Thursday, April 12, 2007

RIP, Kurt Vonnegut

How Dresden died.

They went Indian file. First came the scouts, clever, graceful, quiet. They had rifles. Next came the anti-tank gunner, clumsy and dense, warning Germans away with a Colt .45 automatic in one hand and a trench knife in the other. Last came Billy Pilgrim, empty-handed, bleakly ready for death. Billy was preposterous–six feet and three inches tall, with a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches. He had no helmet, no overcoat, no weapon, and no boots.

[Billy (Vonnegut) and the clumsy anti-tank gunner, Roland Weary, survived this nomadic backwater of chaotic disaster in the Battle of the Bulge, and the clever and graceful scouts didn’t.]

Billy was helped to his feet by the lovely boy, by the heavenly androgyne. And the others came forward to dust the snow off Billy, and then they searched him for weapons. He didn’t have any. The most dangerous thing they found on his person was a two-inch pencil stub. Three inoffensive bangs came from far away. They came from German rifles. The two scouts who had ditched Billy and Weary had just been shot. They had been lying in ambush for the Germans. They had been discovered and shot from behind. Now they were dying in the snow, feeling nothing, turning the snow to the color of raspberry sherbert. So it goes.

[Billy also survived the firebombing of Dresden, the fire hurricane that killed tens of thousands of Germans in a single night. He was being held there as a POW.]

He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed. There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked. The meat locker [Slaughterhouse-Five (copyright 1968, 1966 by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)] was a very safe shelter. All that happened down there was an occasional shower of calcimine. The Americans and four of their guards and a few dressed carcasses were down there, and nobody else. The rest of the guards had, before the raid began, gone to the comforts of their own homes in Dresden. They were all being killed with their families. So it goes.

[It affected Vonnegut profoundly. This is war and shouldn’t be rushed into lightly or falsely.]

A guard would go to the head of the stairs every so often to see what it was like outside, then he would come down and whisper to the other guards. There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn. It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead. So it goes.

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for passing on the word. As a student at Rice, I had the honor of hearing Vonnegut speak at the 1998 commencement-an honor bestowed on the school after he'd been falsely penned to an MIT address in 1997. His speech was a quarter the length but four times more effective than the one delivered the next year by the ex-chancellor of Germany. -A

jeanne said...

well, now you've uncovered the giant HOLE in my literary education. I guess i'm going to have to buckle down and get familiar with mr. vonnegut. never too late!