By Ryan Hilligoss, November 2012
“Where is home? I’ve wondered where home is, and I realized, it’s not Mars or someplace like that, it’s Indianapolis when I was nine years old. I had a brother and a sister, a cat and a dog, and a mother and a father and uncles and aunts. And there’s no way I can get there again.” Kurt Vonnegut, 2005
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” KV
Today is Armistice Day. Did you know that? No, this is Veterans’ Day some will say. Well yes, it is Veteran’s Day on my calendar, but this date , November 11 used to be called Armistice Day. Armistice Day (which overlaps with Remembrance Day and Veterans Day) is celebrated every year on 11 November to commemorate the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War I, which took effect at eleven o’clock in the morning—the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. In many parts of the world, people observe two consecutive minutes moment of silence at 11:00 a.m. local time as a sign of respect in the first minute for the roughly 20 million people who died in the war, and in the second minute dedicated to the living left behind, generally understood to be wives, children and families left behind but deeply affected by the conflict.
So things change, what else can they do? Millions of people are born on this day and every other day. Today, some people go to church and some boys and girls play soccer games at the local YMCA. Some kids dream of a pony named Snowflake and imagine the rush of wind in their hair on a cool spring day as they trot around a dusty barn. Some people serve in the military and now sit huddled against a mountain top somewhere in a far off land, hiding from the bitter cold and enemies they don’t know. Some people die. What else are we to do? So it goes.
Two people I know, both great Americans in their own rights, celebrate their birthdays today. One is my wife, Kimberly Rae Renner Hilligoss. Kimberly was born a baby girl in 1974 in Geneva, Il, a quiet town in northern Illinois along the Fox River. She was the second born that day in the same little dusty hospital room. No one knew there were twins in there; not mom, not even the doctor. One came out and the doctor, said, “Uh oh.” And mom, in enough distress already, said, “What the hell do you mean, uh oh?” And out came baby Kim. What a surprise. Isn’t that nice? Her dad worked for the United States Postal Service. Her mom gave nice, older ladies blue perms in a nice home on a quiet, tree-lined street. When baby Kim was brought home from the hospital, a bird in one of those trees in front of that nice house said, “Poo-tee-weet?” What else can it say?
The other great American born on this date is Kurt Vonnegut: free speech activist, humanitarian, free-thinker, humanist, anti-war advocate, artist, painter, and author. I know I earlier said, two people I know were born on this date, and you are probably saying to yourself, “You knew him, personally? What was he like? Did he talk like he wrote? Did he have bushy eyebrows like in his pictures?” You are right, I did not know him personally. Thanks to his beloved Pall Malls he smoked everyday, and thanks to time and distance, I never got the chance to meet him in person, but I did get to see him give a lecture once 10 years ago at a Chicago area college. I remember he gave a long, winding story about seeing innumerable tragedies in this life and then, upon passing, going to the pearly gates and asking St.Peter, “What was the good news and what was the bad news?”
But, I feel like I know him. I feel like he is a friend of mine, at least in some regards. I read once that the sign of a good book is that when you as the reader are done with a book, you feel like you are fiends with the author, and you feel like picking up the phone and calling them to ask them some questions about the story. Like when I finished God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, I felt like calling him and asking, Hey Kurt, you are an avid agnostic, so why should God bless Mr. Rosewater or anyone for that matter.” I never got the chance to talk to him on the phone and ask why the bird always says “Poo-tee-weet?” after some terrible calamity has happened. But I think I have a pretty good idea what he meant.
I was first greeted warmly by Mr. Vonnegut in the spring of 1992, my junior year, while attending Alton High School. Alton, Illinois is the hometown of the world’s tallest man ever, Robert Wadlow and jazz great Miles Davis. It is also the final resting place of Elijah Lovejoy, the abolitionist and free speech advocate who died while defending his press from being thrown into the deep, dark murk of the Mississippi from an angry mob of slavery proponents. Elijah, Robert and Miles don’t live in Alton anymore, nor do many people know who those people are. So it goes.
