“The Canal” starts at a cocktail party in 1952. Two couples, the Millers and the Braces, are in the middle of a long conversation that has already been going on for about an hour when the story begins. Lew Miller and Tom Brace work for the same advertising firm. As the story opens, Lew Miller tells Tom Brace the division that he was in during World War II, and Brace, who has been telling a war story about the advance across a canal in Europe in March of 1945, recalls the divisions involved and realizes that Miller’s division was in the same action. With this link established between them, Brace starts a more personal conversation with Miller, while the wives, who do not understand the experience of being in war, stand aside and remark with wonder on the coincidence. Brace presses Miller for details about his experience of what he calls, almost casually, “the canal deal.” Unlike Brace, Miller does not look back upon his war experience with fascination or wonder. He has a difficult time remembering the details at all, having spent most of his time in the army in North Carolina, working in public relations.
For most of the war, he had a desk job stateside; he only joined the infantry in 1944. In all, then, his army experience was easier, in general. Concerning the night at the canal, he recalls that his division was somewhat removed from direct action. He was one of a line of soldiers further upstream, where there was less enemy resistance, and their orders were to deliver spools of communications wire to the other side, while Brace’s division faced head on central artillery fire. Miller recalls the events of the night at the canal, although he does not speak about them because what he remembers does not make a good story or show him in a positive light, while Tom Brace’s story spotlights Tom’s heroic actions. While Miller’s division was crossing the canal on a partly submerged footbridge, Brace’s division crossed in boats that made them easy targets. While Miller climbed a wall and ran to his destination when he reached the other side, Brace still had to face gunfire until he was able to get near enough to the enemy to throw a grenade that killed the German artillery soldiers.
Mentally reviewing the events that he has mostly forgotten or suppressed for years, Miller thinks of his panic and humiliation as a minimally competent soldier. He recalls being berated for losing his raincoat by his commanding officer, a skinny nineteen-year-old boy named Kavic. Walking in a line along a road toward the canal and under fire, Miller recalls the difficulty of following Shane, the soldier in line ahead of him: when they were crawling to avoid gunfire, the only way Miller could keep track of the man ahead of him was by feeling for the bottom of his boot. This method failed him when, just as they stood to run, the agonized screams of a man who had been shot distracted him. When he turned back to the advancement, Miller realized he had lost track of the men in his division. He looked around for them, asking other soldiers, but no one could tell him where his men were, so he crossed the canal and climbed up the ladders along the retaining wall on the other side. Wandering around on the far bank, Miller ran into the assistant squad leader and was reunited with his division. He was ordered to report to Kavic, who reprimanded him for getting separated, calling him “more [g——d——] trouble than all the rest of the men in this squad put together.” Miller does not relate this humiliation at the cocktail party, but he does tell what happened after that: having accomplished their mission of carrying the wire across the canal, his squad went to a safe house away from the action, where they slept in shifts for about twenty-four hours.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Richard Yates, Published by Gale Group, 2006