Reading: Tim O'Brien

26th Annual UND Writers Conference:
"States of the Art"
March 22, 1995

© 1995 Tim O'Brien and the University of North Dakota

[Video of this reading is also available.]

[Please note, unless otherwise specified, poetry is presented with published line breaks:
for proper spacing and formatting, please consult printed source.]

Bob King: Welcome to the 26th Annual University of North Dakota Writers Conference, "States of the Art." I'm Bob King, this year's director. I want to welcome all of you. They're still trying to bring some chairs out. I noticed that there was a small terrorist insurrection that lugged in couches from the Dakota Lounge, so I'm sure that will become a story in years to come about the night that people stripped the Union in order to, in order to find chairs. We're certainly gratified to see everyone. There are brochures on the table announcing the rest of this week's events. There are also, on your seats—or at least the chairs that were there when you came in—small lavender forms for you to fill out if you so desire, giving us some idea of who's coming, and why they're coming, and why they'd like to come back. This whole week is brought to you, first of all, by the University of North Dakota student body through the Student Fees Committee, so this is one very visible example of the student fees at work, the Alumni Foundation has helped, the President's Office through the [unclear] Lecture Fund, and a variety of individual contributors. And there are even some folders for individual contributors back there on the, on the table. There are no cash canisters for you to stick a dollar in, although tonight I wish I had thought of that [Audience laughter], and just put them at the door. We're, we're very glad to see you. We're all here to hear Tim O'Brien, and I want to introduce a—I don't want to say "old student"—a former student of mine, of this old teacher, Mike Morton, to introduce Tim O'Brien, Mike.

[Audience applause]

Mike Morton: Good evening. The UND Writers Conference reaches out and touches many in different ways. This is my fifth year attending the UND Writers Conference, and each year the experience helps me grow and expand my worldview. This year is extremely special as I have the honor of introducing a fellow Vietnam veteran to you, a man who took a largely negative experience, like our war, and turned his creative energies towards a positive goal: writing about his experience in a way that gives us all, especially those who were not in country, a window into the emotional, soul-searching mind of many a reluctant warrior. It has been said that Tim O'Brien has given us perhaps our finest novels on the Vietnam experience. Mr. O'Brien hails from just over the border, in Minnesota, the setting for his most recent, highly acclaimed book entitled In the Lake of the Woods. He has written six books, which have captured too many honors to mention, and I promised him that I would not embarrass him by reciting the laundry list of his awards, so I won't do that. He has written for The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Inquirer, Playboy, and many, many other magazines. I am proud to introduce fellow Vietnam veteran and world-class writer to you this evening, Mr. Tim O'Brien.

[Audience applause]

Tim O'Brien: Thank you, it's a real, it's a pleasure to be here. One of the reasons that I became a writer, or a fiction writer, I think, is that I don't know anything about the world, and I have to make everything up. And I mean that not in, just a sense of false humility, I mean if I really knew anything that could help anybody, I'd go on Oprah Winfrey or Nightline and say it, you know, "here's how to stay married," or "here's the answer to this problem or that problem, including war." I'm not pleading a sense of ignorance exactly, but I am saying that I'm a believer in the power of stories, that they're, they're...stories exist for a reason, and I think that among these reasons are they offer models for the ways we might behave in the world or not behave, that stories remind us of things we already know. For example, I could tell you that war is hell, but everybody in the room already knows it. However, if I were to read you, or tell you, a short story about the war in Vietnam, for example, it might remind you of why you know what you know, and why clichés are clichés, part of that has to do with storytelling. In the end, though, I don't think stories are there for any reason at all, except to be stories. I mean, why is a tree a tree? Because it's a tree. Why, why, why is "Hansel and Gretel" a good story? Just because it is. Why is Huck Finn a good novel? Does it teach you anything, like, you know, "get on a raft" or "don't get on a raft"? [laughter] Not really.

So what I thought to do tonight instead of, you know, really giving a talk, a formal talk, that I'd just tell you a few stories, three to be precise. Two of them come from The Things They Carried, my second, the last, book, which I know some of you in here have read for class. And then I want to tell you, I want to read the first few pages of a novel I think I'm starting. One thing about being a writer is that you never know if you're starting a book or a short story until maybe a year has gone by. And so what I'm gonna...the last thing I'll read to you tonight is something I've just started in the last three weeks and don't know really where it's going. But maybe through watching your eyeballs tonight I'll get a sense of where it, where it can go or not go. Sometimes things end up just in the trash basket, and maybe that's where that'll end up. I want to start by telling you a story that comes from my experience in Vietnam.

The, the war in Vietnam, from my own experience, was not all terror and violence. Sometimes things could almost get sweet. For instance, I remember a little boy with a plastic leg. I remember how he hopped up to my friend Azar and asked for a chocolate bar—"G.I. number one"— the kid said—and Azar laughed and handed over the chocolate. When the boy hopped away, Azar clucked his tongue and said "War's a bitch." He shook his head sadly. "One leg, for Chrissake. One leg. Some poor fucker ran out of ammo."

[long pause]

I remember Mitchell Sanders, another friend of mine, sitting quietly in the shade of an old banyan tree. He was using a thumbnail to peel off the body lice, working slowly, carefully depositing the lice in the blue U.S.O. envelope. His eyes were tired. It had been a long two weeks in the bush. After an hour or so Sanders sealed up the envelope, wrote FREE in the upper right-hand corner, and addressed it to his draft board in Ohio.

[Audience laughter]

On occasions the war was like a Ping-Pong ball. You could put a fancy spin on it, you could make it dance.

I remember Norman Bowker and Henry Dobbins playing checkers every evening before dark. It was a ritual for them. They'd dig a foxhole and get their board out and play long, silent games as the sky went from pink to purple. The rest of us would sometimes stop by to watch. There was something restful about it, something orderly and reassuring. There were red checkers and black checkers. The playing field was laid out in a strict grid, no tunnels, no mountains, no paddies. You knew where you stood. You knew the score. The pieces were out on the board, the enemy was visible, you could watch the tactics unfolding into larger strategies. There was a winner and a loser. There were rules.

I'm forty-three years old now and that war has been over for a long, long time. Much of it's hard to remember. I sit at this typewriter and stare through my words and watch my friend Kiowa sinking into the deep muck of a shit field along a river called the Song Tra Bong, or, another friend, Curt Lemon hanging in pieces from a tree, and as I write about these things, the remembering has turned into a kind of rehappening. Kiowa yells at me. Curt Lemon steps from the shade into bright sunlight, his face brown and shining, and then he soars into a tree. The bad stuff never stops happening: it lives in its own dimension, replaying itself over and over.

But, you see, the war wasn't all that way.

Like when Ted Lavender went too heavy on the tranquilizers. "How's the war today?" somebody would ask, and Ted Lavender would give a soft, spacey smile to sky and say "Mellow, man. We got ourselves a nice mellow war today."

And like the time we enlisted an old poppa-san to guide us through the minefields out on the Batangan Peninsula. This old man walked with a limp, slow and stooped over, but he knew where the safe spots were and where you had to be careful and where even if you were careful you could end up like popcorn. He has a tightrope walker's feel for the land beneath him—its surface tension, the give and take things. Each morning we'd form up in a long column, the old poppa-san out front, and for the whole day we'd troupe along after him, playing this exact and ruthless game of follow the leader. Rat Kiley made up a rhyme that caught on, and we'd all be chanting it together: Step out of line, hit a mine. Follow the dink, you're in the pink. All around us, the place was littered with Bouncing Betties and Toe Poppers and booby-trapped artillery rounds, but in those five days on the Batangan Peninsula, nobody got hurt. Nobody. And we came to love that old man.

It was a sad scene when the choppers came to take us away. Jimmy Cross gave the old poppa-san a hug. Mitchell Sanders and Lee Strunk loaded him up with boxes of C rations.

There were actually tears in the old man's eyes.

"Follow dink," he said to each of us, "you go pink."

