This interview with Kurt Vonnegut was originally a composite of four interviews done with the author over the past decade. The composite has gone through an extensive working over by the subject himself, who looks upon his own spoken words on the page with considerable misgivings . . . indeed, what follows can be considered an interview conducted with himself, by himself.
The introduction to the first of the incorporated interviews (done in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, when Vonnegut was forty-four) reads: “He is a veteran and a family man, large-boned, loose-jointed, at ease. He camps in an armchair in a shaggy tweed jacket, Cambridge gray flannels, a blue Brooks Brothers shirt, slouched down, his hands stuffed into his pockets. He shells the interview with explosive coughs and sneezes, windages of an autumn cold and a lifetime of heavy cigarette smoking. His voice is a resonant baritone, Midwestern, wry in its inflections. From time to time he issues the open, alert smile of a man who has seen and reserved within himself almost everything: depression, war, the possibility of violent death, the inanities of corporate public relations, six children, an irregular income, long-delayed recognition.”
The last of the interviews that made up the composite was conducted during the summer of 1976, years after the first. The description of him at this time reads: “ . . . he moves with the low-keyed amiability of an old family dog. In general, his appearance is tousled: the long curly hair, mustache, and sympathetic smile suggest a man at once amused and saddened by the world around him. He has rented the Gerald Murphy house for the summer. He works in the little bedroom at the end of a hall where Murphy, artist, bon vivant, and friend to the artistic great, died in 1964. From his desk Vonnegut can look out onto the front lawn through a small window; behind him is a large, white canopy bed. On the desk next to the typewriter is a copy of Andy Warhol’s Interview, Clancy Sigal’s Zone of the Interior, and several discarded cigarette packs.
“Vonnegut has chain-smoked Pall Malls since 1936 and during the course of the interview he smokes the better part of one pack. His voice is low and gravelly, and as he speaks, the incessant procedure of lighting the cigarettes and exhaling smoke is like punctuation in his conversation. Other distractions, such as the jangle of the telephone and the barking of a small, shaggy dog named Pumpkin, do not detract from Vonnegut’s good-natured disposition. Indeed, as Dan Wakefield once said of his fellow Shortridge High School alumnus, ‘He laughed a lot and was kind to everyone.’“
INTERVIEWER: You are a veteran of the Second World War?
VONNEGUT: Yes. I want a military funeral when I die—the bugler, the flag on the casket, the ceremonial firing squad, the hallowed ground.
VONNEGUT: It will be a way of achieving what I’ve always wanted more than anything—something I could have had, if only I’d managed to get myself killed in the war.
INTERVIEWER: Which is—?
VONNEGUT: The unqualified approval of my community.
INTERVIEWER: You don’t feel that you have that now?
VONNEGUT: My relatives say that they are glad I’m rich, but that they simply cannot read me.
INTERVIEWER: You were an infantry battalion scout in the war?
VONNEGUT: Yes, but I took my basic training on the 240-millimeter howitzer.
INTERVIEWER: A rather large weapon.
VONNEGUT: The largest mobile fieldpiece in the army at that time. This weapon came in six pieces, each piece dragged wallowingly by a Caterpillar tractor. Whenever we were told to fire it, we had to build it first. We practically had to invent it. We lowered one piece on top of another, using cranes and jacks. The shell itself was about nine and a half inches in diameter and weighed three hundred pounds. We constructed a miniature railway which would allow us to deliver the shell from the ground to the breech, which was about eight feet above grade. The breechblock was like the door on the vault of a savings and loan association in Peru, Indiana, say.
INTERVIEWER: It must have been a thrill to fire such a weapon.
VONNEGUT: Not really. We would put the shell in there, and then we would throw in bags of very slow and patient explosives. They were damp dog biscuits, I think. We would close the breech, and then trip a hammer which hit a fulminate of mercury percussion cap, which spit fire at the damp dog biscuits. The main idea, I think, was to generate steam. After a while, we could hear these cooking sounds. It was a lot like cooking a turkey. In utter safety, I think, we could have opened the breechblock from time to time, and basted the shell. Eventually, though, the howitzer always got restless. And finally it would heave back on its recoil mechanism, and it would have to expectorate the shell. The shell would come floating out like the Goodyear blimp. If we had had a stepladder, we could have painted “Fuck Hitler” on the shell as it left the gun. Helicopters could have taken after it and shot it down.
INTERVIEWER: The ultimate terror weapon.
VONNEGUT: Of the Franco-Prussian War.
INTERVIEWER: But you were ultimately sent overseas not with this instrument but with the 106th Infantry Division—
VONNEGUT: “The Bag Lunch Division.” They used to feed us a lot of bag lunches. Salami sandwiches. An orange.
INTERVIEWER: In combat?
VONNEGUT: When we were still in the States.
