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Cat's Cradle, Page 7

Kurt Vonnegut

  "I see."

  "But there was one sentence they kept coming back to again and again in the loyalty hearing," sighed Minton. " 'Americans,'" he said, quoting his wife's letter to the Times, " 'are forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be. It must have something to do with the vanished frontier.'"



  CLAIRE MINTON'S LETTER to the Times was published during the worst of the era of Senator McCarthy, and her husband was fired twelve hours after the letter was printed.

  "What was so awful about the letter?" I asked.

  "The highest possible form of treason," said Minton, "is to say that Americans aren't loved wherever they go, whatever they do. Claire tried to make the point that American foreign policy should recognize hate rather than imagine love."

  "I guess Americans are hated a lot of places."

  "People are hated a lot of places. Claire pointed out in her letter that Americans, in being hated, were simply paying the normal penalty for being people, and that they were foolish to think they should somehow be exempted from that penalty. But the loyalty board didn't pay any attention to that. All they knew was that Claire and I both felt that Americans were unloved."

  "Well, I'm glad the story had a happy ending."

  "Hm?" said Minton.

  "It finally came out all right," I said. "Here you are on your way to an embassy all your own."

  Minton and his wife exchanged another of those pitying duprass glances. Then Minton said to me, "Yes. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is ours."



  I TALKED TO THE MINTONS about the legal status of Franklin Hoenikker, who was, after all, not only a big shot in "Papa" Monzano's government, but a fugitive from United States justice.

  "That's all been written off," said Minton. "He isn't a United States citizen any more, and he seems to be doing good things where he is, so that's that."

  "He gave up his citizenship?"

  "Anybody who declares allegiance to a foreign state or serves in its armed forces or accepts employment in its government loses his citizenship. Read your passport. You can't lead the sort of funny-paper international romance that Frank has led and still have Uncle Sam for a mother chicken."

  "Is he well liked in San Lorenzo?"

  Minton weighed in his hands the manuscript he and his wife had been reading. "I don't know yet. This book says not."

  "What book is that?"

  "It's the only scholarly book ever written about San Lorenzo."

  "Sort of scholarly," said Claire.

  "Sort of scholarly," echoed Minton. "It hasn't been published yet. This is one of five copies." He handed it to me, inviting me to read as much as I liked.

  I opened the book to its title page and found that the name of the book was San Lorenzo: The Land, the History, the People. The author was Philip Castle, the son of Julian Castle, the hotel-keeping son of the great altruist I was on my way to see.

  I let the book fall open where it would. As it happened, it fell open to the chapter about the island's outlawed holy man, Bokonon.

  There was a quotation from The Books of Bokonon on the page before me. Those words leapt from the page and into my mind, and they were welcomed there.

  The words were a paraphrase of the suggestion by Jesus: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's."

  Bokonon's paraphrase was this:

  "Pay no attention to Caesar. Caesar doesn't have the slightest idea what's really going on."



  I BECAME SO ABSORBED in Philip Castle's book that I didn't even look up from it when we put down for ten minutes in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I didn't even look up when somebody behind me whispered, thrilled, that a midget had come aboard.

  A little while later I looked around for the midget, but could not see him. I did see, right in front of Hazel and H. Lowe Crosby, a horse-faced woman with platinum blonde hair, a woman new to the passenger list. Next to hers was a seat that appeared to be empty, a seat that might well have sheltered a midget without my seeing even the top of his head.

  But it was San Lorenzo--the land, the history, the people--that intrigued me then, so I looked no harder for the midget. Midgets are, after all, diversions for silly or quiet times, and I was serious and excited about Bokonon's theory of what he called "Dynamic Tension," his sense of a priceless equilibrium between good and evil.

  When I first saw the term "Dynamic Tension" in Philip Castle's book, I laughed what I imagined to be a superior laugh. The term was a favorite of Bokonon's, according to young Castle's book, and I supposed that I knew something that Bokonon didn't know: that the term was one vulgarized by Charles Atlas, a mail-order muscle-builder.

