Although it was something to have this year’s dominant student across the way. Ordinarily he should have been a magnet for me, the center of all the excitement and influence in the class…. Now Brinker, with his steady wit and ceaseless plans, Brinker had nothing to offer in place of Leper’s dust motes and creeping ivy and snails.
Gene reflects on Brinker Hadley, the natural leader of Gene’s class. Unlike Finny, Brinker adheres to and upholds school rules and norms rather than rebelling against them. The summer term, with its softened rules and new traditions, changes Gene’s feelings about the importance of status and rank, diminishing his interest in Brinker. He represents Gene’s former interests rather than his current ones.
“I’ll bet you knew all the time that Finny wouldn’t be back this fall. That’s why you picked him for a roommate, right?... You fixed it,” he smiled widely. “You knew all the time, I’ll bet it was all your doing.”
Brinker insinuates that Gene caused Finny to fall, with the goal of having his own room because Finny would be sent home. Although Brinker was not present when the accident occurred, and he never reveals where he got the idea of Gene’s guilt, he becomes obsessed with his theory. Brinker believes that having the truth come out is crucial, especially for Finny. He becomes dogged about making Gene confess.
“Everybody in this place is either a draft-dodging Kraut or a… a…” the scornful force of his tone turned the word into a curse, “a nat-u-ral-ist!” He grabbed my arm agitatedly. “I’m giving it up, I’m going to enlist. Tomorrow.”
While Brinker, Gene, and other students help to free some troop trains from snow, they encounter Leper, preoccupied with exploring nature and blissfully unaware of their work. Brinker, already feeling he and his classmates aren’t doing enough for the war effort, angrily attacks Leper for what he perceives as selfish, ignorant, and lazy behavior. Then Brinker realizes that he can counteract all of his classmates’ perceived weaknesses, and surpass them too, by enlisting.
Brinker Hadley had been tagged with a nickname at last, after four years of creating them for others and eluding one himself. “Yellow Peril” Hadley swept through the school with the speed of a flu epidemic, and it must be said to his credit that Brinker took it well enough except when, in its inevitable abbreviation, people sometimes called him “Yellow” instead of “Peril.”
Gene explains how Brinker reacts to his new nickname. Readers previously learn that the name is created during a silly exchange that happens among Brinker, Gene, and Finny, as Gene backs out of the plan for enlisting, accusing Brinker of being Madame Chang Kai-Shek, the wife of the leader of China at the time. While Brinker seems fine with his “Yellow Peril” nickname at first, he later takes offense at the shortened name “Yellow,” a slang word for “cowardly.”
It probably would have been better for all of us if someone like Brinker had been the first to go. He could have been depended on to make a loud dramatic departure, so that the school would have reverberated for weeks afterward with Brinker’s Last Words, Brinker’s Military Bearing, Brinker’s Sense of Duty. And all of us, influenced by the vacuum of his absence, would have felt the touch of war as a daily fact.
Gene speculates that if Brinker had been the first of the class to enlist, his example would have influenced all of the other students for the better. Gene envisions Brinker inspiring others with his feelings about enlisting, which he would have shared loudly and publicly. In addition, once gone, his loss would be felt by all. However, Leper enlists first, not Brinker, and Leper has a less inspiring influence. Brinker takes his role as a class leader seriously.
Brinker for example had begun a long, decisive sequence of withdrawals from school activity ever since the morning I deserted his enlistment plan. He had not resented my change of heart, and in fact had immediately undergone one himself. If he could not enlist—and for all his self-sufficiency Brinker could not do much without company—he could at least cease to be so multifariously civilian…. His well-bred clothes disappeared; these days he wore khaki pants supported by a garrison belt, and boots which rattled when he walked.
Brinker gives up for now on the idea of enlisting, but he begins to take small steps away from civilian life. In addition to changing his dress, he quits the many clubs and societies he previously led. He begins to adapt mentally to the idea of being in the military and eventually at war. The changes he makes are relatively meaningless, however, compared to actually enlisting.
I had no idea what Brinker might say or do. Before he had always known and done whatever occurred to him because he was certain that whatever occurred to him was right. In the world of the Golden Fleece Debating Society and the Underprivileged Local Children subcommittee of the Good Samaritan Confraternity, this had created no problems. But I was afraid of that simple executive directness now.
Gene reflects on Brinker’s decision to force Gene and Finny to confront what happened in the tree when Finny fell. Gene dreads what Brinker will do, knowing that Brinker’s strong belief in his cause will bring out his considerable debating skills. Brinker believes that knowing the truth will produce the greatest good. Gene, however, anticipates that facing this truth will only result in both his and Finny’s pain. At the same time, Gene also knows that Brinker will not be put off his mission.
“I’m enlisting…. I’m going to ‘serve’ as he puts it, I may even get killed. But I’ll be damned if I’ll have that Nathan Hale attitude of his about it. It’s all that World War I malarkey that gets me. They’re all children about that war, did you ever notice?... It gives me a pain, personally. I’m not any kind of hero, and neither are you. And neither is the old man, and he never was…”
Brinker reveals his plans to enlist and do what’s expected of him, but he adds that he’s not driven or even inspired by the idea of heroism. He doesn’t share Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale’s zeal, who regretted he could only give his life once for his country. Brinker also believes that his father’s nostalgia about war does not reflect his father’s real experiences. Brinker’s attitude about serving changed as the war became more real.