Unstuck in Time With Billy Pilgrim

Awakened by his presence, I was startled but not frightened. Somehow he seemed familiar and non-threatening.  He stood there in the dim light of a single energy-saving bulb from my reading lamp.  I put aside my dog-eared, yellowed copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House Five. A Children’s Crusade, arose from my chair, and approached him for a closer look.

He was tall, gaunt, and had a rather strange shape.  Much like a 6 foot-3 inch Coke bottle.  His age was undeterminable, his hair thin and uncombed, his clothing disheveled, his bespectacled, thin face nearly expressionless, and his discomfort was obvious as he shuffled side to side, wringing his hands and sighing.  “Are you Billy Pilgrim?”  I asked, doing my level best to catch his nervous gaze.

He seemed surprised, looked me in the eyes, and replied, “Yes, yes, I am.  How did you know?”

I’d just fallen asleep while re-reading, for the umpteenth time, the classic Vonnegut novel in which the fictional character named Billy Pilgrim was created back in 1969.  The man in my living room was a ringer for the Billy Pilgrim who lived in my mind.  Although I was well aware that this person was a purely fictional character, I decided to go with the flow and hang out with a figment of Kurt Vonnegut’s vivid imagination for a while.  My other option was to kick him out and go to bed, but I assumed that I was already asleep and dreaming the whole scenario anyway.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Billy, the following is the first paragraph of Slaughter House Five. A Children’s Crusade:


Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.

Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day.  He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941.  He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963.  He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.

“Look, Billy…”  I said, “I’ve got to ask you a couple of questions.  Are you still unstuck in time?  And how did you end up in my living room?”

He answered without hesitation.

When I first became unstuck in time, I lived my life willy-nilly, never knowing whether, in the next moment, I’d be a child or an old man.  I became weary of experiencing my own murder, my marriage, my capture by the Germans and the fire-bombing of Dresden, and so forth.  Gradually I learned to control the time travel, and am no longer limited to the confines of my own lifetime.  I’ve watched humans develop from primordial slime, and I’ve witnessed the end.  I’m in your living room because I’ve watched you too.  I’ve read your articles, and know that you’re doing what you can to change the course of history for the better.  Perhaps you’d like to take a short trip with me?

Billy told me to grab his shirt tail and to hold on.  We walked out the front door and became unstuck.  In the distance, the familiar shape of Sandia Mountain loomed over the Rio Grande Valley.  Behind us the Sangre de Cristo Range.  But my house and the little city of Santa Fe were nowhere to be found.  The sky was a crystal blue, the likes of which I’ve never seen, and we appeared to be at the edge of a village.  Distant laughter of children filled the air with joy.  The Santa Fe River flowed nearby, and vast fields of corn, beans, and squash decorated the landscape.

“Where are we?  What year is this?”  I asked Billy.

“You can let go of my shirt tail for now.”  he suggested.  “It’s about 1400 A.D. give or take.  This is one of 98 inter-connected Indigenous villages in this area of what’s now northern New Mexico.  You would know them as Pueblos.  Take a look at this.” he said, picking up what appeared to be a stone and handing it to me.  “Turquoise.  A pretty little rock that made this area one of the wealthiest regions in the Western Hemisphere.  Gold and silver were widely mined throughout the Americas, but only used for trinkets and jewelry.  Turquoise was as close to currency as the original inhabitants ever had.  And this country is rich with it.”

As I stuffed the pretty blue rock in my pocket, Billy’s demeanor became dour.  “Take ahold of my shirt.”  he ordered.  “Let’s come unstuck and take a look at this spot in 1620.”

In the blink of an eye, we travelled more than two centuries.  Crystal blue skies were choked with smoke.  Nearby a cornfield burned.  Angry male voices screaming, then sinister laughter, and taunts in what sounded like Spanish.  A village lay in waste, children crying and women wailing, with the deadly resonance of gunfire completing the picture.  I stumbled, falling face-first upon a cold body.  A slaughtered child, and another.  The body of a woman, still clutching a crying baby.  Eyes focusing through the acrid smoke discovered an orgy of death and destruction.  I was horrified.

