O'Brien says stories can save us. As a forty-three year old writer, he continues to dream about people who have died as still being alive, like: Linda, Ted Lavender, Kiowa, Curt Lemon, the young man he killed, an old man beside a pigpen, and other bodies he lifted into a truck. While they're dead in reality, in a story the dead can return to the world for a while.
Stories give the power to resurrect the dead in a way, not through their bodies but through their souls.
O'Brien starts with a nameless body. In 1969 the platoon came under fire and Lieutenant Jimmy Cross radioed in an air strike, and the platoon watched the village burn to the ground. The village was deserted except for one dead, old man lying near a pigpen. Dave Jensen shook the dead man's hand. The other soldiers followed suit. It was O'Brien's fourth day in the war. He felt sick. Jensen urged O'Brien to go shake the dead man's hand, but O'Brien kept refusing. He felt sick for the rest of the day, not so much from seeing the body but the "act of greeting the dead." He recalls how the men propped the man up against a fence, crossed his legs, and talked to him. In the afternoon, Kiowa approached O'Brien and told O'Brien he did a good thing by not shaking the dead man's hand: "it took guts." O'Brien said it had nothing to do with courage he was just scared, but Kiowa says they're the same thing. Kiowa says that was probably O'Brien's first time seeing a dead body. O'Brien shakes his head, because he'd spent the day thinking of Linda.
The soldiers feel the need to shake the dead man's hand to make death not seem quite as "real." By turning death into something darkly comic, they don't have to face their own mortality. They propose toasts, and O'Brien compares it to a kind of funeral without the sadness because even though there is a kind of mockery in the soldiers' behavior, it's not entirely disrespectful. Kiowa collapses the distinction between being afraid and "having guts" because he knows after being in Vietnam for longer than O'Brien they come down to being the same thing: it's the actions that come out of fear that result in heroism. For O'Brien though, he can only think of Linda when he sees the dead body, because hers was the first dead body he ever saw.
O'Brien and Linda were both nine and they loved each other. As O'Brien looks back it can be tempting to try to dismiss it as childish, but he thinks it was true, mature love. In the spring of 1956, O'Brien took her out on the first date of his life. O'Brien's father drove them. She was wearing a new red cap, a stocking cap, which seemed stylish and sophisticated to O'Brien. It had a white tassel at the too-long tip. O'Brien wanted to compliment her and said something nice about her cap. Linda smiled, but O'Brien's mother turned to him from the front passenger seat and gave him a troubling look. They got to the movie theater and started looking at the concessions. They avoided eye contact, which O'Brien says is how they knew they were in love—"it was pure knowing," though neither would have thought to use the word love.
The look O'Brien's mother gives him makes it clear that O'Brien's mother knew about Linda's condition before he did. O'Brien claims that the love between him and Linda was as real as a mature, adult love because he wants the reader to know that this wasn't just a childhood crush, but a permanent bond, founded on love, that made O'Brien so devoted to Linda—and what commits him to writing about her into the present.
Ted Lavender took around five tranquilizers every morning, and it made his eyes peaceful. Even when they were in stressful situations, the drugs would give Lavender a dreamy expression. Someone would ask him how the war was going that day, and Lavender would smile and say it was, "Mellow—a nice smooth war today." In April, he died after being shot in the head. O'Brien, Kiowa, and others were responsible for preparing Lavender's body for the chopper. After collecting his personal effects and attaching them to him in a bag, Mitchell Sanders asked Lavender how the war was today. Someone said, "Mellow." Sanders kept egging the conversation on, and O'Brien said they could almost hear Lavender talking back. He says that's the function of a story: the bodies are alive and the dead speak again.
This story about Ted Lavender is an example of how the dead return and live on in story form. The soldiers used Lavender's "mellowed" out attitude after he was shot to bring him into the present again. Lavender was still very much alive to them as they stood there talking to his corpse, and answering, as he would have. All of the soldiers find solace in this conversation they have with Lavender after he's died—in a way that parallels the old man that was dead by the pigpen by pretending it's not entirely real.
O'Brien can still see Linda's silhouette in the theater. They saw The Man Who Never Was, whose protagonist was a corpse. It was a WWII film where the Allies dress up a body as an officer to fool the Nazis and it works. O'Brien remembers looking at Linda and thinking it was too grotesque for her, but she seemed to be smiling and O'Brien couldn't understand why. O'Brien had to cover his eyes a few times, and he hated to think of the heavy thump of the body hitting the water. He was relieved when the film was over.
The movie choice and its thematic closeness to ‘The Things They Carried' is ironic for a young O'Brien. O'Brien as a boy cannot stand the sound of the heavy thump of the body hitting the water, and that's the same shock he and the other soldiers experience in Vietnam when someone dies. Linda smiling is an acceptance of her own imminent death.