INTERVIEWER: While they trained you for the infantry?
VONNEGUT: I was never trained for the infantry. Battalion scouts were elite troops, see. There were only six in each battalion, and nobody was very sure about what they were supposed to do. So we would march over to the rec room every morning, and play Ping-Pong and fill out applications for Officer Candidate School.
INTERVIEWER: During your basic training, though, you must have been familiarized with weapons other than the howitzer.
VONNEGUT: If you study the 240-millimeter howitzer, you don’t even have time left over for a venereal-disease film.
INTERVIEWER: What happened when you reached the front?
VONNEGUT: I imitated various war movies I’d seen. . .
INTERVIEWER: And you finally arrived in Dresden.
VONNEGUT: In a huge prison camp south of Dresden first. The privates were separated from the noncoms and officers. Under the articles of the Geneva Convention, which is a very Edwardian document, privates were required to work for their keep. Everybody else got to languish in prison. As a private, I was shipped to Dresden . . .
INTERVIEWER: What were your impressions of the city itself before the bombing?
VONNEGUT: The first fancy city I’d ever seen. A city full of statues and zoos, like Paris. We were living in a slaughterhouse, in a nice new cement-block hog barn. They put bunks and straw mattresses in the barn, and we went to work every morning as contract labor in a malt-syrup factory. The syrup was for pregnant women. The damned sirens would go off and we’d hear some other city getting it—whump a whump a whumpa whump. We never expected to get it. There were very few air-raid shelters in town and no war industries, just cigarette factories, hospitals, clarinet factories. Then a siren went off—it was February 13, 1945—and we went down two stories under the pavement into a big meat locker. It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around. When we came up the city was gone.
INTERVIEWER: You didn’t suffocate in the meat locker?
VONNEGUT: No. It was quite large, and there weren’t very many of us. The attack didn’t sound like a hell of a lot either. Whump. They went over with high explosives first to loosen things up, and then scattered incendiaries. When the war started, incendiaries were fairly sizable, about as long as a shoebox. By the time Dresden got it, they were tiny little things. They burnt the whole damn town down.
INTERVIEWER: What happened when you came up?
VONNEGUT: Our guards were noncoms—a sergeant, a corporal, and four privates—and leaderless. Cityless, too, because they were Dresdeners who’d been shot up on the front and sent home for easy duty. They kept us at attention for a couple of hours. They didn’t know what else to do. They’d go over and talk to each other. Finally we trekked across the rubble and they quartered us with some South Africans in a suburb. Every day we walked into the city and dug into basements and shelters to get the corpses out, as a sanitary measure. When we went into them, a typical shelter, an ordinary basement usually, looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead. A firestorm is an amazing thing. It doesn’t occur in nature. It’s fed by the tornadoes that occur in the midst of it and there isn’t a damned thing to breathe. We brought the dead out. They were loaded on wagons and taken to parks, large, open areas in the city which weren’t filled with rubble. The Germans got funeral pyres going, burning the bodies to keep them from stinking and from spreading disease. One hundred thirty thousand corpses were hidden underground. It was a terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt. We went to work through cordons of German soldiers. Civilians didn’t get to see what we were up to. After a few days the city began to smell, and a new technique was invented. Necessity is the mother of invention. We would bust into the shelter, gather up valuables from people’s laps without attempting identification, and turn the valuables over to guards. Then soldiers would come in with a flamethrower and stand in the door and cremate the people inside. Get the gold and jewelry out and then burn everybody inside.
INTERVIEWER: What an impression on someone thinking of becoming a writer!
VONNEGUT: It was a fancy thing to see, a startling thing. It was a moment of truth, too, because American civilians and ground troops didn’t know American bombers were engaged in saturation bombing. It was kept a secret until very close to the end of the war. One reason they burned down Dresden is that they’d already burned down everything else. You know: “What’re we going to do tonight?” Here was everybody all set to go, and Germany still fighting, and this machinery for burning down cities was being used. It was a secret, burning down cities—boiling pisspots and flaming prams. There was all this hokum about the Norden bomb sight. You’d see a newsreel showing a bombardier with an MP on either side of him holding a drawn .45. That sort of nonsense, and hell, all they were doing was just flying over cities, hundreds of airplanes, and dropping everything. When I went to the University of Chicago after the war the guy who interviewed me for admission had bombed Dresden. He got to that part of my life story and he said, “Well, we hated to do it.” The comment sticks in my mind.
INTERVIEWER: Another reaction would be, “We were ordered to do it.”
VONNEGUT: His was more humane. I think he felt the bombing was necessary, and it may have been. One thing everybody learned is how fast you can rebuild a city. The engineers said it would take five hundred years to rebuild Germany. Actually it took about eighteen weeks.
And there’s much more.