Carrying a Heavy Load
The word carry means to hold, contain, or support something and to take that something you are holding or supporting to another place. In many cases when people talk about carrying things they speak about physically carrying an object with some amount of weight from one place to another. Many times however people carry things with them throughout life that have no physical weight, weighing themselves down with the “heavy” burdens that life brings. Both Wideman and Obrien’s short stories exemplify a common theme of persevering through struggles and relieving oneself of the weight of life’s struggles. The soldiers in O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried” carry heavy physical loads necessary for them to survive out in war, but they also carry heavy emotional loads which will be with them for the rest of their lives if they are unable to let them go. Some things the men carry are universal, like a compress in case of fatal injuries and a two-pound poncho that can be used as a raincoat, groundsheet, or tent. Most of the men are common, low-ranking soldiers and carry a standard M-16 assault rifle and several magazines of ammunition. Several men carry grenade launchers. All men carry the figurative weight of memory and the literal weight of one another. They carry Vietnam itself, in the heavy weather and the dusty soil. The things they carry are also determined by their rank or specialty.
Each mans physical burden consisted of weapons, cigarettes, C rations, and packets of Kool-Aid, and the more intangible things, such as fear and silent awe, that weigh these soldiers down. As leader, for example, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries the maps, the compasses, and the responsibility for his men’s lives. The medic, Rat Kiley, carries morphine, malaria tablets, and supplies for serious wounds, and the responsibility to save lives.
The things they carry depend on several factors, including the men’s priorities and their constitutions. Because the machine gunner Henry Dobbins is exceptionally large, for example, he carries extra rations; because he is superstitious, he carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck. Nervous Ted Lavender carries marijuana and tranquilizers to calm himself down, and the religious Kiowa carries an illustrated New Testament, a gift from his father. With the amount of space that the author gives to enumerating the weight of these objects, one might assume that these objects are what are really important to these soldiers, but in reality it is the incalculable weight of their burdens that truly weigh them down.
The “things” of the title that O’Brien’s characters carry are both literal and figurative. While they all carry heavy physical loads, they also all carry heavy emotional loads, composed of grief, terror, love, and longing. Each man’s physical burden underscores his emotional burden. Henry Dobbins, for example, carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose and, with them, the longing for love and comfort. Similarly, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, of the Alpha Company, carries various reminders of his love for Martha, a girl from his college in New Jersey. Cross carries her letters in his backpack and her good-luck pebble in his mouth. He carries her photographs, including one of her playing volleyball, but closer to his heart still are his memories.
Lavender, one of the soldiers in the story, gets shot on his way back from going to the bathroom. That night the soldiers sit in the darkness discussing the short span between life and death in an attempt to make sense of the situation. The morning after Lavender’s death, in the steady rain, Cross crouches in his foxhole and burns Martha’s letters and two photographs. By burning the physical reminders of Martha Cross believes that he will be able to forget about his past with her, and stop fantasizing about their future. O’Brien wrote “Besides, the letters were in his head. And even now, without photographs,...
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