Happy Armistice Day, Happy Birthday Kurt

I always think of November 11th first as Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday (born 91 years ago today, may he rest in peace), and second as Armistice Day — the day in 1918 that the Allies and Germany agreed to cease hostilities on the World War I Western Front.

From Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions:

Kurt Vonnegut, U.S. Army soldier
Private Vonnegut, early 1940s

“…this book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover [lead character in the novel] was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.”

I was lucky enough to see Vonnegut speak at Emory University in the 1990s. He was on crutches, hobbled after spraining an ankle while playing stickball with some kids in his New York City neighborhood. He was droll and funny and sly, as you might expect if you ever seen him speak on TV or in person. Like his books, his talk was a mixture of humor, sadness, wisdom, and silliness. Right up my alley.

Vonnegut offered no encouragement to those contemplating a writing career — perhaps knowing that only the most bull-headed and persistent would ever come close to following in his footsteps; and knowing that even most of those would need some other way of earning a living. (This reminds me of the Frank Zappa quote: “If you want to be a composer, get a real estate license.”) But he did give a version of the chalk talk in the video below — his version of the eternal verities of story construction:

Thanks, Kurt.

1 Comment

  1. I was a better painter since I was an illustration major in art school, so I can relate to Kurt and Frank’s perspective. The Brits call it “Poppy Day!”…November 11th. Nice post. Thank you. You were lucky to see him. Still like your view of Asheville through the screen though. xox

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