In the next few weeks, Linda wore her new cap to school every day, never taking it off. She started to get teased by a boy named Nick Veenhof. He kept trying to sneak up to her and yank off her cap on the playground. O'Brien wanted to do something but it wasn't possible: "I had my reputation to think about. I had my pride." And Nick Veenhof was a problem. So O'Brien watched Linda deal with Veenhof and hold her cap close to her head. She smiled in Veenhof's direction "as if none of it really mattered."
As a boy O'Brien can't bring himself to stand up for Linda because he's afraid of what people will say about him if he stands up for Linda—among nine-year olds, boys don't usually defend the girls. Linda's smile that signals none of it really mattered shows she knows her death is coming, and the jokes and bullying can't hurt her.
It mattered to O'Brien then and it still does, though. He regrets not intervening, and doesn't think he had any excuse not to. These decisions don't get easier as you age, and he reckons it would have been helpful to have displayed some bravery as a kid when he was faced with even harder choices in Vietnam.
O'Brien's regret isn't just to Linda, but to his growth as a man who wished he had acted with more courage while he was younger to prepare himself for his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam.
One afternoon in the spring the class was taking a spelling test and halfway through Veenhof raised his hand to use the pencil sharpener. The teacher allowed him to get up, but told him to be quick. As he returned to his seat, he didn't go the straightforward way, but headed for Linda's desk. When he was passing her desk, he grabbed the tassel and took off her cap. Linda didn't move and O'Brien thinks someone must have laughed. He remembers how she wasn't completely bald, there was a big bandage at the back of her head covering stitches, and then gauze taped to her left ear. Veenhof stepped back, still smiling, but "the smile was doing strange things." Linda kept staring ahead wordlessly, until she turned and looked at O'Brien for a moment. He felt that they had an entire conversation in the moment: "Well? she was saying, and I was saying, "Sure, okay." Later, Linda cried and the teacher helped her put her cap on again. After school, O'Brien and Veenhof walked Linda home.
Veenhof clearly feels guilty for what he's done to Linda after he sees that the cap has been covering up the fact that she has a brain tumor, which is shown in his reaction (the smile "doing strange things") and how he walked her home later that day with O'Brien. When Linda looks at O'Brien after the cap has been pulled of he feels they had an entire conversation that questioned whether he still loved her, in spite of her illness. She's asking, well what do you think of me now? His "Sure, okay." is an acceptance of the baldness on the back of Linda's head, and how his feelings for her haven't changed. But he hasn't yet come to terms with the fact that she will die.
O'Brien says it's 1990 as he writes this and he's forty-three. Looking at photographs of himself in 1956 he sees the ways he hasn't changed: then Timmy, now Tim. He doesn't let his clothes fool him, he knows the eyes are the same and behind them is something unchanging about himself because "the human life is all one thing:" a kid, a soldier, a writer. As a writer, now, O'Brien wants to save Linda's life, not her body.
O'Brien believes that in all of us there is a kernel of the self that never changes, and one that he can detect when looking at old photographs of himself. All of life is, and always has been, bundled up into one thing. As a writer, his goal is to save Linda's life through stories.
Linda died when she was nine years old from a brain tumor. In a story, though, O'Brien can have her soul and bring the parts of her back that are permanent. O'Brien notes that he knew she was ill and perhaps even dying, but because he loved her so much he couldn't believe it. On a September afternoon on the playground Nick Veenhof approached O'Brien and told him he just learned that Linda had died. O'Brien walked home from school without telling anyone.
O'Brien initially denies to himself the fact that Linda is dying, up until the point that she does die. But with stories, O'Brien discovers that he can keep Linda alive and bring back that kernel of her life that is permanent. He can talk to her and she can talk back in this invented world between the two of them.
He lay down on the sofa and tried to imagine what it was like to be dead. He whispered her name over and over, and eventually he "willed her alive." He could see her walking down Main Street wearing a pink dress and she had grown back all of her hair. Then O'Brien started to cry and Linda approached him, sitting on the curb on Main Street, and asked why he was upset. He told her she was dead. Linda nodded and smiled in a secretive way, like she knew things no one else could, and she touched O'Brien's wrist and said, "Timmy, stop crying. It doesn't matter."
O'Brien's dream/hallucination/story expresses the power that stories have in resurrecting the dead. By the force of will, O'Brien could bring Linda back via his imagination. When she consoles him by saying it doesn't matter that she's dead, she (and O'Brien) are saying that physical death doesn't mean true death. She still lives in his memory, and now in his stories.
