A conflagration of profound, spiritual, creative firepower erupted within the gilded core of the Indiana War Memorial on Sunday afternoon - all because of Kurt Vonnegut.
"Enter with reverence. Leave with pride," a small sign advised visitors as they entered the interior doorway.
Nov. 11, 2012, marked Vonnegut's 90th birthday and Armistice Day, which is a celebration that originally marked the end of World War I hostilities. Today it is commonly expanded into Veterans Day celebrations that recognize the service of U.S. soldiers from all American wars.
The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, along with an A-list team of sponsors, offered the event, "Armistice: Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day" to honor their hero by helping others discover the keys that helped Vonnegut release his pain and tell his truths - writing and visual arts.
Within the star-spangled, eagle-guarded interior auditorium, when the time to start arrived, master of ceremonies Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio asked people to sit. That voice, so familiar to millions, rendered an immediate effect: They sat. So did Inskeep.
On stage the face of Thom Steinbeck popped onto a screen. A novelist as was his father, John, Steinbeck also is a Vietnam vet. He offered regrets that health issues because of exposure to Agent Orange during the war prevented him from attending in person. Steinbeck then shared the pain he felt about what he saw and did in the war, compounded by the experience of returning home to a U.S. culture that seemed indifferent and even hostile to him.
He remembered Vonnegut's work as challenging of the status quo, righting injustice and helping the injured heal. Steinbeck set the stage for the hours to come, hours when the memorial honored its original intention that the world's people never forget the horrors of war and the people who endure it.
Inskeep, in his decades in journalism, has interviewed enough of the world's power brokers to fill the entire U.S. naval fleet. And on several tours of duty of his own - Press Corps, first class - he helped listeners overcome the distance between citizens in the homeland and today's active war zones.
[Interesting that notion of listener, it comes into play as the larger theme of healing veterans' trauma through the arts unfolds.]
In the respect of bringing the grassroots stories home from war zones, as a Carmel native, Hoosier Inskeep follows in the steps of Ernie Pyle, the Indiana native who defined excellence for war correspondence by listening deeply to the people in the trenches of World War II.
WWII. Dresden. Vonnegut.
The book that he became a writer to write. Slaughter House Five.
Through the war, Vonnegut became a man who found writing to be a tool capable of translating his traumatic war experiences beyond his own head through the written word, the truth. That's according to his oldest son, Mark, a pediatrician and author raised in Cape Cod, Mass., who told the Armistice audience: "[The writing] is not extra, it's not easy, you will know when you're doing it right - it can save your life."
* * *
Julia Whitehead, executive director of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library and a former U.S. Marine, remarked that she felt surprised about all the guilt associated with the military: guilt for not serving, guilt for living when others die, guilt of not serving well enough, guilt over what one did while serving.
She read an excerpt of Kipling's poem, Tommy. She said it reminded her of the importance of writing down her feelings:
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an` Chuck him out, the
But it's " Saviour of 'is country " when the guns begin to
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An 'Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool - you bet that Tommy sees!
- Rudyard Kipling
[Originally published as "The Queen's Uniform", in W.E. Henley's weekly Scots Observer (later to become the National Observer) on March 1, 1890.]
An entire auditorium of guilty people sat, many with a taint, an internal weight, a great need for the cathartic outlets yet to be uncovered.
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