Shuddering, convulsing, and vomiting, I found my feet.  “What’s happening here?”  I demanded, beseeching Billy through my tears.

“Scorched earth policy.”  he said simply.

Well underway here and in hundreds of other places across this great but unprepared civilization.  You were probably taught in school that the Western Hemisphere was inhabited by roving bands of savages.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Native American civilization was advanced, in many ways, beyond anything Europe had to offer.  Europeans were the savages.  They coveted what they found here, and stopped at nothing to obtain it for their own.  The French, English, Spanish, and Portuguese, all with the blessings, papal bull, and encouragement from the Holy Jackals in Rome, murdered, raped, and pillaged their way across this relative paradise with seemingly drunken abandon.  No Native inhabitant was safe.  Anybody in the way of progress and profit was dispatched and disposed of.  The United States perfected the policy, turning it into a bloody art form.

I was struck by Billy’s seeming lack of emotion as he surveyed the scene and continued:

I could take you down into ancient Mesoamerica to see the world’s biggest pyramids, bustling cities, and astoundingly advanced cultures.  We could visit any one of thousands of genocidal sites across the land, where the bodies of Indigenous people are piled high alongside their burning villages and crops.  We could watch the hordes of European settlers in the process of taking scalps by the hundreds for bounties paid by local governments.  Or we could take the time to survey the vast network of roads and trade routes which criss-cross the Americas, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from Atlantic to Pacific.  We could cry for the vast buffalo herds, slaughtered by the millions, stripped of their hides, and left to rot in the sun.

Billy turned his gaze to me.  He’d seen these things over and over again.  A single tear welled up beneath his glasses as he continued.

Native Americans have been screwed in more ways than a double-jointed hooker.  90% of the original hundred million were eliminated, but it was just a template for what would follow world-wide.  The U.S. Military was developed primarily to fight and kill Indians, and now in the early 21st Century, its bloody excursions are always into what they refer to as “Indian Country”.  Turned out that the Great American Holocaust was so successful, the profiteers decided to continue it world-wide.  Now grab my shirt and hold on tight, no matter what happens.

Being unstuck in time and space was amazingly seamless and smooth.  In the blink of an eye we were in Vietnam in 1968.  The Pueblo massacre we’d just witnessed was being repeated and carried out in a jungle village.  Screaming, wailing, gunfire, blood, bodies piled in a ditch.  A dead woman still clutching a crying baby.  A U.S. Soldier grabbing the baby by the leg, flinging it back into the pile of bodies, and blasting it full of lead.  Burning crops and livestock.  Disposable people in the way of progress.  Indian Country.

The next few minutes, hours, or days went by in a flash and a blur.  Being unstuck was new to me, so I was slightly disoriented.  Libya 2011.  Korea 1951.  Philippines 1900.  Wounded Knee 1890.  Nicaragua 1920.  Iraq 2003.  Panama 1990.  Syria 2015.  “Seen enough yet?”  Billy asked.  “There’s lots more.  Tens of thousands more scenes like these.  Seen enough dead babies, burning villages?  Smelled enough death?  Been in Indian Country long enough?”

I was becoming numb to the misery, agony, murder, and destruction.  I’d stopped crying.  “Yes Billy.  Please, take me home now.”

“Not quite yet.”  he ordered.  “Two more stops along the way.  Let’s see your country at its very worst before I take you home and tuck you in.  Hold on to my shirt tail!”

Gray.  An incinerated city scape in shades of gray.  A sea of rubble.  What appeared to be burned, but featureless bodies all around.  Muffled, gray moaning from a few, unfortunate survivors.  Acrid, gray smell of death in the gray air.  “Let me guess.”  I said cringing, “1945.  Either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.”

Surveying the scene, Billy answered.  “Hiroshima.  But Nagasaki looks just like this.  The final culmination of the Big One.  World War II.  Nastiest war ever started by your country, and that’s a high bar.”

