The Ludicrous Notion of Patriotism or, Kurt Vonnegut Revisited

There was a guy in our unit who had given away all his possessions in a show of solidarity with workers of the world everywhere. The reason for this was because he was not a communist so much as he was a lunatic.

It’s been brought to my attention that I should post more often on my web site. They say independent authors should use blogs to drum up business. Honestly, I thought often about pulling the plug. Yet, here I am. I won’t even guess when I last posted. There’s good reason for that. Actually, several of them. I used to tell people: everything happens for a reason.

In December 2019 I went into a hospital to have some stents put in since I had been suffering chronic chest pain. There were supposed to be three put in, but the third one didn’t go well. That’s doublespeak for my having a widow-making heart attack right on the operating table. Well, it would have been a widow maker had I not been where I was. The reason that happened was because one artery collapsed. This is doublespeak for it became so clotted it quit working. I ended up with two stents, some new medicine which makes even shaving treacherous should I happen to nick myself, and, joy of joys, one of the medications for blood pressure actually triggered a mild case of plaque psoriasis. As it was explained to me by the medical professionals involved: it’s a small price to pay for the alternative. So, if I understand them correctly, the reason I have developed plaque psoriasis for the first time in my life is because of the medicines I take to keep me alive? Everything happens for a reason.

A few months later, the Coronavirus pandemic began. Beginning in late March 2020, I joined scores of other adjunct professors who ended up teaching online. Like everyone else across the country, I learned to keep myself occupied at home when I wasn’t working or traversing the infectious perils of the local supermarket. In June of this year I started reading Kurt Vonnegut novels in the order they were published. There was a reason for this. One of the schools where I used to teach had a different opinion than mine about academic integrity. Our parting left me with more free time than I was used to having.

Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, is a sci-fi tale that concerns itself, in part, with people being replaced by machines in the workplace. It read like so many sci-fi novels of its time. It is my least favorite of Vonnegut’s novels. Technically, the novel is rendered well enough. For me, it read like a Heinlein novel with not as much sassy, sexist, smarmy dialogue.

My intention here is not to review every single Vonnegut novel. Though I will say that in no particular order, for a variety of  reasons, the author’s books that resonated most so far are Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and The Sirens of Titan.

I should probably mention that my first exposure to Kurt Vonnegut’s work came when my father mentioned that I should read him. That was probably when I was in high school. I didn’t get to any of Vonnegut’s work until the mid-1980s when I stopped into an airport bookstore and purchased a paperback copy of Palm Sunday. The reason I didn’t heed my father’s suggestion was because that was what teenage boys were expected to do. Anyway, Palm Sunday served as a good introduction for me to Vonnegut’s writing. I was nineteen years old, still in my first year of a three-year enlistment in the army. It was the only one the army ever offered for that odd length of time. The reason for this, as it was explained decades later to me by my former company commander, was that the option I had chosen—a program they called COHORT which stood for Cohesion, Operational Readiness, Training—turned out to be a disaster. He even directed me to a study done by the army. The study said the COHORT program was supposed to build morale since soldiers went to basic training together and served at their regular unit as one group. The study also echoed my old company commander’s assessment. The reason for this was because he pretty much memorized the study chapter and verse.

The year I had purchased that copy of Palm Sunday I was a long way off from my ETS (End of Time in Service) date, and wrestling with my father’s recent death, a budding love-hate relationship with alcohol, and an insatiable appetite for books of any sort that called into question the ludicrous notion of patriotism.

The post library at Fort Campbell was equivalent to a decent community library. There I was able to take out books like Howl from Allen Ginsberg and The Communist Manifesto. One day on a lunch break I got a dressing down from a junior officer when he saw me reading The Communist Manifesto, one of those mooks raised on fairy tales of Old Glory and Patriotism. It was also the 1980s. The Soviet Union was still very much on everyone’s mind. There was a guy in our unit who had given away all his possessions in a show of solidarity with workers of the world everywhere. The reason for this was because he was not a communist so much as he was a lunatic.

I don’t like to dwell too long on my army days, though I do sometimes write about it. The reason for not thinking about those years ad nauseum is because I had a life after uniform. Some guys I know like to live in the past, telling stories of glory days. Not me. The reason for this was because I didn’t very much like those years. Enough digression. Let’s move on.

Yesterday I started Jailbird. And when I say started I mean I’m still reading the introduction that Vonnegut penned. The day before that I finished Breakfast of Champions. I can’t say I am a fan of an author placing himself in his own novel, even if some critics call it ‘experimental.’ Nevertheless, it made an impression on me…again. The reason for this is because, as he does in so many of his other novels, Vonnegut had a lot to say about America; not much, if any of it, is favorable. There’s good reason for that. If you haven’t read Vonnegut’s novels, give them a try. If you did read them, perhaps it’s time to revisit them like I did.

Behind the Black Door: Dreams and Story-writing

Last night, I dreamed I had suffered a stroke that left me unable to speak and with only limited use of my left side. Having already suffered a TIA almost a decade go, you’d think I would take the dream as a warning. I didn’t. Dreams, as we know, rarely mean what they portray.

In the dream there was this black door I had to find:

The black door was, in real life, a ramshackle cracker-version of a Bilco door that led to my basement. I called it my Game of Thrones door since it weight close to one hundred pounds after years of water damage. Anyway, the black door lies in a small scrap heap in my backyard as my house undergoes some renovation work. In the dream, however, I learned that I could make myself well again if I found the black door and passed through it.

All the makings of a story so far, right?

In my dream, the black door was “hidden in plain sight,” a bodiless voice told me. In my stroke-addled condition, I had to wander around center-city Philadelphia with the hope of discovering the black door I had removed from my house in real life.

Are you with me so far? Good.

It wasn’t easy, but I found the black door lying on a sidewalk on 12th Street near Pine. In my dream-stroke weakened condition, I was unable to lift the black door (having a sense that once I lifted the door up a portal would open in the sidewalk and I could fall into it, thus facilitating my cure).

Enter a Sandman, of sorts. A familiar face, who shall remain nameless, appeared next to me. In my dream this gave me a fright since the face belonged to someone I knew in real life, someone who, sadly, had passed a few years ago.

“I can help you,” the familiar face said, “but you have to touch my heart first.”

He opened his shirt to reveal what looked like a brick beneath bruised skin on his chest. I was unable to say anything since my dream stroke left me mute.

Before the dream ended, I shoved Mr. Dead Familiar Face aside with my good arm, gripped the handle of the black door lying on the sidewalk, and yanked on it with all my strength. The door tilted up, enough to reveal nothing but plain old sidewalk beneath it.

My dream ended as I wandered further along 12th Street, distraught over having to remain as I was—nearly crippled and completely mute. Or did it?

The black door is still in my backyard (see photo above). I don’t have the heart to lift it up. There’s no telling what doorway I might find beneath it if I do. Maybe I’ll write a story about this dream instead.