The short story "On the Rainy River" by Tim O'Brien tells of a young man who receives a draft notice and his dilemma about whether to respond to the notice, join the military, and go to Vietnam or escape into Canada. The author uses his own name of Tim O'Brien for the narrator of the story. He explains that prior to receiving his draft notice, he believed the war in Vietnam was wrong but did not strongly manifest his convictions about it. When the notice comes, he thinks of all sorts of reasons why he shouldn't have been asked to be a soldier. While he is working a filthy, disgusting job at a meatpacking plant, he ponders his options. He is afraid to die, but also he does not want to kill anyone else.
He begins to seriously consider getting away and crossing the border into Canada, where the draft cannot reach him. Although running represents independence in that he is able to stand by his moral choices, it also represents a loss of emotional and legal security because he would have to leave behind his family, his friends, his hometown, and his legal protection as a US citizen:
I was afraid of walking away from my whole life, my friends and my family, my whole history, everything that mattered to me. I feared losing the respect of my parents. I feared the law. I feared ridicule and censure.
O'Brien drives north toward the border and along the Rainy River which separates the United States from Canada, and he stops in at a fishing resort called the Tip Top Lodge. He stays for six days there with an old man named Elroy—who perceives his anguish of indecision but remains nonjudgmental, letting O'Brien make up his own mind.
Running away to Canada symbolizes independence from the family, social, and governmental pressures that are pressing O'Brien to participate in what he considers an unjust war. For him, security is to accept the draft call and enlist. In doing this, he will receive the approval and acceptance of family and society.
There is a crisis moment when O'Brien is out fishing with Elroy and he is only a few yards from the Canadian shore. He ultimately decides, however, to do the secure thing, return to his hometown, and go to Vietnam:
All those eyes on me - the town, the whole universe - and I couldn't risk the embarrassment. It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! they yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush. I couldn't tolerate it. I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule.
As O'Brien leaves the fishing resort and drives home, he realizes he has relinquished the independence of flight for the security of doing what is expected of him:
I survived, but it was not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.