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I’m still cleaning the shit out of my ears.

The Things They CarriedThe Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

I was going to leave this book starless, because if there is any truth in me I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it is a very well written. A painfully realistic grunt’s eye view of the war in Vietnam, I’m still cleaning the shit out of my ears.

The title comes from what each soldier carried on patrol into the jungle.

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity…Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations…Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney…Ted Lavender carried 6 or 7 ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RTO, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament…As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man, his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet…Because the nights were cold, and because the monsoons were wet, each carried a green plastic poncho that could be used as a raincoat or groundsheet or makeshift tent. With its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost 2 pounds, but it was worth every ounce. In April, for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they used his poncho to wrap him up, then to carry him across the paddy, then to lift him into the chopper that took him away.

The narrative goes back and forth in time, before, during and after the war, and although the author refers to himself by name, he cautions the reader repeatedly not to believe everything he says, and that the truth isn’t really the point anyway.

I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.

The creepiest story is “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” when a soldier manages to bring his stateside girlfriend to the war, and she takes to it a lot better than anyone could have imagined. But the story that sticks to me most is “On the Rainy River,” when Tim gets his draft notice and takes off for six days. He thinks he’s going to Canada, but

I survived, but it’s not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.

Not an easy read, but worth it.

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