Archive for the 'Stories' Category

Listen: Kurt Vonnegut on the firebombing of Dresden

April 14th, 2007

Billy went into his bedroom, even though there were guests to be entertained downstairs. He lay down on his bed, turned on the Magic Fingers. The mattress trembled, drove a dog out from under the bed. The dog was Spot. Good old Spot was still alive in those days. Spot lay down again in a corner.

Billy thought hard about the effect the quartet had had on him, and then found an association with an experience he had had long ago. He did not travel in time to the experience. He remembered it shimmeringly–as follows:

§

He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed. There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked. The meat locker was a very safe shelter. All that happened down there was an occasional shower of calcimine. The Americans and four of their guards and a few dressed carcasses were down there, and nobody else. The rest of the guards had, before the raid began, gone to the comforts of their own homes in Dresden. They were all being killed with their families.

So it goes.

The girls that Billy had seen naked were all being killed, too, in a much shallower shelter in another part of the stockyards.

So it goes.

A guard would go to the head of the stairs every so often to see what it was like outside, then he would come down and whisper to the other guards. There was a fire-storm out there. 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.

The guards drew together instinctively, rolled their eyes. They experimented with one expression and then another, said nothing, though their mouths were often open. They looked like a silent film of a barbershop quartet.

So long forever, they might have been singing, old fellows and pals; So long forever, old sweethearts and pals–God bless ’em–

§

Tell me a story, Montana Wildhack said to Billy Pilgrim in the Tralfamadorian zoo one time. They were in bed side by side. They had privacy. The canopy covered the dome. Montana was six months pregnant now, big and rosy, lazily demanding small favors from Billy from time to time. She couldn’t send Billy out for ice cream or strawberries, since the atmosphere outside the dome was cyanide, and the nearest strawberries and ice cream were millions of light years away.

She could send him to the refrigerator, which was decorated with the blank couple on the bicycle built for two–or, as now, she could wheedle, Tell me a story, Billy boy.

Dresden was destroyed on the night of February 13, 1945, Billy Pilgrim began. We came out of our shelter the next day. He told Montana about the four guards who, in their astonishment and grief, resembled a barbershop quartet. He told her about the stockyards with all the fenceposts gone, with roofs and windows gone–told her about seeing little logs lying around. There were people who had been caught in the fire-storm. So it goes.

Billy told her what had happened to the buildings that used to form cliffs around the stockyards. They had collapsed. Their wood had been consumed, and their stones had crashed down, had tumbled against one another until they locked at last in low and graceful curves.

It was like the moon, said Billy Pilgrim.

§

The guards told the Americans to form in ranks of four, which they did. Then they had them march back to the hog barn which had been their home. Its walls still stood, but its windows and roof were gone, and there was nothing inside but ashes and dollops of melted glass. It was realized then that there was no food or water, and that the survivors, if they were going to continue to survive, were going to have to climb over curve after curve on the face of the moon.

Which they did.

§

The curves were smooth only when seen from a distance. The people climbing them learned that they were treacherous, jagged things–hot to the touch, often unstable–eager, should certain important rocks be disturbed, to tumble some more, to form lower, more solid curves.

Nobody talked much as the expedition crossed the moon. There was nothing appropriate to say. One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design. There were to be no moon men at all.

§

American fighter planes came in under the smoke to see if anything was moving. They saw Billy and the rest moving down there. The planes sprayed them with machine-gun bullets, but the bullets missed. Then they saw some other people moving down by the riverside and they shot at them. They hit some of them. So it goes.

The idea was to hasten the end of the war.

Kurt Vonnegut (1969), Slaughterhouse-Five, chapter 8.

Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007) was an American novelist known for his works blending black comedy and science fiction to illuminate the human condition. His most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death, written in 1969, drew from Vonnegut’s own experience in World War II, where he was captured by Nazi forces and witnessed the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war. After surviving the bombing in a meat locker, he and his fellow prisoners were put to work by their guards cleaning up bodies until they were found and freed by Soviet forces in May 1945. Before the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, few people in English-speaking countries knew about the bombing of Dresden and it was rarely discussed by historians of the war.

