Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Uncle Woodrow, and World War II

I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) tonight for the first time, and one particular passage struck me in its depiction of memory of World War II.  At Billy and Valencia’s eighteenth wedding anniversary, the barbershop quartet, the Febs, begin singing “That Old Gang of Mine,” and Billy is assaulted by the pain of memory:

Unexpectedly, Billy Pilgrim found himself upset by the song and the occasion.  He had never had an old gang, old sweethearts and pals, but he missed one anyway, as the quartet made slow, agonized experiments with chords–chords intentionally sour, sourer still, unbearably sour, and then a chord that was suffocatingly sweet, and then some sour ones again.  Billy had powerful psychosomatic responses to the changing chords.  His mouth filled with the taste of lemonade, and his face became grotesque, as if he were really being stretched on the torture engine called the rack. (172-173)

I’ve seen this before when I was once asking my Uncle Woodrow Head about his experiences in the war before he succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease.

He told me about the time, prior to the Battle of the Bulge, General Patton inspected his auto group while he was working on the breaks of his jeep.  Despite others telling him to snap to attention, he said he had to get it fixed for when they rolled out.  Patton’s car pulled up to where my Uncle’s legs were sticking out from under his vehicle.  The general got out and told my Uncle that it was men like him that were going to win the war.

He told me about guarding one of the major conferences of the war while manning an anti-aircraft gun with orders to shoot any airplane on sight.

Then, he told me about his friends and the death he witnessed.  However, he stopped short and his face took on the “grotesque” that Vonnegut describes in the selection above–the only scene from the book that explicitly invokes memory instead of time warps.  The memory of the event overwhelmed my Uncle, a good natured and quiet man who I never before or ever saw again with a face transfigured by a memory so great and terrible that I cannot imagine it.

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Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.