I grew up in a very small town, the son of parents without money. There was no library except the one at the school, and so I, a voracious reader and world-class nerd, spent my summers waiting on the slim pickings of the county bookmobile. The bookmobile was long on children’s books and short on pretty much everything else, but they did have a few science fiction novels, and it wasn’t long (what with the nerdiness and all) before I was hooked. Of course, the selections of the county tended to run toward the innocuous—lots of Asimov and Clarke, and nothing particularly subversive.
One summer afternoon, my mother loaded us kids into her old Buick and drove over to Perryville to do her banking. While she busied herself in the bank, my brother and I slipped into the drugstore on the square. I had a couple of bucks of my allowance left, and I thought I’d pick up a new science fiction paperback. The only one they had that I hadn’t already read was Cat’s Cradle. I knew nothing about the book or Kurt Vonnegut, but I spent the two bucks or so, and, just that quickly, I changed my life.
I was hooked. Vonnegut’s style was like nothing I’d ever read—science nerds don’t get much satire mixed in with their rockets and robots, and any social commentary is generally unsharpened and clumsy. From then on, I read every one of his books I could get my hands on. The bookmobile took requests for books to add to the mobile collection, and I requested all the Vonnegut they could bring. Eventually, that led to Slaughterhouse Five.
Like most young teenage boys, I was self-absorbed and ignorant of the world outside my little town. I thought that war was glorious, and that the United States could do no wrong. Slaughterhouse opened my eyes—just a little—to the idea that maybe the John Wayne movies I saw on our family’s little black and white TV weren’t true life, and in fact, maybe the world wasn’t black and white. I remember being horrified by Vonnegut’s descriptions of Dresden after the bombing. I was approaching draft age, and Vietnam hadn’t quite wound completely down. Suddenly peace began to seem very appealing to me, and not completely for selfish reasons.
On Wednesday, I kept a kid cornered in my office for nearly an hour, trying to talk him out of his decision to join the Army. This kid is bright, and funny, and he has an incisive mind that usually sees through bullshit—a student that keeps a professor honest. But, Justin has a horrible family life, and feels he has to get away. He sees the Army as a chance to make his own way in the world—to be independent (the irony apparently lost on his usually sharp mind). I told him that being a soldier is a necessary and honorable thing, but not for him—that he’s destined to be a surgeon or a journalist, and not to waste his life in a useless war—but it was to no avail. I failed utterly. I’d wasted my time, and made him angry.
I heard yesterday of Vonnegut’s death on NPR. I remembered reading Cat’s Cradle, and Galapagos, and especially Slaughterhouse Five. I could see the smouldering ruins of Dresden, the way Vonnegut had described them. And I thought of Justin. Maybe he’ll read my copy of Slaughterhouse.