story,” O’Brien says, “is fiction.” He did not kill that soldier– but he also says it happened.The line between truth and fiction seems to merge.Tim goes a little fuzzy.
I squirm in my seat and reach into the bag I carried to the lecture. It contains a wallet, keys, Kleenex, lip balm, glasses, a camera, my copy of The Things They Carried, two pens, a motel room key, two automatic pencils, a gas receipt, photos of my children, a pony tail band, a rubber band, toothpaste, toothbrush. My list is not the same as the soldiers in O’Brien’s first story, the namesake of the book, but the purpose is the same. We carry what we need to survive where we are.
His soldiers carried letters from home, P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellant, chewing gum, lighters, matches, sewing kits, salt tabs, candy, hotel-sized bars of soap, bandages, bibles, Dr. School’s foot powder. The lists continue and weights are revealed, the items ranging from the light necessities for survival—including personal talismans— rabbit’s feet, lucky coins, an old hunting hatchet, dope, to 6.7 pound flak jackets, .45-caliber pistols at 2.9 pounds, an M-16 for the machine gunner Henry Dobson at 23 pounds unloaded. The lists go on and on, specified, explained, identified by rank or position within the company. Tim O’Brien remembers, and the audience nods.
The reading finished, he offers to take questions. The audience is tentative, for he has bound us in his spell. Finally a hand is raised, and he takes the question, again probing the veracity of another story; is it truth or fiction the middle-aged man wants to know? Tim—we all feel that is his name, not Mr. O’Brien for he exudes no excess pride or confidence—begins another story, with a recitation of life in those years. Drafted to an unpopular war, he spent the summer of ’68 weighing his possibilities. I recognize where he is leading us, to a favorite story of mine, immediately glad I have driven over one hundred miles to see the man who impacted my memories of the Vietnam War.
In the chapter On the Rainy River, he wrote he spent the summer of ’68 working in an abattoir, standing eight hours a day disassembling heads from the necks of dead pigs. He felt paralyzed by the thought of what was coming—where he would be going— at the end of the summer. Viet Nam. More killing he feared. He had already had enough. He wrote that one mid-summer day he snapped, right there on the line. He took off his apron, left the plant and went home; wrote his parents a vague note, hopped into his car and drove north towards Canada, not all that far from his home in Worthington, Minnesota. He headed for the Canadian border, along the Rainy River, which separates Minnesota from Canada, looking for a place to “lie low” for a few days while he considered. What was at stake? Whether he would flee north to Canada and loose his homeland, his family, his national identity. The price of safety. He spins the tale, back and forth, considering and reconsidering until in the end he cannot flee. As O’Brien tells it, “I was a coward. I went to war.”
But the truth he tells us now is that he spent that last summer playing golf and thinking hard about what lay before him, scared and considering, then shrugging and going. “It was easier than running,” he says. But he will also tell you it is impossible to run from the memories, the smells, the images, the sounds. He carried them all home.
O’Brien takes another question. The man wants to know whether the baby water buffalo story is true. “No,” he replies, “but here is what is true. One day we came across a full-grown water buffalo in a paddy. We had been running ambushes and humping our gear for maybe a week. Intel told us there were insurgents in a village, and there were none. They had moved out ahead of us. We were frustrated. That buffalo was a symbol of everything wrong, so someone started taking pot shots at the beast. Not to kill it, just to wound it. Make it bleed, make it feel pain. Others joined in, and we shot that thing over and over. We did not kill it.” “There is a difference between story truth and actual truth,” he continues, “truth changes, truth evolves. The book is true to my emotions, but not specifically true. This book is meant to combat that ‘truth issue’, he says, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
The audience is quiet. Considering. Respectful. Even the young know this is important. O’Brien changes tactics. He wants to read from his recent work, his “most important work,” he says. He reads a portion from his unfinished new book, and it is about his sons and fatherhood. His boys are 3 and 7; the stories are anecdotes of their lives. He is feeling his mortality approaching, and has found redemption from all the war memories and a new joy in living with children. He is devoted, doting, enamored—this is clear. He regrets waiting so long for family, and tells us tearfully that he knows his years with them, according to actuarial tables, are limited. “Life is fragile, hearts go still,” he says. “I see myself, the Tim who himself was once a Timmy,” he continues, “a man is what he yearns for.”
He expresses regret that his life consisted of novels, stories, etc. before sons. “A fathers’ chief duty is to be present,” he says. Concluding his presentation he leaves us with the words, “The story is greater than the truth, and not such a great story.”
The audience remains still, thinking, then begins to clap. They rise slowly, as if leaving church respectfully, the Church of Tim O’Brien. He will sign books, and some of the 940 copies of The Things They Carried, given away free this week, are in the hands of the audience members. A line forms. My friend and I consider the long line, the value of a signature, and whether it captures anything of the man. I want a photograph, a more tangible reminder of what he looks like, feeling that will cement him in my memory. A concrete, visual connection I can place in my copy of the book, and take out each time I reread the stories. Because I am still wondering about that war that shaped a generation of my peers. I am remembering those I knew that did not return, whose names are on the running low granite wall in D.C.
When O’Brien dashes out of the room, with an “I’ll be right back,” we make our move to the lobby. Where ever he is going he will be back— I ready my camera, school my friend in its workings, and lie in wait, patiently in ambush mode. We see him coming, smile and ask if he will let us take his photo as his book has meant so much to us. He smiles. “Sure, of course,” he says and poses next to me. Snap, snap. It is done. He walks back to the line of autograph seekers.
As we step into the clear, star-studded night, I think The Things They Carried has meaning for us all. We carry our memories too— the truth and the fictions and the blurred memories between.
Category: Indie It Books