by T O’Brien · Cited by 8 — “Speaking of Courage” by Tim O’Brien. This chapter deals with the character Norman Bowker returning from war back to his small.
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1 by Tim O’Brien T his chapter deals with the character Norman Bowker returning from war back to his small town. means. The war was over and there was no place in particular to go. Norman Bowker followed the tar road on its seven – mile loop around the lake, then he started all over a gain, driving slowly, feeling safe inside his father’s big Chevy, now and then looking out on the lake to watch the boats and water – skiers and scenery. It was Sunday and it was summer, and the town seemed pretty much the same. The lake lay flat and silvery against the sun. Along the road the houses were all low – slung and split level and modern, with big porches and picture windows facing the water. The lawns were spacious. On the lake side of the road, where real estate was most valuable, the houses were ha ndsome and set deep in, well – kept and brightly painted, with docks jutting out into the lake, and boats moored and covered with canvas, and neat gardens, and sometimes even gardeners, and stone patios with barbecue spits and grills, and wooden shingles say ing who lived where. On the other side of the road, to his left, the houses were also handsome, though less expensive and on a smaller scale and with no docks or boats or gardeners. The road was a sort of boundary between the affluent and the almost afflue nt, and to live on the lake side of the road was one of the few natural privileges in a town of the prairie the difference between watching the sun set over cornfields or over water. It was a graceful, good – sized lake. Back in high school, at night, he ha d driven around and around it with Sally Kramer, wondering if she’d want to pull into the shelter of Sunset Park, or other times with his friends, talking about urgent matters, worrying about the existence of God and theories of causation. Then, there had not been a war. But there had always been the lake, which was the town’s first cause of existence, a place for immigrant settlers to put down their loads. Before the settlers were the Sioux, and before the Sioux were the vast open prairies, and before the prairies there was only ice. The lake bed had been dug out by the southernmost advance of the Wisconsin glacier. Fed by neither streams nor springs, the lake was often filthy and algaed, relying on fickle prairie rains for replenishment. Still, it was the only important body of water within forty miles, a source of pride, nice to look at on bright summer days, and later that evening it would color up with fireworks. Now, in the late afternoon, it lay calm and smooth,

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2 a good audience for silence, a seven – mil e circumference that could be traveled by slow car in twenty – five minutes. It was not such a good lake for swimming. After high school, he’d caught an ear infection that had almost kept him out of the war. And the lake had drowned his friend Max Arnold, ke eping him out of the war entirely. Max had been one who liked to talk about the existence of God. “No, I’m not saying that,” he’d argue against the drone of the engine. “I’m saying it’s possible as an idea, even necessary as an idea, a final cause in the whole structure of causation.” Now he knew, perhaps. Before the war they’d driven around the lake as friends, but now Max was just an idea, and most of Norman Bowker’s other friends were living in Des Moines or Sioux City, or going to school somewhere, or holding down jobs. The high school girls were mostly gone or married. Sally Kramer, whose pictures he had once carried in his wallet, was one who had married. Her name was now Sally Gustafson and she lived in a pleasant blue house on the less expensive sid e of the lake road. On his third day home he’d seen her out mowing the lawn, still pretty in a lacy red blouse and white shorts. For a moment he’d almost pulled over, just to talk, but instead he’d pushed down hard on the gas pedal. She looked happy. She h ad her house and her new husband, and there was really nothing he could say to her. The town seemed remote somehow. Sally was remarried and Max was drowned and his father was at home watching baseball on national TV. Norman Bowker shrugged. “No problem,” he murmured. Clockwise, as if in orbit, he took the Chevy on another seven – mile turn around the lake. Even in late afternoon the day was hot. He turned on the air conditioner, then the radio, and he leaned back and let the cold air and music blow over him. Along the road, kicking stones in front of them, two young boys were hiking with knapsacks and toy rifles and canteens. He honked going by, but neither boy looked up. Already he had passed them six times, forty – two miles, nearly three hours without stop. He watched the boys recede in his rearview mirror. They turned a soft grayish color, like sand, before finally disappearing. He tapped down lightly on the accelerator. Out on the lake a man’s motorboat had stalled; the man was bent over the engine with a wrench and a frown. Beyond the stalled boat there were other boats, and a few water – skiers, and the smooth July waters, and an immense flatness everywhere. Two mud hens floated stiffly beside a white dock. The road curved west, where the sun had now dipped low. He figured it was close to five o’clock twenty after, he guessed. The war had taught him to tell time without

