KURT VONNEGUT, JR.: Survived the bombing of Dresden, February 13-15, 1945
"Here we are trapped in the amber of the moment.
There is no why."
- Kurt Vonnegut
Originally published February 15, 2015.
I found the writing of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in a surprisingly “Vonnegut”-ian way. I was a senior in high school, and I had been kicked out of my AP English class for not reading the homework assignments often enough. The English class I had been relegated to was taught by a teacher who disliked me, and I spent a majority of the time making joking commentaries until she would throw me out of class. I would then go to the room next door, which was in the same classroom that the AP English class was held earlier in the day. That class was led by a teacher who did like me, and her only rule for me being in the class was that I would have to make her laugh to be allowed in, and then I would have to sit on the three=foot high bookshelf in the back of the room (all the desks were filled) where the AP English books were stored and add running joke commentary to her lessons. Since I wasn’t a student in the class, I wasn’t reading any of the homework, and I would regularly get bored. I began taking copies of the AP English books and Ieaving school in the middle of the day, finding a park somewhere and sitting and reading the afternoon away. In short, I was missing school so I could read the books I had been thrown out of school for not reading, which I took from a class that required me to be silly since I had been thrown from a class for being silly. All of us were carving out what we wanted against a set of conflicting rules and preferences that seemed designed to keep all of us from getting what we needed. At the time, those afternoons were some of the best moments of the school year. I had been removed from one class, thrown out of another, and serving in the role of jester in a third class. I was both a failure and a joke, and so the moments on park benches reading the books felt creative and curious. One of the books I remembered taking with me was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. The book didn’t make much sense to me at the time, and without a teacher to explain some of the novel’s context to me, it felt too abstract to truly understand. All I knew was that the novel’s main character, Billy Pilgrim, had survived the bombing of Dresden during World War II; it was years before I knew the same had happened to Vonnegut.
“I think the message of any strong book—good book–to a reader is, ‘You are not alone. Other people feel as you do.’ And there are a lot of lonely people out there who are not nourished by popular entertainment, or the advice of their stupid parents, or whatever. So I hope good books let young people figure things out for themselves, and to know, ‘Hey, I've got a friend somewhere else.’”
”Weary’s father once gave Weary’s mother a Spanish thumbscrew in working condition—for a kitchen paperweight. Another time he gave her a table lamp whose base was a model one foot high of the famous “Iron Maiden of Nuremberg.” The real Iron Maiden was a medieval torture instrument, a sort of boiler which was shaped like a woman on the outside—and lined with spikes. The front of the woman was composed of two hinged doors. The idea was to put a criminal inside and then close the doors slowly. There were two special spikes where his eyes would be. There was a drain in the bottom to let out all the blood.
And so it goes.”