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Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Billy Pilgrim’ Turns 50

Edward “Joe” Crone Jr. was a gawky Dumbo-eared boy from the Rochester, New York, suburb of Brighton. Nicknamed “Goony” by the urchin wits of the Twelve Corners neighborhood, he was seemingly born to misplay right field. The highlight of his high school years was his participation in the Stamp Club. 

In 1943, Crone was studying engineering at Hobart College but envisioning a life in the ministry when his spindly form was sucked into the vortical hell of the Second World War, wherein he played the part of a private in the 106th Infantry Division.

Hopeless at the martial arts—a fellow soldier recalled that gear was always spilling from his unsecured pack—Crone was taken prisoner by the Germans in the aftermath of the Battle of the Bulge. He survived the Allied bombing of Dresden, which killed upwards of 25,000 civilians, thanks to his billeting in an underground meat locker. Yet having lived through one of the most horrific death-dealings of the Second World War, Crone died just weeks later of starvation and what a fellow Dresden prisoner called his “thousand mile stare.”

The crony-less Crone never did become a wealthy optometrist or befriend an obscure science-fiction writer named Kilgore Trout or copulate with a movie star named Montana Wildhack in a human zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. But his fictive doppelganger, U.S. Army chaplain’s assistant Billy Pilgrim, did all that and more in Kurt Vonnegut’s antiwar and pro-time travel novel Slaughterhouse-Five, that welcome staple of high-school English courses whose golden anniversary is upon us.

Naturally, Vonnegut, the “Christ-worshipping agnostic,” scion of the First Family of Indianapolis architecture, and slaughterhouse-mate of goofy Joe Crone, would produce a funhouse-mirror pacifist take on what those who never saw action call “the Good War.” As a student columnist for The Cornell Daily Sun he had vigorously defended antiwar figures of the day, including the most controversial:

Charles A. Lindbergh is one helluva swell egg, and we’re willing to fight for him in our own quaint way…The mud-slingers are good. They’d have to be to get people hating a loyal and sincere patriot. On second thought, Lindbergh is no patriot—to hell with the word, it lost it’s (sic) meaning after the Revolutionary War…The United States is a democracy, that’s what they say we’ll be fighting for. What a prize monument to that ideal is a cry to smother Lindy.

Kurt Vonnegut was unsmotherable. Not so poor Joe Crone. A neighbor later recalled him as “a skinny, lanky kid…[who] would probably be the last person I could ever visualize as an infantry soldier. Holy crow!” Crone traded his skimpy rations to his fellow Dresden POWs for little pieces of candy. “He was just so good-hearted,” recalled one ex-POW, that “everybody was beating him out of his food.”

“Joe was deeply religious and kind of childlike,” said Vonnegut. “The war was utterly incomprehensible to him, as it should have been.”

Billy Pilgrim is an inept soldier, hapless and self-abnegating, mocked and derided by his comrades. So Vonnegut waited until Crone’s parents had deceased before he revealed to Rochester newsman John Reinan the identity of Billy Pilgrim’s model. (Crone’s mother, according to friends, “just went bananas” upon receiving news of her only child’s death. She “never recovered.”)

Arriving in the Flour City in 1995 to deliver a lecture, Vonnegut, who had watched as Crone was buried in Dresden in cerecloths of white paper, was stunned to learn that his buddy Joe had come home. Crone’s parents had traveled to Germany in 1950 to disinter his body and rebury it in Rochester’s Mt. Hope Cemetery, whose “196 forested acres make one of the loveliest urban walks in New York State,” as Steve Huff writes in his necropolitan delight In Our Home Ground, a website guide to the graves of the literary in Upstate New York. 

The penny I placed upon Crone’s modest and weathered stele in early May was its first token of the season. (Leaving an FDR-head dime would have been cruel.) His parents rest at his side, and in the company of Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Frank Gannett, cinquain poet Adelaide Crapsey, and a cast of many thousands. 

Almost a quarter century ago, and 50 years after the firestorm of Dresden, Kurt Vonnegut stood alone before Joe Crone’s grave. His hosts watched him from a respectful distance. Vonnegut smoked a cigarette, talked to the headstone, wept, and finally took his leave. He said softly as he left the cemetery, “Well, that closes the book on World War II for me.”

And so it goes and so it goes and so it goes and so it goes. But where it’s going, no one knows. 

Bill Kauffman is the author of 11 books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.

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