For the Birds Radio Program: Kurt Vonnegut
On April 11, 2007, Kurt Vonnegut died. I’d never read anything by him until my children were babies—then I voraciously devoured everything he’d ever written. He and I shared a birthday–November 11. When I was a little girl that day was called Armistice Day, which my Grandpa told me was the day we celebrated the end of the war to end all wars. I concluded that we people had grown far too advanced to settle our differences with wars anymore, and was proud that my Grandpa had been part of the war that ended all wars. So it was a horrifying discovery when I was in 7th grade and learned that the war to end all wars had been World War I, so named because it had an encore. It wasn’t until even later that I found out we’d also been to war in Korea after that, and even in high school I’d never have guessed that my big brother was going to be spending three years fighting yet another war, this one in Vietnam. A lot of my anti-war friends in college referred to Slaughterhouse-Five, but somehow I didn’t read it back then. When I discovered it in 1982, and then Cat’s Cradle and Mother Night and all the rest, I felt like I’d discovered a kindred spirit. As a new mother, I loved Mr. Rosewater’s words to new babies: “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.’ ”
Kurt Vonnegut’s experiences in World War II were most eloquently used in his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five. His protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is captured by the Germans and kept in an underground meat locker where, like Vonnegut, he’s put to work manufacturing vitamin supplements with other prisoners of war. That underground meat locker ironically saved Vonnegut’s and his protagonist’s life during the firebombing of Dresden. After the city was destroyed, he was imprisoned in a stable outside Dresden for a while. Vonnegut wasn’t a birder, and his war experiences weren’t focused on nature, but I love the way the book ends, with the war’s end and Billy Pilgrim’s release—to the sound of a bird:
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?’
Vonnegut’s final book, A Man without a Country, ends with a poem called “Requiem”:
When the last living thing has died on account of us, how poetical it would be if Earth could say, in a voice floating up perhaps from the floor of the Grand Canyon, “It is done.” People did not like it here.
Kurt Vonnegut was one of those people you just expect to be here forever. Fortunately, his words will be here forever. And so it goes.