O'Brien says the story he is about to tell is one he has never told to anyone out of embarrassment for himself and his family. He's lived with the shame for over twenty years. He hopes that by writing it, he'll alleviate some of that shame.
By this introduction we're led to believe that this is going to be a gruesome, terrible story of actions O'Brien committed in the war.
O'Brien says that he's sure all of us would like to think that there's a reserve within us ready for "a moral emergency" that will allow us to be heroes. He admits he used to think that was the case in the summer of 1968.
As O'Brien continues, though, we see that this story might not be about something he's done, but rather something he did not do.
A month after O'Brien graduated from Macalester College in June of 1968 he was drafted to fight in Vietnam. He says he hated the war, even though he was twenty-one and politically naïve. America was divided on all of the issues, and the only agreement was "moral confusion." It was, and still is, his view that "you don't make war without knowing why." There needs to be a reason when people are going to die.
The draft is another form of social obligation—it's a legal obligation, it's an obligation with the might of the government behind it, and it meant that O'Brien couldn't just choose whether or not he agreed with the war. He had to just go and fight and face death for reasons he, and the country, couldn't even understand.
The draft notice came on June 17, 1968. O'Brien read the first few lines of the letter and remembers thinking he was too good, too compassionate, to be drafted. He had a full-ride scholarship to go to Harvard for graduate school. He believed someone had made a mistake. He hated camping, blood made him nauseous, he didn't know anything about guns. He was a liberal, and wondered why they weren't drafting some right-wing country-boy, or LBJ's daughters, or General Westmoreland's family. He thought there should be a law that if you support a war, you have to sacrifice your own blood and you have to bring the whole family.
No one was "too good" for the draft. O'Brien's belief that there should have been a law forcing the politicians and those who supported the war to put their own families on the front lines indicates his conviction that the war may not have been fought if those supporting it had to actually fight in it, and is also darkly comic as the first three stories of the collection make it clear that war is such a lawless space—no law can save you.
He worked that summer in a meat packing plant in his hometown of Worthington, Minnesota on an assembly line taking out blood clots from dead pigs' necks. He couldn't get dates that summer. He felt isolated. He kept the draft notice in his wallet.
With the draft notice looming, O'Brien spends his days surrounded by death, stinking of death. This separated him from the society he was being drafted to protect.
At night, O'Brien would borrow his father's car and go on drives. He felt like he was paralyzed and he had run out of options. Just disagreeing with the war was not enough to be exempt from the draft. He believed there were times when a nation was justified in going to war, against figures like Hitler, and he would have gone to war willingly.
O'Brien exhausted every avenue to escape the draft, but he was trapped. The draft took away any agency he had to choose whether or not to put his life on the line for his country.
In mid-July O'Brien starts to seriously consider fleeing to Canada, only a few hundred miles north. Initially, the idea seemed like a vague prospect, but as his options ran out he could imagine doing it. He was afraid of leaving his entire life, losing his parents' respect. He was afraid of being criminally prosecuted. He was afraid of being ridiculed. His hometown was conservative and he imagined everyone talking about how he had been the one that fled. O'Brien blames his hometown for their ignorant support of the war, which is sending him to Vietnam.
O'Brien does not want to die in the war he doesn't believe in but has been obligated to join, but he can't reconcile between his mortal fear and the shame and guilt he would feel for fleeing the draft and disgracing his family and his name as well as the fear of exile and prosecution.
Finally, O'Brien cracks—and this is the part of the story he's never told before. He leaves work one morning, drives home to his parents' empty house, and writes a short note to his parents. He can't remember what he wrote. He drives North towards Canada. He spends the first night in his car behind a closed gas station a half-mile from the border. When he wakes, he goes west along the Rainy River, which separates Canada and Minnesota.
O'Brien soaks in the last of what he thinks then is his "old life." Note how O'Brien drives right up to the border, but then instead of crossing drives right along it. He can't bring himself to cross-he's paralyzed.
O'Brien looks for a place to lie low for a couple of days and settles on the Tip Top Lodge. There he meets Elroy Berdahl, the owner, a man O'Brien claims is the "hero of his life." He gave O'Brien what he needed without asking questions and let him stay for six days. O'Brien says he hopes this story is a small way of saying thank you, because he never knew how to say thank you then. O'Brien was certain that Elroy knew why he was there.
The act of writing this story as a "gesture of gratitude" shows the power of stories for O'Brien—they can offer thanks and redemption, they can say the things that can't be said directly.