  As I learned when I read on, briefly, Bokonon knew exactly who Charles Atlas was. Bokonon was, in fact, an alumnus of his muscle-building school.

  It was the belief of Charles Atlas that muscles could be built without bar bells or spring exercisers, could be built by simply pitting one set of muscles against another.

  It was the belief of Bokonon that good societies could be built only by pitting good against evil, and by keeping the tension between the two high at all times.

  And, in Castle's book, I read my first Bokononist poem, or "Calypso." It went like this:

  "Papa" Monzano, he's so very bad,

  But without bad "Papa" I would be so sad;

  Because without "Papa's" badness,

  Tell me, if you would,

  How could wicked old Bokonon

  Ever, ever look good?



  BOKONON, I learned from Castle's book, was born in 1891. He was a Negro, born an Episcopalian and a British subject on the island of Tobago.

  He was christened Lionel Boyd Johnson.

  He was the youngest of six children, born to a wealthy family. His family's wealth derived from the discovery by Bokonon's grandfather of one quarter of a million dollars in buried pirate treasure, presumably a treasure of Blackbeard, of Edward Teach.

  Blackbeard's treasure was reinvested by Bokonon's family in asphalt, copra, cacao, livestock, and poultry.

  Young Lionel Boyd Johnson was educated in Episcopal schools, did well as a student, and was more interested in ritual than most. As a youth, for all his interest in the outward trappings of organized religion, he seems to have been a carouser, for he invites us to sing along with him in his "Fourteenth Calypso":

  When I was young,

  I was so gay and mean,

  And I drank and chased the girls

  Just like young St. Augustine.

  Saint Augustine,

  He got to be a saint.

  So, if I get to be one, also,

  Please, Mama, don't you faint.



  LIONEL BOYD JOHNSON was intellectually ambitious enough, in 1911, to sail alone from Tobago to London in a sloop named the Lady's Slipper. His purpose was to gain a higher education.

  He enrolled in the London School of Economics and Political Science.

  His education was interrupted by the First World War. He enlisted in the infantry, fought with distinction, was commissioned in the field, was mentioned four times in dispatches. He was gassed in the second Battle of Ypres, was hospitalized for two years, and then discharged.

  And he set sail for home, for Tobago, alone in the Lady's Slipper again.

  When only eighty miles from home, he was stopped and searched by a German submarine, the U-99. He was taken prisoner, and his little vessel was used by the Huns for target practice. While still surfaced, the submarine was surprised and captured by the British destroyer, the Raven.

  Johnson and the Germans were taken on board the destroyer and the U-99 was sunk.

  The Raven was bound for the Mediterranean, but it never got there. It lost its s
teering; it could only wallow helplessly or make grand, clockwise circles. It came to rest at last in the Cape Verde Islands.

  Johnson stayed in those islands for eight months, awaiting some sort of transportation to the Western Hemisphere.

  He got a job at last as a crewman on a fishing vessel that was carrying illegal immigrants to New Bedford, Massachusetts. The vessel was blown ashore at Newport, Rhode Island.

  By that time Johnson had developed a conviction that something was trying to get him somewhere for some reason. So he stayed in Newport for a while to see if he had a destiny there. He worked as a gardener and carpenter on the famous Rumfoord Estate.

  During that time, he glimpsed many distinguished guests of the Rumfoords, among them, J.P. Morgan, General John J. Pershing, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Enrico Caruso, Warren Gamaliel Harding, and Harry Houdini. And it was during that time that the First World War came to an end, having killed ten million persons and wounded twenty million, Johnson among them.

  When the war ended, the young rakehell of the Rumfoord family, Remington Rumfoord, IV, proposed to sail his steam yacht, the Scheherazade, around the world, visiting Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Egypt, India, China, and Japan. He invited Johnson to accompany him as first mate, and Johnson agreed.

