In the book, Elroy Berdahl is the eighty-one-year-old proprietor or manager of the Tip Top Lodge, a dilapidated fishing resort in Canada. O'Brien meets him when he makes a stopover at the inn on his way north to Canada.
At the time, O'Brien wanted to go to Canada because he felt ambivalent about going to war. Although he didn't oppose offensive warfare in some situations, O'Brien still feared dying. He didn't want to face his mortality fighting in a war he didn't fully understand. Additionally, he was afraid of being ostracized for his stance, and he feared a legal backlash if he chose not to go. In this state of indecision, O'Brien decided to drive north towards Canada. There, like many others, he hoped to avoid fulfilling the terms of his draft. According to the Canadian government, almost 60,000 American draft dodgers took up residence in Canada during the 1960s. Many chose Canada because the country had no extradition treaty with the United States.
By the time O'Brien spied the lodge, he was exhausted and in a state of mental turmoil. He relates that Elroy Berdahl welcomed him without asking any questions. O'Brien sensed that Berdahl knew his situation when he quietly sized him up upon arrival.
Accordingly, O'Brien spent six days with Elroy at the Tip Top Lodge. Since the tourist season was already over, the two men found themselves alone. They spent the next six days keeping each other company. In the mornings, they took walks together, and in the evenings, they played Scrabble, listened to records, or read quietly. O'Brien notes that Elroy never asked him any uncomfortable questions. Instead, the elderly proprietor incorporated O'Brien into his daily routine with compassion and grace. Elroy accepted O'Brien's help in preparing the cabins for the winter, and he taught O'Brien how to split and stack firewood.
On their last day together, Elroy took O'Brien fishing on the Rainy River. There, overwhelmed by the old man's quiet acceptance and the enormity of his situation, O'Brien openly gave vent to his pent-up emotions. He relates that Elroy let him cry tears of fear and frustration without asking him any embarrassing or probing questions. Elroy never judged O'Brien for his inability to speak freely about his quandary. The old man's taciturn nature hid a kind heart. Before O'Brien left, Elroy gave him two hundred dollars, but O'Brien relates that he eventually returned the money to the old man.
In all, O'Brien came to know Elroy Berdahl at a crucial moment in his life. In those six days, Elroy gave O'Brien the understanding and acceptance he needed. Without judgment and with unquestioning charity, Elroy gave O'Brien the space he needed to decide his future for himself.