[O'Brien pauses to pour some water and take a drink]

These little sips of water, they, you know when you read a book, the little white space? That's what this means. [Audience laughter] There've been about five of these so far. I have a horrible cold and doing this [unclear] Robitussin and a high, kind of....[Audience laughter].

In Vietnam, if you weren't humping, you were waiting. And more than anything about that war, what I remember now all these years later, is the simple monotony. Digging foxholes. Slapping mosquitos. The sun and the heat and the endless paddies. Even in the deep bush, where you could die any number of ways, that war was nakedly and aggressively boring. But it was a strange boredom. It was boredom with a twist, the kind of boredom that causes stomach disorders. You'd be sitting at the top of a high hill, the flat paddies stretching out below, and the day would be calm and hot and utterly vacant, and you'd feel that boredom dripping inside you like a leaky faucet, except it wasn't water, it was a kind of acid, and with each little droplet, you'd feel the stuff eating away at important organs. You'd try to relax. You'd uncurl your fists and let your thoughts go. Well, you'd think, this isn't so bad. And right then, you'd hear gunfire behind you and your nuts would fly up into your throat and you'd be squealing pig squeals. That kind of boredom.

[O'Brien pauses and takes a drink of water]

I feel guilty sometimes. Forty-three years old and I'm still telling war stories. My daughter Kathleen tells me it's an obsession, that I should write about a little girl who finds a million dollars and spends it all on a Shetland pony. And in a way, I guess she's right: I should forget it. But the thing about remembering is you don't forget. You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at that intersection of past and present. The memory-traffic feeds into a rotary up in your head where it goes in circles for a while, and then pretty soon imagination feeds in and the traffic merges and shoots off down a thousand different streets. And, as a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come at you. That's the real obsession, not Vietnam, not war. All those stories.

Not bloody stories, necessarily. Happy stories, too, and even a few peace stories.

Here's a quick peace story:

A guy goes AWOL. Shacks up in Danang with a Red Cross nurse. It's a great time—the nurse loves him to death—the guy gets whatever he wants whenever he wants it. The war is over, he thinks. Just nookie and new angles. But then one day he rejoins his unit in the bush. Can't wait to get back into action. Finally one of his buddies asks what happened with the nurse, why so hot for combat, and the guy says "All that peace, man, all that peace, it felt so good it hurt. I want to hurt it back.

[O'Brien pauses and takes a drink of water]

I remember Mitchell Sanders smiling as he told me that story. Most of it he made up, I'm sure, but even so it gave me a quick little truth-goose. Because you see it's all relative. You're pinned down in some filthy hellhole of a paddy, getting your ass delivered to kingdom come, but then for a few seconds everything goes quiet and you look up and you see the sun and a few puffy white clouds, and the immense serenity flashes against your eyeballs—the whole world gets rearranged—and even though you're pinned down by a war you never felt more at peace.

[O'Brien pauses and takes a drink of water]

What sticks to my memory now, often times, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end:

Norman Bowker lying on his back one night, watching the stars, and then whispering to me "Hey O'Brien, I'll tell you something. If I could have one wish, anything, one wish, I'd wish for my dad to write me a letter and say it's okay if I don't come home with any medals. That's all my old man talks about, nothing else. How he can't wait to see my goddamn medals."

Or my friend Kiowa—a Native American Indian—Kiowa teaching a rain dance to Rat Kiley and Dave Jensen, the three of them whooping and leaping around barefoot while a bunch of villagers looked on with a mixture of fascination and giggly horror. Afterward Rat said, "So where's the rain?" and Kiowa said, "The earth is slow, but the buffalo was patient," and Rat thought about it and said, "Yeah, but where's the rain?" [laughter; Audience laughter]

Or Ted Lavender—the guy who popped the tranquilizers—Ted Lavender adopting an orphan puppy—and carrying it in his rucksack and feeding it from a plastic spoon until the day Azar strapped it to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezed the firing device.

[O'Brien pauses and takes a drink of water]

The average age in our platoon, I'd guess, was nineteen or twenty, and as a consequence things often took on a curiously playful atmosphere, like a sporting event at some exotic reform school. The competition could be lethal, yet there was a childlike exuberance to that war, sometimes, lots of pranks and horseplay. Like when Azar blew away Ted Lavender's puppy. "What's everybody so upset about?" Azar said. "I mean, Christ, I'm just a boy."

[O'Brien pauses and takes a drink of water]

I remember these things too, and I'll just list them for you:

I remember the damp, fungal scent of an empty body bag.

A quarter moon rising over the nighttime paddies.

Henry Dobbins sitting in the twilight, sewing on his new buck-sergeant stripes, quietly singing "A tisket, a tasket, a green and yellow basket."

A field of elephant grass weighted with wind, bowing under the stir of a helicopter's blades, the grass dark and servile, bending low, but then rising straight again when the chopper went away.

A red clay trail outside a village called My Khe.

A hand grenade.

My hand on the hand grenade.

A slim, dainty young man of about twenty.

Kiowa saying, "No choice, Tim. What else could you do?"

Kiowa saying, "Right?"

Kiowa saying, "Talk to me."

[O'Brien pauses and takes a drink of water]

Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet, the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

[O'Brien pauses and takes a drink of water]

The second little piece that I want to read for you is, and you remember the end of this first thing? With the hand grenade, and my hand on the hand grenade? And the slim dainty young man? This is a piece from The Things They Carried that I very rarely read because it's sort of hard to get through, it's short, I promise you that, it won't take me long. And it picks up on that theme, that event. That slim dent...dead young man. This piece is called "Ambush" and it's short.

When she was nine, my daughter Kathleen asked me if I'd ever killed anyone. She knew about the war; she knew I'd been a soldier. "You keep writing these war stories," she said, "so I guess you killed somebody." That was a hard moment, but I did what I thought was right, which was to say "Of course not," and then to hold her for a while. Someday, I hope, she'll ask me again. But here, right now, I want to pretend she's a grown up. I want to tell her exactly what happened, or what I remember happening, and then I want to say to her that as a little girl she was absolutely right. This is why I keep telling war stories:

He was a short, slender young man of about twenty. I was afraid of him—afraid of something—and as he past me on the trail I threw a grenade. It landed at his feet and killed him.

Or, to go back:

Shortly after midnight we'd moved into the ambush site outside the village of My Khe. The whole platoon was there, spread out in the dense brush along the trail, and for five hours, nothing at all happened. We were working in two-man teams—one man on guard while the other slept, switching off every two hours—and I remember it was still dark when Kiowa shook me awake for the final watch. The night was foggy and hot. For the first few moments I felt lost, not sure about directions, looking for my helmet and weapon. I reached out and found three grenades and lined them up in front of me; the pins had already been straightened for quick throwing. And then for maybe half and hour I kneeled there and waited. Very gradually, in tiny slivers, dawn began to break through the fog, and from my position on the trail I could see maybe ten or fifteen meters. The mosquitos were fierce, I remember. And I remember slapping at them, thinking maybe I should wake up Kiowa and ask for some repellent, then thinking it was a bad idea, and then looking up and seeing the young man come out of the morning fog. He wore black clothing and rubber sandals and a grey ammunition belt. His shoulders were slightly stooped, his head cocked to the side as if listening for something. He seemed at ease. He carried his weapon in one hand, muzzle down, moving without any hurry up the center of the trail. There was no sound at all—none that I can remember. In a way, it seemed, he was part of the morning fog or my own imagination, but there was also the reality of what was happening in my stomach. I had already pulled the pin on a grenade before telling myself to pull it. I'd come up to a crouch. It was entirely automatic. I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of duty or responsibility or justice. I crouched and kept my head low. I tried to swallow whatever was rising from my stomach, which tasted like lemonade, something fruity and sour. I was terrified. There were no thoughts about killing. The grenade was just to make him go away—make him evaporate—and I leaned back and felt my head go empty and then felt it fill up again. I'd already thrown the grenade before telling myself to throw it. The brush was thick, I remember, and I had to lob it high, not aiming, and I remember that grenade seeming to freeze above me for an instant, as if a camera had clicked, and I remember ducking down and holding my breath and seeing little wisps of fog rise from the earth. The grenade bounced once and rolled across the trail. I didn't hear it, but there must have been a sound, because the young man dropped his weapon and began to run, just two or three quick steps, then he stopped, turned to his right, and looked down at that grenade and tried to cover his head but never did. I wanted to warn him. I knew then he was about to die. The grenade made a popping noise—not loud but not soft either, just "pop"—and there was a puff of dust and smoke—a small white puff—and the young man seemed to jerk upward as if pulled by invisible wires. He fell on his back. His rubber sandals had been blown off. He lay at the center of the trail, his right leg bent beneath him, his one eye shut, his other eye a huge star-shaped hole.

