Thursday, April 26, 2007

Steady as she goes

I thought this was an excellent piece of writing by an old lawyer buddy of mine, Bill B. It was way down in the comments, and I thought I would bring it up here...

A flea and an elephant had just crossed a bridge. Looking back over his shoulder the flea commented, “Cripes, did we shake hell out of that thing.”

My first encounter with Vonnegut was purely accidental, which seems fitting in light of the brilliantly comic manner in which his works so often demonstrated the random, accidental and absurd nature of existence. I was just a stupid fifteen-year old high school sophomore, completely unacquainted with Vonnegut (or anything else worth acquainting oneself with), when I grabbed a copy of Breakfast of Champions from an endstand that was set-up next to the check-out counter and shuffled it into a stack of three or four other books that I was in the process of signing-out from the school library during a typically long, dull study hall period.

Judging the book solely from its cover, I honestly assumed it was a non-fiction work. I guessed that it was full of dietary gems, which, if zealously followed, would help give me what I most wanted at that time (1986-87): Schwarzenegger’s physique, Carl Lewis’s speed, and Mike Tyson’s power. My initial disappointment upon discovering that Breakfast of Champions had nothing to do with nourishing the body was soon replaced with an almost euphoric sense that I had stumbled onto something much more important, a sort of energy drink to kick-start and bulk-up my undernourished mind/soul. I didn’t exactly know what to make of what I was reading, but I sensed that my eyes were being opened for the first time, and I couldn’t put the book down.

Later that same day, when my English teacher caught me reading Breakfast of Champions instead of Chaucer, or Homer, or whoever the author of the assigned reading from our standardized compendium textbook happened to be that day, I thought for sure that she was going to give me a good old fashioned public-school scolding. She hovered over my left shoulder, leaned in, and sternly asked, “What are you reading, Mr. Bedker?” I showed her the cover, letting her read the title for herself, not saying a word, holding in a mouthful of air while awaiting my punishment. “Is this your first experience with Vonnegut?” I nodded silently, still waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it didn’t. She uttered just one word, “Good,” with a very long, slow, drawn out cadence, “G …O …O…D,” which actually made the word sort of rhyme with food instead of hood or stood.

My English teacher also gave me a sly smile. A smile that was almost more of a wink than a smile. Looking back on it now, her smile is of the type of secret-handshake-like looks that I imagine fraternity brothers or freemasons, or other members of exclusive clubs that would never allow someone like me to join must give to each other in solidarity while kicking back together in their various hangouts. That smile told me that I was now a part of something larger, secretive, and subversive. That smile told me that while the rest of the herd was stumbling through the world with blinders on, I was now seeing for the first time what things were “really all about.” Vonnegut cut through all the bullshit. He got “it.” And, now he was passing “it” on to me. This was so exciting. What a fantastic gift to receive. To this day, thinking about this first experience with Vonnegut still brings a smile to my face. A sly, subversive smile.

I finished Breakfast of Champions within a couple of days. Then Slaughterhouse-Five. Then Jailbird, Slapstick, Deadeye Dick, and eventually Bluebird, Galapagos and Hocus Pocus as they became available. Some were better than others, of course, but all were great fun to read and to think about.

It hurts knowing that Vonnegut is no longer with us. The world somehow seems a bit colder without him. I thank you, Mr. Vonnegut, from the bottom of my soul for taking me across the bridge -- you definitely “shook the hell out of that thing.”

Very nicely done, Bill... and good to hear from you. Hope all is well.



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