  Johnson saw many wonders of the world on the voyage.

  The Scheherazade was rammed in a fog in Bombay harbor, and only Johnson survived. He stayed in India for two years, becoming a follower of Mohandas K. Gandhi. He was arrested for leading groups that protested British rule by lying down on railroad tracks. When his jail term was over, he was shipped at Crown expense to his home in Tobago.

  There, he built another schooner, which he called the Lady's Slipper II.

  And he sailed her about the Caribbean, an idler, still seeking the storm that would drive him ashore on what was unmistakably his destiny.

  In 1922, he sought shelter from a hurricane in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which country was then occupied by United States Marines.

  Johnson was approached there by a brilliant, self-educated, idealistic Marine deserter named Earl McCabe. McCabe was a corporal. He had just stolen his company's recreation fund. He offered Johnson five hundred dollars for transportation to Miami.

  The two set sail for Miami.

  But a gale hounded the schooner onto the rocks of San Lorenzo. The boat went down. Johnson and McCabe, absolutely naked, managed to swim ashore. As Bokonon himself reports the adventure:

  A fish pitched up

  By the angry sea,

  I gasped on land,

  And I became me.

  He was enchanted by the mystery of coming ashore naked on an unfamiliar island. He resolved to let the adventure run its full course, resolved to see just how far a man might go, emerging naked from salt water.

  It was a rebirth for him:

  Be like a baby,

  The Bible say,

  So I stay like a baby

  To this very day.

  How he came by the name of Bokonon was very simple. "Bokonon" was the pronunciation given the name Johnson in the island's English dialect.

  As for that dialect ...

  The dialect of San Lorenzo is both easy to understand and difficult to write down. I say it is easy to understand, but I speak only for myself. Others have found it as incomprehensible as Basque, so my understanding of it may be telepathic.

  Philip Castle, in his book, gave a phonetic demonstration of the dialect and caught its flavor very well. He chose for his sample the San Lorenzan version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

  In American English, one version of that immortal poem goes like this:

  Twinkle, twinkle, little star,

  How I wonder what you are,

  Shining in the sky so bright,

  Like a tea tray in the night,

  Twinkle, twinkle, little star,

  How I wonder what you are.

  In San Lorenzan dialect, according to Castle, the same poem went like this:

  Tsvent-kiul, tsvent-kiul, lett-pool store,

  Ko jy tsvantoor bat voo yore.

  Put-shinik on lo shee zo brath,

  Kam oon teetron on lo nath,

  Tsvent-kiul, tsvent-kiul, lett-pool store,

  Ko jy tsvantoor bat voo yore.

  Shortly after Johnson became Bokonon, incidentally, the lifeboat of his shattered ship was found on shore. That boat was later painted gold and made the bed of the island's chief executive.

  "There is a legend, made up by Bokonon," Philip Castle wrote in his book, "that the golden boat will sail again when the end of the world is near."



  MY READING of the life of Bokonon was interrupted by H. Lowe Crosby's wife, Hazel. She was standing in the aisle next to me. "You'll never believe it," she said, "but I just found two more Hoosiers on this airplane."

  "I'll be damned."

  "They weren't born Hoosiers, but they live there now. They live in Indianapolis."

  "Very interesting."

  "You want to meet them?"

  "You think I should?"

  The question baffled her. "They're your fellow Hoosiers."

  "What are their names?"

  "Her name is Conners and his name is Hoenikker. They're brother and sister, and he's a midget. He's a nice midget, though." She winked. "He's a smart little thing."

  "Does he call you Mom?"

  "I almost asked him to. And then I stopped, and I wondered if maybe it wouldn't be rude to ask a midget to do that."



  O.K., MOM

  SO I WENT AFT to talk to Angela Hoenikker Conners and little Newton Hoenikker, members of my karass.

  Angela was the horse-faced platinum blonde I had noticed earlier.

