To the as-yet-unborn, to all innocent wisps of undifferentiated nothingness: Watch out for life.
I have caught life. I have come down with life. I was a wisp of undifferentiated nothingness, and then a little peephole opened quite suddenly. Light and sound poured in. Voices began to describe me and my surroundings. Nothing they said could be appealed. They said I was a boy named Rudolph Waltz, and that was that. They said the year was 1932, and that was that. They said I was in Midland City, Ohio, and that was that.
They never shut up. Year after year they piled detail upon detail. They do it still. You know what they say now? They say the year is 1982, and that I am fifty years old.
Blah blah blah.
My father was Otto Waltz, whose peephole opened in 1892, and he was told, among other things, that he was the heir to a fortune earned principally by a quack medicine known as "Saint Elmo's Remedy." It was grain alcohol dyed purple, flavored with cloves and sarsaparilla root, and laced with opium and cocaine. As the joke goes: It was absolutely harmless unless discontinued.
He, too, was a Midland City native. He was an only child, and his mother, on the basis of almost no evidence whatsoever, concluded that he could be another Leonardo da Vinci. She had a studio built for him on a loft of the carriage house behind the family mansion when he was only ten years old, and she hired a rapscallion German cabinetmaker, who had studied art in Berlin in his youth, to give Father drawing and painting lessons on weekends and after school.
It was a sweet racket for both teacher and pupil. The teacher's name was August Gunther, and his peephole must have opened in Germany around 1850. Teaching paid as well as cabinetmaking, and, unlike cabinetmaking, allowed him to be as drunk as he pleased.
After Father's voice changed, moreover, Gunther could take him on overnight visits by rail to Indianapolis and Cincinnati and Louisville and Cleveland and so on, ostensibly to visit galleries and painters' studios. The two of them also managed to get drunk, and to become darlings of the fanciest whorehouses in the Middle West.
Was either one of them about to acknowledge that Father couldn't paint or draw for sour apples?
Who else was there to detect the fraud? Nobody. There wasn't anybody else in Midland City who cared enough about art to notice if Father was gifted or not. He might as well have been a scholar of Sanskrit, as far as the rest of the town was concerned.
Midland City wasn't a Vienna or a Paris. It wasn't even a St. Louis or a Detroit. It was a Bucyrus. It was a Kokomo.
Gunther's treachery was discovered, but too late. He and Father were arrested in Chicago after doing considerable property damage in a whorehouse there, and Father was found to have gonorrhea, and so on. But Father was by then a fully committed, eighteen-year-old good-time Charley.
Gunther was denounced and fired and blacklisted. Grandfather and Grandmother Waltz were tremendously influential citizens, thanks to Saint Elmo's Remedy. They spread the word that nobody of quality in Midland City was ever to hire Gunther for cabinetwork or any other sort of work--ever again.
Father was sent to relatives in Vienna, to have his gonorrhea treated and to enroll in the world-famous Academy of Fine Arts. While he was on the high seas, in a first-class cabin aboard the Lusitania
, his parents' mansion burned down. It was widely suspected that the showplace was torched by August Gunther, but no proof was found.
Father's parents, rather than rebuilt, took up residence in their thousand-acre farm out near Shepherdstown--leaving behind the carriage house and a cellar hole.
This was in 1910--four years before the outbreak of the First World War.
So Father presented himself at the Academy of Fine Arts with a portfolio of pictures he had created in Midland City. I myself have examined some of the artwork of his youth, which Mother used to moon over after he died. He was good at cross-hatching and shading a drapery, and August Gunther must have been capable in those areas, too. But with few exceptions, everything Father depicted wound up looking as though it were made of cement--a cement woman in a cement dress, walking a cement dog, a herd of cement cattle, a cement bowl of cement fruit, set before a window with cement curtains, and so on.
He was no good at catching likenesses, either. He showed the Academy several portraits of his mother, and I have no idea what she looked like. Her peephole closed long before mine opened. But I do know that no two of Father's portraits of her resemble each other in the least.
Father was told to come back to the Academy in two weeks, at which time they would tell him whether they would take him in or not.
He was in rags at the time, with a piece of rope for a belt, and with patched trousers and so on--although he was receiving an enormous allowance from home. Vienna was then the capital of a great empire, and there were so many elaborate uniforms and exotic costumes, and so much wine and music that it seemed to Father to be a fancy dress ball. So he decided to come to the party as a starving artist. What fun!
And he must have been very good-looking then, for he was, in my opinion, the best-looking man in Midland City when I got to know him a quarter of a century later. He was slender and erect to the end. He was six feet tall. His eyes were blue. He had curly golden hair, and he had lost almost none of it when his peephole closed, when he was allowed to stop being Otto Waltz, when he became just another wisp of undifferentiated nothingness again.
So he came back in two weeks, and a professor handed him back his portfolio, saying that his work was ludicrous. And there was another young man in rags there, and he, too, had his portfolio returned with scorn.
His name was Adolf Hitler. He was a native Austrian. He had come from Linz.
And Father was so mad at the professor that he got his revenge right then and there. He asked to see some of Hitler's work, with the professor looking on. He picked a picture at random, and he said it was a brilliant piece of work, and he bought it from Hitler for more cash on the spot than the professor, probably, could earn in a month or more.
Only an hour before, Hitler had sold his overcoat so that he could get a little something to eat, even though winter was coming on. So there is a chance that, if it weren't for my father, Hitler might have died of pneumonia or malnutrition in 1910.
