November 11, 2022: Kurt Vonnegut jr, Centenary

— Midweek Meditations:
thoughts, inspiration and encouragement
from ACF community members —

Vonnegut was one of the most popular authors of the late 20th century. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana as the grandson of German immigrants, he survived the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 as an American POW in the basement of Schlachthof 5 – the eponymous location of his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse 5, or The Childrens’ Crusade (1969). The experience was to haunt him for the rest of his life.

Kurt Vonnegut professed not to believe in a god. Or at least not in one directing and supporting people from somewhere. The contingency of life or death, the senseless of sheer hap, and the insanity of cruelty between humans resulted in constructions such as the ‘Church of God the Utterly Indifferent’ in Vonnegut’s second novel, The Sirens of Titan (1959): God might have created heaven and earth, but then he let things and people take care of themselves.

Strangely enough, the resulting vision is more optimistic than one might think: thrown back upon their own responsibility for whatever they do to others, and collectively facing victimization by accidents and ill luck, people learn to take care of each other, recognizing their mission on earth as being “to love whoever is around and needs to be loved”.

Which, arguably, pertains to pretty much everybody.

What a nice idea.

Which is also, coincidentally, pretty close to what the teachings of Jesus are all about. Whom Vonnegut admired. Ironically, for all his apparent humanism, he also liked going to church. Unitarian, mostly, which he considered not much of a church anyway, at least in terms of their being dogmatic, or being filled with that white Christian nationalism that is really a form of hatred for everybody but themselves.

Considering all of the above, maybe it does not come as a surprise that Vonnegut was a firefighter for some years, shortly after the war. He served in the hamlet of Alplaus, New York, just outside of Schenectady. But even after he moved with his family to Cape Cod, and later on to New York, firefighters and fire engines kept appearing in his works. For instance in the 1965 novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in which the title figure, former army captain Eliot Rosewater, is told by the (fictional) science fiction writer Kilgore Trout:

“Your devotion to volunteer fire departments is very sane, too, Eliot, for they are, when the alarm goes off, almost the only examples of enthusiastic unselfishness to be seen in this land. They rush to the rescue of any human being, and count not the cost. The most contemptible man in town, should his contemptible house catch fire, will see his enemies put the fire out. And, as he pokes through the ashes for remains of his contemptible possessions, he will be comforted and pitied by no less than the Fire Chief.” Trout spread his hands. “There we have people treasuring people as people. It’s extremely rare. So from this we must learn.“

from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Of course this level of altruism is an exaggeration. Besides, Eliot Rosewater, who also appears in Slaughterhouse 5, is trying to come to terms with the fact that during the last days of the war he mistook a 14-year old German fireman for a soldier. And killed him.

In real life, that might have been my father. Because that is what my father was by the end of the war: a 14-year old fireman. Who had to clear up after bombing raids. Much like Vonnegut in Dresden. Only that my father is alive at 92, and Vonnegut died in 2007. So it goes.

A piece of silk, hand-painted by Kurt Vonnegut, adorns the common room of the Alplaus VFD. On it is a statement from another Vonnegut character, Winston N. Rumfoord from The Sirens of Titan. And when news of his death reached Alplaus, the VFD rang Code 5 – 5 – 5 – 5, the traditional salute for a fallen comrade.

The ACF Midweek Meditations
are written by a diverse group of our church members with the intention to seek God’s fingerprints in our lives. They range from somber to humorous and are inspired by all facets of live and faith. Written by ordinary people from all walks of life, they reflect a wide range of Christian backgrounds and spiritualities.

Each week’s text portrays the individual viewpoint of its author. They might not always resonate with everyone, and are not meant to be understood as representing the Anglican Church Freiburg as a whole. Yet, as a church that is aiming to ‘Build a Community of Grace’ we seek to practice learning from and listening to one another.

We pray that these humble ponderings add a small spark of blessing to your week.

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