American author Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Armistice Day 1922 and died in 2007. An icon of intellectual wit and well-meaning misanthropy, he is noted for his satirical novels that combine social commentary, dark humor, and science-fictional elements. Vonnegut fought in World War II and was taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. He and his fellow prisoners were locked in the basement meat locker of a slaughterhouse in Dresden, Germany, where they safely rode out a two-day firebombing by Allied forces that razed the historic city center and killed twenty-five thousand people. His best-known work, Slaughterhouse-Five, is based in part on the experience. The novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, also survives the bombing of Dresden and becomes “unstuck in time,” experiencing much of his life out of order instead of from beginning to end. From Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, copyright © 1969 by Kurt Vonnegut. Used by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc.

 

Billy Pilgrim padded downstairs on his blue and ivory feet. He went into the kitchen, where the moonlight called his attention to a half bottle of champagne on the kitchen table, all that was left from the reception in the tent. Somebody had stoppered it again. “Drink me,” it seemed to say.

So Billy uncorked it with his thumbs. It didn’t make a pop. The champagne was dead. So it goes.

Billy looked at the clock on the gas stove. He had an hour to kill before the saucer came. He went into the living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high-school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.