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
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 worldwide 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.
Bobbing there on the Rainy River, looking back at the Minnesota shore, I
felt a sudden swell of helplessness come over me, a drowning sensation,
as if I had toppled overboard and was being swept away by the silver
waves. Chunks of my own history flashed by. I saw a seven-year-old boy
in a white cowboy hat and a Lone Ranger mask and a pair of holstered
six-shooters; I saw a twelve-year-old Little League shortstop pivoting to
turn a double play; I saw a sixteen-year-old kid decked out for his first
prom, looking spiffy in a white tux and a black bow tie, his hair cut short
and flat, his shoes freshly polished. My whole life seemed to spill out into
the river, swirling away from me, everything I had ever been or ever
wanted to be. I couldn't get my breath; I couldn't stay afloat; I couldn't
tell which way to swim. A hallucination, I suppose, but it was as real as
anything I would ever feel. I saw my parents calling to me from the far
shoreline. I saw my brother and sister, all the townsfolk, the mayor and
the entire Chamber of Commerce and all my old teachers and girlfriends
and high school buddies. Like some weird sporting event: everybody
screaming from the sidelines, rooting me on—a loud stadium roar.
Hotdogs and popcorn—stadium smells, stadium heat. A squad of
cheerleaders did cartwheels along the banks of the Rainy River; they had
megaphones and pompoms and smooth brown thighs. The crowd
swayed left and right. A marching band played fight songs. All my aunts
and uncles were there, and Abraham Lincoln, and Saint George, and a
nine-year-old girl named Linda who had died of a brain tumor back in
fifth grade, and several members of the United States Senate, and a blind
poet scribbling notes, and LBJ, and Huck Finn, and Abbie Hoffman, and
all the dead soldiers back from the grave, and the many thousands who
were later to die—villagers with terrible burns, little kids without arms or
legs—yes, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were there, and a couple of popes,
and a first lieutenant named Jimmy Cross, and the last surviving veteran
of the American Civil War, and Jane Fonda dressed up as Barbarella, and
an old man sprawled beside a pigpen, and my grandfather, and Gary
Cooper, and a kind-faced woman carrying an umbrella and a copy of
Plato's Republic, and a million ferocious citizens waving flags of all
shapes and colors—people in hard hats, people in headbands—they were
all whooping and chanting and urging me toward one shore or the other.
I saw faces from my distant past and distant future. My wife was there.
My unborn daughter waved at me, and my two sons hopped up and
down, and a drill sergeant named Blyton sneered and shot up a finger
and shook his head. There was a choir in bright purple robes. There was
a cabbie from the Bronx. There was a slim young man I would one day
kill with a hand grenade along a red clay trail outside the village of My
The little aluminum boat rocked softly beneath me. There was the
wind and the sky.
I tried to will myself overboard.
I gripped the edge of the boat and leaned forward and thought, Now.
I did try. It just wasn't possible.
All those eyes on me—the town, the whole universe—and I couldn't
risk the embarrassment. 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! Pussy! 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.
That was the sad thing. And so I sat in the bow of the boat and cried.
It was loud now. Loud, hard crying.
Elroy Berdahl remained quiet. He kept fishing. He worked his line
with the tips of his fingers, patiently, squinting out at his red and white
bobber on the Rainy River. His eyes were flat and impassive. He didn't
speak. He was simply there, like the river and the late-summer sun. And
yet by his presence, his mute watchfulness, he made it real. He was the
true audience. He was a witness, like God, or like the gods, who look on
in absolute silence as we live our lives, as we make our choices or fail to
"Ain't biting," he said.
Then after a time the old man pulled in his line and turned the boat
back toward Minnesota.
I don't remember saying goodbye. That last night we had dinner
together, and I went to bed early, and in the morning Elroy fixed
breakfast for me. When I told him I'd be leaving, the old man nodded as
if he already knew. He looked down at the table and smiled.
At some point later in the morning it's possible that we shook hands—I
just don't remember—but I do know that by the time I'd finished packing
the old man had disappeared. 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
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.
One morning in late July, while we were out on patrol near LZ Gator,
Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen got into a fistfight. It was about something
stupid—a missing jackknife—but even so the fight was vicious. For a
while it went back and forth, but Dave Jensen was much bigger and
much stronger, and eventually he wrapped an arm around Strunk's neck
and pinned him down and kept hitting him on the nose. He hit him hard.
And he didn't stop. Strunk's nose made a sharp snapping sound, like a
firecracker, but even then Jensen kept hitting him, over and over, quick
stiff punches that did not miss. It took three of us to pull him off. When it
was over, Strunk had to be choppered back to the rear, where he had his
nose looked after, and two days later he rejoined us wearing a metal
splint and lots of gauze.
In any other circumstance it might've ended there. But this was
Vietnam, where guys carried guns, and Dave Jensen started to worry. It
was mostly in his head. There were no threats, no vows of revenge, just a
silent tension between them that made Jensen take special precautions.
