Thursday, April 12, 2007

Vonnegut's Lehigh Valley Connection - My Mom and Dad

Kurt Vonnegut is dead. You may remember him as the new Mark Twain. I remember him as a close friend to my mom and dad.

Vonnegut met my dad when they were both "intelligence" scouts during WWII. They were both so intelligent, they ended up getting captured at the onset of the Battle of the Bulge. Their mutual inability to speak German probably saved their lives. My dad and Vonnegut, surrounded by Germans, thought they were saying, "Don't shoot." In fact, they were saying, "Don't shit."

For Vonnegut, that incident was probably an early lesson in the power of humor. My Dad learned to speak German fluently.

Here's what Vonnegut once said about my mom (Mary) and dad.

Mary admired the two little girls I’d brought, mixed them in with her own children, sent them all upstairs to play games and watch television. It was only after the children were gone that I sensed that Mary didn’t like me or didn’t like something about the night. She was polite but chilly.

“It’s a nice cozy house you have here,” I said, and it really was.

“I’ve fixed up a place where you can talk and not be bothered,” she said.

“Good,” I said, and I imagined two leather chairs near a fire in a paneled room, where two old soldiers could drink and talk. But she took us into the kitchen. She had put two straight-backed chairs at a kitchen table with a white porcelain top. That table top was screaming with reflected light from a two-hundred-watt bulb overhead. Mary had prepared an operating room. She put only one glass on it, which was for me. She explained that O’Hare couldn’t drink the hard stuff since the war.

So we sat down. O’Hare was embarrassed, but he wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. I couldn’t imagine what it was about me that could burn up Mary so. I was a family man. I’d been married only once. I wasn’t a drunk. I hadn’t done her husband any dirt in the war.

She fixed herself a Coca-Cola, made a lot of noise banging the ice-cube tray in the stainless steel sink. Then she went into another part of the house. But she wouldn’t sit still. She was moving all over the house, opening and shutting doors, even moving furniture around to work off anger.

I asked O’Hare what I’d said or done to make her act that way.

“It’s all right,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t have anything to do with you.” That was kind of him. He was lying. It had everything to do with me.

So we tried to ignore Mary and remember the war. I took a couple of belts of the booze I’d brought. We would chuckle or grin sometimes, as though war stories were coming back, but neither one of us could remember anything good. O’Hare remembered one guy who got into a lot of wine in Dresden, before it was bombed, and we had to take him home in a wheelbarrow. It wasn’t much to write a book about. I remembered two Russian soldiers who had looted a clock factory. They had a horse-drawn wagon full of clocks. They were happy and drunk. They were smoking huge cigarettes they had rolled in newspaper.

That was about it for memories, and Mary was still making noise. She finally came out in the kitchen again for another Coke. She took another tray of ice cubes from the refrigerator, banged it in the sink, even though there was already plenty of ice out.

Then she turned to me, let me see how angry she was, and that the anger was for me. She had been talking to herself, so what she said was a fragment of a much larger conversation. “You were just babies then!” she said.

“What?” I said.

“You were just babies in the war — like the ones upstairs!”

I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.

“But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.” This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation.

“I — I don’t know,” I said.

“Well, I know,” she said. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”

So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.

So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise: “Mary,” I said, “I don’t think this book of mine is ever going to be finished. I must have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away. If I ever do finish it, though, I give you my word of honor: there won’t be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne.

“I tell you what,” I said, “I’ll call it ‘The Children’s Crusade.’ ”

She was my friend after that.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Were you in the house when Vonnegut was there? is there a six degrees od separation moment here? I email Bernie o'hare, who was fathered by Ohare, best buddy of Vonnegut?! I can feel the flames of the burning books on my face now! I am not worthy!

- Chris Casey

Anonymous said...

What a difference Vonnegut is to Ann Coulture. Her humor is demeaning and negative. Vonnegut's was meant to save the world and to make it a better place.
It was said in the NY Times today that Mark Twain died when he had finally gotten sick of the world--perhaps the same thing happened to KV. Iraq, Afghanistan, VOTING MACHINES ... where does it end?

Mom-Mom should have a statue for her role in "The Children's Crusade."

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 12:27, You're right about mom-mom.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Chris, I don't remember much from that day. For example, I don't remember that Vonnegut brought his girls. But I do remember some things. I remember that my mom was pissed for some reason. And when she wanted to talk, it was always in the kitchen, exactly as described by Vonnegut.

J. Brian said...

I can still remember, as a teenager, your cousin Artie handing me a copy of "Breakfast of Champions" and telling me I had to read it, he wouldn't tell me exactly why but hinted that I may find something familiar within. I took it home and read it and almost jumped off my bed when I saw the reference to the O'Hare paint and Dye company of Hellertown, Pa. Being from the other O'Haire family in Hellertown mad a real connection, I have since read everything he wrote. The next week when I saw Artie, he explain the connection and suggested that I also read "Slaughterhouse Five".

Anonymous said...

This boggles the mind. Awesome

Bernie O'Hare said...

J. Brian, I knew Tom O'Haire. I'm sorry, but I think we gave you a bad name.

Anonymous said...

God Bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.

I will never forget your books or watching you tell a graduating class to remember just to say something simple that your Uncle Alex did whenever he was savoring the sweetness of life: "If this isn't nice, what is?"

You will be missed by someone who played "Nice, Nice, Very Nice" by Ambrosia a million times during college because you wrote the lyrics. How cool is that?

BTNP

J. Spike said...

It seems the old gaurd is vanishing too fast these days.

The George W's and Sean Hannitys of this world are alive and too well (with power).

I was crushed to hear of Dr Hunter S. Thompsons sucide a few years ago. At first the story seemed he was in physical pain, and ended it. As I read some of his last writtings I saw, the idiots running the asylumn, (and the bombs) was what did it.

We were too far down a dangerous and unwinable road. And many felt they had been alive enough.

Others like Kurt and Studs have stayed to remind us what the opposite of evil insanity is.

Its a shame they have to leave us during a time we need them to teach us the most.

The Sean Hannity, Glenn Becks, and Micheal Winers have far too much media saturation. And will teach a warped view of history and the world.

Goodbye Kurt..............sanity will miss you here on earth.

BobKincaid said...

Wow! How many times have I read that passage? How many times have I wondered at how "real" that seemed? How about that! It WAS.

Not knowing anything whatsoever about what happens after death, I'm taking some small comfort that there's every bit as good a chance that Vonnegut's standing among a group of Tralfamadorians, drink in his hand, a smoke between his fingers and a wry smile on his lips as any other guess that any other person's made about hereafter. In some ways, the Tralfamadorians may be MORE likely. And that is, I think, a good thing.

Hi Ho, Kurt Vonnegut. Hi Ho!

Anonymous said...

J. Spike!

I was JUST commiserating with a good friend and pre-echoed your comments about "1st Hunter Thompson and now Kurt Vonnegut"!

Coulter is a right-wing slut/publicity whore and none of the other conservative hacks you named are even worthy to be mentioned as a tiny footnote in the smallest book about Vonnegut.

Hunter S Thompson.
Kurt Vonnegut.
Who's next from the "old guard"? My guess is Pynchon, and that would also be a crying shame.

BTNP

LVDem said...

Being the young pup in the lot, I guess i have a few more books to go get.

As it sounds, Bernie, your mom was far wiser than any of us.

Bernie O'Hare said...

She wasn't that wise. She married my dad.

Anonymous said...

Not being very well read, and therefore not recognizing the significance of the KV name or your family's affiliation with him, I do have memories of us being denied childhood playtime together because "my parents are having some important guests over". I distinctly remember getting the impression that two sweaty overactive brats with grass-stained jeans weren't welcomed on the agenda.

Being a notable public figure/politician, your father (along with your mother) could have been hosting any number of influential folks, but now, in retrospect, I wonder if I might have been that close to catching a glimpse of someone so influential (even though I wouldn't have appreciated it at the time).

So it goes.

(Whethervain)

suzanne said...

I grew up in Hellertown; now live in Callifornia. I remember when I was 16 years old, 1980 and was reading "Breakfast of Champions." To my amazement I couldn't believe the reference to the "O'Hare Paint factory in Hellertown. Knowing it was fictitious, I thought it was a joke. Only later, did I find out the history behind Mr. O'Hare and Mr. Vonnegut. But imagine, my surprise to be reading the book and the VERY town I am in is suddenly mentioned! My own father fought in WWII, and he also utilized Mr. O'Hare's legal service a couple of times as well. I read all of Mr. Vonnegut's books thoughout my early twenties and he had a HUGE impact on me. I will never forget that moment, however and will always appreciate Mr. Vonnegut's novels.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Suzanne, I like your story. It's nice to hear from another ex-Hellertonian.

suzanne said...

Yes, Bernie it does bring back memories-my childhood in Hellertown. It's nice to reminisce sometimes. It was the quintissential "small" town of America. I do remember my father saying what a "nice" man your father Bernie was. My own dad passed away in 2001. I remember him saying how pretty soon all the old WWII vets will be gone. Sadly, it's happening too fast......... a generation lost.

Anonymous said...

i read the Master in the 70s...
and i missed the opportunity to meet him twice [Moravian 1992 & Lehigh 2004]. Your dad, BUNNY O'HARE, is one of my favourite characters. i lost my piano teacher this week as well.
So it goes.
chekyalata, slacbacmac@aol.com

Patrick "Dennis McDennison" Coughlin said...

Hey, Uncle Bernie,

Funny how rumaging through the web and cross-searching "Bernie O'Hare" with "Kurt Vonnegut" brings up a blog from my mother's brother!

As all to often with death, it's never timed well-enough to grieve correctly. This is what has happened with the passing of Kurt Vonnegut. How dare he pass during the high holy time of law school exams? I am just now finishing up enough to voice my regards for not only the greatest author of the twentieth century, but his close friends of whom I share some genetic and hopefully cultural make-up. Clearly, the esteemed author has no respect for the living!

All black humor aside, thanks for the nicely put words about the author/family legend. More jealous I couldn't be of you and the other O'Hare children that you got to be in the house when Mom-Mom tore in to the future Mark Twain. On a side note, I couldn't help the tirade by an anonymous poster who also referred to Mom-Mom as Mom-Mom, and I couldn't help but wonder who the culprit was.

Hope all is well in the blogosphere, and now that I found you, I look forward to learning about the political process of the town that forged me. And if you think there are serious issues in Lehigh Valley politics, please consider the fact that a man who portrayed Conan the Barbarian can decide whether or not I live if convicted of a capital offense!

Take Care,
Patrick