The cattle are lowing,
The Baby awakes,
But the little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes.
All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I
knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn�t his. Another guy I knew
really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war.
And so on. I've changed all the names.
I really did go back to Dresden with Guggenheim money (God love it) in 1967. It
looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has. There must be tons of
human bone meal in the ground.
I went back there with an old war buddy, Bernard V. O'Hare, and we made friends
with a taxi driver, who took us to the slaughterhouse where we had been locked up at
night as prisoner of war. His name was Gerhard Muller. He told us that he was a prisoner
of the Americans for a while. We asked him how it was to live under Communism, and
he said that it was terrible at first, because everybody had to work so hard, and because
there wasn't much shelter or food or clothing. But things were much better now. He had a
pleasant little apartment, and his daughter was getting an excellent education. His mother
was incinerated in the Dresden fire-storm. So it goes.
He sent O'Hare a postcard at Christmastime, and here is what it said:
'I wish you and your family also as to your friend Merry Christmas and a happy New
Year and I hope that we�ll meet again in a world of peace and freedom in the taxi cab if
the accident will.�
I like that very much: 'If the accident will.�
I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and
time. When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it
would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to
do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought, too, that it would be a masterpiece
or at least make me a lot of money, since the subject was so big.
But not many words about Dresden came from my mind then-not enough of them to
make a book, anyway. And not many words come now, either, when I have become an
old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls, with his sons full grown. I think of how
useless the Dresden-part of my memory has been, and yet how tempting Dresden has
been to write about, and I am reminded of the famous limerick:
There was a young man from Stamboul,
Who soliloquized thus to his tool,
'You took all my wealth
And you ruined my health,
And now you won't pee, you old fool �
And I'm reminded, too, of the song that goes
My name is Yon Yonson,
I work in Wisconsin,
I work in a lumbermill there.
The people I meet when I walk down the street,
They say, 'What's your name?
And I say,
�My name is Yon Yonson,
I work in Wisconsin...
And so on to infinity.
Over the years, people I've met have often asked me what I'm working on, and I've
usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.
I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows
and inquired, 'Is it an anti-war book?'
'Yes,' I said. 'I guess.�
'You know what I say to people when I hear they're writing anti-war books?'
'No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?�
'I say, "Why don�t you write an anti-glacier book instead?"�
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy
to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.
And, even if wars didn�t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.
When I was somewhat younger, working on my famous Dresden book, I asked an old
war buddy named Bernard V. O'Hare if I could come to see him. He was a district
attorney in Pennsylvania. I was a writer on Cape Cod. We had been privates in the war,
infantry scouts. We had never expected to make any money after the war, but we were
doing quite well.
I had the Bell Telephone Company find him for me. They are wonderful that way. I
have this, disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone. I get
drunk, and I drive my wife away with a breath like mustard gas and roses. And then,
speaking gravely and elegantly into the telephone, I ask the telephone operators to
connect me with this friend or that one, from whom I have not heard in years.
I got O'Hare on the line in this way. He is short and I am tall. We were Mutt and Jeff in
the war. We were captured together in the war. I told him who I was on the telephone. He
had no trouble believing it. He was up. He was reading. Everybody else in his house was
'Listen,' I said, 'I'm writing this book about Dresden. I�d like some help remembering
stuff. I wonder if I could come down and see you, and we could drink and talk and
He was unenthusiastic. He said he couldn�t remember much. He told me, though, to
'I think the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby,� I said.
'The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of
people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for
taking a teapot. And he�s given a regular trial, and then he's shot by a firing squad.'
'Urn,' said O'Hare.
'Don't you think that's really where the climax should come?' 'I don�t know anything
about it,' he said. 'That's your trade, not mine.'
As a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and
suspense and confrontations, I had outlined the Dresden story many times. The best
outline I ever made, or anyway the prettiest one, was on the back of a roll of wallpaper.
I used my daughter�s crayons, a different color for each main character. One end of the
wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there
was all that middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and
then the yellow line, and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the
yellow line was dead. And so on. The destruction of Dresden was represented by a
vertical band of orange cross-hatching, and all the lines that were still alive passed
through it, came out the other side.
The end, where all the lines stopped, was a beeffield on the Elbe, outside of Halle. The
rain was coming down. The war in Europe had been over for a couple of weeks. We were
formed in ranks, with Russian soldiers guarding us-Englishmen, Americans, Dutchmen,
Belgians, Frenchmen, Canadians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Australians,
thousands of us about to stop being prisoners of war.
