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Granfalloons, Toy Balloons, and American Flags

Laurel Wamsley

The tragic events of Tuesday, September 11 have changed everything: things we took as givens are now as distant as the careless days of summer. Our most famous skyline has been chopped down; our impregnable Pentagon has proved pregnable. With each roar of an airplane, we turn our eyes to the skies in awe and fear. We pray and sing together in school, and church and state prove closer than we thought. We realize we have more friends than we thought, that we all have city folk to worry about. Even our concept of time has shifted: in less than a week, I have aged years.

The day before Tuesday, I thought Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle was a book about Hiroshima and absurdity. Now as I stumble towards the next Tuesday, and our nation moves nearer to military retaliation, I recognize Cat's Cradle is a statement about all wars, and that absurdity is our reality. The sugar coating of Cat's Cradle has been mercilessly sucked off, and I am left with the bitter sadness that somehow Vonnegut is a cynical member of my own karass, which he defines as someone you find your life tangled up with for no logical reason.

This evening I ventured out into the world for the first time since Tuesday. Not that I had consciously sheltered myself from reality: actually, I had become addicted to National Public Radio and the New York Times. But it was not until I ran through Birmingham, Michigan on a quiet Sunday evening that I understood America's reaction to tragedy and war, and what Vonnegut had meant about granfalloons. A man rode by on his bicycle, a woman cut the grass with an old-fashioned push mower, and children threw a football on the front lawn. Above all their heads, rippling in the cool September breeze, were the stars and stripes of American flags. I was running through the American Dream.

The further I ran, the further out of place I felt: I was supposed to be feeling a rush of pride when I saw Old Glory. I was supposed to feel relieved at the strength of our military and the expediency of our government in finding the terrorists. I was not supposed to shudder under the weight of two fallen skyscrapers, five thousand deaths, and impending war. I was supposed to picture the victory gardens and heroic GIs of World War II, not the burning rice paddies and napalmed children of Vietnam. I was supposed to feel proud of the way my fellow Americans have come together in this time of crisis, not afraid for the safety of my Muslim friends.

With every step down Cranbrook Road, the words of Hazel Crosby in Cat's Cradle resounded louder in my ears. "'My God,' she said, 'Are you a Hoosier?... I don't know what it is about Hoosiers, but they've got something. Whenever I meet a young Hoosier, I tell them, 'You call me Mom'". John, our trusted narrator, explains her queer excitement through the teachings of Bokononism:

Hazel's obsession with Hoosiers was a textbook example of a false karass, of a seeming team that was meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done, a textbook example of what Bokonon calls a granfalloon. Other examples of granfalloons are the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows----and any nation, any time, anywhere.

As Bokonon invites us to sing along with him:
If you wish to study a granfalloon,
Just remove the skin of a toy balloon.

Just like that, Vonnegut deflates patriotism. He tears off our rubber skins and tells us we are full of hot air. He rips off our red-white-and-blue caps and ribbons and tells us it's all a sham. Just when we were excited we would not have to wait until the next Olympics to shout "USA!," just when George W. gets to use his father's war lingo and "whip" the enemy, Vonnegut tells us that our zeal is meaningless. He tells us that we are not even members of the same karass, that our national pride is nothing more than a common country on our passports. Vonnegut does all this through sacred calypso songs that openly proclaim themselves to be lies, and all the time we are laughing to ourselves that Hazel thinks Hoosiers form a family. And all the time we thought we made an American family.

With every flag pinned to a lapel, I remember that our nation puts great stock in symbolism; there is nothing stressed so much in high school English classes or invoked more often by network sportscasters than metaphor. As much or more than anyone else, I want to remember the victims of Tuesday, mourn with their families, and to hope that they did not die in vain. But I cannot shake the feeling that we cheapen the finality and consequence of death by striking back and killing others. American culture dictates that we must show our emotions through symbols, but some meaning is lost in metaphor. How could a quiescent ribbon possibly explain the turmoil I feel as I cling to hopes of peace and remembrance in a nation careening towards war and hate?

The Republic of San Lorenzo in Cat's Cradle is meant to be absurd, yet its absurdities are not far from our own. The emperor Tum-wumba of San Lorenzo ordered fortifications to be built, though "the fortifications have never been attacked nor has any sane man ever proposed any reason why they should be attacked". San Lorenzo is resourceless and impoverished, and it is the act of building that Tum-wumba deems important. Fourteen hundred people died building the unnecessary fortifications, of which "about half are said to have been executed in public for sub-standard zeal". My mind catches on the words "substandard zeal," and I think of a world that offers bonus points for enthusiasm and banners for congeniality. More troubling, I think of a world where the Smiths are suspicious of their neighbors, the Abdul-Shahims, because they do not have an American flag hanging over the front porch. I think of a world, one that I hope will not come upon us, where my male friends are accused of "substandard zeal" because they do not want to be drafted, because they do not want to sacrifice their lives in the name of Uncle Sam.

Some of Vonnegut's words seem strangely prescient, especially the chapter titled "Why Americans are Hated." Ambassador Minton recalls the mad days of McCarthyism, and explains that "the highest form of treason is to say that Americans aren't loved wherever they go, whatever they do". Not only can we not swallow being despised, we cannot even accept not being adored: "Americans, in being hated, were simply paying the normal penalty for being people, and... they were foolish to think they should somehow be exempted from that penalty". We are wildly patriotic, yet it is a struggle to understand that the terrorists were extreme not only in their violence, but also in their patriotism.

A few days ago I received an e-mail from my friend Ljubica, whose family fled from Bosnia eight years ago, and she sadly wrote, "I hope that you learn from this and finally understand that America is not invincible and never was. It was just lucky. But I liked and cherished its luck." We truly did think we were invincible, that "this sort of thing" couldn't happen on American soil. I think that feeling of unconquerability has actually revived itself in the past few days; many Americans are happy to fight a war, just as long as no innocent people have to die. They ignore the reality of war: innocent people, even Americans, are doomed to die.

In the world since Tuesday, I have gone about my life. I eat my cereal in the morning, I laugh with friends at lunch, and I do my homework at night. But all of it has lost its sugar coating; all of my thoughts carry a bitter taste. Cat's Cradle is not a book to read on a sunny day and forget; it is another, darker perspective on the events that loom before us. In the world since Tuesday, I cannot run through a suburban neighborhood without thinking I might trip over an American flag. In the world since Tuesday, I have discovered new members of my karass, but I have discovered many more to be granfalloons. In the world since Tuesday, I fear that there are other sorrowful Tuesdays to come.

Work Cited: Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat's Cradle. New York: Dell Publishing, 1963.

Laurel Wamsley is a high school senior in suburban Detroit. She is an anti-death penalty activist and an editor of her high school newspaper. She wrote this on September 16, 2001 as a book review for her English class.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Laurel Wamsley

Laurel Wamsley

Laurel Wamsley graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was a finalist in 2006 for a Rhodes Scholarship. She has worked for Slate Magazine and as a producer for NPR. As a high school senior she wrote "Granfalloons, Toy Balloons, and American Flags" on September 16, 2001 as a book review for her English class. And as a college student wrote "The Fog of Peace: Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Economy of Memory" in 2004.

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