For me, it was not a matter of live or die. There was no real peril. Almost certainly the young man would have passed me by that day. And it will always be that way.

Later, I remember Kiowa tried to tell me that the man would have died anyway. He told me it was a good kill. He told me I was a soldier and this was a war, and that I should shape up and stop staring and ask myself what the dead man would have done if things were reversed.

But you see, none of it mattered. All I could do was gape at the fact of that young man's body.

Even now, twenty-some years later, I haven't finished sorting it out. Sometimes I forgive myself, other times I don't. In the ordinary hours of life I try not to dwell on it, but now and then when, I'm reading a newspaper or just sitting alone in a room, I'll look up and I'll see that young man coming out of the morning fog. I'll watch him walk toward me, his shoulders slightly stooped, his head cocked to the side, and he'll pass within a few yards of me and smile at some secret thought and then continue up the trail to where it bends back into the fog.

[O'Brien pauses and takes a drink of water]

You can see why that one's hard to read. But I'm gonna finish up tonight, I might take a few questions afterward, although, what would you ask a fiction writer—there's nothing you could possibly ask—by reading the piece I mentioned to you in the beginning, the little introduction. This is something I'm just starting, and as I told you,

[O'Brien pauses and takes a drink of water]

I don't have the slightest idea where it's going or if it's going to go anywhere. It's only, you know, six pages long typewritten, so you can imagine it's going to be very short. But at least for me it's very important always, when I'm giving readings, to read something new. For two reasons: one for me. That is, I can learn things from watching eyes, I learn something in reading that story I just read just now, that, I don't read it very often. And I hope I learn something about this piece. Partly what I want to learn is whether I should keep going or not. And it's going to depend on what I see in your eyeballs out there.

Another reason, though, is to give you a feeling for the unfinished nature of a writer's work. That, that is to say, writers don't just think up ideas and then proceed to write them down as if you're connecting dots. That a lot of what you do as a writer is just willy-nilly kind of random working through daydream and imagination, trying out sentences, trying out ideas and hoping for the best. If I knew where this book that I'm writing now were going, I wouldn't write it, because it'd be like going to a movie where you know the end. It would be no fun going to the movie or reading the book, that's why we don't like to be told the ends of things. And I feel the same way about this piece. That I'm, I feel that I don't know where it's going and I'm kind of glad and if I did know, I probably wouldn't want to write it. It has to do with some memories of my growing up in southern Minnesota and I guess almost everybody in this room can identity with, with this little childhood piece I want to read to you.

[O'Brien pauses and takes a drink of water]

[O'Brien reads from an initial draft of Tomcat in Love]

On a morning in 1952, in July, my friend Herbie and I nailed two plywood boards together and called it an airplane. "What we need," Herbie said, "is an engine."

That word engine—its meanings beyond mere meaning—began to open up for me. I went in to the house and found my father.

"I'll need an engine," I said.

"Yes?" my dad said.

"For an airplane."

"Well, right," my father said, "one airplane engine."

Was this a promise?

Was this lying?

Herbie and I waited for the rest of the summer. We painted our airplane green. We cleared a runway in the back yard, moving the big white birdbath, dinging up one of my mother's rhododendrons. We eyed our plane. "What if it crashes?" I said.

