Tribute to a Father, Veteran and Artist
Guest blogger Nanette Vonnegut is the daughter of Kurt Vonnegut and wrote the foreword to We Are What We Pretend to Be, a darkly comic new book of vintage Vonnegut, one of his very early novellas and the establishing chapters of his last novel, both in print for the first time, published this month by Vanguard Press.
My father was not of a generation that talked a lot about feelings, nor was he one given to showy displays of affection. Except in writing. My father made a habit of putting in writing how much he loved me, how much he worried about me and occasionally, how much I pissed him off. Over the years, what started as a father/child exchange turned into an exchange between two adults, up until the end of his life. He held me to a very high standard and called me out when I was less than kind. He allowed that I do the same and never pulled rank on me as my elder.
We had such lively relations that we had more than a few heartfelt fights, heated enough to punch holes through our respective typewriter ribbons. A few times my letters were tantamount to setting a paper bag containing a dog turd on fire, ringing his doorbell, and running. My apologies were ubiquitous enough to be meaningless and were usually given in advance of setting something stinky on fire.
My father, on the other hand, apologized when he knew it was absolutely the right thing to do. As always, his timing was impeccable, and the effect was nothing short of miraculous in its healing effect. He had plenty of pride, but not so much that he couldn’t admit to a mistake. That makes him a hero in my book. Most people would sooner start a war than say I’m sorry.
My father loved this country and was a wounded veteran of WWII. Alongside so many others, he offered up his life in service to his country. He came home from the war carrying the weight of having been a P.O.W. and was witness to unspeakable horrors. After years of trying and failing, he finally put to words something that was nearly impossible to say, which I believe is the very definition of Art. Slaughterhouse-Five was my father’s giant PTSD baby, an act of stunning creativity born out of his suffering as a survivor of war.
My father would not have survived spiritually or emotionally had he not been able to write, paint, and play the clarinet and the piano, even if badly. The creative process saved his life.
We will suffer as a nation if we do not consider the Arts as patriotic as the American flag, which was, in fact, a work of collective creativity. George Washington and Paul Revere weighed in as to the design merits of the five-or six-pointed star and wondered whether there might be more dye options besides just red and blue. Betsy Ross got her way with the five-pointed star. The red and blue dyes were the only colors that didn’t come out in the wash.
My father would say to all his wounded brothers and sisters, find your voice, however you can, even if it is in someone else’s work of art. Sing badly in the shower, or in public. It’s a free, freaking country, as you well know. You might be the reason someone falls out of their chair laughing.
My father’s patriotism has been questioned from time to time simply because he spoke truthfully about a lot of things, in particular, about his experience as a soldier and as a P.O.W. Some of our citizens have publicly banned his books because his words upset them so. My dad never imagined such a thing could happen in a country he so revered, whose democratic institutions served him so well, not the least one being, The Right To Free Speech. This public trampling of his work wounded him almost as much as anything in his life. Yet, he would have been deeply moved by the willingness of so many to speak out against such censorious attacks. He would have told you all, in so many words, how much he loved you for being so brave in defending such freedoms here and around the world.
We can feel safer somehow that Kurt Vonnegut belongs to the world, that he left us so many of his rare words, and the memory of his tall, wounded beauty.
[In honor of the 90th anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut’s birth on November 11, 2012, please share this moving tribute with your social networks. Also, if you’re in the Indianapolis area, consider attending our Vonnegut-inspired event, Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day, which offers outlet for expression and communication. This event takes place on November 11, 2012, at the Indiana War Memorial, 431 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis.]