“My country?  I thought you were born in Ilium, New York in 1922.  And, in fairness, didn’t Hitler start World War II?”

Billy Pilgrim gave me that same look Mrs. Weir gave me in the second grade when I answered her question with “4 minus 2 equals 6”.  I must have slept through introduction to subtraction.  He replied with an eye-roll and a sigh.

In fairness, I’m a fictional character.  You’re the U.S. Citizen.  You bear the shame for what your country has done, and the responsibility for what it is doing, and will do.  In fairness, Hitler rose to power because he was a profitable trading partner with Wall Street.  He was allowed to carry out his mayhem because the U.S. Military and Wall Street thrive on mayhem.  Your country  turned a blind eye to the Holocaust because Standard Oil, IBM, and Ford Motors were rocking and rolling.  The U.S.A. manipulated Hitler’s war, encouraged it, then rode in at the eleventh hour to claim the victory and the spoils.  Pearl Harbor was instigated by Roosevelt, and the bombs fell with his full knowledge beforehand.  The carnage you now see was just Truman’s test of the newest American Military weaponry, and a dire warning for the rest of the world that the U.S.A. was fully in charge, and would take control of every resource, every country, of everything.  EVERYTHING!.  Do you understand, John?

“Let me go home now.”  I pleaded.

“Take ahold of my shirt, John.  One more stop before we return to your easy life in the belly of the beast.”

My first impression was that we were still in Hiroshima.  All was gray.  Destruction was everywhere.  “What year is this?” I asked my host.  His Coke bottle shape extended an arm, pointing to a gray, tattered protrusion about a block away.  “Billy, what year is this?”  I asked again.  He refused to answer, stubbornly and simply pointing his finger, as he walked toward the only landmark on an otherwise barren, gray pile of rubble and burned bodies.  I realized then that there was a difference between here and Hiroshima.  There were no moaning survivors.

It was large and apparently nearly square, although it seemed to taper inward as it rose from the carnage.  We reached our goal with great difficulty, the route being littered with debris of both organic and inorganic origin.  The base of the only item which rose above the gray destruction appeared to be about fifty feet across, and its height was about identical.  As I touched it, my impression was that it was made of granite or marble.  Then it hit me.  The Washington Monument.  There was no doubt.  I vomited again.  And again.

“You’ve got to tell me Billy.  Is this the future, or can we still change the course of history?  Do I hear Jim Morrison singing “The End?”

His expression was lifeless as he answered.

I’m not the fucking Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, John.  Your government has been itching to take down Russia and China for a long, long time.  They’re the last great civilizations standing in the way of complete world domination.  Russia has a nuclear weapon fondly known by the U.S. Military as Satan II.  Three of them could reduce the East coast of The United States to rubble.  One could take out Texas.  The jackals you’ve allowed to run your country will stop at nothing until they own everything.  EVERYTHING John!  Everything.  You’re not stupid.  You weren’t born yesterday.  Figure it out.  I have no way of knowing whether anyone can change history.  This scenario may be inevitable, but if I were you, I’d certainly take a stab at changing it.  The Children’s Crusade must continue.  Now take ahold of my shirt tail.

I awoke in my chair, put aside my copy of Slaughter House Five.  A Children’s Crusade, downed a cold glass of water, and began to undress for bed.  Helluva bad dream.  I felt a lump in the pocket of my cargo pants, reached inside, and found treasure.  Turquoise.

So it goes.

• Author’s note:  Thanks to Kurt Vonnegut for the loan of Billy Pilgrim.  Thanks also to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz for An Indigenous Peoples’ History of The United States.

John R. Hall, having finally realized that no human being in possession of normal perception has a snowball's chance in hell of changing the course of earth's ongoing trophic avalanche, now studies sorcery with the naguals don Juan Matus and don Carlos Castaneda in the second attention. If you're patient, you might just catch him at his new email address, but if his assemblage point happens to be displaced, it could take a while. That address is: drachman2358@outlook.com Read other articles by John R..