A poster has adorned a room in my house ever since it first served as a nursery for my newborn son. Printed over a picture of a gaggle of babies is this Kurt Vonnegut quote from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:
Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
My son is now almost 24; his sister, who took over the room when he was three and she was brand new, is 20. The poster – and the sentiment – remains. Hopefully they both have learned to be kind.
Vonnegut has been on my mind a lot this week. I was doing a little bit of research on authors whose birthdays were this week, and Kurt Vonnegut was the one I looked at for November 11. So often, we think of authors as the sum of their works, but we forget that they were flesh and blood people with mundane lives: rents to pay and elderly parents to take care of and aversions to green olives or tuna fish or mushrooms on pizzas, thank you very much.
But Kurt Vonnegut had some pretty amazing – and harsh – things happen in his life. Life changing things. Things that might have reduced many of us to rubble. For instance, in 1944, when he was at home on leave from the army, his mother committed suicide via an overdose of sleeping pills – on Mother’s Day. He was 21.
Then there was his service in World War II. That would have been life changing enough, just being in World War II; he was a private in the 106th Infantry Division, stationed in Germany. Barely half a year after his mother’s death, he was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and by January 10 had been marched to a work camp in Dresden.
Kept in an underground detention facility that had formerly been a slaughterhouse meat locker (nicknamed Slaughterhouse-Five by both the Germans soldiers and their American prisoners), Vonnegut was one of a group of POWs that survived the bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Over three subsequent days, British and American troops dropped almost 40,000 tons of bombs and other incendiary devices on the German city, completely obliterating 15 square miles of the city center and killing an estimated 25,000 people.
According to a letter written to his family after his release, Vonnegut was put to work “carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.”
By mid-April General Patton had taken Leipzig, and the remaining Dresden POWs were first evacuated and then abandoned by their guards outside of the city. Officially liberated by the incoming Russian troops (“The Russians are crazy about Americans!” Vonnegut writes in his letter), by May he was in a repatriation camp in France.
One year. God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
And he could be kind (even though it seems he could also be cranky, and cruel and aloof; both “Whitmanesque” and angry at the universe, according to the “New York Times” in 2011). Although he had a rocky relationship with both the women he married, he apparently was very close to his sister Alice. But this, too, was touched with tragedy. Alice (of whom he said “if all writers write for one person, he wrote to his sister”) died from cancer in 1958, just two days after her husband was tragically killed in a freak commuter train accident. Vonnegut and his wife adopted three of his sister’s four children – three boys – which doubled the size of their family overnight (the Vonneguts already had three children of their own). Apparently, this blended family was no Brady Bunch – but then, the Bradys weren’t real, were they?
I’ve read a few of Kurt Vonnegut’s books – Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, Galapagos (all of which are moldering somewhere down in my basement even now) – and I remember that they affected me deeply… but I don’t remember why. That’s not Vonnegut’s fault: I have a really horrendous brain for remembering facts and figures and names and quotes and plot lines and anything definite. Feelings and impressions and images linger, but anything concrete just quickly fades away. But I do know that his works affected me deeply when I read them.
Now wait, I take that back. There is one thing that Kurt Vonnegut wrote that has always stayed with me. In Galapagos, he had two characters, ones that didn’t survive the shipwreck. They were an older, married couple, and more than just being married, they were a “nation of two” (a concept he apparently introduced in 1961’s Mother Night) – they needed no one else to survive, but they could not survive without each other. They had friendly relations with those around them, including siblings and offspring, but those relationships were secondary to their own shared existence. In Galapagos, knowing that they were doomed was not an issue for this couple; even stronger than death was the knowledge that they would be together.
When I read that, I realized that I knew a nation of two: my parents. Where most of us enter into a state of marriage, they have a relationship that is even stronger – they are a nation of two. Their greatest fear was (and still is) that they would somehow over the years be separated (something that frighteningly almost came to pass, except for the staunch advocacy of my sister making sure that didn’t happen… love you, Barb!) . Each one has confided in me that they are terrified they will be the first to die, leaving the other one bereft and adrift. Not that this would be a betrayal, but that the nation simply could not exist without both parties (my thoughts, not theirs – I’m not sure if they ever read Kurt Vonnegut, since he was a heathen, after all). This incredible sense of unity and complete and utter surety about their existence together has been one of my greatest inspirations, and one of the harshest shortcomings I have leveled against myself.
Ah, well. I’ve got to be kind, right?
Speaking of Galapagos, one of the ladies from the dog park – the owner of a pudgy and obnoxious but wonderful little beagle named Buddy (who loves to bark, which I guess all beagles do; Max, who is a professional dog trainer who often frequents the park at the same time that me and the Mighty Belle are there -sometimes with his client’s dogs and sometimes with his parent’s shiatsu, Buster – says he wants to get a beagle some day and name it “Bob Barker” just to see who gets the joke…) – has left Minnesota to accompany a friend on a trip to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands. This surprised me, as she didn’t seem to be the type of person to take such an exotic trip, but then, when you only interact around milling packs of dogs, who knows what else makes up another person’s life, eh? (Interestingly enough, I know her dog’s name, but not hers…) She did say that it would not have been her first choice if given her druthers, but she was totally up for it, and I was glad for her and jealous of her and hoping that she has a helluva lot of fun while she’s gone.
After all, ya gotta be kind, dontcha know.
Happy birthday, Mr. Vonnegut, wherever you are.