While only appearing in "The Things They Carried" for a short time, O'Brien portrays Elroy Berdahl as quite possibly the most important person in his life. A chance encounter at a small series of cabins called the Tip Top Lodge near the Canadian border influenced the author in a very profound way. Lest one consider that an exaggeration, this is how O'Brien acknowledges the 81 year old bald, emaciated man who invited the scared young would-be draft dodger into his cabin:
"The man who opened the door that day is the hero of my life. How do I say this without sounding sappy? Blurt it out -- the man saved me."
O'Brien is not suggesting, of course, that this elderly gentlemen with the quiet demeanor and the deceptively well-developed intellect had saved his physical life. O'Brien is, rather, explaining how the six days he spent in Elroy's presence enabled him to reflect on his thoughts, on his options (i.e., go to war or go to Canada), on what kind of decision would enable the younger man to live with himself for the remainder of his days. By inviting O'Brien into his life without question, without judgement, and with complete unstated understanding of O'Brien's situation, Elroy Berdahl did something no else had been able to do: provide Tim O'Brien with peace of mind.
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.