A couple of Herbie's front teeth were missing, which made bubbles form when he laughed at me. "That's stupid," he said, "we'll drop bombs on people. Bomb my house."

So we filled mason jars with gasoline. [Audience laughter] Through July and August in the soft, grave density of midcentury Minnesota, Herbie and I practiced our bombing runs, getting the feel of it, the lift, the swoop. Herbie was seven, I was six. We made the sounds an engine would make. In our heads, where the world was, we bombed Mrs. Catchitt's garage, the school across the street, Jerry Powell and his cousin Ernest, and other people we feared or hated. Mostly, though, we bombed Herbie's house. [Audience laughter] The place was huge and yellow, half a block away, full of brothers and sisters. A scary house, I thought, and Herbie thought so too [Audience laughter]. He liked yelling "Die!" when he banked into a dive [Audience laughter]; he said things I can't remember about his mother, about fires in the attic and black bones.

For me, as a kid, the bombing was fine. It seemed useful, practical, but the best part was flight itself, or the anticipation of flight, and over those summer days, the word engine did important engine work in my head. I did not envision machinery, I envisioned thrust: a force pressing upward and outward, even beyond. This notion had a subjective component—properties both firm and man-made. And yet, as I conceived of it, the engine that my father would be bringing home did not operate on mechanical principles. I knew nothing, for example, of propellers or gears or such. My engine would somehow contain flight. Like a box, I imagined, which, when opened would release into the boards of my airplane the magical quality of levitation.

At night, in bed, I'd sometimes whisper that powerful, mysterious word: engine. I loved its sound, I loved everything it meant, everything it did not mean, but should have.

[O'Brien pauses and takes a drink of water]

Summer ended, autumn came, and what my dad finally brought home was a turtle. [Audience laughter] It was small and black—a mud turtle. My father seemed proud as he placed it on our backyard runway where Herbie and I were practicing to be pilots.

"That thing's a turtle," Herbie said.

[Audience laughter]

"Toby," said my father. "I think his name is Toby."

"I know his name," Herbie said, "every turtle, every turtle is Toby. It's still a turtle." [Audience laughter]

"A pretty good one," my father said.

Herbie's pink, perfectly round face tightened up. I remember backing away, feeling a web of tensions far too complex for me. Partly, no doubt, I was afraid for my father. [Audience laughter] Herbie could get nasty, loud and volatile, easily unnerved by the wrongs of the world. After a second, he scooped up the turtle, searched for its head, and then dropped it on the runway.

"Oh boy," he said.

He took a few slow steps, then ran.

If anything was said between my father and me, I don't remember it. But what I do remember—vividly—is feeling stupid. The words turtle and engine seemed to spin in the backyard sunlight. There had to be some sort of meaningful connection, a turtleness inside engineness, or the other way around, but I couldn't find the fit. My dad closed his eyes. "Well," he said. "Best I could do." And then he turned and went into the house.

For a while, I stood studying that turtle. I poked at it with my foot and said, "Hey, Toby," but the turtle showed no interest at all. The backyard felt like a backyard again. I wasn't particularly sad, not even disappointed, but I did feel a helplessness that went beyond turtles or engines. It had to do with treachery. Something peculiar had happened, yet the peculiarity itself was hard to pin down. In a dim way, maybe, I began to realize that language was involved, its potential for betrayal, its frailties and mutabilities. My airplane, after all, was not an airplane. No engine on earth could make it fly. In this sense, as children do, Herbie and I had deceived ourselves through the ordinary play of make believe. We had renamed the world, willfully, inaccurately, calling those two pitiful plywood boards an airplane, which was both pretending and a kind of lying.

Also, of course, there was the language my dad had used: "Well, right, one airplane engine."

His intent, I'm sure, was in no way to lie. He meant to play with me, to join the fun, to engage in the make believe of childhood.

But still, for me, the words he chose had the effect of a binding commitment, which I kept pestering him to honor: "Where's the engine? Where's the engine?" Over and over, all summer: "Where's the engine? Where is it?" And over time, my dad must have felt trapped by a promise he'd neither intended nor could possibly keep.

