Back from Vietnam, on the Fourth of July, Norman Bowker is driving the seven-mile loop around the lake over and over again. The lake is calm and flat and silver.
It's a graceful lake, but not good for swimming; it drowned his best friend Max Arnold before he could go to the war.
There's no one around for Bowker to talk to. Everyone's moved away. His old girlfriend, Sally, is married to another man, and happy. His father is watching baseball on TV.
Bowker starts another loop around the lake.
He wishes he could stop in and talk to Sally and impress her with his new skill—he can tell time without a watch, thank you, Vietnam. He wants to tell her about how he almost won the Silver Star for valor.
He wishes his father weren't watching baseball and were in the car with him instead, so that he could tell his father how he almost won the Silver Star for valor. He thinks his father would understand. And besides, Bowker has seven other medals, which are ordinary medals for doing ordinary soldier things.
Bowker would tell him why he didn't end up winning the medal, telling him first about the Song Tra Bong, a river that in the monsoon season changed from a normal river to a big, stinky, overflowing muck. And that he would've won the medal if not for that darn smell.
Bowker keeps driving through the town. He wants to tell it about the war, but it doesn't look like it would care.
He continues with how he would have told his father about the Silver Star, saying that there was a night when the Alpha Company camped in a field besides the Song Tra Bong. Locals told them not to camp there, that it was an evil field. But because the platoon had apparently never seen a horror movie, they went ahead and did it anyway.
By midnight, the river had overflowed, and the rain made the field all oozy. What's more disgusting, it turned out the field was full of sewage, the village toilet.
If Bowker were telling the story to Sally, she would at this point be offended by the obscenity. His father wouldn't, though. Neither would Max.
Bowker starts his eighth loop around the lake.
If Max were here, he would talk to Max about the war, and courage. And if his father wanted to talk, he would talk to his father.
He would say that late that night, the platoon came under attack, and the night went completely monkey-poo—impressive, given that they were already in poo. The shells were going into the field, making it boil. The smell was beyond bad.
All of a sudden, Kiowa got hit by something, and started to sink into the muck. He grabbed Kiowa's arm and tried to pull him out, but started to get pulled under himself. The smell was everywhere, and was just too much. So he let go of Kiowa and worked his way out of the field.
Bowker thinks it would be a good war story, but no one wants to hear war stories about Vietnam.
He goes to the A&W and orders a burger, but he's been away, and he doesn't realize that things have changed and he's supposed to order from an intercom now, and that "rootie-tootie" is the new slang for root beer.
Suddenly, the intercom starts to talk to him, asking if Bowker has anything he wants to get off his chest. Bowker says no, there's nothing.
On his eleventh tour around the lake, he realizes that he'll never be able to talk about it—not with anyone.
He was extremely brave, but not as brave as he wanted to be. If he told his dad, his dad might get it, and might say that at least he got seven other medals.
The Fourth of July fireworks start. Bowker wades into the lake and stands there while he watches them. He thinks it's a pretty good show.