by Rob Thacker
A couple of decades back, at a quiet mountain crossroads, the expatriate eggheads driving our nation's nuclear future collided head-on with a pickup load of deeply entrenched hillbillyism and a vanful of spaced, counterculture goofiness in one of the more colorful unsung accidents of contemporary American history. I was there. Perhaps some cluster of white crosses rises from a weedy highwayside, maybe somewhere up Bloody 11W, bearing mute testimony to events distant now in time and space.
East Tennessee. The '70s. The hills were alive with the sound of outsized stereo speakers, woofers blown by "Smoke on the Water" one too many times. The house that had starred as James Agee's childhood home in the movie adaptation of A Death in the Family was now The Stateroom, a druggy dive on the cusp of becoming ghetto HQ for a mongrel race born of that aforementioned collision, deeply committed one and all to taking youthful stupidity to a higher plane. Most were well baptized in the loopy gospel of Kurt Vonnegut: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse Five, Mother Night. These were the access points, for me at least, the "leak" to some better understanding of a distinctly localized paranormal phenomenon dubbed Wiener Mind by the man, David O'Dell.
Impossible to define, Wiener Mind is best understood as a heightened sense that God is quite often screwing with your mind, and that there is ironic entertainment value to be derived from this knowledge. This is a Wiener Mind Occurrence.
Fresh pan-fried trout. Mmmm mmm. There was a great place back then called the Trout House, in the mountain mecca of Gatlinburg. For all I know, it's still there. One evening, I got it in my head to go to the Trout House, so I pulled out the phone book and began leafing through the white pages. Never did find the Trout House; what I found instead was Kilgore Trout's home number.
Kilgore Trout. Now anyone familiar with Kurt Vonnegut's work knows Kilgore Trout. He wrote the science fiction epic Venus on the Halfshell. This was classic Wiener Mind: God was clearly screwing with me.
The student paper at the university had only recently run a substantial article on the little-known fact that Kurt Vonnegut attended the University of Tennessee just prior to being drafted into World War II. A few short months after he wandered the Hill an anonymous student, he found himself rolling into Dresden, Germany, an anonymous prisoner of war.
I contemplated the listing I had stumbled upon. I considered the information of Vonnegut's Volunteer moment. What did it all mean? Had he met this Kilgore Trout while at UT, perhaps on some mission into the surrounding hills to score moonshine, a popular student activity to this day? Had Kilgore Trout been some free market mountain entrepreneur? Or, like me, had Vonnegut simply stumbled upon the name and been struck by it, enough so that he would remember it years later when his writing took wing?
Looked like I would never know.
Years later, the Carter Era. Lamar Alexander is in the Governor's Mansion in Nashville, and I am a fledgling resident of Manhattan, a junior art director at a small ad agency.
And I am on my lunch break. It's the East Side, a quiet side street in the 40s, not far from the UN, a crisp early autumn day. And that grizzled older man in the light suit, tie askew, waiting as a yappy lap dog does its business? That's Kurt Vonnegut. I know him from his book jacket photos.
I pass him by, paralyzed by the astonishment that comes with seeing in the physical present someone you know only in the abstract context of "fame." In a little more than a year, Mark David Chapman would steel-reinforce the glass wall around that fame, while simultaneously popularizing the misconception that The Catcher in the Rye prescribes assassination as fame's only antidote. Thanks, Mark, for making exchanges like the following improbable at best for the foreseeable future.
I continued on my way. But Kurt Vonnegut was like a god to me, and I suddenly found myself standing before him as his shaggy white dog pooped politely at the curb.
Like a latter-day Mark Twain, he looked with taciturn gravity over the tops of his glasses at me.
"Mmm?" I dove in.
"Mr. Vonnegut, I'm from Knoxville, Tennessee, and a few years ago I was looking through the phone book for a restaurant's number when I came across a listing for a Kilgore Trout."
He raised a bushy eyebrow, contemplating me mutely as I caught my breath and crashed onward.
"Now I know that you went to the University of Tennessee for a short while back just before you were drafted into World War II, and I thought maybe you'd run across Kilgore Trout back then and used his name for the character...the character of Kilgore Trout."
Kurt Vonnegut looked at me a moment more, and then he smiled.
"Heavens, no," he chuckled. "I got the idea for Kilgore Trout's name from Theodore Sturgeon's."
So much for deductive reasoning.
"I was down in Tennessee recently," he continued as his dog finished up. "Met your governor. Why, he's as pretty as Pat Boone."
That is Wiener Mind. And so it goes.
(Rob Thacker lives with his wife and kids in the Northeast Corridor.)