CLOSE

12 Harrowing Facts About The Things They Carried

Fact and fiction blend together in Tim O’Brien’s collection of stories about the Vietnam War. A character named “Tim O’Brien” fights alongside his comrades, while another soldier tells a story that gets revised later in the book. As O’Brien (the real O’Brien) has said, sometimes fiction tells the truth better than nonfiction. Here, we take a look at the facts, and only the facts.

1. IT’S BASED ON HIS OWN EXPERIENCES ...

O’Brien served close to a year of active combat as part of 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry, including a stint in My Lai just months after the notorious massacre. He was injured by a grenade explosion, worked a desk job for a while and was sent home in 1970.

2. ... AND YET HE CLAIMS MOST OF IT IS MADE UP.

O’Brien maintains that the majority of the events in The Things They Carried come from his imagination (it is labeled as a work of fiction, after all). Which isn’t to say they have no basis in truth. There are, O’Brien writes, “story-truths” and “happening-truths,” the distinction being fictional reality versus factual reality. Yet “story truths,” O’Brien believes, often convey emotional and philosophical truths in more effective ways. A fictional account of a soldier’s death may better convey a sense of fear and loss than a factual account. “That’s what fiction is for,” O’Brien said during a lecture at Brown University. “It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient.”

3. HE EDITED A MILITARY JOURNAL WHILE IN VIETNAM.

After several months in the field, O’Brien secured a clerk’s role that included filing paperwork, typing reports, and overseeing the publication of the divisional newsletter. It was called “The Professional,” and it included regimental reports and other news sanctioned by the Army. Of course O’Brien loathed it: “I despised that job, and I especially despised that ridiculous newsletter,” he wrote. “But it beat getting shot dead.”

4. HE DEDICATED THE BOOK TO FICTIONAL CHARACTERS.

At the beginning of his book, O’Brien offers a dedication to the soldiers of Alpha Company, and a few in particular: Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa. These are, the reader comes to learn, some of the main characters from O’Brien’s stories. And they’re all made up. In an interview with NPR, O’Brien says he spent more time with his characters than he did with any soldiers in combat, who were constantly cycling in and out. He also wanted to emulate the conventions of a memoir. As he told The Austin Chronicle, “I was hoping I could seduce the reader into thinking, ‘Maybe I’m reading nonfiction.’”

5. THE STORIES FIRST APPEARED IN ESQUIRE, PLAYBOY, THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY AND HARPER’S.

O’Brien worked briefly as a reporter at The Washington Post before turning his attention full time to writing fiction. In addition to his novels and stories, O’Brien also wrote a memoir for The New York Times titled “The Vietnam In Me” that discussed his battle with depression and his return to Vietnam in 1994.

6. IT’S NOT HIS ONLY BOOK ABOUT THE WAR.

O’Brien wrote a memoir about his time in Vietnam called If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. He also wrote a novel titled Going After Cacciato about a soldier who leaves Vietnam and travels to Paris. It won the National Book Award for 1978, beating out John Irving's The World According to Garp and The Stories of John Cheever. O’Brien says the book is based on a fantasy he always had about going AWOL.

7. HE DIDN’T INTEND IT FOR HIGH SCHOOLERS.

The Things They Carried has become a staple in high school and college curriculums across the country—a fact that surprises O’Brien, who always thought the themes of trauma and the shifting nature of truth to be unappealing to all but a small group of adult readers. “I had imagined an audience of literate people on subways and going to work and in their homes reading the book,” O’Brien told NPR.

8. HE DOESN’T CONSIDER IT A WAR BOOK.

Although it’s a novel about the Vietnam War, O’Brien prefers to think of it in terms of larger ideas. It’s about storytelling and the shifting nature of truth. It’s about the things all of us carry. “The book was meant to be a bridge between the experiences of all of you, the things you carry through your lives,” O’Brien says.

9. IT’S BEEN ADAPTED NUMEROUS TIMES FOR THE THEATER.

Including a critically acclaimed one-man play in St. Paul, Minn.

10. AND BEEN OPTIONED AS A MOVIE SEVERAL TIMES.

But it has yet to be made into a major motion picture, according to O'Brien.

11. IT INSPIRED AN EXHIBIT AT THE NATIONAL VETERANS MUSEUM.

The exhibit includes artwork and artifacts from more than 20 artists who are veterans of the war. There’s also a re-creation of a soldier’s tent shelter fully decked out with equipment and personal effects.

12. BRYAN CRANSTON NARRATES THE AUDIOBOOK.

Spend six hours listening to the Breaking Bad star’s smooth, somewhat menacing voice as the narrator, and you'll get a real feel for the book. Take it from critic A.O. Scott: “Cranston attacks O’Brien’s sober, sinewy prose with a slightly scary authority.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars
Getty Images
Getty Images

Winning an Oscar is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you’re Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you’d think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are, Colin Firth.

1. ANGELINA JOLIE

After Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world wrinkle their noses, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage with the rest of Marcheline’s belongings when she died in 2007, but it hasn’t yet surfaced. “I didn’t actually lose it,” Jolie said, “but nobody knows where it is at the moment.”

2. WHOOPI GOLDBERG

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. “Oscar will never leave my house again,” Goldberg said.

3. OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

When Olympia Dukakis’s Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. “For $78,” they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. MARLON BRANDO

“I don’t know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront,” Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. “Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared.” He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. “The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don’t know where it is now.”

5. JEFF BRIDGES

Jeff Bridges had just won his Oscar in 2010 for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the next year’s ceremony, where he was up for another one. He lost to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. “It’s been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now,” the actor admitted. “I’m hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven’t won a spare! But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better.” Which brings us to ...

6. COLIN FIRTH

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed the British actor as he said those words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. MATT DAMON

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn’t sure where his award went. “I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it,” Damon said in 2007.

8. MARGARET O'BRIEN

In 1945, seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O’Briens' maid took the award home to polish, as she had done before, but never came back to work. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O’Brien’s mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O’Brien. “I’ll never give it to anyone to polish again,” she said.

9. BING CROSBY

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school’s library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a three-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. “I wanted to make people laugh,” the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. HATTIE MCDANIEL

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

An earlier version of this post ran in 2013.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images
arrow
Pop Culture
"Weird Al" Yankovic Is Getting the Funko Treatment
Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images

Though the New York Toy Fair—the largest trade show for playthings in the western hemisphere—won't officially kick off until Saturday, February 17, kids and kids-at-heart are already finding much to get excited about as the world's biggest toy companies ready to unleash their newest wares on the world. One item that has gotten us—and fans of fine parody songs everywhere—excited is "Weird Al" Yankovic's induction into the Funko Pop! family. The accordion-loving songwriter behind hits like "Eat It," "White & Nerdy," "Amish Paradise," and "Smells Like Nirvana" shared the news via Twitter, and included what we can only hope is a final rendering of his miniaturized, blockheaded vinyl likeness:

In late December, Funko announced that a Weird Al toy would be coming in 2018 as part of the beloved brand's Pop Rocks series. Though we know he'll be joined by Alice Cooper, Kurt Cobain, Elton John, and the members of Mötley Crüe, there's no word yet on exactly when you’ll be able to get your hands on Pop! Al. But knowing that he's coming is enough … for now.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios