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Carry That Weight

If you’ve never read “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien, I suggest picking up a copy. Here is the title essay:

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of fight pretending. He would imagine romantic camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of love. She was a virgin, he was almost sure. She was an English major at Mount Sebastian, and she wrote beautifully about her professors and roommates and midterm exams, about her respect for Chaucer and her great affection for Virginia Woolf. She often quoted lines .of poetry; she never mentioned the war, except to say, Jimmy, take care of yourself. The letters weighed ten ounces. They were signed “Love, Martha,” but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant. At dusk, he would carefully return the letters to his rucksack. Slowly, a bit distracted, he would get up and move among his men, checking the perimeter, then at full dark he would return to his hole and watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin.

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between fifteen and twenty pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-size bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed five pounds including the liner aid camouflage cover. They carried the standard fatigue jackets and trousers. Very few carried underwear. On their feet they carried jungle boots-2.1 pounds – and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl’s foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was 2 necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RT0, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, Carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man, his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet. Necessity dictated. Because the land was mined and booby-trapped, it was SOP for each man to carry a steel-centered, nylon-covered flak jacket, which weighed 6.7 pounds, but which on hot days seemed much heavier. Because you could die so quickly, each man carried at least one large compress bandage, usually in the helmet band for easy access. 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 two 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.

[Photo Credit: Addiction Inbox]


1 Matt Blankman   ~  Aug 23, 2011 12:42 pm

Read this years ago and loved it. I also liked O'Brien's In The Lake of the Woods and Tomcat In Love, but they didn't approach The Things They Carried (in my opinion).

2 Alex Belth   ~  Aug 23, 2011 12:50 pm

Yeah, I'm working my way through it. It is powerful. Beautiful writing.

3 BobbyB   ~  Aug 23, 2011 1:05 pm

Yeah, this and "Going after Cacchiatto" are his best reads.

4 Alex Belth   ~  Aug 23, 2011 1:18 pm

I know a guy had O'Brien as a teacher. That must have been something.

5 cult of basebaal   ~  Aug 23, 2011 4:06 pm

Along those lines, both of Gustav Hasford's Vietnam novels are available, in their entirety, to read on his website.

The first, The Short-Timers, should be instantly familiar as the source for Full Metal Jacket and the movie hews closely to the book, in language, structure and theme.

The 2nd, The Phantom Blooper is a sequel.

Both, for some criminal reason, are currently out-of-print.


The Marines are looking for a few good men...
The recruit says that his name is Leonard Pratt.
Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim takes one look at the skinny red-neck and immediately dubs him "Gomer Pyle."
We think maybe he's trying to be funny. Nobody laughs.
Dawn. Green Marines. Three junior drill instructors screaming, "GET IN LINE! GET IN LINE! YOU WILL NOT MOVE! YOU WILL NOT SPEAK!" Red brick buildings. Willow trees hung with with Spanish moss. Long, irregular lines of sweating civilians standing tall on yellow footprints painted in a pattern on the concrete deck.
Parris Island, South Carolina, the United States Marine Corps Recruit Depot, an eight-week college for the phony-tough and the crazy-brave, constructed in a swamp on an island, symmetrical but sinister like a suburban death camp.
Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim spits. "Listen up, herd. You maggots had better start looking like United States Marine Corps recruits. Do not think for one second that you are Marines. You just dropped by to pick up a set of dress blues. Am I right, ladies? Sorry 'bout that."
A wiry little Texan in horn-rimmed glasses the guys are already calling "Cowboy" says, "Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me?" Cowboy takes off his pearl-gray Stetson and fans his sweaty face.
I laugh. Years of high school drama classes have made me a mimic. I sound exactly like John Wayne as I say: "I think I'm going to hate this movie."
Cowboy laughs. He beats his Stetson on his thigh.
Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim laughs, too. The senior drill instructor is an obscene little ogre in immaculate khaki. He aims his index finger between my eyes and says, "You. Yeah--you. Private Joker. I like you. You can come over to my house and fuck my sister." He grins. Then his face goes hard. "You little scumbag. I got your name. I got your ass. You will not laugh. You will not cry. You will learn by the numbers. I will teach you."

6 briang   ~  Aug 24, 2011 1:54 am

anyone's dads in the vietnam war?...anyone reading in the vietnam war?

my dad and uncle were. i wonder what they carried. i should ask them.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver