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O'Brien has never told anyone this story, and lets us know right away that he's ashamed of it because it exposes him as a coward.
Here we go, then.
It begins in June of 1968, when O'Brien drafted.
O'Brien doesn't believe that the war is right, and thinks the country's reasons for going to war aren't solid enough to warrant a whole lot of killing.
When O'Brien gets his draft notice in the mail, he thinks (smugly but believably), that he's too good for the war—bound for grad school at Harvard, Phi Beta Kappa, and just obviously unsuited for combat. He hates camping, blood, and authority, for starters.
His father asks what his plans are, and he says he isn't sure.
He spends that summer working in a meatpacking plant, which is completely gross.
O'Brien hates how gross it is (you really should read the truly epic descriptions of grossness) and how much it smells, and feels like his entire life is becoming about slaughter.
Obviously, he's also incredibly stressed about his upcoming stint in the army.
The only available option—other than going to Vietnam—seems to be running away to Canada, an eight-hour drive away.
He keeps going back and forth about whether or not he should run. He thinks that if there were a war that he agreed with, he would totally sign up for it. It's not like he's a sissy or anything, but he knows that if he runs to Canada, people would brand him as one.
Finally, one day, while standing there at the meatpacking plant, he breaks. He goes home, takes a shower, leaves a note for his parents, and starts to drive toward Canada.
When he gets to the Rainy River—which separates Minnesota from Canada—he finds an old, broken-down fishing resort called the Tip Top Lodge. Its owner (or manager, or caretaker, or something—his actual job is never totally made clear) is Elroy Berdahl, an 81-year-old man. O'Brien says that Elroy saved his life.
O'Brien stays at the Tip Top Lodge for six days, and Elroy mostly remains silent. He certainly doesn't ask O'Brien any questions. O'Brien is the only guest at the Tip Top Lodge, and he is pretty sure that Elroy knows why he's there.
O'Brien does odd jobs for Elroy, and they do a lot of fishing.
O'Brien is starting to freak out—yes, even more—about his quest to Canada. He's right there, but he can't seem to make himself take the plunge. He fantasizes about it a lot, and a lot of those fantasies end with him being chased down by the FBI and the Mounties. He isn't sure he wants to leave his country forever.
Through it all, Elroy never asks O'Brien a question. O'Brien appreciates it, since he's reasoned himself completely out of rationality and has now come straight up against two conflicting instincts.
Four nights in, O'Brien asks Elroy how much he owes him. Elroy says $260 for room and board, but when O'Brien says he'll need to take off in a couple of days, Elroy insists on paying him for the odd jobs, and asks O'Brien how much money he made on his last job.
O'Brien finally begins to talk about his job at the meatpacking plant, telling the old man in detail about just how awful it was.
Elroy decides to pay O'Brien way more than he earned at the meatpacking plant, and ends up owing O'Brien money instead of the other way around.
O'Brien turns the money down, but Elroy tacks it to his door anyway, making O'Brien think that Elroy must know about his plans.
On the sixth day, Elroy takes O'Brien fishing on the Rainy River. At some point, O'Brien realizes that they must be in Canadian waters. Elroy cuts the engine about twenty yards from the Canadian side of the river, and O'Brien is now faced with a dilemma: jump and swim to the other side, or stay.
Paralyzed, O'Brien starts to cry. Elroy pretends not to notice.
O'Brien realizes that there's no way he'll jump. He's not brave enough.
All of a sudden, on the Minnesota side of the river, he sees a hallucination of his family, the mayor, old teachers, Jimmy Cross, Linda, Jane Fonda, Huck Finn—in short, everyone he's ever met in his life, many characters in this book, and an assortment of historical figures and celebrities.
All of his hallucination friends are yelling at him, either to jump and swim to Canada or to stay where he is.
And he tries to jump overboard.
And he can't. He's too embarrassed. And Elroy bears witness.
O'Brien leaves the lodge the next morning. He leaves Elroy's money on his kitchen counter, drives back home, and heads to Vietnam.