On the evening of this day in 1945, British and U.S. air forces began their forty-eight-hour bombing of Dresden, Germany. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is the most famous fictional record of what resulted: a firestorm that destroyed 85 percent of the “Florence by the Elbe” and killed as many as 135,000 people, most of them civilians and prisoners-of-war. Vonnegut and his fellow POWs hid in an underground cold storage room of the slaughterhouse where they were quartered. Afterward, they were put to work digging up whatever corpses they could find, from shelters that “looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting in chairs, all dead.” It was a quarter century before Vonnegut could face or articulate his experience; when Slaughterhouse-Five appeared in 1969, his hero, the optometrist/time-traveler Billy Pilgrim was granted perspective on not just Dresden but the entire era:
Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round, was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes.Billy Pilgrim’s sardonic refrain gave title to And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields’s recently published biography of Vonnegut.
Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes.
And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam. So it goes.
My father died many years ago now — of natural causes. So it goes. He was a sweet man. He was a gun nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.