"Right, sure," he'd say, whenever I'd brought up the subject.

Or he'd say, "Pretty soon. I'm working on it."

At some point during that summer, almost certainly, my father had to feel an internal shift from playfulness to pressure, from playing along with me to playing me along. My repetitive inquiries required repetitive responses, and the repetition itself gradually transformed into something, something benign, into something approaching outright deception. That night, the night he brought home that turtle, I remember the house was really quiet. I tiptoed into my room, closed the door, and waited for my dad to come in and explain things.

The next morning, Herbie said "Your dad's a liar."

I remember trying to mount a defense. I talked about Toby, what an incredible turtle he was, how I could get him to stick his head out from under the shell by putting a pan of water in front of him. I talked about using Toby as a bomb. "We can fly up in our airplane, we can drop Toby on some stupid girl, scare the wits out of her. Girls hate turtles."

Herbie said, "Good idea, really good. Your dad's a liar." [Audience laughter] "Not usually," I said.

"They all are," Herbie said. "Every father. They can't stop. They just lie and lie." I didn't see the point in disagreeing.

I watched Herbie stroll over to our green airplane and pick it up and carry it across the lawn. He placed it tail down against the garage.

"It's not an airplane anymore," Herbie said. "It's a cross."

"What's a cross?" I said.

"You know," Herbie said. "Like the Bible. A cross. Come on, let's go get my sister Mary Jean, we'll nail her to it." [Audience laughter]

"Okay," I said.

We walked the half block to Herbie's big yellow house. Herbie had numerous sisters, four or five, and it took time to find Mary Jean playing with her dollhouse up in the attic. She was five years old. Very pretty: reddish hair, shiny white skin. I liked her a lot.

"We need you," Herbie said. [Audience laughter]

"What for?" Mary Jean said.

Herbie gave her a stare that lasted a few seconds.

"It'll be neat," he said, "Timmy and me, we've got this cross. We'll nail you to it. Like...[Audience laughter] like with Jesus."

Mary Jean glanced over at me. I smiled at her. "Well," she sighed "I guess so." [Audience laughter]

The three of us trooped back to my house. Mary Jean stood against the cross. Herbie and I went into the garage and found a hammer and two rusty nails. [Audience laughter] As we walked outside, back toward Mary Jean, I was beginning to feel queasy.

"You think this'll hurt?" I asked. [Audience laughter; O'Brien laughs and takes a drink of water]

Herbie shrugged. He had a hard, fixed, enthusiastic look in his eye. [Audience laughter] Partly it was the look of make believe, partly it wasn't. He told Mary Jean to spread her arms out, which she did. And at that point, thank God, my mother happened to come out the back door. [Audience laughter] She was carrying a basket of wet laundry.

"What's this?" she asked.

"Sunday school," Mary Jean said. [Audience laughter; O'Brien laughs] "I get to be Jesus." [Audience laughter; O'Brien laughs and takes a drink of water]

This is a space break. [O'Brien takes a drink of water] I'm almost done. If I're going, as you're going to find out that...when I say "almost done" I'm mean I'm going to be stopping where I was the day I flew here, which was yesterday, like right in the middle of a sentence. [Audience laughter]

At dinner that night, the hammer and nails lay at the center of the kitchen table near a bowl of green beans. It was a long and hard meal. I had to keep explaining, over and over, how the whole thing with Mary Jean was a game, just for fun, not even a real cross. [Audience laughter] My parents looked at me as if I had polio. [Audience laughter]

"The hammer," my father said. "You see the hammer?"

"Sure," I said.

"Is it real?"

"Well, yeah" I said.

"And the nails?" my dad said. "Real or unreal?"

"Ok, real" I told him, "but not like...I mean, is Toby a real engine?" [Audience laughter; O'Brien laughs]

My father was not happy with that. [Audience laughter] He delivered a lecture about the difference between playing games and driving nails through people's hands. [Audience laughter] I already knew the difference—even as a six year old—but sitting there at the kitchen table, feeling wronged and defenseless, I couldn't come up with the words to say everything I wanted to say. I wanted to tell him that I wasn't a murderer, that the stuff with the cross had just unfolded like a story, that I never really believed in any of it, that I was almost positive that Herbie would not have hammered those nails through Mary Jean's pretty white hands.

