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Cat's Cradle, Page 6

Kurt Vonnegut

  Next to "Papa's" portrait was a picture of a narrow-shouldered, fox-faced, immature young man. He wore a snow white military blouse with some sort of jeweled sunburst hanging on it. His eyes were close together; they had circles under them. He had apparently told barbers all his life to shave the sides and back of his head, but to leave the top of his hair alone. He had a wiry pompadour, a sort of cube of hair, marcelled, that arose to an incredible height.

  This unattractive child was identified as Major General Franklin Hoenikker, Minister of Science and Progress in the Republic of San Lorenzo.

  He was twenty-six years old.



  SAN LORENZO was fifty miles long and twenty miles wide, I learned from the supplement to the New York Sunday Times. Its population was four hundred, fifty thousand souls, "... all fiercely dedicated to the ideals of the Free World."

  Its highest point. Mount McCabe, was eleven thousand feet above sea level. Its capital was Bolivar, "... a strikingly modern city built on a harbor capable of sheltering the entire United States Navy." The principal exports were sugar, coffee, bananas, indigo, and handcrafted novelties.

  "And sports fishermen recognize San Lorenzo as the unchallenged barracuda capital of the world."

  I wondered how Franklin Hoenikker, who had never even finished high school, had got himself such a fancy job. I found a partial answer in an essay on San Lorenzo that was signed by "Papa" Monzano.

  "Papa" said that Frank was the architect of the "San Lorenzo Master Plan," which included new roads, rural electrification, sewage-disposal plants, hotels, hospitals, clinics, railroads--the works. And, though the essay was brief and tightly edited, "Papa" referred to Frank five times as: "... the blood son of Dr. Felix Hoenikker."

  The phrase reeked of cannibalism.

  "Papa" plainly felt that Frank was a chunk of the old man's magic meat.



  A LITTLE MORE LIGHT was shed by another essay in the supplement, a florid essay titled, "What San Lorenzo Has Meant to One American." It was almost certainly ghost-written. It was signed by Major General Franklin Hoenikker.

  In the essay, Frank told of being all alone on a nearly swamped sixty-eight-foot Chris-Craft in the Caribbean. He didn't explain what he was doing on it or how he happened to be alone. He did indicate, though, that his point of departure had been Cuba.

  "The luxurious pleasure craft was going down, and my meaningless life with it," said the essay. "All I'd eaten for four days was two biscuits and a sea gull. The dorsal fins of man-eating sharks were cleaving the warm seas around me, and needle-teethed barracuda were making those waters boil.

  "I raised my eyes to my Maker, willing to accept whatever His decision might be. And my eyes alit on a glorious mountain peak above the clouds. Was this Fata Morgana--the cruel deception of a mirage?"

  I looked up Fata Morgana at this point in my reading; learned that it was, in fact, a mirage named after Morgan le Fay, a fairy who lived at the bottom of a lake. It was famous for appearing in the Strait of Messina, between Calabria and Sicily. Fata Morgana was poetic crap, in short.

  What Frank saw from his sinking pleasure craft was not cruel Fata Morgana, but the peak of Mount McCabe. Gentle seas then nuzzled Frank's pleasure craft to the rocky shores of San Lorenzo, as though God wanted him to go there.

  Frank stepped ashore, dry shod, and asked where he was. The essay didn't say so, but the son of a bitch had a piece of ice-nine with him--in a thermos jug.

  Frank, having no passport, was put in jail in the capital city of Bolivar. He was visited there by "Papa" Monzano, who wanted to know if it were possible that Frank was a blood relative of the immortal Dr. Felix Hoenikker.

  "I admitted I was," said Frank in the essay. "Since that moment, every door to opportunity in San Lorenzo has been opened wide to me."



  AS IT HAPPENED--"As it was supposed to happen," Bokonon would say--I was assigned by a magazine to do a story in San Lorenzo. The story wasn't to be about "Papa" Monzano or Frank. It was to be about Julian Castle, an American sugar millionaire who had, at the age of forty, followed the example of Dr. Albert Schweitzer by founding a free hospital in a jungle, by devoting his life to miserable folk of another race.