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3 clocks, and even at night, waking from sleep, he could usually place it within ten minutes either way. What he should do, he thought, is sto p at Sally’s house and impress her with this new time – telling trick of his. They’d talk for a while, catching up on things, and then he’d say, “Well, better hit the road, it’s five thirty – four,” and she’d glance at her wristwatch and say, “Hey! How’d you d o that?” and he’d give a casual shrug and tell her it was just one of those things you pick up. He’d keep it light. He wouldn’t say anything about anything. “How’s it being married?” he might ask, and he’d nod at whatever she answered with, and he would no t say a word about how he’d almost won the Silver Star for valor. He drove past Slater Park and across the causeway and past Sunset Park. The radio announcer sounded tired. The temperature in Des Moines was eighty – one degrees, and the time was five thirty – five, and “All you on the road, drive extra careful now on this fine Fourth of July.” If Sally had not been married, or if his father were not such a baseball fan, it would have been a good time to talk. “The Silver Star?” his father might have said. “Ye s, but I didn’t get it. Almost, but not quite.” And his father would have nodded, knowing full well that many brave men do not win medals for their bravery, and that others win medals for doing nothing. As a starting point, maybe, Norman Bowker might then have listed the seven medals he did win: the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Air Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart, though it wasn’t much of a wound and did not le ave a scar and did not hurt and never had. He would’ve explained to his father that none of these decorations was for uncommon valor. They were for common valor. The routine, daily stuff just humping, just enduring but that was worth something, wasn’t it? Yes, it was. Worth plenty. The ribbons looked good on the uniform in his closet, and if his father were to ask, he would’ve explained what each signified and how he was proud of all of them, especially the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, because it meant he h ad been there as a real soldier and had done all the things soldiers do, and therefore it wasn’t such a big deal that he could not bring himself to be uncommonly brave. And then he would have talked about the medal he did not win and why he did not win it. “I almost won the Silver Star,” he would have said. “How’s that?”

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4 “Just a story.” “So tell me,” his father would have said. Slowly then, circling the lake, Norman Bowker would have started by describing the Song Tra Bong. “A river,” he would’ve said, “this slow flat muddy river.” He would’ve explained how during the dry season it was exactly like any other river, nothing special, but how in October the monsoons began and the whole situation changed. For a solid week the rains never stopped, not once, and so after a few days the Song Tra Bong overflowed its banks and the land turned into a deep, thick muck for a half mile on either side. Just muck no other word for it. Like quicksand, almost, except the stink was incredible. “You couldn’t even sleep,” he’d tell his father. “At night you’d find a high spot, and you’d doze off, but then later you’d wake up because you’d be buried in all that slime. You’d just sink in. You’d feel it ooze up over your body and sort of suck you down. And the whole time there was that constant rain. I mean, it never stopped, not ever.” “Sounds pretty wet,” his father would’ve said, pausing briefly. “So what happened?” “You really want to hear this?” “Hey, I’m your father.” Norman Bowker smiled. He looked out across the lake and imagined the feel of his tongue against the truth. “Well, this one time, this one night out by the river I wasn’t very brave.” “You have seven medals.” “Sure.” “Seven. Count ’em. You weren’t a coward either.” “Well, maybe not. But I had the chance and I blew it. The stink, that’s what got to me. I couldn’t take that goddamn awful smell.” “If you don’t want to say any more ” “I do want to.” “All right then. Slow and sweet, take your time.” T he road descended into the outskirts of town, turning northwest past the junior college and the tennis courts, then past Chautauqua Park, where the picnic tables were spread with sheets of colored plastic and where picnickers sat in lawn chairs and listene d to the high school band playing Sousa marches under the band shell. The music faded after a few blocks. He drove

