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In the late 1940s, the young Kurt Vonnegut walked away from his public relations job at General Electric and began what he calls "my career as a writer for periodicals" -- selling his short fiction to popular magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Argosy, and others. The rest, as they say, is history. Fifty years later, 23 of these stories have been selected, reedited -- in a few cases, virtually rewritten -- by Vonnegut himself, and collected for the first time in book form in Bagombo Snuff Box. We have an excerpt from the book to tickle your mind.
break Introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut
My longtime friend and critic Professor Peter Reed, of the English Department at the University of Minnesota, made it his business to find these stories from my distant past. Otherwise, they might never have seen the light of day again. I myself hadn't saved one scrap of paper from that part of my life. I didn't think I would amount to a hill of beans. All I wanted to do was support a family.
Peter's quest was that of a scholar. I nevertheless asked him to go an extra mile for me, by providing an informal preface to what is in fact his rather than my collection.
God bless you, Dr. Reed, I think.
These stories, and twenty-three of similar quality in my previous hardcover collection, Welcome to the Monkey House, were written at the very end of a golden age of magazine fiction in this country. For about fifty years, until 1953, say, stories like these were a mild but popular form of entertainment in millions of homes, my own included.
This old man's hope has to be that some of his earliest tales, for all their mildness and innocence and clumsiness, may, in these coarse times, still entertain.
They would not be reprinted now, if novels I had written around the same time had not, better late than never, received critical attention. My children were adults by then, and I was middle-aged. These stories, printed in magazines fat with fiction and advertising, magazines now in most cases defunct, were expected to be among the living about as long as individual lightning bugs.
That anything I have written is in print today is due to the efforts of one publisher, Seymour "Sam" Lawrence (1927-1994). When I was broke in 1965, and teaching at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa all alone, completely out of print, having separated myself from my family on Cape Cod in order to support them, Sam bought rights to my books, for peanuts, from publishers, both hardcover and softcover, who had given up on me. Sam thrust my books back into the myopic public eye again.
CPR! Cardiopulmonary resuscitation of this author who was all but dead!
Thus encouraged, this Lazarus wrote Slaughterhouse-Five for Sam. That made my reputation. I am a Humanist, and so am not entitled to expect an afterlife for myself or anyone. But at Seymour Lawrence's memorial service at New York City's Harvard Club five years ago, I said this with all my heart: "Sam is up in Heaven now."
I returned to Dresden, incidentally, the setting for Slaughterhouse-Five, on October 7th, 1998. I was taken down into the cellar where I and about a hundred other American POWs survived a firestorm that suffocated or incinerated 135,000 or so other human beings. It reduced the "Florence of the Elbe" to a jagged moonscape. While I was down in that cellar again, this thought came to me: "Because I have lived so long, I am one of the few persons on Earth who saw an Atlantis before it disappeared forever beneath the waves."
Short stories can have greatness, short as they have to be. Several knocked my socks off when I was still in high school. Ernest Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and Saki's "The Open Window" and O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" and Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" spring to mind. But there is no greatness in this or my other collection, nor was there meant to be. My own stories may be interesting, nonetheless, as relics from a time, before there was television, when an author might support a family by writing stories that satisfied uncritical readers of magazines, and earning thereby enough free time in which to write serious novels. When I became a full-time free-lance in 1950, I expected to be doing that for the rest of my life.
I was in such good company with a prospectus like that. Hemingway had written for Esquire, F. Scott Fitzgerald for The Saturday Evening Post, William Faulkner for Collier's, John Steinbeck for The Woman's Home Companion!
Say what you want about me, I never wrote for a magazine called The Woman's Home Companion, but there was a time when I would have been most happy to. And I add this thought: Just because a woman is stuck alone at home, with her husband at work and her kids at school, that doesn't mean she is an imbecile.
Publication of this book makes me want to talk about the peculiar and beneficial effect a short story can have on us, which makes it different from a novel or movie or play or TV show.
If I am to make my point, though, you must first imagine with me a scene in the home of my childhood and youth in Indianapolis, in the middle of the previous Great Depression. The previous Great Depression lasted from the stock market crash on October 24th, 1929, until the Japanese did us the favor, for the sheer hell of it, of bombing our comatose fleet of warships in Pearl Harbor, on December 7th, 1941. The little yellow bastards, as we used to call them, were bored to tears with the Great Depression. So were we.
Imagine that it is 1938 again. I am sixteen again. I come home again from yet another lousy day at Shortridge High School. Mother, who does not work outside the home, says there is a new Saturday Evening Post on the coffee table. It is raining outside, and I am unpopular. But I can't turn on a magazine like a TV set. I have to pick it up, or it will go on lying there, dead as a doornail. An unassisted magazine has no get-up-and-go.
After I pick it up, I have to make all one hundred sixty pounds of male adolescent meat and bones comfortable in an easy chair. Then I have to leaf through the magazine with my fingertips, so my eyes can shop for a story with a stimulating title and illustration.
Illustrators during the golden age of American magazine fiction used to get as much money as the authors whose stories they illustrated. They were often as famous as, or even more famous than, the authors. Norman Rockwell was their Michelangelo.
While I shop for a story, my eyes also see ads for automobiles and cigarettes and hand lotions and so on. It is advertisers, not readers, who pay the true costs of such a voluptuous publication. And God bless them for doing that. But consider the incredible thing I myself have to do in turn. I turn my brains on!
