Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, and the Anniversary Waltz

Writer Kurt Vonnegut at home on April 12, 1972 in New York, New York. (Photo: Santi Visalli/Getty Images)

Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, and the Anniversary Waltz

In these turbulent times more than ever, memory is a blessing and a curse.

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be, the saying goes, but as you get older, milestone years become more significant and resonant, especially if your own memories of them remain vivid.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the mindboggling and tumultuous events of 1968, from the Tet offensive in Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy to the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the election of Richard M. Nixon.

Now we're marking the 50th for the happenings of 1969, and while they may not all be as turbulent as those of '68, it still was the pivotal year of Woodstock and the moon landing, Chappaquiddick and the Manson murders, the Stonewall riots - just three blocks from where I'm writing this - and the Vietnam Moratorium when hundreds of thousands marched and rallied to demand an end to a useless deadly war.

This year also marks the 50th anniversaries of the late Kurt Vonnegut's great antiwar novel, Slaughterhouse Five, and my college newspaper, The Georgetown Voice. Understandably, you may not see any connection between those last two, but in my own little universe there is. Read on.

The Voice began at Georgetown in 1969 when a gang of smart, articulate, witty kids, reprobates and rebels did something unheard of - swimming against the tide of the university establishment and creating an new publication out of nothing but talent, desire, a commitment to truth and a heartfelt embrace of good times.

Its creation was a shot across the bow of the existing campus paper, The Hoya, which the Voice founders believed had become too narrowly focused on school goings on while ignoring the issues behind the riots and demonstrations igniting in Washington just blocks from the university's front gates. The fire was right next door and the military draft was breathing down many of our necks. The Hoya was covering intramural field hockey and cafeteria news. On the college grounds, copies of it were burned in protest.

I wasn't present at the creation when the Voice was born. I arrived at Georgetown a few months after the inaugural issue and had my initial Voice byline in April 1970, just after the paper's first anniversary. The piece was an account of the very first Earth Day march and rally in DC, headlined, "Hey, Get Your Earth Day Button," the first of a series of features and reviews I wrote for the Voice.

Among my memories: working in the newspaper's offices the Sunday afternoon before the violent Mayday antiwar demonstrations of 1971, as police and military helicopters roared over the athletic fields. And I remember the next morning when several of us were covering the protests. The police counterattacked and we went hurdling back toward campus only to run smack into massive walls of tear gas.

But I also remember covering the grand opening of the Kennedy Center and being startled when I was grabbed and sloppily kissed by Leonard Bernstein at the afterparty. I remember interviewing politicians and filmmakers. And I especially remember the evenings of camaraderie spent putting the paper to bed and that all-night coffee shop to which we'd go afterwards, hungry, worn out and slaphappy.


In early 1971, I was assigned to cover a lecture by Kurt Vonnegut at the Library of Congress. He was in his ascendancy; his masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five had been published to accolades just a couple of years earlier. If you're not familiar with it, the book is the phantasmagoric journey of Billy Pilgrim, a man "unstuck in time," who journeys back and forth between two planets, skipping with light speed from one part of his lifetime to another and then another but always returning to his World War II experiences at the Battle of the Bulge and as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany.

Billy Pilgrim - and Vonnegut - were in Dresden on February 13-15, 1945, when British and American bombers attacked the city for 37 hours, creating a 12 square mile firestorm that officially killed 25,000 and possibly many, many more - Vonnegut thought that it might have been about 130,000.

His main character survived in a meat locker deep below the city. Vonnegut wrote, "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."

Like many college kids, I was a fan and read everything Vonnegut had written, so I was excited about his Library of Congress speech. He was rambling, pensive, thought provoking and funny. He said Jefferson Airplane had asked him to write a "science-fiction song" for a movie they planned to make: "It's about the building of a giant rocket to carry all the knowledge of man away from the world before it's destroyed. I told them they were out of their minds if they thought I was going to support the Jefferson Airplane's making off with the history of mankind."

About 45 minutes in, Vonnegut began reading from his latest book, Breakfast of Champions. Someone began heckling him from the audience, "Since you're a leader of young people, why don't you offer solutions?"

"Hell, I'm no Pied Piper," Vonnegut replied.

"What right have you to predict the end of the world?" the heckler asked. "You should show the alternatives."

"It's not just me -" Vonnegut picked up his manuscript, was silent for a bit, then said, "I really feel as though I have to stop and think things out." He walked off the stage.

The audience was stunned. I felt the heckler had unfairly treated the author, that each of us can choose to affect change in his or her own way. "Vonnegut's way is to write about the absurdity, to write about the end of the world," I wrote. "That is his duty, for he is one of the rare people who has actually seen it. Dresden, February 13, 1945. The city was filled with refugees."

I got a letter from Vonnegut shortly after my piece appeared in the Voice thanking me for what I had said and explaining his reaction that night as having simply "run out of bullshit." And last fall, my girlfriend Pat and I took a daytrip from Berlin to Dresden. Much of the city has been rebuilt from the ruins, the vast Neumarkt square reconstructed as it was before the attacks, open and clean and eerily quiet, a reminder of the bloodshed and mindlessness of war.

I just re-read Slaughterhouse Five and again was reminded how good the book is. It's a quick read - as Vonnegut himself wrote, "Short and jumbled and jangled because... there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds."

Vonnegut's novel is in part about time and memory. I was spurred to visit it again because I also just attended a 50th anniversary reunion of my friends at The Georgetown Voice, motivation for reminiscence and celebration and a stunning reminder of how quickly the years have passed. One of the former editors reminded me about the Vonnegut piece.

After all these decades, despite financial ups and down and other near-death experiences, both campus papers still exist. And while it's unusual for a college to have two such publications, the rivalry and diversity of news and opinions, plus the coverage the Voice has given to national and global issues invigorates the debate and spirit of free speech essential to an institution of learning.

Would that such openness was practiced on a vaster scale. Memory serves to keep alive the things we have done both good and bad that should teach us how to do right, how to avoid the worst, prevent indignities to one another and keep from sinking into an abyss of ignorance, violence, corruption and dysfunction. "There's only one rule that I know of, babies," Vonnegut wrote. "Goddamn it, you've got to be kind."

Look at the news and realize, increasingly by the day, how quickly we forget.

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