“The Great George Helmoltz Hoax of 2013”

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…)

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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.

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“Look at the Birdie” by Kurt Vonnegut

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(above: Vonnegut pictured in the 2009 N.Y. Times review of “Look at the Birdie”)

From the 2009 NY Times review of this collection:
“For the last many decades of his life, Vonnegut was our sage and chain-­smoking truth-teller, but before that, before his trademark black humor and the cosmic scope of “Cat’s Cradle” and “Slaughterhouse-­Five,” he was a journeyman writer of tidy short fictions.”
Full review link:

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(I found the above (Spanish translation) cover of the book online – pretty cool, huh?  Not sure what the significance to the book is, however… anybody know?)

I read this collection for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book Club meeting here in Indy later this week. Just when I think our group has pretty much read everything ever written by Vonnegut, a new book seems to pop up. This collection of stories was probably the weakest (only by Vonnegut standards, though) of the ones I’ve read, but it still contained several gems, some that I will likely re-read someday.

“Look at the Birdie”

“I use the cat-over-the-wall technique, a technique I recommend to you.” – Felix Koradubian, the “murder counselor” in the story “Look at the Birdie”

The title story in this collection was quite humorous. It begins with the narrator sitting in a bar telling “rather loudly” about a man he hates. He unwittingly draws the attention of a self-proclaimed “murder counselor.” Is this man insane, or just a drunken fellow bar patron? A former psychiatrist (albeit one practicing without a license), this murder counselor’s “cat-over-the-wall” technique is quite effective, both for murder AND blackmail, as our narrator finds out.

Another favorite was the somewhat long-ish “Ed Luby’s Key Club.” In it, two honest and hard-working, salt of the earth citizens, Harve and Claire Elliott, run afoul of the well-“connected” Ed Luby. Luby is a former bodyguard of Al Capone who now, for all practical purposes, runs the old mill town of “Ilium” (a locale used frequently in this author’s works). In danger of being framed for murder, Harve and Claire had “only one thing to cling to – a childlike faith that innocent persons never had anything to fear.” Will innocence triumph against the odds in its battle with a corrupt infrastructure? Will Harve be able to get “his side of the story” fairly heard? This story provides a roller-coaster ride on the way to learning those answers.

As a card carrying member of The Rat Race myself, I found the second story, “Fubar,” particularly good. (In the parlance of the story, that’s an acronym for, of course, “fouled up beyond all recognition” (these stories were written with hopes of being published in the popular magazines of the day). The protagonist of this story, Fuzz Littler (yes, that’s really his name) “became Fubar in the classic way, which is to say that he was the victim of a temporary arrangement that became permanent.” A member of a gigantic corporation’s Public Relations Department, (as Vonnegut was himself, during a stint with General Electric in Schenectady, New York) Mr. Littler was the odd man out when his department ran out of room in “Building 22.” Temporarily reassigned to building 181, and later to an office in the basement of building 523 (also known as the company gym!). He labors in obscurity and boredom until one day he achieves the rank of supervisor and learns he will be assigned a “girl” of his own. The young and beautiful Francine Pefko (another name that appears elsewhere in Vonnegut’s fiction) brings some light and happiness into his dreary existence. Whether for just a day or longer is left somewhat up in the air at the story’s end.

The best story, in my humble opinion, was the one called “King and Queen of the Universe.” In it, a young couple, Henry and Anne – seventeen years old – are leaving a dance (at “The Athletic Club”) in formal clothes and cross a city park to the garage where they have parked. Somewhat fearful of running into trouble, they instead run into a man who, though he’s first described as “what seemed to be a gargoyle on the rim of a fountain,” means them no harm, but only wishes them to aid him in perpetrating a little white lie to his invalid mother, in hopes that she will die thinking her son has become a success. The best intentions of both still lead to tragedy, though, and the two youngsters learn something of “real life” and not the sheltered fairy tale existence they have only known thus far. A happy ending is in store though, as after their trouble in the park, “Henry told Anne he loved her. Anne told him she loved him, too. They had told each other that before, but this was the first time it had meant a little something. They had finally seen a little something of life.”

There are fourteen stories and all – the above four were my favorites, though.  Have you read this collection?  Which were your favorites?  What is your favorite all-time story by Vonnegut?

(below: The Indianapolis Athletic Club – likely the basis for the club described in “King and Queen of the Universe.”  There IS a park across the street from it, but I doubt today’s ‘inhabitants’ would be as friendly with a young couple late at night as those in Vonnegut’s story were)

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