That isn't the half of it. With my brains all fired up, I do the nearly impossible thing that you are doing now, dear reader. I make sense of idiosyncratic arrangements, in horizontal lines, of nothing but twenty-six phonetic symbols, ten Arabic numerals, and perhaps eight punctuation marks, on a sheet of bleached and flattened wood pulp!
But get this: While I am reading, my pulse and breathing slow down. My high school troubles drop away. I am in a pleasant state somewhere between sleep and restfulness.
And then, after however long it takes to read a short story, ten minutes, say, I spring out of the chair. I put The Saturday Evening Post back on the coffee table for somebody else.
So then my architect dad comes home from work, or more likely from no work, since the little yellow bastards haven't bombed Pearl Harbor yet. I tell him I have read a story he might enjoy. I tell him to sit in the easy chair whose cushion is still dented and warmed by my teenage butt.
Dad sits. I pick up the magazine and open it to the story. Dad is tired and blue. Dad starts to read. His pulse and breathing slow down. His troubles drop away, and so on.
Yes! And our little domestic playlet, true to life in the 1930s, dear reader, proves exactly what? It proves that a short story, because of its physiological and psychological effects on a human being, is more closely related to Buddhist styles of meditation than it is to any other form of narrative entertainment.
What you have in this volume, then, and in every other collection of short stories, is a bunch of Buddhist catnaps. Reading a novel, War and Peace, for example, is no catnap. Because a novel is so long, reading one is like being married forever to somebody nobody else knows or cares about. Definitely not refreshing!
Oh sure, we had radios before we had TV. But radios can't hold our attention, can't take control of our emotions, except in times of war. Radios can't make us sit still. Unlike print and plays and movies and boob tubes, radios don't give us anything for our restless eyes to do.
Listen: After I came home from World War Two, a brevet corporal twenty-two years old, I didn't want to be a fiction writer. I married my childhood sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox, also from Indianapolis, up in Heaven now, and enrolled as a graduate student in the Anthropology Department of the University of Chicago. But I didn't want to be an anthropologist, either. I only hoped to find out more about human beings. I was going to be a journalist!
To that end, I also took a job as a police reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau. The News Bureau was supported by all four Chicago dailies back then, as a sensor for breaking news, prowling the city night and day, and as a training ground. The only way to get a job on one of those papers, short of nepotism, was to go through the News Bureau's hazing first.
But it became obvious that no newspaper positions were going to open up in Chicago or anywhere else for several years. Reporters had come home from the war to reclaim their jobs, and the women who had replaced them would not quit. The women were terrific. They should not have quit.
And then the Department of Anthropology rejected my M.A. thesis, which proved that similarities between the Cubist painters in Paris in 1907 and the leaders of Native American, or Injun, uprisings late in the nineteenth century could not be ignored. The Department said it was unprofessional.
Slowly but surely, Fate, which had spared my life in Dresden, now began to shape me into a fiction writer and a failure until I was a bleeding forty-seven years of age! But first I had to be a publicity hack for General Electric in Schenectady, New York.
While writing publicity releases at GE, I had a boss named George. George taped to the outside of his office door cartoons he felt had some bearing on the company or the kind of work we did. One cartoon was of two guys in the office of a buggy whip factory. A chart on the wall showed their business had dropped to zero. One guy was saying to the other, "It can't be our product's quality. We make the finest buggy whips in the world." George posted that cartoon to celebrate how GE, with its wonderful new products, was making a lot of other companies feel as though they were trying to sell buggy whips.
A broken-down movie actor named Ronald Reagan was working for the company. He was on the road all the time, lecturing to chambers of commerce and power companies and so on about the evils of socialism. We never met, so I remain a socialist.
While my future two-term president was burbling out on the rubber-chicken circuit in 1950, I started writing short stories at nights and on weekends. Jane and I had two kids by then. I needed more money than GE would pay me. I also wanted, if possible, more self-respect.
There was a crazy seller's market for short stories in 1950. There were four weekly magazines that published three or more of the things in every issue. Six monthlies did the same.
I got me an agent. If I sent him a story that didn't quite work, wouldn't quite satisfy a reader, he would tell me how to fix it. Agents and editors back then could tell a writer how to fine-tune a story as though they were pit mechanics and the story were a race car. With help like that, I sold one, and then two, and then three stories, and banked more money than a year's salary at GE.
I quit GE and started my first novel, Player Piano. It is a lampoon on GE. I bit the hand that used to feed me. The book predicted what has indeed come to pass, a day when machines, because they are so dependable and efficient and tireless, and getting cheaper all the time, are taking the halfway decent jobs from human beings. I moved our family of four to Cape Cod, first to Provincetown. I met Norman Mailer there. He was my age. He had been a college-educated infantry private like me, and he was already a world figure, because of his great war novel The Naked and the Dead. I admired him then, and do today. He is majestic. He is royalty. So was Jacqueline Onassis. So was Joe DiMaggio. So is Muhammad Ali. So is Arthur Miller.
We moved from Provincetown to Osterville, still on the Cape. But only three years after I left Schenectady, advertisers started withdrawing their money from magazines. The Buddhist catnaps coming out of my typewriter were becoming as obsolete as buggy whips.
