Vonnegut's Firefighters

I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.

—Kurt Vonnegut

As we reflect on the heartbreaking, inspirational images of first responders this tenth anniversary of 9/11, I think of Kurt Vonnegut, who always held firemen in the highest regard, in his life and in his art. In October 2001 the author joined others from his east-side Manhattan neighborhood at a candlelight vigil in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza to remember those who had died in the Twin Towers from the local firehouse, Engine Company 8, Ladder Company 2, Battalion 8.

That night Vonnegut recalled how men from that unit had saved his life less than two years earlier, when smoke and flames from an errant cigarette filled his Turtle Bay townhouse. “Whether some who did that for me are dead now I have not dared to ask,” he said, before solemnly reciting the list of names of those since lost—ten in all.  “Chief Tom DeAngelis, dead at fifty. Captain Fred Ill, dead at forty-seven. Firefighter Mike Clarke, dead at twenty-seven, the kid of the bunch….All but two left widows and children.”

Vonnegut’s identification with these civil servants was personal and deep-rooted. References to their constancy, professionalism and quiet heroics are a theme running throughout his half-century of novels and stories. Firemen symbolized for him the Midwestern ethic of neighborliness and mutual aid he had learned growing up in Indianapolis.  His appreciation for the job they did was confirmed when he was a young adult, by brutal life experience.  His 1965 novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewateran especially popular book among the idealistic young of that decade, is built around an alter ego who evangelizes madly about the “band of brothers” who stood guard in firehouses in every city and town across the country. Like the author, Eliot Rosewater is a traumatized combat veteran of World War II.  He can never forget how he had charged with bayonet drawn into a German factory complex and, in the chaos, killed three civilians—“ordinary villagers, engaged in the brave and uncontroversial business of trying to keep a building from combining with oxygen.” Back home Eliot devotes his life to coming to terms with his sense of guilt, to transforming horror into healing, in the name of the dead.  His admiration for firefighters as models of good citizenship makes sense.  “[W]hen the alarm goes off,” Vonnegut writes, they are “almost the only examples of enthusiastic unselfishness to be seen in this land.”

They rush to the rescue of any human being, and count not the cost. The most contemptible man in town, should his contemptible house catch fire, will see his enemies put the fire out. There we have people treasuring people as people.

Kurt Vonnegut passed through the carnage of war in a different way than Eliot Rosewater, but he was no less marked by the journey.  With a group of fellow American POW’s, as recounted in his best-known book, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), he survived the Allied aerial assault on the city of Dresden on February 13, 1945, thanks to sheer, miraculous luck—the protection of the underground hog-barn that had been converted into their barracks.  In the years to come Vonnegut would insist that the raid was gratuitous at that late stage of the war, a product of inertia and blind revenge.  One of the most diabolical elements in its planning, he recalled, was the use of bombs before dropping incendiaries—a sequence designed to keep emergency crews confined to their shelters.  It was deadly in its effectiveness. When the firestorm really got going, hardly anyone was there to contain it. After the war Vonnegut worked for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. Like Eliot he served as a volunteer fireman (Badge #155) in the nearby hamlet of Alplaus, where he and his family lived. It was a survivor’s mission, his memorial to Dresden.

In the 2001 ceremony Vonnegut continued reading the list of local heroes who had perished on 9/11, reciting first names to humanize each one, to acknowledge them as family. “Tom, Fred, Mike, Dennis, George, Dan, another Tom, Carl and another Dennis.  Thank you, sirs. God bless you. Amen.”

A man whose embattled humanism included notions of universal brotherhood, he cautioned his listeners against the temptations of vengeance. He understood that it was mostly innocents who suffered in modern war, and that air strikes were always tragically imprecise. Vonnegut knew, like few other Americans, what it was like to be under the bombs, what the cleanup operations entailed.  He ended his remarks with words on behalf of who suffered far from New York City. “It is daylight in Afghanistan.  There are many unwelcome fires there, and many, many human beings are trying to put them out.”

Kurt Vonnegut kept in touch with the Alplaus firehouse to the end of his life. When he died in April 2007, at eighty-four, its bell tolled a 5-5-5 cadence, the traditional salute to a fallen brother.   Of all the tributes that came forth from around the world for the celebrity writer, this is perhaps the gesture he would have appreciated most.

Gregory Sumner is the author of Unstuck in Time: A Journey through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels, to be published by Seven Stories Press (NY) in November.