On patrol he was careful to keep track of Strunk's whereabouts. He dug
his foxholes on the far side of the perimeter; he kept his back covered; he
avoided situations that might put the two of them alone together.
Eventually, after a week of this, the strain began to create problems.
Jensen couldn't relax. Like fighting two different wars, he said. No safe
ground: enemies everywhere. No front or rear. At night he had trouble
sleeping—a skittish feeling—always on guard, hearing strange noises in
the dark, imagining a grenade rolling into his foxhole or the tickle of a
knife against his ear. The distinction between good guys and bad guys
disappeared for him. Even in times of relative safety, while the rest of us
took it easy, Jensen would be sitting with his back against a stone wall,
weapon across his knees, watching Lee Strunk with quick, nervous eyes.
It got to the point finally where he lost control. Something must've
snapped. One afternoon he began firing his weapon into the air, yelling
Strunk's name, just firing and yelling, and it didn't stop until he'd rattled
off an entire magazine of ammunition. We were all flat on the ground.
Nobody had the nerve to go near him. Jensen started to reload, but then
suddenly he sat down and held his head in his arms and wouldn't move.
For two or three hours he simply sat there.
But that wasn't the bizarre part.
Because late that same night he borrowed a pistol, gripped it by the
barrel, and used it like a hammer to break his own nose.
Afterward, he crossed the perimeter to Lee Strunk's foxhole. He
showed him what he'd done and asked if everything was square between
Strunk nodded and said, Sure, things were square.
But in the morning Lee Strunk couldn't stop laughing. "The man's
crazy," he said. "I stole his fucking jackknife."
Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk did not become instant buddies, but they
did learn to trust each other. Over the next month they often teamed up
on ambushes. They covered each other on patrol, shared a foxhole, took
turns pulling guard at night. In late August they made a pact that if one
of them should ever get totally rucked up—a wheelchair wound—the
other guy would automatically find a way to end it. As far as I could tell
they were serious. They drew it up on paper, signing their names and
asking a couple of guys to act as witnesses. And then in October Lee
Strunk stepped on a rigged mortar round. It took off his right leg at the
knee. He managed a funny little half step, like a hop, then he tilted
sideways and dropped. "Oh, damn," he said. For a while he kept on
saying it, "Damn oh damn," as if he'd stubbed a toe. Then he panicked.
He tried to get up and run, but there was nothing left to run on. He fell
hard. The stump of his right leg was twitching. There were slivers of
bone, and the blood came in quick spurts like water from a pump. He
seemed bewildered. He reached down as if to massage his missing leg,
then he passed out, and Rat Kiley put on a tourniquet and administered
morphine and ran plasma into him.
There was nothing much anybody could do except wait for the dustoff.
After we'd secured an LZ, Dave Jensen went over and kneeled at Strunk's
side. The stump had stopped twitching now. For a time there was some
question as to whether Strunk was still alive, but then he opened his eyes
and looked up at Dave Jensen. "Oh, Jesus," he said, and moaned, and
tried to slide away and said, "Jesus, man, don't kill me."
"Relax," Jensen said.
Lee Strunk seemed groggy and confused. He lay still for a second and
then motioned toward his leg. "Really, it's not so bad, Not terrible. Hey,
really—they can sew it back on—really."
"Right, I'll bet they can."
"Sure I do."
Strunk frowned at the sky. He passed out again, then woke up and
said, "Don't kill me."
"I won't," Jensen said.
"But you got to promise. Swear it to me—swear you won't kill me."
Jensen nodded and said, "I swear," and then a little later we carried
Strunk to the dustoff chopper. Jensen reached out and touched the good
leg. "Go on now," he said. Later we heard that Strunk died somewhere
over Chu Lai, which seemed to relieve Dave Jensen of an enormous
How to Tell a True War Story
This is true.
I had a buddy in Vietnam. His name was Bob Kiley, but everybody
called him Rat.
A friend of his gets killed, so about a week later Rat sits down and
writes a letter to the guy's sister. Rat tells her what a great brother she
had, how together the guy was, a number one pal and comrade. A real
soldier's soldier, Rat says. Then he tells a few stories to make the point,
how her brother would always volunteer for stuff nobody else would
volunteer for in a million years, dangerous stuff, like doing recon or
going out on these really badass night patrols. Stainless steel balls, Rat
tells her. The guy was a little crazy, for sure, but crazy in a good way, a
real daredevil, because he liked the challenge of it, he liked testing
himself, just man against gook. A great, great guy, Rat says.
Anyway, it's a terrific letter, very personal and touching. Rat almost
bawls writing it. He gets all teary telling about the good times they had
together, how her brother made the war seem almost fun, always raising
hell and lighting up villes and bringing smoke to bear every which way. A
great sense of humor, too. Like the time at this river when he went
fishing with a whole damn crate of hand grenades. Probably the funniest
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