  Castle's hospital was called the House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle. Its jungle was on San Lorenzo, among the wild coffee trees on the northern slope of Mount McCabe.

  When I flew to San Lorenzo, Julian Castle was sixty years old.

  He had been absolutely unselfish for twenty years.

  In his selfish days he had been as familiar to tabloid readers as Tommy Manville, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Barbara Hutton. His fame had rested on lechery, alcoholism, reckless driving, and draft evasion. He had had a dazzling talent for spending millions without increasing mankind's stores of anything but chagrin.

  He had been married five times, had produced one son.

  The one son, Philip Castle, was the manager and owner of the hotel at which I planned to stay. The hotel was called the Casa Mona and was named after Mona Aamons Monzano, the blonde Negro on the cover of the supplement to the New York Sunday Times. The Casa Mona was brand new; it was one of the three new buildings in the background of the supplement's portrait of Mona.

  While I didn't feel that purposeful seas were wafting me to San Lorenzo, I did feel that love was doing the job. The Fata Morgana, the mirage of what it would be like to be loved by Mona Aamons Monzano, had become a tremendous force in my meaningless life. I imagined that she could make me far happier than any woman had so far succeeded in doing.



  THE SEATING on the airplane, bound ultimately for San Lorenzo from Miami, was three and three. As it happened--"As it was supposed to happen"--my seat-mates were Horlick Minton, the new American Ambassador to the Republic of San Lorenzo, and his wife, Claire. They were white-haired, gentle, and frail.

  Minton told me that he was a career diplomat, holding the rank of Ambassador for the first time. He and his wife had so far served, he told me, in Bolivia, Chile, Japan, France, Yugoslavia, Egypt, the Union of South Africa, Liberia, and Pakistan.

  They were lovebirds. They entertained each other endlessly with little gifts: sights worth seeing out the plane window, amusing or instructive bits from things they read, random recollections of times gone by. They were, I think, a flawless example of what Bokonon calls a duprass, which is a karass composed of only two persons.

  "A true duprass," Bokonon tells us, "can't be invaded, not even by children born of such a union."

  I exclude the Mintons, therefore, from my own karass, from Frank's karass, from Newt's karass, from Asa Breed's karass, from Angela's karass, from Lyman Enders Knowles's karass, from Sherman Krebbs's karass. The Mintons' karass was a tidy one, composed of only two.

  "I should think you'd be very pleased," I said to Minton.

  "What should I be pleased about?"

  "Pleased to have the rank of Ambassador."

  From the pitying way Minton and his wife looked at each other, I gathered that I had said a fat-headed thing. But they humored me. "Yes," winced Minton, "I'm very pleased." He smiled wanly. "I'm deeply honored."

  And so it went with almost every subject I brought up. I couldn't make the Mintons bubble about anything.

  For instance: "I suppose you can speak a lot of languages," I said.

  "Oh, six or seven--between us," said Minton.

  "That must be very gratifying."

  "What must?"

  "Being able to speak to people of so many different nationalities."

  "Very gratifying," said Minton emptily.

  "Very gratifying," said his wife.

  And they went back to reading a fat, typewritten manuscript that was spread across the chair arm between them.

  "Tell me," I said a little later, "in all your wide travels, have you fou
nd people everywhere about the same at heart?"

  "Hm?" asked Minton.

  "Do you find people to be about the same at heart, wherever you go?"

  He looked at his wife, making sure she had heard the question, then turned back to me. "About the same, wherever you go," he agreed.

  "Um," I said.

  Bokonon tells us, incidentally, that members of a duprass always die within a week of each other. When it came time for the Mintons to die, they did it within the same second.



  THERE WAS A SMALL SALOON in the rear of the plane and I repaired there for a drink. It was there that I met another fellow American, H. Lowe Crosby of Evanston, Illinois, and his wife, Hazel.

  They were heavy people, in their fifties. They spoke twangingly. Crosby told me that he owned a bicycle factory in Chicago, that he had had nothing but ingratitude from his employees. He was going to move his business to grateful San Lorenzo.

