It is August, and Paul Berlin’s platoon travels to Chu Lai for a “stand-down” that will last one week. The soldiers relax, playing games and swimming. They sleep late and write letters to their families.
A stand-down is meant to be a time when the soldiers can relax and forget about their problems, but as the novel often shows, trauma isn’t easily forgotten.
On the soldiers’ last day of stand-down, Eddie, Doc, Paul Berlin, and Oscar walk to the 82nd Commo Detachment, where the soldiers keep the army’s radio communication system. There, the soldiers place calls to their friends and families in the United States. Eddie’s call connects first, after nearly an hour of trying. The technicians take him to a soundproof room, where he talks for some time. Berlin watches him, wondering whom he could be talking to. When Eddie walks out of the soundproof room, he says that he’d been talking to his mother.
The soundproof room suggests the secretiveness that goes into the soldiers’ personal lives. They’ve tried to hard to project certain images for themselves, so anything beyond this image—such as the soldiers’ relationships with their families—must be kept completely secret.
The next soldier to place a call is Doc, followed by Oscar. They both walk out of the soundproof rooms looking choked up, as if their calls have been tragic. Berlin feels mature as he looks at Doc and Oscar—he and his friends are “genuine war buddies,” now that they’ve shared emotions.
Even if the content of the phone calls is kept secret, the act of making phone calls is communal, and Berlin feels a sense of friendship with his fellow soldiers. His desire to have “war buddies,” however, only serves to highlight how naïve he still is in many ways.
Berlin goes to place his call. Inside the soundproof room, he places a call to his mother. As he waits for the call to go through, he imagines his mother greeting him cheerfully and telling him that Berlin’s father is “putzing” around the house, trying to repair things. Berlin tries to think of something to say to his mother, but can’t think of anything about being a soldier that doesn’t sound horribly forced. Eventually, he decides that he’ll ask his mother if she’s quit smoking yet—a running joke in his family, since his mother never quits smoking. All this goes on in Berlin’s head as he waits for the call to connect. But nobody picks up the phone on the other end. Secretly, Berlin is relieved. He leaves the soundproof room and rejoins his fellow soldiers, who pat him on the back and say, “Tough luck.”
In this long, painful section, we see the truth about Berlin’s relationship with his parents. Although he likes to tell himself that he and his family get along wonderfully, he’s unsure of what to say to them. Clearly, their relationship is far from close and loving. It’s almost a relief to Berlin when the phone keeps ringing—not unlike the relief that the soldiers felt when one of their friends was blown up by a landmine. It’s better for Berlin to keep pretending that he loves his family than it is for him to confront the reality that he doesn’t, and that his family might not love him in return.