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5 beneath a canopy of elms, then along a stretch of open shore, then past the municipal docks, where a woman in pedal pushers stood casting for bullheads. There were no other fish in the lake except for perch and a few worthless carp. It was a bad lake for swimming and fishing both. He drove slowly. No hurry, nowhere to go. Inside the Chevy the air was cool and oily – smelling, and he took pleasure in the steady sounds of the engine and air – conditioning. A tour bus feeling, in a way, except the town he was touring seemed dead. Through the windows, as if in a stopmotion photograph, the place looked as if it had been hit by nerve gas, everything still and lifeless, even the people. The town could not talk, and would not listen. “How’d you like to hear about the war?” he might have asked, but the place could only blink and shrug. It had no memory, therefore no guilt. The taxes got paid and the votes go t counted and the agencies of government did their work briskly and politely. It was a brisk, polite town. It did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know. Norman Bowker leaned back and considered what he might’ve said on the subject. He knew shi t. It was his specialty. The smell, in particular, but also the numerous varieties of texture and taste. Someday he’d give a lecture on the topic. Put on a suit and tie and stand up in front of the Kiwanis club and tell the fuckers about all the wonderful shit he knew. Pass out samples, maybe. Smiling at this, he clamped the steering wheel slightly right of center, which produced a smooth clockwise motion against the curve of the road. The Chevy seemed to know its own way. The sun was lower now. Five fifty – five, he decided six o’clock, tops. Along an unused railway spur, four workmen labored in the shadowy red heat, setting up a platform and steel launchers for the evening fireworks. They were dressed alike in khaki trousers, work shirts, visored caps, and b rown boots. Their faces were dark and smudgy. “Want to hear about the Silver Star I almost won?” Norman Bowker whispered, but none of the workmen looked up. Later they would blow color into the sky. The lake would sparkle with reds and blues and greens, l ike a mirror, and the picnickers would make low sounds of appreciation. “Well, see, it never stopped raining,” he would’ve said. “The muck was everywhere, you couldn’t get away from it.” He would have paused a second. Then he would have told about the nig ht they bivouacked in a field along the Song Tra Bong. A big swampy field beside the river. There was a ville nearby, fifty meters downstream, and right away a dozen old mama – sans ran out and started yelling. A weird scene, he would’ve said. The mama – sans just stood there in the rain, soaking wet, yapping away about how this field

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6 was bad news. Number ten, they said. Evil ground. Not a good spot for good GIs. Finally Lieutenant Jimmy Cross had to get out his pistol and fire off a few rounds just to shoo the m away. By then it was almost dark. So they set up a perimeter, ate chow, then crawled under their ponchos and tried to settle in for the night. But the rain kept getting worse. And by midnight the field turned into soup. “Just this deep, oozy soup,” he wo uld’ve said. “Like sewage or something. Thick and mushy. You couldn’t sleep. You couldn’t even lie down, not for long, because you’d start to sink under the soup. Real clammy. You could feel the crud coming up inside your boots and pants.” Here, Norman Bow ker would have squinted against the low sun. He would have kept his voice cool, no self – pity. “But the worst part,” he would’ve said quietly, “was the smell. Partly it was the river a dead – fish smell but it was something else, too. Finally somebody figured it out. What this was, it was a shit field. The village toilet. No indoor plumbing, right? So they used the field. I mean, we were camped in a goddamn shit field.” He imagined Sally Kramer closing her eyes. If she were here with him, in the car, she woul d’ve said, “Stop it. I don’t like that word.” “That’s what it was.” “All right, but you don’t have to use that word.” “Fine. What should we call it?” She would have glared at him. “I don’t know. Just stop it.” Clearly, he thought, this was not a story for Sally Kramer. She was Sally Gustafson now. No doubt Max would’ve liked it, the irony in particular, but Max had become a pure idea, which was its own irony. It was just too bad. If his father were here, riding shotgun around the lake, the old man migh t have glanced over for a second, understanding perfectly well that it was not a question of offensive language but of fact. His father would have sighed and folded his arms and waited. “A shit field,” Norman Bowker would have said. “And later that night I could’ve won the Silver Star for valor.” “Right,” his father would’ve murmured, “I hear you.” The Chevy rolled smoothly across a viaduct and up the narrow tar road. To the right was open lake. To the left, across the road, most of the lawns were scorch ed dry like October corn. Hopelessly, round and round, a rotating sprinkler scattered lake water on Dr. Mason’s vegetable garden. Already the prairie had been baked dry, but in August it would get worse. The lake