One monthly that had bought several of my stories, Cosmopolitan, now survives as a harrowingly explicit sex manual.
That same year, 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451. The title refers to the kindling point of paper. That is how hot you have to get a book or a magazine before it bursts into flame. The leading male character makes his living burning printed matter. Nobody reads anymore. Many ordinary, rinky-dink homes like Ray's and mine have a room with floor-to-ceiling TV screens on all four walls, with one chair in the middle.
The actors and actresses on all four walls of TV are scripted to acknowledge whoever is sitting in the chair in the middle, even if nobody is sitting in the chair in the middle, as a friend or relative in the midst of things. The wife of the guy who burns up paper is unhappy. He can afford only three screens. His wife can't stand not knowing what's happening on the missing fourth screen, because the TV actors and actresses are the only people she loves, the only ones anywhere she gives a damn about.
Fahrenheit 451 was published before we and most of our neighbors in Osterville even owned TVs. Ray Bradbury himself may not have owned one. He still may not own one. To this day, Ray can't drive a car and hates to ride in airplanes.
In any case, Ray was sure as heck prescient. Just as people with dysfunctional kidneys are getting perfect ones from hospitals nowadays, Americans with dysfunctional social lives, like the woman in Ray's book, are getting perfect friends and relatives from their TV sets. And around the clock!
Ray missed the boat about how many screens would be required for a successful people-transplant. One lousy little Sony can do the job, night and day. All it takes besides that is actors and actresses, telling the news, selling stuff, in soap operas or whatever, who treat whoever is watching, even if nobody is watching, like family.
"Hell is other people," said Jean-Paul Sartre. "Hell is other real people," is what he should have said.
You can't fight progress. The best you can do is ignore it, until it finally takes your livelihood and self-respect away. General Electric itself was made to feel like a buggy whip factory for a time, as Bell Labs and others cornered patents on transistors and their uses, while GE was still shunting electrons this way and that with vacuum tubes. Too big to fail, though, as I was not, GE recovered sufficiently to lay off thousands and poison the Hudson River with PCBs.
By 1953, Jane and I had three kids. So I taught English in a boarding school there on the Cape. Then I wrote ads for an industrial agency in Boston. I wrote a couple of paperback originals, The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night. They were never reviewed. I got for each of them what I used to get for a short story.
I tried to sell some of the first Saab automobiles to come into this country. The doors opened into the wind. There was a roller-blind behind the front grille, which you could operate with a chain under the dashboard. That was to keep your engine warm in the wintertime. You had to mix oil with your gasoline every time you filled the tank of those early Saabs. If you ever forgot to do that, the engine would revert to the ore state. One engine I chipped away from a Saab chassis with a cold chisel and a sledge looked like a meteor!
If you left a Saab parked for more than a day, the oil settled like maple syrup to the bottom of the gas tank. When you started it up, the exhaust would black out a whole neighborhood. One time I blacked out Woods Hole that way. I was coughing like everybody else, I couldn't imagine where all that smoke had come from.
Then I took to teaching creative writing, first at Iowa, then at Harvard, and then at City College in New York. Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, was teaching at City College also. He said to me that if it hadn't been for the war, he would have been in the dry-cleaning business. I said to him that if it hadn't been for the war, I would have been garden editor of The Indianapolis Star.
Now lend me your ears. Here is Creative Writing 101:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.
Ms. O'Connor may or may not have broken my seventh rule, "Write to please just one person." There is no way for us to find out for sure, unless, of course, there is a Heaven after all, and she's there, and the rest of us are going there, and we can ask her.
I'm almost sure she didn't break rule seven. The late American psychiatrist Dr. Edmund Bergler, who claimed to have treated more professional writers than any other shrink, said in his book The Writer and Psychoanalysis that most writers in his experience wrote to please one person they knew well, even if they didn't realize they were doing that. It wasn't a trick of the fiction trade. It was simply a natural human thing to do, whether or not it could make a story better.
Dr. Bergler said it commonly required psychoanalysis before his patients could know for whom they had been writing. But as soon as I finished his book, and then thought for only a couple of minutes, I knew it was my sister Allie I had been writing for. She is the person the stories in this book were written for. Anything I knew Allie wouldn't like I crossed out. Everything I knew she would get a kick out of I left in.
Allie is up in Heaven now, with my first wife Jane and Sam Lawrence and Flannery O'Connor and Dr. Bergler, but I still write to please her. Allie was funny in real life. That gives me permission to be funny, too. Allie and I were very close.
In my opinion, a story written for one person pleases a reader, dear reader, because it makes him or her a part of the action. It makes the reader feel, even though he or she doesn't know it, as though he or she is eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation between two people at the next table, say, in a restaurant.
That's my educated guess.
Here is another: A reader likes a story written for just one person because the reader can sense, again without knowing it, that the story has boundaries like a playing field. The story can't go simply anywhere. This, I feel, invites readers to come off the sidelines, to get into the game with the author. Where is the story going next? Where should it go? No fair! Hopeless situation! Touchdown!
Remember my rule number eight? "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible"? That's so they can play along. Where, outside the Groves of Academe, does anybody like a story where so much information is withheld or arcane that there is no way for readers to play along?
The boundaries to the playing fields of my short stories, and my novels, too, were once the boundaries of the soul of my only sister. She lives on that way.
Reprinted from Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Preface by Peter Reed
Any Reasonable Offer
The No-Talent Kid
Poor Little Rich Town
The Cruise of the Jolly Roger
Bagombo Snuff Box
The Powder-Blue Dragon
A Present for Big Saint Nick
Der Arme Dolmetscher
The Boy Who Hated Girls
This Son of Mine
A Night for Love
Find Me a Dream
Hal Irwin's Magic Lamp
Coda to My Career as a Writer for Periodicals
At noon, Wednesday, July 26th, windowpanes in the small mountain towns of Sevier County, Tennessee, were rattled by the shock and faint thunder of a distant explosion rolling down the northwest slopes of the Great Smokies. The explosion came from the general direction of the closely guarded Air Force experimental station in the forest ten miles northwest of Elkmont.
Said the Air Force Office of Public Information, "No comment."
That evening, amateur astronomers in Omaha, Nebraska, and Glenwood, Iowa, reported independently that a speck had crossed the face of the full moon at 9:57 p.m. There was a flurry of excitement on the news wires. Astronomers at the major North American observatories denied that they had seen it.
In Boston, on the morning of Thursday, July 27th, an enterprising newsman sought out Dr. Bernard Groszinger, youthful rocket consultant for the Air Force. "Is it possible that what crossed the moon was a spaceship?" the newsman asked.
Dr. Groszinger laughed at the question. "My own opinion is that we're beginning another cycle of flying-saucer scares," he said. "This time everyone's seeing spaceships between us and the moon. You can tell your readers this, my friend: No rocket ship will leave the earth for at least another twenty years."
He knew a great deal more than he was saying, but somewhat less than he himself thought. He did not believe in ghosts, for instance -- and had yet to learn of the Thanasphere.
Dr. Groszinger rested his long legs on his cluttered desktop, and watched his secretary conduct the disappointed newsman through the locked door, past the armed guards. He lit a cigarette and tried to relax before going back into the stale air and tension of the radio room. IS YOUR SAFE LOCKED? asked a sign on the wall, tacked there by a diligent security officer. The sign annoyed him. Security officers, security regulations only served to slow his work, to make him think about things he had no time to think about.
The secret papers in the safe weren't secrets. They said what had been known for centuries: Given fundamental physics, it follows that a projectile fired into space in direction x, at y miles per hour, will travel in the arc z. Dr. Groszinger modified the equation: Given fundamental physics and one billion dollars.
Impending war had offered him the opportunity to try the experiment. The threat of war was an incident, the military men about him an irritating condition of work -- the experiment was the heart of the matter.
There were no unknowns, he reflected, finding contentment in the dependability of the physical world. Young Dr. Groszinger smiled, thinking of Christopher Columbus and his crew, who hadn't known what lay ahead of them, who had been scared stiff by sea monsters that didn't exist. Maybe the average person of today felt the same way about space. The Age of Superstition still had a few years to run.
But the man in the spaceship two thousand miles from earth had no unknowns to fear. The sullen Major Allen Rice would have nothing surprising to report in his radio messages. He could only confirm what reason had already revealed about outer space.
The major American observatories, working closely with the project, reported that the ship was now moving around the earth in the predicted orbit at the predicted velocity. Soon, anytime now, the first message in history from outer space would be received in the radio room. The broadcast could be on an ultra-high-frequency band where no one had ever sent or received messages before.
The first message was overdue, but nothing had gone wrong -- nothing could go wrong, Dr. Groszinger assured himself again. Machines, not men, were guiding the flight. The man was a mere observer, piloted to his lonely vantage point by infallible electronic brains, swifter than his own. He had controls in his ship, but only for gliding down through the atmosphere, when and if they brought him back from space. He was equipped to stay for several years.
Even the man was as much like a machine as possible, Dr. Groszinger thought with satisfaction. He was quick, strong, unemotional. Psychiatrists had picked Major Rice from a hundred volunteers, and predicted that he would function as perfectly as the rocket motors, the metal hull, and the electronic controls. His specifications: Husky, twenty-nine years of age, fifty-five missions over Europe during the Second World War without a sign of fatigue, a childless widower, melancholy and solitary, a career soldier, a demon for work.
The Major's mission? Simple: To report weather conditions over enemy territory, and to observe the accuracy of guided atomic missiles in the event of war.
Major Rice was fixed in the solar system, two thousand miles above the earth now -- close by, really -- the distance from New York to Salt Lake City, not far enough away to see much of the polar icecaps, even. With a telescope, Rice could pick out small towns and the wakes of ships without much trouble. It would be breathtaking to watch the enormous blue-and-green ball, to see night creeping around it, and clouds and storms growing and swirling over its face.
Dr. Groszinger tamped out his cigarette, absently lit another almost at once, and strode down the corridor to the small laboratory where the radio equipment had been set up.
Lieutenant General Franklin Dane, head of Project Cyclops, sat next to the radio operator, his uniform rumpled, his collar open. The General stared expectantly at the loudspeaker before him. The floor was littered with sandwich wrappings and cigarette butts. Coffee-filled paper cups stood before the General and the radio operator, and beside the canvas chair where Groszinger had spent the night waiting.