  "You know San Lorenzo well?" I asked.

  "This'll be the first time I've ever seen it, but everything I've heard about it I like," said H. Lowe Crosby. "They've got discipline. They've got something you can count on from one year to the next. They don't have the government encouraging everybody to be some kind of original pissant nobody ever heard of before."


  "Christ, back in Chicago, we don't make bicycles any more. It's all human relations now. The eggheads sit around trying to figure out new ways for everybody to be happy. Nobody can get fired, no matter what; and if somebody does accidentally make a bicycle, the union accuses us of cruel and inhuman practices and the government confiscates the bicycle for back taxes and gives it to a blind man in Afghanistan."

  "And you think things will be better in San Lorenzo?"

  "I know damn well they will be. The people down there are poor enough and scared enough and ignorant enough to have some common sense!"

  Crosby asked me what my name was and what my business was. I told him, and his wife Hazel recognized my name as an Indiana name. She was from Indiana, too.

  "My God," she said, "are you a Hoosier?"

  I admitted I was.

  "I'm a Hoosier, too," she crowed. "Nobody has to be ashamed of being a Hoosier."

  "I'm not," I said. "I never knew anybody who was."

  "Hoosiers do all right. Lowe and I've been around the world twice, and everywhere we went we found Hoosiers in charge of everything."

  "That's reassuring."

  "You know the manager of that new hotel in Istanbul?"


  "He's a Hoosier. And the military-whatever-he-is in Tokyo ..."

  "Attache," said her husband.

  "He's a Hoosier," said Hazel. "And the new Ambassador to Yugoslavia ..."

  "A Hoosier?" I asked.

  "Not only him, but the Hollywood Editor of Life magazine, too. And that man in Chile ..."

  "A Hoosier, too?"

  "You can't go anywhere a Hoosier hasn't made his mark," she said.

  "The man who wrote Ben Hur was a Hoosier."

  "And James Whitcomb Riley."

  "Are you from Indiana, too?" I asked her husband.

  "Nope. I'm a Prairie Stater. 'Land of Lincoln,' as they say."

  "As far as that goes," said Hazel triumphantly, "Lincoln was a Hoosier, too. He grew up in Spencer County."

  "Sure," I said.

  "I don't know what it is about Hoosiers," said Hazel, "but they've sure got something. If somebody was to make a list, they'd be amazed."

  "That's true," I said.

  She grasped me firmly by the arm. "We Hoosiers got to stick together."


  "You call me 'Mom.'"


  "Whenever I meet a young Hoosier, I tell them, 'You call me Mom.'"

  "Uh huh."

  "Let me hear you say it," she urged.


  She smiled and let go of my arm. Some piece of clockwork had completed its cycle. My calling Hazel "Mom" had shut it off, and now Hazel was rewinding it for the next Hoosier to come along.

  Hazel's obsession with Hoosiers around the world was a textbook example of a false karass, of a seeming team that was meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done, a textbook example of what Bokonon calls a granfalloon. Other examples of granfalloons are the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows--and any nation, anytime, anywhere.

  As Bokonon invites us to sing along with him:

  If you wish to study a granfalloon,

  Just remove the skin of a toy balloon.



  H. LOWE CROSBY was of the opinion that dictatorships were often very good things. He wasn't a terrible person and he wasn't a fool. It suited him to confront the world with a certain barnyard clownish-ness, but many of the things he had to say about undisciplined mankind were not only funny but true.

  The major point at which his reason and his sense of humor left him was when he approached the question of what people were really supposed to do with their time on Earth.

  He believed firmly that they were meant to build bicycles for him.

  "I hope San Lorenzo is every bit as good as you've heard it is," I said.

  "I only have to talk to one man to find out if it is or not," he said. "When 'Tapa' Monzano gives his word of honor about anything on that little island, that's it. That's how it is; that's how it'll be."

  "The thing I like," said Hazel, "is they all speak English and they're all Christians. That makes things so much easier."

  "You know how they deal with crime down there?" Crosby asked me.