These and other thoughts bounced around in my six year old head like rubber balls, but I couldn't catch any of them. All I could do was look down at the table, at the hammer and the nails and say "All right."

"All right, what?" my father said.

"You know. I won't nail anybody." [Audience laughter]

"And what about Herbie?" my dad said.

I thought about it. "I guess he won't either," I said. "I'm pretty sure."

That's where I end that story.

[Audience applause]

Thanks. Thank you. Thanks. Thank you. I want to...maybe I won't take questions; it's such a big audience and it's about an hour has gone by. But I wanted to say a couple things in conclusion that I think are worth saying. Remember I began by saying that I'm a fiction writer, well every thing, every story that you've heard tonight is entirely and totally made up. No Herbie, no cross, no airplane, no turtle. None of it happened. Doesn't mean it's not true, does it? Just because a thing doesn't happen, doesn't mean it's not true, unless you don't think your dreams are real dreams. Everything that had to do with the ambush, I don't have a daughter, I don't have any kids at all. I never killed anybody that I know of. No Kiowa. Same thing with the story's [spin]: no Ted Lavender, no, no, nothing; it's all made up. But, it's still true. Which is why I write fiction. There are ways of getting at truth, and there are other ways of getting at truth. And a fiction writer's way, or a novelist's way, or a storyteller's way, is through invention. And sometimes invention can be truer than the truth. As an example, in the last little piece I read you, the start of this, what might be a novel, I think now, since you laughed, that's what I wanted, so maybe I'll keep going. Is that, is that, there are, there was...even though there was no plane and no turtle and none of this happened, I think you, you, you could get the sense of what it feels like to grow up in this little town like Minnesota, what a kid like Herbie is like. I didn't say this in the piece, but he's the sort of kid who, if he were living today, would be on Ritalin. [Audience laughter] He was, you know, hyperactive and, you know, impulsive and zany and wild. Did incredibly crazy things, and although he didn't do the cross thing, and although that didn't happen, it sure could have happened and in another world would have happened.

So, what I want, I guess I wanted to finish by saying, and then I'll walk off the stage is that I hope you don't leave the room thinking that I've just told you stories out of my life because I haven't. But, what I've done instead is to give you a feel for some parts of my life and I hope parts of yours. Ultimately, when I write even about Vietnam, I'm not writing about Vietnam. I believe that if you've lived, you've been in 'Nam. If you've had a girlfriend dump you or a...if you've been divorced or if you've had a father die, or if you've had cancer, you've pretty much been where I've been. You've lived in those, those slow motion droplets of now that were Vietnam. You know, when you look at your watch and it's three a.m. and then you wait an hour and you look again and it's 3:01. We've all been there, and we've all suffered terror and hurt and sorrow and grief, despair, regret. And it's that stuff that I'm writing about. I'm not writing about bombs and bullets. I'm not writing about history. I'm not writing about political events. I'm trying to write about the human heart and the need to [inaudible]...pieces I read tonight I hope I touched your hearts. Thanks.

[Audience applause]

Bob King: I just have three quick things to say. One is that books by Mr. O'Brien are for sale out in the lounge. Secondly, and I almost don't want to say this, there's a reception at the Faculty Club across the street. Those of you who know the Faculty Club will know that only five percent of you could ever get in there. And I, but I do want to thank Tim O'Brien for starting out the Writers Conference, for sharing his work and life with us, and telling us something about the paths that people take, and the roads that writers follow. Thanks, Tim O'Brien.

[Audience applause]

[Transcription by Beth Schoborg; Copyedited by Emily Mell; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts 17 June 2015]


Contact Information

Crystal Alberts

Associate Professor of English

Director, UND Writers Conference

276 Centennial Drive
110 Merrifield Hall, Stop 7209
Grand Forks, ND 58202