  Newt was a very tiny young man indeed, though not grotesque. He was as nicely scaled as Gulliver among the Brobdingnagians, and as shrewdly watchful, too.

  He held a glass of champagne, which was included in the price of his ticket. That glass was to him what a fishbowl would have been to a normal man, but he drank from it with elegant ease--as though he and the glass could not have been better matched.

  The little son of a bitch had a crystal of ice-nine in a thermos bottle in his luggage, and so did his miserable sister, while under us was God's own amount of water, the Caribbean Sea.

  When Hazel had got all the pleasure she could from introducing Hoosiers to Hoosiers, she left us alone. "Remember," she said as she left us, "from now on, call me Mom."

  "O.K., Mom," I said.

  "O.K., Mom," said Newt. His voice was fairly high, in keeping with his little larynx. But he managed to make that voice distinctly masculine.

  Angela persisted in treating Newt like an infant--and he forgave her for it with an amiable grace I would have thought impossible for one so small.

  Newt and Angela remembered me, remembered the letters I'd written, and invited me to take the empty seat in their group of three.

  Angela apologized to me for never having answered my letters.

  "I couldn't think of anything to say that would interest anybody reading a book. I could have made up something about that day, but I didn't think you'd want that. Actually, the day was just like a regular day."

  "Your brother here wrote me a very good letter."

  Angela was surprised. "Newt did? How could Newt remember anything?" She turned to him. "Honey, you don't remember anything about that day, do you? You were just a baby."

  "I remember," he said mildly.

  "I wish I'd seen the letter." She implied that Newt was still too immature to deal directly with the outside world. Angela was a God-awfully insensitive woman, with no feeling for what smallness meant to Newt.

  "Honey, you should have showed me that letter," she scolded.

  "Sorry," said Newt. "I didn't think."

  "I might as well tell you," Angela said to me, "Dr. Breed told me I wasn't supposed to co-operate with you. He said you weren't intereste
d in giving a fair picture of Father." She showed me that she didn't like me for that.

  I placated her some by telling her that the book would probably never be done anyway, that I no longer had a clear idea of what it would or should mean.

  "Well, if you ever do do the book, you better make Father a saint, because that's what he was."

  I promised that I would do my best to paint that picture. I asked if she and Newt were bound for a family reunion with Frank in San Lorenzo.

  "Frank's getting married," said Angela. "We're going to the engagement party."

  "Oh? Who's the lucky girl?"

  "I'll show you," said Angela, and she took from her purse a billfold that contained a sort of plastic accordion. In each of the accordion's pleats was a photograph. Angela flipped through the photographs, giving me glimpses of little Newt on a Cape Cod beach, of Dr. Felix Hoenikker accepting his Nobel Prize, of Angela's own homely twin girls, of Frank flying a model plane on the end of a string.

  And then she showed me a picture of the girl Frank was going to marry.

  She might, with equal effect, have struck me in the groin.

  The picture she showed me was of Mona Aamons Monzano, the woman I loved.



  ONCE ANGELA HAD OPENED her plastic accordion, she was reluctant to close it until someone had looked at every photograph.

  "There are the people I love," she declared.

  So I looked at the people she loved. What she had trapped in plexiglass, what she had trapped like fossil beetles in amber, were the images of a large part of our karass. There wasn't a granfallooner in the collection.

  There were many photographs of Dr. Hoenikker, father of a bomb, father of three children, father of ice-nine. He was a little person, the purported sire of a midget and a giantess.

  My favorite picture of the old man in Angela's fossil collection showed him all bundled up for winter, in an overcoat, scarf, galoshes, and a wool knit cap with a big pom-pom on the crown.

  This picture, Angela told me, with a catch in her throat, had been taken in Hyannis just about three hours before the old man died. A newspaper photographer had recognized the seeming Christmas elf for the great man he was.

  "Did your father die in the hospital?"