Dimon Kendrick-Holmes: Questions from the audience

April 6, 2013 

Tim O'Brien was supposed to read from his work and then take questions.

I wondered how it would go down.

Since writing "If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Send Me Home," published in 1973, the novelist has been publicly processing what he experienced as an infantryman in Vietnam.

In that book, a memoir, O'Brien writes: "Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories."

That's what O'Brien's been doing for the past 30 years, through his nine published works and occasional public readings. About 20 years ago, when "The Things They Carried" was all the rage in the literary world, a friend of mine saw O'Brien read passages at a writer's retreat in Vermont. Everybody wanted to talk about it and praise it, but when O'Brien finished he seemed to be shouldering a heavy burden, and he slipped out the back into the night, without a word.

Last week, O'Brien was welcomed with warm applause to the stage of the Springer Opera House. Everyone in the audience had ostensibly just completed "The Things They Carried" as part of the Big Read, and now O'Brien was going to read from it and talk about it and take questions.

I probably shouldn't say this, but I don't like questions from the audience. I don't like when an accomplished author reads something powerful that he or she has written and then people start jumping up and asking long complicated questions, usually after they've mentioned that they're working on a novel themselves.

If the author and the work are worth something, then you should be allowed to sit for a few moments in silence and ponder the weight of it.

O'Brien was supposed to take questions. I looked out into the audience and saw young and old, warriors and pacifists, philosophers and scientists, watchers of FOX News and watchers of MSNBC. There was even a white-haired man wearing his sergeant's stripes and a former mayor who'd served as chief counsel to officers involved in the My Lai massacre.

I wondered how it would go down.

Here's what happened: Instead of reading, O'Brien started talking about a bedtime story he told his young sons after one of them had made a comically bad decision. The story was about the summer O'Brien spent deciding whether to fight in a war he didn't believe in, and it was similar to "The Rainy River," one of the chapters in "The Things They Carried."

But instead of reading from a page, O'Brien was looking at the audience, his face sometimes twisted with emotion.

Then he talked about "the moral burden of uncertainty." He talked about the similarities between Iraq and Vietnam, how "you are bored and you are scared simultaneously" and how "you're going in circles."

"Who do you kill?" he said. "You know who to kill when they start shooting at you but by then it's too late."

He talked about a 95-year-old woman in Florida who still startles awake every morning at 2 a.m. and says, "Where's my baby?"

She's the mother of Chip Merricks, one of O'Brien's buddies who was killed long ago in Vietnam.

O'Brien stood on the stage, heavy under the weight of it, still no answers after all these years.

And then he left the stage, without taking questions.

Contact Dimon Kendrick-Holmes, executive editor, at dkholmes@ledger-enquirer.com

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