In Vietnam there were ways the soldiers had of making the dead not seem so dead, like shaking their hands. By acting and joking they could pretend that it wasn't as grave and final as it was. Linguistically, the dead were transformed into waste. When someone was killed, it wasn't a body but waste. The words make a big difference in coping with death. If you take away the human element, it doesn't matter as much. VC nurse fried by napalm: crispy critter. Vietnamese baby: roasted peanut.
O'Brien's need to tell stories is but one of the ways that people cope with death. The language games between soldiers changed the register of death from one that was human (and threatened their mortality, morality, and guilt) to one that lacked humanity—which made death abstract and easier to face. O'Brien's stories do the opposite. They bring what was gone back.
The day after Linda died in September, O'Brien asked his father to take him to the funeral home so he could see her. Once they parked, his father told him if O'Brien was upset at all they could leave as fast as he wanted. When O'Brien saw her he thought there had been a mistake because the girl in the casket wasn't Linda. She resembled Linda in a way, but the body was bloated while Linda had always been thin. O'Brien wondered if someone had made a mistake in preparing her body. He looked at his father, hoping Linda would jump out from behind a curtain and say it was all a big joke. He pretended she was sleeping, though she didn't look like she was—"She looked dead."
Death is different. Something is gone. This is both obvious and yet it's hard to understand until you see someone who is dead. O'Brien really doesn't recognize Linda at first because of the way death changes her, and then, even as young as he is, his mind starts working to try to deny death—it isn't her; she's sleeping. But death can't be denied. "She looked dead." Except by stories.
After Ted Lavender died there were more bodies. When Curt Lemon died O'Brien climbed a tree and retrieved the parts of him that were left. O'Brien saw Kiowa sink into the shit-field. In July O'Brien was assigned to a policing detail where he dealt with twenty-seven bodies altogether in one day. For three hours he and five other men carried the bodies down a mountain to a clearing next to a dirt road. A truck came and they loaded it up with bodies in two man teams. Mitchell Sanders took feet and O'Brien took arms. All of the dead had expired for more than a day, they were bloated, smelly, and made burping sounds when they hit the truck bed. Mitchell Sanders said he just realized that "death sucks."
Death never stops being terrible, especially in war. There are always new ways to die, new horrors, new things to learn about being dead. When Mitchell Sanders says that "death sucks," he is both stating the obvious and stating something profound. He is distancing himself from the death by saying something stupid, and he is also right.
While O'Brien lay in bed at night as a kid, he would make up stories to bring Linda back while he was sleeping. He would picture a birthday party and cake, and then he would be asleep and Linda would show up and they wouldn't talk much in the dream because they were shy. Then O'Brien would walk her home and they would sit on the front steps. She said things like: "Once you're alive…you can't ever be dead." "Do I look dead?" O'Brien thinks it was a product of willpower and faith, which is how stories are created.
O'Brien's powers of imagination really started to take off after Linda's death. The dream at the birthday party where she says once you're alive you can never be dead, is essentially the core faith, the core purpose, of O'Brien's storytelling.
As a kid, though, O'Brien thought it was a miracle to be able to see Linda whenever he willed it, and he thought they had a way to secretly meet up. He started going to sleep really early, to the point that it concerned his mother. He didn't tell her what he was doing, because he was embarrassed but also because he thought it would make Linda go away. He knew she was dead, but he was using the magic of stories to keep her alive. In one dream they went ice-skating and he asked her what it was like being dead, and she said, "Do I look dead?" O'Brien said she didn't. She was quiet, but then said at that moment she wasn't dead, but when she was it was like being in a book no one was reading. She said it wasn't that bad: "when you're dead, you just have to be yourself."
When O'Brien was young he didn't realize he was writing stories in his head, he thought he was communicating with Linda—which in a way, he still believes. Storytelling is a kind of miracle. Linda compares death to being like a book, which befits O'Brien's storytelling philosophy. When she's in his mind and being read about in a story she's alive. The rest of the time she's shut away. But even then, it's not so bad, because being dead just means being yourself, which references that kernel of the self that never changes.
It's 1990 and O'Brien is forty-three and he still dreams of Linda the same way he did when he was nine. She has a new identity now. He feels as though he can still see her as if through an opaque ice, like glancing into another world where there aren't brain tumors, funeral homes, or bodies. He can see Kiowa, Ted Lavender, and Curt Lemon. Every once in a while he can see himself ice skating with Linda. He's Timmy, and he's happy, young, and immortal. He slides over the surface of his history. When he leaps, he lands thirty years later "as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story."
O'Brien's invented a whole life for Linda. Names don't matter, because the core of Linda—that unchanging part of her self—is still there. When he writes stories about the dead, he feels like he can see into their world. Sometimes he can see himself, and he knows that as he's writing stories these stories he's also trying to save himself: nine year old Timmy, Tim the soldier, Tim now. Storytelling will keep them all alive.