I attended modern literature class under one of the best, most inspiring teachers I ever had, John Klein. Wherever you are today Mr. Klein, God bless you. During that time, I was turned onto the writings of Willa Cather, James Baldwin, Studs Terkel, and of course, Kurt Vonnegut. Over the last 20 years, I have read most of Vonnegut’s works and travelled a lot of miles in my mind to the planet of Tralfamador, Rosewater County, Indiana, the fiery hell of Dresden, Germany and the islands of Galapagos. After all that travel, I feel like I know him personally, like he is an old friend of mine, a friend I never met or spoke with. In a world and life that can be incredibly isolated and lonely, if that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.
In his penultimate work Slaughterhouse-Five; The Children’s Crusade, he describes what Dresden looked like after it had been fire-bombed by the Allies during WWII and a whole beautiful city full of 125,000 citizens was burned to the ground. Vonnegut was a private in the US Army serving in the European campaign when, as a platoon scout, he was captured by the Germans and sent to work in a vitamin factory for pregnant women in Dresden. When the fire bombing started, the soldiers’ German guards took them below ground to a meat locker under Slaughter House number five. When it was over, they emerged into the blackened, ash filled light and saw the utter devastation. One of Vonnegut’s jobs was to help stack the charred bodies that remained so they could try to bring some form of order to the remains. What else is there to do but start over? While he worked, birds would flew over Vonnegut’s head and asked, “Poo-tee-weet?”. So it goes.
In describing Slaughter House to his publisher he writes, “It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, 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. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like, “poo-tee-weet?”.
When I say I never met him thanks to Pall Malls, I mean it. The man smoked packs of Pall Malls everyday and eventually died in 2007 after falling down a flight of stairs at his home and suffering massive trauma. Yes, it was a dark ending to a great, meaningful life, but one an author with a penchant for dark, gallows humor such as himself could appreciate. But, back to the Pall Malls. He chain smoked them, unfiltered, one by one, day after day. When he met strangers and they asked him what he did, Vonnegut’s standard reply was , “I am committing suicide one cigarette at a time.” Outside his NYC townhouse as he lay dying, a bird on a nearby tree asked, “Poo-tee-weet?” So it goes.
In Slaughterhouse-5, Vonnegut writes of the ruins of Sodom and Gomorroah after the Lord had burned it to the ground with fire and brimstone, “And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people, and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I lover her for that, because it is so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore. I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt. It begins like this: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has been become unstuck in time, it ends like this: poo-tee-weet?”
My dad and I once travelled to Indianapolis in search of The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. Over the years, we have searched many towns for the birthplaces or homes of our mutual or individual heroes. We once searched a small Louisville neighborhood for the boyhood home of Muhammad Ali, but we came up empty, only hearing the words spoken by a local church deacon, “That Ali sure is an interesting character.” We think it was a conspiracy of silence. We went to Okemah, Oklahoma where American folk artist Woody Guthrie was born and raised. When we asked several locals if they knew where Woody’s house was, they simply replied,” Woody who?” So it goes. In Spavinaw, Ok, we looked for the birthplace of baseball great Mickey Mantle, a boyhood hero of my dad and millions more. No signs, no markers, nothing. We asked a guy mowing his grass if he knew where Mantle’s home was. He said he thought he did but wasn’t sure but pointed to a small space down the road. The lot was empty except for overgrown brush and some wild trees. My dad took a picture of the empty lot and a bird nearby asked, “Poo-tee-weet?”
We found the library in downtown Indy after weaving in an out of marathoners who were on a mad dash towards immortality. The library is set on the bottom floor of a nice, three-story office building. Vonnegut’s self-portrait is on one of the front windows, and copies of his books cover most of the other side. Inside you can see the typewriter he used to write much of his work during the 70s and 80s. You can see original paintings he completed including a portrait of his fictional alter ego, Kilgore Trout.
Hanging to one side is a painting done by Vonnegut’s close friend Morley Safer, newsman and long time 60 Minutes staple, completed in 2007 upon hearing of Vonnegut’s passing. The painting depicts Vonnegut’s typewriter on a desk with a pair of glasses lying down next to it and a burning cigarette dangling off the side. Under the drawing is a hand written message from one friend to another that echoes the famous author’s most known phrase. It simply states, “So he went.”
