Joe remembers a summer spent camping and fishing in the mountains with his father. Joe is fifteen and is trying to tell his father that, for the first time, he wants to go fishing with a friend—Bill Harper—rather than his father. Joe decides to tell his father casually; his father agrees readily and offers his own fishing rod for Bill to use. Joe's father's fishing rod is particularly valuable to him as it was his father's only luxury.
Fishing the next day, Joe and Bill lose his father's rod in the water. Joe walks back to the campsite alone, thinking of having to tell his father about the loss of the rod. Joe's parents have never had much money; however, they have always managed to feed the family well, between the garden his father keeps in the vacant lot next door and his mother's careful canning of foods. From this point of view, Joe thinks his family seems well off, yet they have always been a "failure" because his father cannot make any money. Joe knows his father will not have enough money to buy another rod.
Joe goes into the tent and tells his father quickly that they lost his rod. After a silence, his father puts his arm around Joe and tells him that they should not let the matter of the rod "spoil our last trip together." Joe realizes sadly that his father sees that this will be their last trip together—next summer Joe will go to the mountains with the guys his age and his father will go with the other men.
Joe awakens lonelier than ever.
Joe, fully alone, now begins to reconsider complicated issues like going to war, as he can and must think about the war only for himself, without outside influences. Joe wonders why, when he was asked to go to war, he did not consider the consequences or the motivations of those who asked him to go. Joe considers the slipperiness of abstract words like "liberty," "honor," and "decency," which can mean very different things to different people.
Men go to war not truly knowing what they are fighting for. Perhaps they are already happy with their small liberties, like walking with their girlfriend; the fight for a different sort of liberty has nothing to do with them. Joe wonders if the fight for liberty is really just a fight to foist America's sense of liberty and honor on the rest of the world. What if parts of the world like their own liberty and honor? Joe longs for something concrete for which to go to war; that way, even if he lost everything else, he would know exactly what it is he won.