  "They just don't have any crime down there. 'Papa' Monzano's made crime so damn unattractive, nobody even thinks about it without getting sick. I heard you can lay a billfold in the middle of a sidewalk and you can come back a week later and it'll be right there, with everything still in it."


  "You know what the punishment is for stealing something?"


  "The hook," he said. "No fines, no probation, no thirty days in jail. It's the hook. The hook for stealing, for murder, for arson, for treason, for rape, for being a peeping Tom. Break a law--any damn law at all--and it's the hook. Everybody can understand that, and San Lorenzo is the best-behaved country in the world."

  "What is the hook?"

  "They put up a gallows, see? Two posts and a cross beam. And then they take a great big kind of iron fishhook and they hang it down from the cross beam. Then they take somebody who's dumb enough to break the law, and they put the point of the hook in through one side of his belly and out the other and they let him go--and there he hangs, by God, one damn sorry law-breaker."

  "Good God!"

  "I don't say it's good," said Crosby, "but I don't say it's bad, either. I sometimes wonder if something like that wouldn't clear up juvenile delinquency. Maybe the hook's a little extreme for a democracy. Public hanging's more like it. String up a few teen-age car thieves on lampposts in front of their houses with signs around their necks saying, 'Mama, here's your boy.' Do that a few times and I think ignition locks would go the way of the rumble seat and the running board."

  "We saw that thing in the basement of the waxworks in London," said Hazel.

  "What thing?" I asked her.

  "The hook. Down in the Chamber of Horrors in the basement; they had a wax person hanging from the hook. It looked so real I wanted to throw up."

  "Harry Truman didn't look anything like Harry Truman," said Crosby.

  "Pardon me?"

  "In the waxworks," said Crosby. "The statute of Truman didn't really look like him."

  "Most of them did, though," said Hazel.

  "Was it anybody in particular hanging from the hook?" I asked her.

  "I don't think so. It was just somebody."

  "Just a demonstrator?" I asked.<
br />
  "Yeah. There was a black velvet curtain in front of it and you had to pull the curtain back to see. And there was a note pinned to the curtain that said children weren't supposed to look."

  "But kids did," said Crosby. "There were kids down there, and they all looked."

  "A sign like that is just catnip to kids," said Hazel.

  "How did the kids react when they saw the person on the hook?" I asked.

  "Oh," said Hazel, "they reacted just about the way the grownups did. They just looked at it and didn't say anything, just moved on to see what the next thing was."

  "What was the next thing?"

  "It was an iron chair a man had been roasted alive in," said Crosby. "He was roasted for murdering his son."

  "Only, after they roasted him," Hazel recalled blandly, "they found out he hadn't murdered his son after all."



  WHEN I AGAIN TOOK MY SEAT beside the duprass of Claire and Horlick Minton, I had some new information about them. I got it from the Crosbys.

  The Crosbys didn't know Minton, but they knew his reputation. They were indignant about his appointment as Ambassador. They told me that Minton had once been fired by the State Department for his softness toward communism, and that Communist dupes or worse had had him reinstated.

  "Very pleasant little saloon back there," I said to Minton as I sat down.

  "Hm?" He and his wife were still reading the manuscript that lay between them.

  "Nice bar back there."

  "Good. I'm glad."

  The two read on, apparently uninterested in talking to me. And then Minton turned to me suddenly, with a bittersweet smile, and he demanded, "Who was he, anyway?"

  "Who was who?"

  "The man you were talking to in the bar. We went back there for a drink, and, when we were just outside, we heard you and a man talking. The man was talking very loudly. He said I was a Communist sympathizer."

  "A bicycle manufacturer named H. Lowe Crosby," I said. I felt myself reddening.

  "I was fired for pessimism. Communism had nothing to do with it."

  "I got him fired," said his wife. "The only piece of real evidence produced against him was a letter I wrote to the New York Times from Pakistan."

  "What did it say?"

  "It said a lot of things," she said, "because I was very upset about how Americans couldn't imagine what it was like to be something else, to be something else and proud of it."