<drafted Aug. 17/17.>
My father, a Canadian bomber pilot during World War II, took part in the fire-bombing of the German city of Dresden, in February 1945.
I have a copy of his flight log. He seems to have found the Dresden bombing mission a very successful one. I’m so flabbergasted by his comment beside the entry for that mission that I won't repeat it here, publicly. (Needless to say, I’m utterly unable to even begin to get inside the mind of my father at that time. He was 28 then, with many-many bombing missions already under his belt. Unknown territory (for me), to put it very mildly indeed.)
I’ve just finished re-reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five, a “novel” published in 1968. Vonnegut titled it Slaughter-House Five or The Children’s Crusade – A Duty-Dance with Death, and it’s an unusual book, full of details from his own experiences along with some fantastical, “science-fiction”-y aspects as well.
Vonnegut, the man himself, was in Dresden on that fateful February 1945 night when the horrific fire-bombing took place. He & his fellow 100 or so American prisoners of war survived the inferno. They were housed in “Schlacthof-fünf” – a meat locker, basically – and survived the massacre, while 130,000 residents (one sees varying figures of the number of people killed) of the (truly stunningly beautiful and utterly non-military) city of Dresden – nicknamed the “Florence on the Elbe” – were incinerated, and the city burned to smithereens.
As it happens, I visited the city of Dresden as a tourist, in 2005. (This was my 2nd trip to Germany, the first having taken place in 1971, mostly to Berlin – i.e., when the Berlin Wall was still solidly intact and Dresden very much “behind” it, embedded in East Germany. Quite a trip it was for young, naïve me, going into East Germany in ‘71 … seeing the Wall, & Checkpoint Charlie, & soldiers, & German shepherds being trained, and all of that. Severely unsmiling uniformed guards checking one’s passport, every time one passed through the Wall in car, train or S-bahn. All a lifetime ago, now, hmmmm? I cannot merely not get a handle on who my father was back when he was dropping bombs on Germany, I can’t even recall who I was back in 1971, that was so many lifetimes ago now!)
When I visited Dresden in 2005, I didn’t know that my father had taken part in the bombing of the city (the flight log had not yet fallen into my hands).
“So it goes,” as Kurt Vonnegut might say.
((Parenthetically, I’ve been a huge KV fan ever since the early 1970s, my university years. Welcome to the Monkey House – a collection of his short stories published in 1970 – was my introduction to his work. By a stroke of great fortune, when my marriage busted up & our joint property had to be divided, I got possession of the Vonnegut books. I remain very grateful for that!))
I have a relative who was born in East Germany, prior to that east-west carving up that took place after World War II, and who left in a rush, shall we say... (& one who lives in Bavaria now). A friend whose father was part of the Nazi war machine. Another friend whose family were part of the Holocaust – some of whom survived, obviously, while so many others did not. And yet another friend who survived the bombing of the city of Dresden; she was then a toddler, in the city with her mother and grandmother, having left Estonia on the run from the Russians.
I’ve asked myself, “What does this all mean?”
I remember too going on a boat ride in Florida in 2008. This was to scatter the ashes of a friend’s partner, who had recently died of cancer. The fellow who took us out on the boat was Dieter, & he was from Düsseldorf. Düsseldorf was another city my father had bombed. At that point, in 2008, it was the only city I was aware of that my father had bombed. (He never spoke of the war, or at least not to us kids, or at least, not to me, the youngest of the four of us. Just a mention one time that he had bombed Düsseldorf.)
Dieter from Düsseldorf.
What does it all mean?
Well, it’s pretty obvious that one lesson you can take from these various threads is that in one quick generation, you can go from bombing the crap out of things (and people) to rather more peaceful modes of living/running the planet.
I’ve often said to people that I sure hope they won’t judge me on the basis of who my father was. Besides having bombed a shitload of German cities – & their inhabitants – during World War II – he was just not a really great guy, shall we just succinctly say. Even before the war. But never mind…
A lot can change, hmmm? The veneer of civilization, I like to say, is very very thin. This cuts both ways, of course. We may soon see some pretty graphic evidence of this, if we are not already convinced.
For sure, we humans are meaning-making machines. This was pointed out to me in some personal growth experience I took part in once (not sure now which one, though I suspect it was the Landmark Forum).
We certainly do seem very inclined to draw meaning from things – and luckily, some of us sometimes turn these meanings in a positive direction. (Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Nazi death camps, knew and wrote much about the phenomenon & importance of meaning.)
So. I’m not really sure if my having connections with people from these wildly varying threads of the World War II ball of yarn means … well, much of anything, really.
It’s hard to say we human beings (or human doings, as some like to call us), and our raucous goings-on here on Planet Earth “mean” a durn thing!
As Kurt Vonnegut had a character in Slaughter-House Five say,
“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”
p.s. KV says plenty of other wise, insightful & even hilarious things in his novels and collections of essays. You could do worse than picking up A Man Without a Country, a collection of his essays published in 2005 – it’s brimming with brilliance (& simply hordes of quotable quotes). Wampeters Foma and Granfallons is another simply awesome collection of his essays. The man really understood American history, politics & culture (or lack of same), and remember, he was predicting its disastrous consequences decades & decades & decades ago.
His last speech can be found here.
p.p.s. 3 key things KV often emphasized (beyond the disastrous, homicidal culture & politics of the United States of America):
We humans need & crave connection. Our loss of extended family has been a disaster for us both as individuals & as a society.
We need to make sure we say often “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” In other words, we need to be actively grateful for the good in our lives.
The importance of the arts. He said ““The practice of art isn’t to make a living. It’s to make your soul grow.”
& at greater length:
“If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” (from Chapter 3 of A Man without a Country)
p.p.p.s. so much more I could say about so many of the threads in this musing, hmmm? Tip of the iceberg here, really, hmmmm? But then, we’re all holding so much more, below the surface. #Icebergs Are We!
Vonnegut quotes (a mere few… He said a thousand memorable things, at least…)
“Let us face it: an Earthling’s sense of humor and fascination with sex makes it impossible for him or her to concentrate seriously on anything, even his or her survival, for more than an hour at a time.” – Kurt Vonnegut in a speech in 1972
“Anarchists are people who believe with all their hearts that governments are enemies of their own people.” – character in Kurt Vonnegut novel Jailbird
“I asked Mark a while back what life was all about since I didn’t have a clue. He said, “Dad, we’re here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” Whatever it is. Whatever it is! Not bad. That one could be a keeper. And how should we behave during this apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another certainly, but we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog if you don’t already have one. I myself just got a dog. It’s a new cross-breed. It’s half French poodle and half Chinese shitzu. It’s a “shit poo.” And I thank you for your attention. And I am out of here.” (from his last speech, here)
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” – Kurt Vonnegut (quoted in A Man Without a Country)
“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” – a line KV learned to appreciate, & repeat, thanks to his Uncle Alex (from Chapter 12 of A Man Without a Country)
“But I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society.” (from Chapter 9 of A Man Without a Country)
“We are killing this planet as a life-support system with the poisons from all the thermodynamic whoopee we’re making with atomic energy and fossil fuels, and everybody knows it, and practically nobody cares.” (from Chapter 11 of A Man Without a Country)
“We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.” – KV in A Man Without a Country
“…the most abused, addictive, and destructive drugs of all: fossil fuels.
We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on.”
“…our close cousins the gorillas and orangs and chimps and gibbon apes have gotten along just fine all this time while eating raw vegetable matter, whereas we not only prepare hot meals but have now all but destroyed this once salubrious planet as a life-support system in fewer than two hundred years, mainly by making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels.” <A Man Without a Country, pages 42-43>