General Dane nodded to Groszinger and motioned with his hand for silence.
"Able Baker Fox, this is Dog Easy Charley. Able Baker Fox, this is Dog Easy Charley..." droned the radio operator wearily, using the code names. "Can you hear me, Able Baker Fox? Can you -- "
The loudspeaker crackled, then, tuned to its peak volume, boomed: "This is Able Baker Fox. Come in, Dog Easy Charley. Over."
General Dane jumped to his feet and embraced Groszinger. They laughed idiotically and pounded each other on the back. The General snatched the microphone from the radio operator. "You made it. Able Baker Fox! Right on course! What's it like, boy? What's it feel like? Over." Groszinger, his arm draped around the General's shoulders, leaned forward eagerly, his ear a few inches from the speaker. The radio operator turned the volume down, so that they could hear something of the quality of Major Rice's voice.
The voice came through again, soft, hesitant. The tone disturbed Groszinger -- he had wanted it to be crisp, sharp, efficient.
"This side of the earth's dark, very dark just now. And I feel like I'm falling -- the way you said I would. Over."
"Is anything the matter?" asked the General anxiously. "You sound as though something -- "
The Major cut in before he could finish: "There! Did you hear that?"
"Able Baker Fox, we can't hear anything," said the General, looking perplexed at Groszinger. "What is it -- some kind of noise in your receiver? Over."
"A child," said the Major. "I hear a child crying. Don't you hear it? And now -- listen! -- now an old man is trying to comfort it." His voice seemed farther away, as though he were no longer speaking directly into his microphone.
"That's impossible, ridiculous!" said Groszinger. "Check your set, Able Baker Fox, check your set. Over."
"They're getting louder now. The voices are louder. I can't hear you very well above them. It's like standing in the middle of a crowd, with everybody trying to get my attention at once. It's like..." The message trailed off. They could hear a shushing sound in the speaker. The Major's transmitter was still on.
"Can you hear me, Able Baker Fox? Answer! Can you hear me?" called General Dane.
The shushing noise stopped. The General and Groszinger stared blankly at the speaker.
"Able Baker Fox, this is Dog Easy Charley," chanted the radio operator. "Able Baker Fox, this is Dog Easy Charley...."
Groszinger, his eyes shielded from the glaring ceiling light of the radio room by a newspaper, lay fully dressed on the cot that had been brought in for him. Every few minutes he ran his long, slender fingers through his tangled hair and swore. His machine had worked perfectly, was working perfectly. The one thing he had not designed, the damn man in it, had failed, had destroyed the whole experiment.
They had been trying for six hours to reestablish contact with the lunatic who peered down at earth from his tiny steel moon and heard voices.
"He's coming in again, sir," said the radio operator. "This is Dog Easy Charley. Come in, Able Baker Fox. Over."
"This is Able Baker Fox. Clear weather over Zones Seven, Eleven, Nineteen, and Twenty-three. Zones One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six overcast. Storm seems to be shaping up over Zones Eight and Nine, moving south by southwest at about eighteen miles an hour. Over."
"He's OK now," said the General, relieved.
Groszinger remained supine, his head still covered with the newspaper. "Ask him about the voices," he said.
"You don't hear the voices anymore, do you, Able Baker Fox?"
"What do you mean, I don't hear them? I can hear them better than I can hear you. Over."
"He's out of his head," said Groszinger, sitting up.
"I heard that," said Major Rice. "Maybe I am. It shouldn't be too hard to check. All you have to do is find out if an Andrew Tobin died in Evansville, Indiana, on February 17, 1927. Over."
"I don't follow you, Able Baker Fox," said the General. "Who was Andrew Tobin? Over."
"He's one of the voices." There was an uncomfortable pause. Major Rice cleared his throat. "Claims his brother murdered him. Over."
The radio operator had risen slowly from his stool, his face chalk-white. Groszinger pushed him back down and took the microphone from the General's now limp hand.
"Either you've lost your mind, or this is the most sophomoric practical joke in history, Able Baker Fox," said Groszinger. "This is Groszinger you're talking to, and you're dumber than I think you are if you think you can kid me." He nodded. "Over."
"I can't hear you very well anymore, Dog Easy Charley. Sorry, but the voices are getting louder."
"Rice! Straighten out!" said Groszinger.
"There -- I caught that: Mrs. Pamela Ritter wants her husband to marry again, for the sake of the children. He lives at -- "
"He lives at 1577 Damon Place, in Scotia, New York. Over and out."
General Dane shook Groszinger's shoulder gently. "You've been asleep five hours," he said. "It's midnight." He handed him a cup of coffee. "We've got some more messages. Interested?"
Groszinger sipped the coffee. "Is he still raving?"
"He still hears the voices, if that's what you mean." The General dropped two unopened telegrams in Groszinger's lap. "Thought you might like to be the one to open these."
Groszinger laughed. "Went ahead and checked Scotia and Evansville, did you? God help this army, if all the generals are as superstitious as you, my friend."
"OK, OK, you're the scientist, you're the brain-box. That's why I want youto open the telegrams. I want you to tell me what in hell's going on."
Groszinger opened one of the telegrams.