Vonnegut died at the age of 84 on Wednesday, April 11, in Manhattan, New York, from complications related to a fall in his home.

“Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, and the other not”: The War Prayer (1905), by Mark Twain

December 24th, 2006

The War Prayer

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory with stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came — next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams — visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender!

Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation:

God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest,
Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!

Then came the long prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory —

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord and God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside — which the startled minister did — and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God! The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause and think.

God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, and the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this — keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon your neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain on your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse on some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

You have heard your servant’s prayer — the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it — that part which the pastor — and also you in your hearts — fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard the words Grant us the victory, O Lord our God! That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory — must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it —

For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimmage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, strain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause.) Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Mark Twain (1905)

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Wartime, by Lynda Barry

October 11th, 2006

Lynda Barry, Wartime, The Lynda Barry Experience (1992).

This is a story by cartoonist and writer Lynda Barry (b. 1956), from her 1992 album The Lynda Barry Experience. You should listen to her tell it; but here is what she says, if you need a transcription:

[Radio recording (December 8, 1941):]

Hello, NBC, this is Bert Silan, speaking from Manila, and this time I’ve got a real scoop for you. Manila has just been bombed! In fact, right now it is being bombed. And without warning. Japanese bombers started bombing Fort William McKinley, Nickels Air Field, and an RCA transmitting station. At nine minutes past three o’clock, without warning…

I knew stories about war before I knew the alphabet. My mother’s from the Philippines, and not only do I know exactly where she was when the first planes dropped bombs on her province, but I can see it, and I can hear it. It’s morning; she’s in the third grade. There’s the sound of the bell ringing for morning recess, the shouts of the kids in the schoolyard, and then the high hum of the engines that make everyone stand still for a second, and look up. Then–explosions! The planes are right overhead, diving and shooting, and the kids are everywhere, screaming and running from machine-gun fire that rips into a woman ten feet away, whose knees buckle as my mother runs past her. It happened to my mother, but I see it. I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t. It comes back to me as a memory from my own childhood.

My mother says she never talked about the war when I was growing up. Oh God, she says, I’d never put you through it. Whether she knew it or not, she talked about it constantly. She has these scars, these round scars, that look sort of like a potato cut in half with a star pattern in the middle. When I was a kid, I had this idea that if I could just rub enough Jergens lotion on them, I could make them go away. The second I’d touch them, she’d always start talking about the war. Her stories became my dreams at night–recurring nightmares that always began with that high humming sound of the planes approaching. I knew the sound because whenever certain planes would fly over our house, my mother would freeze. There, she’d say, Right there. That’s the sound.

And like many children of parents who barely survived the war, I lived with her involuntary envy of my peaceful childhood. I lived with the guilt of having it. Her unbelievable shouts of, If I had known my life was going to turn out like this, I would have let the Japanese kill me! were echoed in the homes of Jewish kids I knew whose parents shouted things like I didn’t survive the camps for this! In our homes, the war never ended.

So when the question is calmly put to our president of how long will this upcoming war last, I feel like screaming–I know how long it lasts. I know a five day war can last three generations. And I know that it’s already begun. Without a single shot being fired, families of the soldiers being stationed in the Gulf are already being torn apart in ways that can never be repaired. There are kids sitting at their desks in school trying to cope with the most primal and devastating terror a child can face. Parents and husbands and wives of those soldiers are walking around this country in a daze while the clock ticks toward a ridiculously arbitrary deadline.

War becomes a part of our a DNA. It’s passed on to our children and on to our children’s children. It disfigures everything it touches. How dare anyone purposefully bring it into our lives when other options still remain.

[Television recording of George H. W. Bush (January 16, 1991):]

Just two hours ago, Allied air forces began an attack on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait. These attacks continue as I speak. Five months ago, Saddam Hussein started this cruel war against Kuwait. Tonight, the battle has been joined. As our forces fight, they and their families are in our prayers. May God bless each and every one of them, and may He continue to bless our nation, the United States of America…