They have his work desk that he did much of his writing on in his NYC home. Atop it is one of his typewriters, books and scattered papers and handwritten notes on writing ideas never to be typed or read.
They have a letter written by Vonnegut’s father and sent to his son who was serving in the US Army in Germany. Being a POW, Vonnegut never received the letter which was sent back to Indianapolis. He was presented with the letter upon his return but never opened it and passed it down to his kids with explicit instructions that it was never to be opened. There it lies under glass in Indianapolis, sent to Germany at first and coming back to good old Inidiana, having never been read. My personal opinion is he never opened the letter because it was addressed to a twenty-two year old Kurt Vonnegut who, in some respects, died that day in Dresden, Germany, inside the slaughterhouse. So, the letter couldn’t possibly be opened by a dead person. Like a long distance call over time and space, from father to son. A call with a message that will never be heard. So it goes.
In Slaughterhouse- Five, Vonnegut quoted author Celine, “The truth is death. I’ve fought nicely against it as long as I could…danced with it, festooned it, waltzed it around…decorated it with streamers, titillated it….I saw a bustling street crowd and I screamed…make them stop…don’t let them move anymore at all…There make them freeze….once and for all!….So that they won’t disappear anymore.”
We are all bustling around, moving quickly through our lives, but at any moment, we can freeze time with the snap of a camera and we can go back and see ourselves. Or when we are no longer here, our friends and family can go back in time and look at us, like bugs under amber and see how we were. For my kids and grandkids and friends, some of whom I will never know, below is a picture of me and my dad, Robert Lee Hilligoss, two boys from the Land of Lincoln, trapped under amber in 2012. And so, here is a letter sent across space and time, a letter that can never be opened and read to see what exactly we said on this particular day, or hear what our voices sounded like, but if you look closely and listen hard, I bet you can hear a little bird ask, “Poo-tee-weet?”
And so on and so on. And so it goes. And so he went. But if I ever miss my friend Kurt and want to talk to him, I can just pick up my copy of God Bless You Mr.Rosewater, Timequake, Mother Night, or Breakfast of Champions, read a few passages and once again talk to an old friend of mine. If that isn’t nice I don’t know what is. God Bless You Mr.Vonnegut.
Favorite Vonnegut Quotes; Where do I get my ideas?
For an unfiltered take on Vonnegut’s thoughts on many subjects, below is a video you can watch of Vonnegut giving a speech on the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima:
-Free speech controversy: Slaughter House Five has been banned from schools over time and Vonnegut was the first to jump to his own defense. The U.S. Supreme Court considered the First Amendment implications of the removal of the book, among others, from public school libraries in the case of Island Trees School District v. Pico, [457 U.S. 853 (1982)], and concluded that “local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'”
In defense of his own work and free speech everywhere, Vonnegut wrote, “Here is how I propose to end book banning in this country once and for all: every candidate for school committee should be hooked up to a lie detector and asked this question: “Have you read a book from start to finish since high school, or did you even read a book from start to finish in high school? If the truthful answer is no, then the candidate should be told politely that he cannot get on the school committee and blow off his big bazoo about how books make children crazy.”
-“All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.”
-“We are healthy only to the extent our ideas are humane.”
– “I wanted all things to seem to make sense, so we could all be happy, yes, instead of tense. And I made up lies, so they fit nice, and I made this sad world a paradise.”
– “They could feast their eyes on whatever they liked, just as long as it wasn’t relevant.” KV from Hocus Pocus
Written by Ryan Hilligoss, November 11, 2012
You inspire me. Your writing is profound in it’s own right just the way it is. I love you!
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What a fabulous tribute to our friend. I stumbled across this article while on Google images trying to find a nice cookie cutter quote I could print. For all the pain and beauty he saw to come up with one line of words that I could festoon upon my wall, it seems like I am now the bird singing a song amidst the world. So thank you for this reminder.
You’re welcome and thank you for reading my piece. I really do think of him as a friend since I have been reading his work for 25 years. He was a good man, a fine human being and an incredible writer. So it goes. Take care, Ryan