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Vonnegut's Words: A Reading


We end today by remember Kurt Vonnegut. There's no way to put these kinds of things in numbers. We'll just say he was many people's favorite writer. During World War II, he was a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany when it was firebombed by Allied forces, an experience he wrote about two decades later in the novel "Slaughterhouse-Five." Here's Kurt Vonnegut reading an excerpt from that book, a section featuring his alter-ego, Billy Pilgrim, who has come unstuck in time.

Mr. KURT VONNEGUT (Author): Billy Pilgrim could not sleep on his daughter's wedding night. He was 44. The wedding had taken place that afternoon in a gaily striped tent in Billy's backyard. The stripes were orange and black. Billy 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 he 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, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighter planes 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.

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, Billy Pilgrim supposed.

Billy saw the movie backwards and forwards, and then it was time to go out into his backyard to meet the flying saucer. Out he went, his blue and ivory feet crushing the wet salad of the lawn. He stopped, took a swig of the dead champagne. It was like 7-Up. He would not raise his eyes to the sky, though he knew there was a flying saucer from Tralfamador up there. He would see it soon enough, inside and out, and he would see too where it came from soon enough, soon enough.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Kurt Vonnegut reading from his novel "Slaughterhouse-Five." He died last night at his home in Manhattan. He was 84. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.