The RAT office nested among the still Jewish and Ukrainian tenements of East 4th street. A rumpled man tentatively opened the door. At first glance, he looked like a visionary Classics professor who was so unassertive that he hadn’t received the promotions he deserved for the last 20 years. If a human face could look like a bloodhound’s, then this gentleman was on his way to making the morph complete.
It’s hard to remember this first meeting because the man wasn’t memorable. Almost diffidently he entered and sat on a desk because we were lacking chairs and said something like “I’ve been reading your newspaper and wanted to come by. I try to write a bit.”
In my experience, many of the best writers are shy, withdrawn or edging toward what pop culture now describes as Asperger’s. They’re observers. And shy people are often more sensitive and better observers than those blessed with social ease. RAT was always searching for good writers, in unlikely dress or not, so we began to chat.
One could repeat the obvious; Kurt Vonnegut entered the RAT world in a very inauspicious manner. The usual hubbub of photographers and high school rebels, activists planning demonstrations and writing leaflets, street people with story ideas, GI deserters heading for Canada, all joined in the throng making themselves right at home – often on the floor. And they all ignored Vonnegut, which seemed to please him greatly.
Slaughterhouse 5 had just come out and was being read in the underground. Vonnegut was being lionized at chic uptown literary parties but at RAT Vonnegut fit right in with the counterculture weirdo’s and all the others trying to overthrow the system. Everyone was too passionate and too busy to treat anyone else like a celebrity.
Early on, Brenda Smiley passed through. Brenda was another of those human miracles. Word had it she had just won best comic actress, by a newcomer off-Broadway, in a hit called Scooba Dooba. It meant nothing to Brenda. She wanted to join the revolution and be a writer.
“Brenda”, I would say, thousands of actors are killing themselves to make it in New York Theater. Maybe you should do another play” – she had lots of offers –“and help out from the inside of the Theater world?”
She would have none of it.
The problem was, like most people, Brenda was a rather dreadful writer.
If you wanted someone who was peppy, full of good cheer and wit, and great to have around that was Brenda. So instead of rejection, I began by using the old editor’s trick – give her an assignment. For instance, go to the demonstration and write every single thing you observe, record lots of interviews, and pause to mentally capture the atmosphere so the scene could be reproduced.
Done right this should yield 20 pages of copy. Any non-comatose editor should be able to extract a phrase from here or there, reassemble paragraphs, rearrange the storyline and out of 20 pages have a readable page and a half. And if the writer possessed an original mind, in time, by writing for readers, they, like anyone who persists, would improve.
Soon, in some nook in the RAT warren, I found the world-worn writer and the comic actress conversing intimately. It seemed somehow their comic sense synchronized and their world became a unique quirky anime to be shared. CLICK. With a mutual appreciation of the absurd, they bonded, helped by Brenda’s spontaneity.
I understood another reason Vonnegut liked to hang around was war seemed like the highest foolishness of the human species. In real life, not in Tralfamadore, the young Vonnegut was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and became a Nazi prisoner.
Dresden, Germany, known as a center of culture for centuries, was the best location a prisoner could hope for. There were no military targets in the city so imprisonment for Vonnegut consisted of daily work detail with no fear of allied for attack, only the drudgery of labor in the streets while waiting the defeat of the Reich which was only months away.
At night the prisoners marched several stories underground into empty meat lockers where they slept until the next days duty. Down they went from central Dresden with its centuries of architectural beauty. But in the morning on emerging the peaceful city had vanished. Vonnegut stumbled into a Hiroshima-like wasteland.
During the night over 700 bombers dropped high explosives and 3,900 tons of incendiary bombs. The phosphorous bombs created a firestorm so fierce it became a weather event. Like the swirl of a tornado, the cone of the firestorm sucked up all the surrounding oxygen. Ten of thousands of civilians not killed in bomb blasts were killed by asphyxiation.
I imagine Vonnegut, lionized uptown in literary circles, found the shabby denizens of RAT world struggling against the napalm and phosphorus carpet bombing of Vietnam a community of often unspoken empathy.
In 1969 Vonnegut wrote: ”The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.”
Vonnegut battled with his demons including depression that most biographers attributed to family tragedies and marital difficulties. Who could really imagine a regular guy from Indiana waking up, expecting a morning like any other, and to his astonishment ordered to begin loading charred corpses into wheelbarrows?
But there was more.
The allies had fine-tuned our lethal war machine and there were simply too many dead – fifty to a hundred thousand. Wheelbarrows were not adequate. So German’s, practical as they are, demanded the prisoners helped with more advanced cleaning techniques. Flame-throwers were brought in and the dead were incinerated where they’d fallen, turned into giant charred hot dogs.
Hard stuff for a psychoanalyst and biographers to understand. Nobody could really imagine Vonnegut’s experience in hell. But RAT offered a momentary sanctuary in an off-kilter world. Also, Kurt could enjoy Brenda’s quirky animated humor. This interview by Brenda under the pseudonym, “merry-legs” is the only recorded thoughts Vonnegut made for us during this period:
Those of you interested in the interview can go to our website ratundergroundnews.com. It will be uploaded pretty soon.