HARVEY RITTER LISTED FOR 1577 DAMON PLACE, SCOTIA. GE ENGINEER. WIDOWER, TWO CHILDREN. DECEASED WIFE NAMED PAMELA. DO YOU NEED MORE INFORMATION? R. B. FAILEY, CHIEF, SCOTIA POLICE
He shrugged and handed the message to General Dane, then opened the other telegram:
RECORDS SHOW ANDREW TOBIN DIED IN HUNTING ACCIDENT FEBRUARY 17, 1927. BROTHER PAUL LEADING BUSINESSMAN. OWNS COAL BUSINESS STARTED BY ANDREW. CAN FURNISH FURTHER DETAILS IF NEEDED. F. B. JOHNSON, CHIEF, EVANSVILLE P.D.
"I'm not surprised," said Groszinger. "I expected something like this. I suppose you're firmly convinced now that our friend Major Rice has found outer space populated by ghosts?"
"Well, I'd say he's sure as hell found it populated by something," said the General.
Groszinger wadded the second telegram in his fist and threw it across the room, missing the wastebasket by a foot. He folded his hands and affected the patient, priestlike pose he used in lecturing freshman physics classes. "At first, my friend, we had two possible conclusions: Either Major Rice was insane, or he was pulling off a spectacular hoax." He twiddled his thumbs, waiting for the General to digest this intelligence. "Now that we know his spirit messages deal with real people, we've got to conclude that he has planned and is now carrying out some sort of hoax. He got his names and addresses before he took off. God knows what he hopes to accomplish by it. God knows what we can do to make him stop it. That's your problem, I'd say."
The General's eyes narrowed. "So he's trying to jimmy the project, is he? We'll see, by God, we'll see." The radio operator was dozing. The General slapped him on the back. "On the ball, Sergeant, on the ball. Keep calling Rice till you get him, understand?"
The radio operator had to call only once.
"This is Able Baker Fox. Come in, Dog Easy Charley." Major Rice's voice was tired.
"This is Dog Easy Charley," said General Dane. "We've had enough of your voices, Able Baker Fox -- do you understand? We don't want to hear any more about them. We're onto your little game. I don't know what your angle is, but I do know I'll bring you back down and slap you on a rock pile in Leavenworth so fast you'll leave your teeth up there. Do we understand each other?" The General bit the tip from a fresh cigar fiercely. "Over."
"Did you check those names and addresses? Over."
The General looked at Groszinger, who frowned and shook his head. "Sure we did. That doesn't prove anything. So you've got a list of names and addresses up there. So what does that prove? Over."
"You say those names checked? Over."
"I'm telling you to quit it, Rice. Right now. Forget the voices, do you hear? Give me a weather report. Over."
"Clear patches over Zones Eleven, Fifteen, and Sixteen. Looks like a solid overcast in One, Two, and Three. All clear in the rest. Over."
"That's more like it, Able Baker Fox," said the General. "We'll forget about the voices, eh? Over."
"There's an old woman calling out something in a German accent. Is Dr. Groszinger there? I think she's calling his name. She's asking him not to get too wound up in his work -- not to -- "
Groszinger leaned over the radio operator's shoulder and snapped off the switch on the receiver. "Of all the cheap, sickening stunts," he said.
"Let's hear what he has to say," said the General. "Thought you were a scientist."
Groszinger glared at him defiantly, snapped on the receiver, and stood back, his hands on his hips.
" -- saying something in German," continued the voice of Major Rice. "Can't understand it. Maybe you can. I'll give it to you the way it sounds: 'Alles geben die Götter, die unendlichen, ihren Lieblingen, ganz. Alle -- '"
Groszinger turned down the volume. "'Alle Freuden, die unendlichen, alle Schmerzen, die unendlichen, ganz,'"he said faintly. "That's how it ends." He sat down on the cot. "It's my mother's favorite quotation -- something from Goethe."
"I can threaten him again," said the General.
"What for?" Groszinger shrugged and smiled. "Outer space isfull of voices." He laughed nervously. "There's something to pep up a physics textbook."
"An omen, sir -- it's an omen," blurted the radio operator.
"What the hell do you mean, an omen?" said the General. "So outer space is filled with ghosts. That doesn't surprise me."
"Nothing would, then," said Groszinger.
"That's exactly right. I'd be a hell of a general if anything would. For all I know, the moon is made of green cheese. So what. All I want is a man out there to tell me that I'm hitting what I'm shooting at. I don't give a damn what's going on in outer space."
"Don't you see, sir?" said the radio operator. "Don't you see? It's an omen. When people find out about all the spirits out there they'll forget about war. They won't want to think about anything but the spirits."
"Relax, Sergeant," said the General. "Nobody's going to find out about them, understand?"
"You can't suppress a discovery like this," said Groszinger.
"You're nuts if you think I can't," said General Dane. "How're you going to tell anybody about this business without telling them we've got a rocket ship out there?"
"They've got a right to know," said the radio operator.
"If the world finds out we have that ship out there, that's the start of World War Three," said the General. "Now tell me you want that. The enemy won't have any choice but to try and blow the hell out of us before we can put Major Rice to any use. And there'd be nothing for us to do but try and blow the hell out of them first. Is that what you want?"
"No, sir," said the radio operator. "I guess not, sir."
"Well, we can experiment, anyway," said Groszinger. "We can find out as much as possible about what the spirits are like. We can send Rice into a wider orbit to find out how far out he can hear the voices, and whether -- "
"Not on Air Force funds, you can't," said General Dane. "That isn't what Rice is out there for. We can't afford to piddle around. We need him right there."