Father and Hitler paired off for a while, as people will--comforting and amusing each other, jeering at the art establishment which had rejected them, and so on. I know they took several long walking trips, just the two of them. I learned of their good times together from Mother. When I was old enough to be curious about Father's past, World War Two was about to break out, and Father had developed lockjaw as far as his friendship with Hitler was concerned.
Think of that: My father could have strangled the worst monster of the century, or simply let him starve or freeze to death. But he became his bosom buddy instead.
That is my principal objection to life, I think: It is too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes.
The painting Father bought from Hitler was a watercolor which is now generally acknowledged as having been the best thing the monster ever did as a painter, and it hung for many years over my parents' bed in Midland City, Ohio. Its title was: "The Minorite Church of Vienna."
Father was so well received in Vienna, known to one and all as an American millionaire disguised as a ragged genius, that he roistered there for nearly four years. When the First World War broke out in August of 1914, he imagined that the fancy dress ball was to become a fancy dress picnic, that the party was to be moved out into the countryside. He was so happy, so naive, so self-enchanted, that he asked influential friends if they couldn't get him a commission in the Hungarian Life Guard, whose officers' uniforms included a panther skin.
He adored that panther skin.
He was summoned by the American ambassador to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Henry Clowes, who was a Cleveland man and an acquaintance of Father's parents. Father was then twenty-two years old. Clowes told Father that he would lose his American citizenship if he joined a foreign army, and that he had made inquiries about Father, and had learned that Father was not the painter he pretended to be, and that Father had been spending money like a drunken sailor, and that he had written to Father's parents, telling them that their son had lost all touch with reality, and that it was time Father was summoned home and given some honest work to do.
"What if I refuse?" said Father.
"Your parents have agreed to stop your allowance," said Clowes.
So Father went home.
I do not believe he would have stayed in Midland City, if it weren't for what remained of his childhood home, which was its fanciful carriage house. It was hexagonal. It was stone. It had a conical slate roof. It had a naked skeleton inside of noble oak beams. It was a little piece of Europe in southwestern Ohio. It was a present from my great-grandfather Waltz to his homesick wife from Hamburg. It was a stone-by-stone replica of a structure in an illustration in her favorite book of German fairy tales.
It still stands.
I once showed it to an art historian from Ohio University, which is in Athens, Ohio. He said that the original might have been a medieval granary built on the ruins of a Roman watchtower from the time of Julius Caesar. Caesar was murdered two thousand years ago.
Think of that.
I do not think my father was entirely ungifted as an artist. Like his friend Hitler, he had a flair for romantic architecture. And he set about transforming the carriage house into a painter's studio fit for the reincarnated Leonardo da Vinci his doting mother still believed him to be.
Father's mother was as crazy as a bedbug, my own mother said.
I sometimes think that I would have had a very different sort of soul, if I had grown up in an ordinary little American house--if our home had not been vast.
Father got rid of all the horse-drawn vehicles in the carriage house--a sleigh, a buckboard, a surrey, a phaeton, a brougham, and who-knows-what-all? Then he had ten horse stalls and a tack room ripped out. This gave him for his private enjoyment more uninterrupted floor-space beneath a far higher ceiling than was afforded by any house of worship or public building in the Midland City of that time.
Was it big enough for a basketball game? A basketball court is ninety-four feet long and fifty feet wide. My childhood home was only eighty feet in diameter. So, no--it lacked fourteen feet of being big enough for a basketball game.
There were two pairs of enormous doors in the carriage house, wide enough to admit a carriage and a team of horses. One pair faced north, one pair faced south. Father had his workmen take down the northern pair, which has old mentor, August Gunther, made into two tables, a dining table and a table on which Father's paints and brushes and palette knives and charcoal sticks and so on were to be displayed.
The doorway was then filled with what remains the largest window in the city, admitting copious quantities of that balm for all great painters, northern light.
It was before this window that Father's easel stood.
Yes, he had been reunited with the disreputable August Gunther, who must have been in his middle sixties then. Old Gunther had only one child, a daughter named Grace, so Father was like a son to him. A more suitable son for Gunther would be hard to imagine.
Mother was just a little girl then, and living in a mansion next door. She was terrified of old Gunther. She told me one time that all nice little girls were supposed to run away from him. Right up until the time Mother died, she cringed if August Gunther was mentioned. He was a hobgoblin to her. He was the bogeyman.
As for the pair of great doors facing south: Father had them bolted shut and padlocked, and the workmen caulked the cracks between and around them, to keep out the wind. And then August Gunther cut a front door into one of them. That was the entrance to Father's studio, what would later be my childhood home.
A hexagonal loft encircled and overhung the great chamber. This was partitioned off into bedrooms and bathrooms and a small library.
Above that was an attic under the conical slate roof. Father had no immediate use for the attic, so it was left in its primitive condition.
It was all so impractical--which I guess was the whole idea.
Father was so elated by the vastness of the ground floor, which was paved with cobblestones laid in sand, that he considered putting the kitchen up on a loft. But that would have put the servants and all their hustle and bustle and cooking smells up among the bedrooms. There was no basement to put them in.
So he reluctantly put the kitchen on the ground floor, tucked under a loft and partitioned off with old boards. It was cramped and stuffy. I would love it. I would feel so safe and cozy in there.
Many people found our house spooky, and the attic in fact was full of evil when I was born. It housed a collection of more than three hundred antique and modern firearms. Father had bought them during his and Mother's six-month honeymoon in Europe in 1922. Father thought them beautiful, but they might as well have been copperheads and rattlesnakes.
They were murder.
Copyright © 2006 by Kurt Vonnegut. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.