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8 face, and how after a moment the guy rolled his eyes and winked at him. The noise was fi erce. Heavy thunder, and mortar rounds, and people yelling. Some of the men began shooting up flares. Red and green and silver flares, all colors, and the rain came down in Technicolor. The field was boiling. The shells made deep slushy craters, opening up all those years of waste, centuries worth, and the smell came bubbling out of the earth. Two rounds hit close by. Then a third, even closer, and immediately, off to his left, he heard somebody screaming. It was Kiowa he knew that. The sound was ragged and clotted up, but even so he knew the voice. A strange gargling noise. Rolling sideways, he crawled toward the screaming in the dark. The rain was hard and steady. Along the perimeter there were quick bursts of gunfire. Another round hit nearby, spraying up shit and water, and for a few moments he ducked down beneath the mud. He heard the valves in his heart. He heard the quick, feathering action of the hinges. Extraordinary, he thought. As he came up, a pair of red flares puffed open, a soft fuzzy glow, and in the glow he saw Kiowa’s wide – open eyes settling down into the scum. Briefly, all he could do was watch. He heard himself moan. Then he moved again, crabbing forward, but when he got there Kiowa was almost completely under. There was a knee. There was a n arm and a gold wristwatch and part of a boot. He could not describe what happened next, not ever, but he would’ve tried anyway. He would’ve spoken carefully so as to make it real for anyone who would listen. There were bubbles where Kiowa’s head should’ ve been. The left hand was curled open; the fingernails were filthy; the wristwatch gave off a green phosphorescent shine as it slipped beneath the thick waters. He would’ve talked about this, and how he grabbed Kiowa by the boot and tried to pull him out. He pulled hard but Kiowa was gone, and then suddenly he felt himself going, too. He could taste it. The shit was in his nose and eyes. There were flares and mortar rounds, and the stink was everywhere it was inside him, in his lungs and he could no longer tolerate it. Not here, he thought. Not like this. He released Kiowa’s boot and watched it slide away. Slowly, working his way up, he hoisted himself out of the deep mud, and then he lay still and tasted the shit in his mouth and closed his eyes and listen ed to the rain and explosions and bubbling sounds. He was alone. He had lost his weapon but it did not matter. All he wanted was a bath. Nothing else. A hot soapy bath. Circling the lake, Norman Bowker remembered how his friend Kiowa had disappeared under the waste and water. “I didn’t flip out,” he would’ve said. “I was cool. If things had gone right, if it hadn’t been for that smell, I could’ve won the Silver Star.”

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9 A good war story, he thought, but it was not a war for war stories, nor for talk of valo r, and nobody in town wanted to know about the terrible stink. They wanted good intentions and good deeds. But the town was not to blame, really. It was a nice little town, very prosperous, with neat houses and all the sanitary conveniences. Norman Bowker lit a cigarette and cranked open his window. Seven thirty – five, he decided. The lake had divided into two halves. One half still glistened, the other was caught in shadow. Along the causeway, the two little boys marched on. The man in the stalled motorboat yanked frantically on the cord to his engine, and the two mud hens sought supper at the bottom of the lake, tails bobbing. He passed Sunset Park once again, and more houses, and the junior college and the tennis courts, and the picnickers, who now sat wai ting for the evening fireworks. The high school band was gone. The woman in pedal pushers patiently toyed with her line. Although it was not yet dusk, the A&W (restaurant) was already awash in neon lights. He maneuvered his father’s Chevy into one of the parking slots, let the engine idle, and sat back. The place was doing a good holiday business. Mostly kids, it seemed, and a few farmers in for the day. He did not recognize any of the faces. A slim, hipless young carhop passed by, but when he hit the horn, she did not seem to notice. Her eyes slid sideways. She hooked a tray to the window of a Firebird, laughing lightly, leaning forward to chat with the three boys inside. He felt invisible in the soft twilight. Straight ahead, over the take – out counter, swarms of mosquitoes electrocuted themselves against an aluminum Pest – Rid machine. It was a calm, quiet summer evening. He honked again, this time leaning on the horn. The you ng carhop turned slowly, as if puzzled, then said something to the boys in the Firebird and moved reluctantly toward him. Pinned to her shirt was a badge that said EAT MAMA BURGERS. When she reached his window, she stood straight up so that all he could se e was the badge. “Mama Burger,” he said. “Maybe some fries, too.” The girl sighed, leaned down, and shook her head. Her eyes were as fluffy and airy – light as cotton candy. “You blind?” she said. She put out her hand and tapped an intercom attached to a steel post. “Punch the button and place your order. All I do is carry the dumb trays.” She stared at him for a moment. Briefly, he thought, a question lingered in her fuzzy eyes, but then she turned and punched the button for him and returned to her friend s in the Firebird. The intercom squeaked and said, “Order.”