"All right, all right," said Groszinger. "Then let's hear what he has to say."
"Tune him in, Sergeant," said the General.
"Yes, sir." The radio operator fiddled with the dials. "He doesn't seem to be transmitting now, sir." The shushing noise of a transmitter cut into the hum of the loudspeaker. "I guess he's coming in again. Able Baker Fox, this is Dog Easy Charley -- "
"King Two X-ray William Love, this is William Five Zebra Zebra King in Dallas," said the loudspeaker. The voice had a soft drawl and was pitched higher than Major Rice's.
A bass voice answered: "This is King Two X-ray William Love in Albany. Come in W5ZZK, I hear you well. How do you hear me? Over."
"You're clear as a bell, K2XWL -- twenty-five thousand megacycles on the button. I'm trying to cut down on my drift with a -- "
The voice of Major Rice interrupted. "I can't hear you clearly, Dog Easy Charley. The voices are a steady roar now. I can catch bits of what they're saying. Grantland Whitman, the Hollywood actor, is yelling that his will was tampered with by his nephew Carl. He says -- "
"Say again, K2XWL," said the drawling voice. "I must have misunderstood you. Over."
"I didn't say anything, W5ZZK. What was that about Grantland Whitman? Over."
"The crowd's quieting down," said Major Rice. "Now there's just one voice -- a young woman, I think. It's so soft I can't make out what she's saying."
"What's going on, K2XWL? Can you hear me, K2XWL?"
"She's calling my name. Do you hear it? She's calling my name," said Major Rice.
"Jam the frequency, dammit!" cried the General. "Yell, whistle -- do something!"
Early-morning traffic past the university came to a honking, bad-tempered stop, as Groszinger absently crossed the street against the light, on his way back to his office and the radio room. He looked up in surprise, mumbled an apology, and hurried to the curb. He had had a solitary breakfast in an all-night diner a block and a half from the laboratory building, and then he'd taken a long walk. He had hoped that getting away for a couple of hours would clear his head -- but the feeling of confusion and helplessness was still with him. Did the world have a right to know, or didn't it?
There had been no more messages from Major Rice. At the General's orders, the frequency had been jammed. Now the unexpected eavesdroppers could hear nothing but a steady whine at 25,000 megacycles. General Dane had reported the dilemma to Washington shortly after midnight. Perhaps orders as to what to do with Major Rice had come through by now.
Groszinger paused in a patch of sunlight on the laboratory building's steps, and read again the front-page news story, which ran fancifully for a column, beneath the headline "Mystery Radio Message Reveals Possible Will Fraud." The story told of two radio amateurs, experimenting illegally on the supposedly unused ultra-high-frequency band, who had been amazed to hear a man chattering about voices and a will. The amateurs had broken the law, operating on an unassigned frequency, but they hadn't kept their mouths shut about their discovery. Now hams all over the world would be building sets so they could listen in, too.
"Morning, sir. Nice morning, isn't it?" said a guard coming off duty. He was a cheerful Irishman.
"Fine morning, all right," agreed Groszinger. "Clouding up a little in the west, maybe." He wondered what the guard would say if he told him what he knew. He would laugh, probably.
Groszinger's secretary was dusting off his desk when he walked in. "You could use some sleep, couldn't you?" she said. "Honestly, why you men don't take better care of yourselves I just don't know. If you had a wife, she'd make you -- "
"Never felt better in my life," said Groszinger. "Any word from General Dane?"
"He was looking for you about ten minutes ago. He's back in the radio room now. He's been on the phone with Washington for half an hour."
She had only the vaguest notion of what the project was about. Again, Groszinger felt the urge to tell about Major Rice and the voices, to see what effect the news would have on someone else. Perhaps his secretary would react as he himself had reacted, with a shrug. Maybe that was the spirit of this era of the atom bomb, H-bomb, God-knows-what-next bomb -- to be amazed at nothing. Science had given humanity forces enough to destroy the earth, and politics had given humanity a fair assurance that the forces would be used. There could be no cause for awe to top thatone. But proof of a spirit world might at least equal it. Maybe that was the shock the world needed, maybe word from the spirits could change the suicidal course of history.
General Dane looked up wearily as Groszinger walked into the radio room. "They're bringing him down," he said. "There's nothing else we can do. He's no damn good to us now." The loudspeaker, turned low, sang the monotonous hum of the jamming signal. The radio operator slept before the set, his head resting on his folded arms.
"Did you try to get through to him again?"
"Twice. He's clear off his head now. Tried to tell him to change his frequency, to code his messages, but he just went on jabbering like he couldn't hear me -- talking about that woman's voice."
"Who's the woman? Did he say?"
The General looked at him oddly. "Says it's his wife, Margaret. Guess that's enough to throw anybody, wouldn't you say? Pretty bright, weren't we, sending up a guy with no family ties." He arose and stretched. "I'm going out for a minute. Just make sure you keep your hands off that set." He slammed the door behind him.
The radio operator stirred. "They're bringing him down," he said.
"I know," said Groszinger.
"That'll kill him, won't it?"
"He has controls for gliding her in, once he hits the atmosphere."
"If he wants to."