For six days it was just the two of them in the entire Lodge because tourist season was over. They spent all their time together: hiking, working, playing Scrabble. O'Brien remembers Elroy's deliberate silence—he never asked questions about why O'Brien was there even though it was 1968 and young men all over the country were burning draft cards.
By not asking questions Elroy offered O'Brien a place free of social obligation and judgment.
O'Brien admits he can't remember most of the six days that he spent at the Tip Top Lodge. He helped Elroy prepare the Lodge for winter. One morning Elroy showed him how to split firewood and they spent hours doing that in silence. During this Elroy looked as though he was close to asking O'Brien a question, but he restrained himself. O'Brien was ashamed to be at the Lodge, ashamed of his conscience, and ashamed "to be doing the right thing."
O'Brien knows that Elroy has figured out why he's there. Even though O'Brien believes he's doing the "right thing" – which would be fleeing the States and not fighting in a war he despised – he can't shake the shame that he would bring to himself and his family for what they would see as his lack of bravery, patriotism, and courage.
One night at dinner the subject of payment comes up. Elroy cuts down the price, but then factors in the work O'Brien did around the lodge and concludes that he actually owes O'Brien $115s. Then he tries to give O'Brien $200. O'Brien refuses the money, but in the morning the money is in an envelope tacked to O'Brien's door saying "Emergency Fund."
Elroy's constant renegotiation of the price illustrates how much he can see O'Brien's desperation. He finds a way to give O'Brien money to help him run to Canada without saying that's what he's doing.
On O'Brien's last and sixth day with Elroy they go out fishing on the Rainy River. Elroy turns the boat directly north and they cross into Canadian waters. O'Brien felt a tightness in his chest when he could see the shore. Canada had become real. Elroy turned off the engine and didn't say a word and started fishing. O'Brien thought then that Elroy must have planned this, though he can't ever know for sure.
O'Brien's suspicion that Elroy planned this made O'Brien think that Elroy wanted to give him the opportunity to face head on the choice to flee—whatever his choice was going to be, to finally make it. Elroy forces O'Brien to look that choice in the face, to make it real and inescapable.
They were floating twenty yards from Canadian land. O'Brien could have jumped and swam for his life. But he felt a "terrible squeezing pressure" in his chest, and he writes that he wants the reader to feel it too, and asks the reader, what would you have done? O'Brien is ashamed of this event in his life because he began to cry, but also because he experienced a "moral freeze."
O'Brien wants this moral quandary not to exist in the past, but to be a present question, an active engagement with the reader and what they would do. He wants the reader to face it the way Elroy made him face it. The shame doesn't come just from what O'Brien sees a failure of masculinity or bravery, but of moral action.
O'Brien realizes that Canada has always been a "pitiful fantasy." With the land in sight, he knew that he was going to do what he should. He would not swim to shore. O'Brien sees his life history flash before his eyes and sees, in a kind of hallucination, people he knew and would know in the future, like his family, Linda, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, his wife, his unborn daughter, his two sons, and the young man he killed outside My Khe. O'Brien tries to jump into the water, but can't. In his vision he can hear people calling him a traitor. He says it wasn't morals that kept him in the boat, it was just embarrassment. It was then he knew he was going to war, where he would kill and potentially die, because he was too embarrassed not to. Elroy comments that the fish aren't biting, and turns the boat around.
O'Brien's moment of realization is not rooted in what he believes is the "right" thing to do, but the thing society wants him to do and his inability to stand up to that expectation. The vision personifies his shame, his inability to withstand what others will think of him, and the responsibility to meet social obligations. The force of his imagination, and the power of the embarrassment this brought upon him, convince him that it's worth risking death and killing others just to avoid shame.
O'Brien can't recall telling Elroy goodbye. O'Brien told Elroy he would be leaving, and Elroy nodded like he knew. Later in the morning, Elroy disappeared. O'Brien went inside to wait, but he felt certain that Elroy wouldn't come back. O'Brien left the envelope of money on the counter, got in his car, and drove home. O'Brien remembers that the day he drove home it was cloudy. He recognized the names of towns he passed through, then it was forests and prairie and then Vietnam, where he was a soldier. Then he was home. He says though he survived "it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war."
Elroy's absence is fitting, because it's his silence that is so comforting to O'Brien. The ending of the story defies the conventions of a "happy" ending: O'Brien survives—we would expect that to be enough. But because his decision to go to war was motivated by shame, he doesn't see himself as a war hero, just a coward who gave in to social pressures.