Billy was born in 1922 in Ilium, New York, the only child of a barber there. He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth--tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola. He graduated from Ilium High School in the upper third of his class, and attended night sessions at the Ilium School of Optometry for one semester before being drafted for military service in the Second World War. His father died in a hunting accident during the war. So it goes.
Billy saw service with the infantry in Europe, and was taken prisoner by the Germans. After his honorable discharge from the Army in 1945, Billy again enrolled in the Ilium School of Optometry. During his senior year there, he became engaged to the daughter of the founder and owner of the school, and then suffered a mild nervous collapse.
This is the beginning of Billy Pilgrim's story in Slaughterhouse. Inauspicious. He's nothing special. Just one of those normal young guys who became a normal young soldier during World War II, went to Europe and saw normal human atrocities, and then came back home and tried to settle into a normal American life. The only problem is that the normal human brain doesn't really settle after experiencing normal trauma. Hence Billy's normal mild nervous collapse.
I'm not quite sure what normal is. I used to think that I had a normal life--married, wife, two kids (a daughter and a son), two cars, mortgaged home, two jobs. That sounds pretty normal, doesn't it? Yet, normal is relative. There are millions of men and women like Billy Pilgrim who went off to war, but is war ever normal? My wife has bipolar disorder, like millions of other people, but is bipolar ever normal? My life has been touched by addictions, like millions of other people's lives, but is addiction ever normal?
I think that, when things like war and mental illness and addiction become normal, there's something really wrong with the world. I'm not getting on a soapbox, and I have no answers to this conundrum. War has been around since Cain picked up that rock and bashed in Abel's skull. I'm sure mental illness and addiction have been slithering along since the Book of Genesis, too. Maybe Adam had a thing for certain mushrooms in the Garden of Eden.
Whether you believe Genesis is literal or metaphorical, one of the points of that book is that humankind's history is flawed. Full of violence and weakness and illness and jealousy. That was normal back at the beginning of the universe, and it's normal now. Just ask Billy Pilgrim.
I am going to have my normal Saturday. Maybe I'll play a game of Operation with my son. I'll go to church. Have pizza for dinner. Clean my bathroom tonight. Vacuum and sweep and mop. In between all this, I'll say a few prayers for people in my life who are facing challenges. Normal challenges: illness, unemployment, depression, addiction.
Saint Marty is grateful today for his normal Saturday breakfast: a Sausage McMuffin.