"That's right -- if he wants to. They'll get him out of his orbit and back to the atmosphere under rocket power. After that, it'll be up to him to take over and make the landing."
They fell silent. The only sound in the room was the muted jamming signal in the loudspeaker.
"He don't want to live, you know that?" said the radio operator suddenly. "Would you want to?"
"Guess that's something you don't know until you come up against it," said Groszinger. He was trying to imagine the world of the future -- a world in constant touch with the spirits, the living inseparable from the dead. It was bound to come. Other men, probing into space, were certain to find out. Would it make life heaven or hell? Every bum and genius, criminal and hero, average man and madman, now and forever part of humanity -- advising, squabbling, conniving, placating...
The radio operator looked furtively toward the door. "Want to hear him again?"
Groszinger shook his head. "Everybody's listening to that frequency now. We'd all be in a nice mess if you stopped jamming." He didn't want to hear more. He was baffled, miserable. Would Death unmasked drive men to suicide, or bring new hope? he was asking himself. Would the living desert their leaders and turn to the dead for guidance? To Caesar...Charlemagne...Peter the Great...Napoleon...Bismarck...Lincoln...Roosevelt? To Jesus Christ? Were the dead wiser than --
Before Groszinger could stop him, the sergeant switched off the oscillator that was jamming the frequency.
Major Rice's voice came through instantly, high and giddy. "...thousands of them, thousands of them, all around me, standing on nothing, shimmering like northern lights -- beautiful, curving off in space, all around the earth like a glowing fog. I can see them, do you hear? I can see them now. I can see Margaret. She's waving and smiling, misty, heavenly, beautiful. If only you could see it, if -- "
The radio operator flicked on the jamming signal. There was a footfall in the hallway.
General Dane stalked into the radio room, studying his watch. "In five minutes they'll start him down," he said. He plunged his hands deep into his pockets and slouched dejectedly. "We failed this time. Next time, by God, we'll make it. The next man who goes up will know what he's up against -- he'll be ready to take it."
He put his hand on Groszinger's shoulder. "The most important job you'll ever have to do, my friend, is to keep your mouth shut about those spirits out there, do you understand? We don't want the enemy to know we've had a ship out there, and we don't want them to know what they'll come across if they try it. The security of this country depends on that being our secret. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir," said Groszinger, grateful to have no choice but to be quiet. He didn't want to be the one to tell the world. He wished he had had nothing to do with sending Rice out into space. What discovery of the dead would do to humanity he didn't know, but the impact would be terrific. Now, like the rest, he would have to wait for the next wild twist of history.
The General looked at his watch again. "They're bringing him down," he said.
At 1:39 p.m., on Friday, July 28th, the British liner Capricorn,two hundred eighty miles out of New York City, bound for Liverpool, radioed that an unidentified object had crashed into the sea, sending up a towering geyser on the horizon to starboard of the ship. Several passengers were said to have seen something glinting as the thing fell from the sky. Upon reaching the scene of the crash, the Capricorn reported finding dead and stunned fish on the surface, and turbulent water, but no wreckage.
Newspapers suggested that the Capricorn had seen the crash of an experimental rocket fired out to sea in a test of range. The Secretary of Defense promptly denied that any such tests were being conducted over the Atlantic.
In Boston, Dr. Bernard Groszinger, young rocket consultant for the Air Force, told newsmen that what the Capricornhad observed might well have been a meteor.
"That seems quite likely," he said. "If it was a meteor, the fact that it reached the earth's surface should, I think, be one of the year's most important science news stories. Usually meteors burn to nothing before they're even through the stratosphere."
"Excuse me, sir," interrupted a reporter. "Is there anything out beyond the stratosphere -- I mean, is there any name for it?"
"Well, actually the term 'stratosphere' is kind of arbitrary. It's the outer shell of the atmosphere. You can't say definitely where it stops. Beyond it is just, well -- dead space."
"Dead space -- that's the right name for it, eh?" said the reporter.
"If you want something fancier, maybe we could put it into Greek," said Groszinger playfully. "Thanatos, that's Greek for 'death,' I think. Maybe instead of 'dead space' you'd prefer 'Thanasphere.' Has a nice scientific ring to it, don't you think?"
The newsmen laughed politely.
"Dr. Groszinger, when's the first rocket ship going to make it into space?" asked another reporter.
"You people read too many comic books," said Groszinger. "Come back in twenty years, and maybe I'll have a story for you."
Reprinted from BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX by Kurt Vonnegut by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Posted May 19, 2007
Also my first Vonegut read, I really need to read A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY though, heard that was really good. Pretty good.It's always nice to read short stories. His stories are a good read because they do make you laugh and they do make you think. I think one of the first stories is Thanosphere which is one of the best. What if we could talk to the dead? It seems sort of like a story/epilogue. The other stories are good though too.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 16, 2001
These are some of the most easily accessible and easily entertaining short stories I've ever run across, as well as the first Vonnegut work I've ever read. A fine collection. Vonnegut is funny without even trying. I challenge anyone to read 'A Present for Big St. Nick' without laughing out loud. The three stories featuring poor Mr. Helmholtz, the woebegotten band director of Lincoln High School, are gems as well. Most importantly, Vonnegut not only makes you laugh, he makes you think. Highly recommended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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