For the Birds Radio Program: Armistice Day
Laura always remembers November 11. (4:04) Date confirmed.
(Recording of Dawn at New Hope Pennsylvania)
I always remember Veterans’ Day because I was born on Armistice Day, which is what today used to be called. My grandpa told me my birthday was the most important day of the year because on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month an armistice once was signed ending the war to end all wars. He never ever talked about how he won his medals in the war, but I could tell by his eyes that it had been the most terrible time in the world. I was very happy to think that thanks to the Armistice war was over forever. I grew up in Chicago, in an unhappy home, so I had no illusion that society was kind, but it made sense that grownups would have figured out at least as civilized ways of solving their arguments as we kids had. It wasn’t until high school that I realized that World War I was given a numeral because it had an encore performance, that I was born in the middle of a war which was undeclared but as full of sound and fury, and as signifying of nothing, as a real war, and that even as I was coming to this realization the U.S. was fighting another undeclared war which would kill some of my friends and scar my brother for life.
Birds don’t fight wars. They have evolved far beyond us in that respect. They maintain their territories by song, and once they settle on boundaries, through bloodless means, they rarely even have an argument. The tragedy of human folly is beneath their consideration. As Stephen Crane wrote in The Red Badge of Courage, “It was surprising that Nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment.”
Some birds manage to live right at the edge of battlefields. Pigeons, killdeer, and some quail can adjust to the sound of near-by gunfire. Gulls in some places learned to pick up fish killed by explosions and mines during and after World War II. I’m waiting to hear a news report about whether this behavior is showing up in the Persian Gulf. Vultures and buzzards have profited in wartime, though ones that eat bullets inside their human meals probably die later from lead poisoning. If Supreme Court nominees lavished as much attention on a cost-benefit analysis of war as they do on carcinogens, my three little children would be a lot safer.
Kurt Vonnegut, whose birthday is also today, wrote in Slaughterhouse-Five: “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?’“
Vonnegut closes his book with his American prisoners of war in Dresden at the close of the war in Germany.
“And somewhere in there was springtime. The corpse mines were closed down. The soldiers all left to fight the Russians. In the suburbs the women and children dug rifle pits. Billy and the rest of his group were locked up in the stable in the suburbs. And then, one morning, they got up to discover that the door was unlocked. World War Two in Europe was over.
“Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street. The trees were leafing out. There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind. There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped.
Birds were talking.
One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’“
That was Kurt Vonnegut, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”