Thursday, April 12, 2007

Memories of Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday. A fitting tribute can be found over at BillyBlog. Vonnegut's writing is something Bill and I shared over the years although my memories go back to a time before #1 son's birth.

My first teaching position out of graduate school was in the Graduate School of Public Affairs at SUNY, Albany (1965-1972). Somewhere in there, Kurt Vonnegut was the Commencement Speaker. (The fact that his brother Bernard was a faculty member in Atmospheric Sciences might have been related to Kurt accepting the invitation but I don't know that for a fact.)

That was the absolutely best Commencement Address I ever heard. It was the first one that ever made sense to me (please don't test my memory by asking for details) and it was pure Vonnegut. He spoke exactly like he wrote. I chuckled as I heard disdainful comments from some of my older colleagues (I was not yet 30) and watched the puzzled expressions on the faces of many parents. But the students seemed to join me in the pleasure of finally hearing a literate and literary commencement address that did not reek of all the usual clich├ęs. It must have been wonderful. I still remember that day!

One other memory I have that is related to Vonnegut was the release of the movie Slaughterhouse-Five (my personal favorite of his novels) in 1972. I had just moved to Springfield, IL where I taught at Sangamon State University (now the University of Illinois at Springfield). The film opened and I went to see it expecting to be disappointed. (I rarely go to see movies based on books I have previously read. . .but this was Vonnegut.) To my absolute delight, the film was both true to the written word and overpowering. I was so moved by it that I decided to see it a 2nd time 3 days later. . .but it was no longer being shown. I guess that was the cultural state of Springfield at that time; a truly meaningful movie only ran for 4 days at the local film emporium.

At some point in his youth, Bill became a fan of Vonnegut's. I remember having discussions with him about some of the books. He even gave me new Vonnegut books as birthday and other such gifts. (I still remember him sending me my copy of Breakfast of Champions.) For us, sharing our reactions to Vonnegut's writing became part of a wonderfully strong father-son link.

I believe that I read all of Vonnegut's novels. They remain with me. And, in addition to the messages he provided in his writing, I thank him for contributing to the incredibly strong relationship I have with my oldest son.

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