A recurring character in the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut is the oft-beleaguered high school band teacher, George Helmholtz. He appears in four stories that I can immediately recall (there may be another or two) – “The Ambitious Sophomore”, “The Kid Nobody Could Handle”, “The Boy Who Hated Girls” and, from the collection “Look at the Birdie,” the very funny story “A Song for Selma.” In this last story, reference is made to a musical composition by the sixteen-year-old genius, Al Schroeder, entitled “Hail to the Milky Way.” Unlike the song from the title of this story, there are no lyrics mentioned to go along with “Hail to the Milky Way.” (although we are treated to the humorous acknowledgment that, with the furthest star in The Milky Way being “approximately ten-thousand light years away” that “if the sound of the music was to reach that star, it would have to be played good and loud.”
At The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club meetings here in Indianapolis, we have previously wondered about this Helmholtz character, and whether he was based on a teacher Vonnegut knew at Shortridge High School, or if instead he was a conglomeration of several real people. At our most recent meeting last week, Bill Briscoe, the library’s historian, uncorked the revelation that he “had done some research” and that there was a music teacher during Kurt’s high school years named Herman George, upon whom the character was based. We were all fascinated and unaware – as yet – that Bill was reeling us in. For my part, the name was perfect – I could see Vonnegut combining Herman George & that famous name from science, Herman Helmholtz, into George Helmholtz. That would be so Vonnegut.
Bill went on to explain that he had even located Herman George’s son, who related that most of his father’s personal effects had been “lost in a fire,” but one thing from his papers that survived was a few stanzas of a song, “Hail to the Milky Way”(!) It should be mentioned here that Bill is also our club’s unofficial poet and our meetings usually end with him sharing his latest work (related to the book we’ve read that month). He brought the song fragment (though charred around the edges and encased in a plastic sheath) with him to the meeting and read the three verses it contained:
Hail to the Milky Way
And to the Sky we pray
While stars do dance and play
Hail, hail, all hail, we say!
Our galaxy we tout
It’s great without a doubt
It has such big clout
hail, hail, all hail, we shout!
Our universe is dear
Nothing else comes near
And so we raise our beer
Hail, hail, all hail, we cheer!
Bill passed around the alleged “artifact” but, as far as most of us were concerned, the jig was up. How conveniently the burned edges of his “historical document” circled the perimeter of the verses, and few could mistake the well-known style of our poet in residence. When the document reached me, I inquired aloud, “Are you sure this isn’t a Briscoe original?”
So, some fun was had and nobody got hurt. I think this would have been a meeting that Kurt Vonnegut himself would have heartily approved of.
(Below is a photo I snapped of this historical document – sorry for the focus issues…)
A couple other examples of Bill’s work from prior meetings: A tribute to Breakfast of Champions (extra credit goes to anyone who can identify the four initials on the olives); and, at bottom, a visually impressive poem from our meeting on Hocus-Pocus.