“No moment is wasted if you pay attention and learn the lessons contained in every experience.”
Sometime in the late 1940s, Kurt Vonnegut returned home after surviving the bombing of Dresden, Germany, during he which he hid in a slaughterhouse as a prisoner of war.
His family was stunned by his appearance. He was gaunt and malnourished, but as he recounted his experiences in the war, there was no denying how articulate he had become.
Now the challenge was to re-assimilate himself into society. As his family advised him, he was to be patient with other civilians, who barely had an inkling of what he had gone through.
“Oh, hell,” said Kurt. “I want to be a civilian myself. I’m sick and tired of being in the infantry…I’ve had enough of it. And I’m goddamned sick and tired of the whole damnfool bloody mess.”
As with many of the citizen soldiers who served in the war, they were only ordinary young boys. Most of them were college kids, drafted into the army and flung into partaking in the traumatic horrors of the war. Many didn’t survive, but the ones who did mostly wanted to forget the past years in the war, as though they had never happened at all.
Kurt resumed his peacetime life where he had paused, and that meant getting married to his sweetheart, Jane. He had also gone back to college, while balancing a job as a night reporter for a newspaper.
When Jane became pregnant with their first child, Kurt decided that he wasn’t making enough to fend for his family. He quit school and took a job in the Public Relations department in General Electric, where his brother Bernard worked as a leading scientist in the Research Lab.
Kurt and Jane moved to Schenectady, New York, but Kurt knew he wasn’t happy being where he was. Living in a community where most of his neighbors worked in GE, where the local sports teams and leagues were sponsored under GE, where social life revolved around GE events and gatherings, and where GE headlines made the front page of the newspaper every day, how could he not feel as though the company had his soul.
Secretly, he harbored ambitions of being a novelist, but only dared to share them with Jane. She never stopped encouraging him to go after his dreams, even as they were preparing to be new parents.
As biographer Ginger Strand wrote, “Jane had always said he was really a writer. He had insisted that he was just a regular Joe. Now, as he pretended to be a regular Joe, he was beginning to realize it wasn’t what he wanted to be at all.”
And with that, Kurt wrote press releases by day, and at night, he wrote his short stories. His early short stories were mostly humorous, one of the earliest being Mnemonics, a story about a man who uses mnemonics to remember facts in his job, and has feelings for his secretary. As his workload grows, he could remember everything but her.
In the Research Lab, Bernard was involved in a series of cloud-seeding experiments, which were called Project Cirrus. This meant that they were able to artificially cause rain by releasing silver iodide into clouds. It was an experiment that might prove useful for making drought-stricken areas bloom.
Meanwhile, rejection slips piled up as Kurt attempted to submit his stories to magazines. Jane’s faith in him didn’t waver, and to bolster his spirit, they placed candles in three miniature wine bottles, one that spelled “Keep”, the other “On”, and the last “Trying”.
While it was not uncommon to dream of making a living as a writer, Kurt had the discipline to see it through. At General Electric, he had climbed towards a new position as a writer in the magazine division. A perk of this position was that he was able to meet editors, and even bring up his own work.
Kurt kept plotting his escape from his “goddamn nightmare job” and tried to find new angles to write his stories from. The revelation finally came.
Back in the lab, Bernard and his team started realizing the butterfly effect of their experiments. Their silver iodide generator triggered unpredictable changes in the weather and caused not only thunderstorms, but massive floods in the experimented areas. They were strongly against using cloud seeding as a weapon.
On the other hand, Kurt went back to his typewriter. Inspired by the events in General Electric, Kurt turned to science fiction in his writing. His first published short story was Report on the Barnhouse Effect, about a professor’s telekinesis ability and the government’s attempt to weaponize him. He eventually published his first novel, Player Piano, which is a story about a totally-mechanized dystopia, where human workers are no longer needed.
Science fiction would be a huge component in many of Kurt’s stories, and it could be traced back to his time in General Electric. In a 1973 interview, Vonnegut was asked why he chose science fiction as the backdrop for his first novel. His response was, “There was no avoiding it, since the General Electric Company was science fiction.”
It was science fiction indeed. Ultimately, Bernard was crestfallen to see his creation being used as a war weapon. During the Vietnam War, US planes supposedly flew over 2,600 cloud-seeding missions in Indochina. Because in war, soldiers don’t just fight other soldiers. They fight the weather. And in this case, heavy rain fazed the movements of troops and their supply lines.
Understand that every moment serves us in some form. Even when you’re in a situation where you’re just wishing for time to pass by, it is likely that it’s shaping you in ways that you might not even realize, at least in the present.
For Kurt Vonnegut, he might not have liked his job at General Electric, but in reflection it was a seminal experience that shaped his worldview and writing style. Neither was his time in Dresden anywhere near pleasant , but it did lead him to write one of the greatest antiwar novels, Slaughterhouse Five.
Plus, his brother Bernard and the cloud seeding experiment was very much on his mind when he wrote some of his best-known stories such as Cat’s Cradle. In the story, Felix Hoenikker’s evil isn’t in inventing ice-nine, but in not warning other people about its dangers. Because as creators, we’re morally obligated to help people understand the dangers of our creations as much as we do. This moral obligation was exactly what Kurt had seen his brother carry during his time at General Electric.
In my own life, I initially couldn’t help but feel as though I had wasted a lot of time and money in my Electronics Engineering degree when I decided to switch to Marketing. But as my lecturer told me, “It’s not a loss at all. Because you’re able to think and see things differently than your peers.”
So, as a takeaway from this article, think about a situation that you wish you never had to go through, or a loss that you wish you never had to take. Think about how it has made you uniquely you, think of how much you would not have grown and learned if they hadn’t happened.
You just might realize that, hey, nothing in life is wasted.