And on the other side of the field were thousands of Russians and Poles and
Yugoslavians and so on guarded by American soldiers. An exchange was made there in
the rain-one for one. O'Hare and I climbed into the back of an American truck with a lot
of others. O'Hare didn�t have any souvenirs. Almost everybody else did. I had a
ceremonial Luftwaffe saber, still do. The rabid little American I call Paul Lazzaro in this
book had about a quart of diamonds and emeralds and rubies and so on� He had taken
these from dead people in the cellars of Dresden.� So it goes.
An idiotic Englishman, who had lost all his teeth somewhere had his souvenir in a
canvas bag. The bag was resting on my insteps. He would peek into the bag every now
and then, and he would roll his eyes and swivel his scrawny neck,, trying to catch people
looking covetously at his bag. And he would bounce the bag on my insteps.
I thought this bouncing was accidental. But I was mistaken. He had to show somebody
what was in the bag, and he had decided he could trust me. He caught my eye, winked,
opened the bag. There was a plaster model of the Eiffel Tower in there. It was painted
gold. It had a clock in it.
'There's a smashin� thing,' he said.
And we were flown to a rest camp in France, where we were fed chocolate malted
milkshakes and other rich foods until we were all covered with baby fat. Then we were
sent home, and I married a pretty girl who was covered with baby fat, too.
And we had babies.
And they're all grown up now, and I'm an old fart with his memories and his Pall
Malls. My name is Yon Yonson, I work in Wisconsin, I work in a lumbermill there.
Sometimes I try to call up old girl friends on the telephone late at night, after my wife
has gone to bed. 'Operator, I wonder if you could give me the number of a Mrs. So-and-
So. I think she lives at such-and-such.�
'I'm sorry, sir. There is no such listing.'
'Thanks, Operator. Thanks just the same.�
And I let the dog out or I let him in, and we talk some. I let him know I like him, and
he lets me know he likes me. He doesn't mind the smell of mustard gas and roses.
'You're all right, Sandy, I�ll say to the dog. 'You know that, Sandy? You're O.K.'
Sometimes I'll turn on the radio and listen to a talk program from Boston or New York.
I can�t stand recorded music if I�ve been drinking a good deal.
Sooner or later I go to bed, and my wife asks me what time it is. She always has to
know the time. Sometimes I don�t know, and I say, �Search me.'
I think about my education sometimes. I went to the University of Chicago for a while
after the Second World War. I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that
time, they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They
may be teaching that still.
Another thing they taught was that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting. Shortly
before my father died, he said to me, �You know-you never wrote a story with a villain in
I told him that was one of the things I learned in college after the war.
While I was studying to be an anthropologist, I was also working as a police reporter
for the famous Chicago City News Bureau for twenty-eight dollars a week. One time they
switched me from the night shift to the day shift., so I worked sixteen hours straight. We
were supported by all the newspapers in town, and the AP and the UP and all that. And
we would cover the courts and the police stations and the Fire Department and the Coast
Guard out on Lake Michigan and all that. We were connected to the institutions that
supported us by means of pneumatic tubes which ran under the streets of Chicago.
Reporters would telephone in stories to writers wearing headphones, and the writers
would stencil the stories on mimeograph sheets. The stories were mimeographed and
stuffed into the brass and velvet cartridges which the pneumatic tubes ate. The very
toughest reporters and writers were women who had taken over the jobs of men who�d
gone to war.
And the first story I covered I had to dictate over the telephone to one of those beastly
girls. It was about a young veteran who had taken a job running an old-fashioned elevator
in an office building. The elevator door on the first floor was ornamental iron lace. Iron
ivy snaked in and out of the holes. There was an iron twig with two iron lovebirds
perched upon it.
This veteran decided to take his car into the basement, and he closed the door and
started down, but his wedding ring Was caught in all the ornaments. So he was hoisted
into the air and the floor of the car went down, dropped out from under him, and the top
of the car squashed him. So it goes.
So I phoned this in, and the woman who was going to cut the stencil asked me. �What
did his wife say?�
�She doesn�t know yet,� I said. �It just happened.�
�Call her up and get a statement.�
�Tell her you're Captain Finn of the Police Department. Say you have some sad news.
Give her the news, and see what she says.'
So I did.