By Callie Oettinger | Published: November 14, 2011
He sensed Mary didn’t like him. Something about the way she moved. Her actions were paired with loud, passive-aggressive noises. She didn’t bang the ice tray in the sink to loosen ice cubes for her drink. A cool Cola wasn’t on her mind.
And then she came out with it and told her husband’s guest, Kurt Vonnegut:
“You were just babies then!”
And as Kurt tells it in the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five:
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.
“But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.” This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation.
“I-I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, I know,” she said. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.
Kurt understood where Mary was driving. The route from glorious books, led to action-packed films with rugged and handsome stars, who played Pied Piper, leading (whether they meant to or not) young men to war—kind of like the way Top Gun led so many young guys to join the military, which at war is more about fighting for your friends and the death of the world’s “Gooses” than about playing volleyball and picking up strangers by singing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling…”
So Kurt promised Mary:
I give you my word of honor: there won’t be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne.
And he said if he did finish his book, he’d “call it ‘The Children’s Crusade.”
So it goes.
And he did finish the book. And it was well-read and banned and misunderstood, and praised.
And it introduced that “unstuck” in time thing.
Billy Pilgrim became unstuck in time in the second line of the second chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five.
And he’s flipping back and forth in time, but in and out of the book, too.
He’s born of non-fiction but lives in fiction. Keeps you guessing what’s real and what’s not.
The first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five reads like an introduction from the author, but it’s not. It’s the first chapter, a part of the novel, so how much is real and how much is fiction? Is a novel’s chapter a mark of fiction?
And later, which do you want to believe? There are flying saucers from Tralfamador? Or that a man was executed for stealing a teapot?
In the new bio about Kurt, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life , there’s a section about the cellar duty after the Dresden fire bombings, when Kurt and other POWs were charged with going into cellars throughout Dresden, to pull out the bodies of the dead.
By going into cellars day after day, a POW named Michael Palaia saw what all the other prisoners did, too. There were subterranean pantries of pickled asparagus, pickled onions, apple butter, cherries, string beans, beets, carrots, jams, jellies, sausage, pie fillings, and berry syrup—groaning shelves of sealed jars that a starving man could steal if he were careful.
Palaia was one of the older prisoners and unable to withstand the deprivations as well as the younger men. While he was in a basement on the last day of March, someone shouted down at him, “Hey, the SS troops are coming, you better get your ass out of there, if there’s anybody in there!” Selecting a jar of pickled string beans, he stashed it under his coat and walked back out into the street. The Arbeitskommando was about to begin the return four-mile march to Gorbitz, and he was looking forward to sitting on his bunk and eating the beans.
The SS officers who spotted him might have passed him by except he had made himself conspicuous through an earlier, fatal choice. From the frozen pile of overcoats inside the gate at Stalag IV- B, he had grabbed a heavy one that was different from most. On the back were the letters CCCP— the Russian abbreviation for Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The SS ordered him to stop and unbutton his coat. There was nothing he could do—the contraband was a good- sized jar, and they plucked it out. Later that night, said Vonnegut, Palaia was court-martialed and ordered to sign a document he didn’t understand, admitting he was guilty of looting.
The next morning, April 1, Palm Sunday, guards issued shovels to Kurt and three other prisoners and took them to a rise within sight of the camp so the rest of the Arbeitskommando could see the example being set. The four men were ordered to dig graves while Palaia and a Polish soldier stood nearby. When they had finished, an officer turned Palaia and the Polish soldier around by their shoulders, stepped back, and shouted an order. A firing squad shot the prisoners in the back; the Germans reloaded and shot them again. Vonnegut and the others were ordered to pick up the bodies and place them each in a grave. One of the Americans, knowing Palaia had been a Catholic like him, placed a rosary in his hands and said a prayer. Refilling the graves took a matter of minutes.
Later, when telling his family how impassively the executions were carried out, Vonnegut burst into tears. “The sons of bitches! The sons of bitches!” He would model a character in Slaughterhouse- Five on Palaia, Edgar Derby, the forty-four-year-old English teacher executed for stealing a teapot.
So it goes.
The author is stuck and unstuck between fiction, non-fiction and time. Slaughterhouse-Five was decades in the making—back and forth, trying to figure out how to tell the story, bouncing in time, between the present and past. And then, the author revisits Dresden in person—that place that exists outside his dreams. And, from And So It Goes:
Brave words and good intentions alone are not enough to create inspiration, however. Visiting Dresden had turned out to be dispiriting, instead of spurring Vonnegut’s imagination to finishing the book. So there must have been something else to come out of the trip that led him in a fresh direction after the postwar city rebuked him.
Two books he took to read on the trip impressed him deeply. One was the poet Theodore Roethke’s collection The Waking; the other was Erika Ostrovsky’s just published critical biography, Celine and His Vision. If he had read them in Iowa City or West Barnstable, they might not have had the same impact. Yet suddenly, in light of his experiences in Dresden, he came to several realizations about the effect of time on making sense of experience. In Roethke’s poem “The Waking,” he found these lines:
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
As Vonnegut stared out at fields littered with broken masonry, or tried to place buildings in the context of twenty years ago, his landscape was an inner one. There would be no easy way to retrieve his submerged feelings, least of all by trying to gaff them with facts, interviews, and note taking like a reporter. In an unexpected way, it was a relief. He realized, “I need not show the bombing of Dresden,” he said later. “I need not write this Cecil B. DeMille scene.” An artist’s challenge, which in his case was to make use of the past, is to navigate by true feeling. He could not rely on historicity alone to tell his tale for him.
So it goes.
And then readers find themselves on the other side of Kurt Vonnegut’s war story.
And this reader knows there are others like Kurt, who write between childhood and a dream. Their stories are a mix of what has happened, awake and asleep. And the sticklers want to talk about exact dates and facts and other things that have always told the truth. And then there are the others, telling truths that are navigated by “true feeling.”
There’s no one war story. No one truth. Just variations. And feelings. And dreams.
So it goes.