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10 “Mama Burger and fries,” Norman Bowker said. “Affirmative, copy clear. No rootie – tootie?” “Rootie – tootie?” “You know, man root beer. “A small one.” “Roger – dodger. Repeat: one Mama, one fries , one small beer. Fire for effect. Stand by.” The intercom squeaked and went dead. “Out,” said Norman Bowker. When the girl brought his tray, he ate quickly, without looking up. The tired radio announcer in Des Moines gave the time, almost eight – thirty. D ark was pressing in tight now, and he wished there were somewhere to go. In the morning he’d check out some job possibilities. Shoot a few buckets down at the Y, maybe wash the Chevy. He finished his root beer and pushed the intercom button. “Order,” said the tinny voice. “All done.” “That’s it?” “I guess so.” “Hey, loosen up,” the voice said. “What you really need, friend?” Norman Bowker smiled. “Well,” he said, “how’d you like to hear about ” He stopped and shook his head. “Hear what, man?” “Nothing.” “Well, hey,” the intercom said, “I’m sure as fuck not going anywhere. Screwed to a post, for God sake. Go ahead, try me.” “Nothing.” “You sure?” “Positive. All done.” The intercom made a light sound of disappointment. “Y our choice, I guess. Over an’ out.” ” Out,” said Norman Bowker. On his tenth turn around the lake he passed the hiking boys for the last time. The man in the stalled motorboat was gone; the mud hens were gone. Beyond the lake, over Sally Gustafson’s house, the sun had left a smudge of purple on the horizon. The band shell was deserted, and the woman in pedal pushers quietly reeled in her line, and Dr. Mason’s sprinkler went round and round. On his eleventh revolution he switched off the air – conditioning, op ened up his window, and rested his elbow comfortably on the sill, driving with

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11 one hand. There was nothing to say. He could not talk about it and never would. The evening was smooth and warm. If it had been possible, which it wasn’t, he would have explaine d how his friend Kiowa slipped away that night beneath the dark swampy field. He was folded in with the war; he was part of the waste. Turning on his headlights, driving slowly, Norman Bowker remembered how he had taken hold of Kiowa’s boot and pulled hard , but how the smell was simply too much, and how he’d backed off and in that way had lost the Silver Star. He wished he could’ve explained some of this. How he had been braver than he ever thought possible, but how he had not been so brave as he wanted to be. The distinction was important. Max Arnold, who loved fine lines, would’ve appreciated it. And his father, who already knew, would’ve nodded. “The truth,” Norman Bowker would’ve said, “is I let the guy go.” “Maybe he was already gone.” “He wasn’t.” “But maybe.” “No, I could feel it. He wasn’t. Some things you can feel.” His father would have been quiet for a while, watching the headlights against the narrow tar road. “Well, anyway,” the old man would’ve s aid, “there’s still the seven medals.” “I suppose.” “Seven honeys.” “Right.” On his twelfth revolution, the sky went crazy with color. He pulled into Sunset Park and stopped in the shadow of a picnic shelter. After a time he got out, walked down to the beach, and waded into the lake without undressing. The water felt warm against his skin. He put his head under. He opened his lips, very slightly, for the taste, then he stood up and folded his arms and watched the fireworks. For a small town, he decided, it was a pretty good show.

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