Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

Hocus Pocus is a set of short stories by Kurt Vonnegut, author of the famous story, Harrison Bergeron, and the novel Slaughterhouse-Five. I enjoyed the book and excerpted it below.

DURING JACK’S AND my cow year at the Point, I remember, which would have been our junior year at a regular college, we were ordered to walk a tour for 3 hours on the Quadrangle, in a military manner, as though on serious guard duty, in full uniform and carrying rifles. This was punishment for our having failed to report another cadet who had cheated on a final examination in Electrical Engineering. The Honor Code required not only that we never lie or cheat but that we snitch on anybody who had done those things. We hadn’t seen the cadet cheat. We hadn’t even been in the same class with him. But we were with him, along with one other cadet, when he got drunk in Philadelphia after the Army-Navy game.

He got so drunk he confessed that he had cheated on the exam the previous June. Jack and I told him to shut up, that we didn’t want to hear about it, and that we were going to forget about it, since it probably wasn’t true anyway. But the other cadet, who would later be fragged in Vietnam, turned all of us in. We were as corrupt as the cheater, supposedly, for trying to cover up for him. “Fragging,” incidentally, was a new word in the English language that came out of the Vietnam War. It meant pitching a fizzing fragmentation grenade into the sleeping quarters of an unpopular officer. I don’t mean to boast, but the whole time I was in Vietnam nobody offered to frag me.

AS FOR LIGHT history: The no longer useful clappers of the bells were hung in order of size, but unlabeled, on the wall of the foyer of this library, above the perpetual-motion machines. So it became a college tradition for upperclasspersons to tell incoming freshmen that the clappers were the petrified penises of different mammals. The biggest clapper, which had once belonged to Beelzebub, the biggest bell, was said to be the penis of none other than Moby Dick, the Great White Whale. Many of the freshmen believed it, and were watched to see how long they went on believing it, just as they had been watched when they were little, no doubt, to see how long they would go on believing in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus.

If Jason Wilder thought I was an unteacher, he should have heard Damon Stern! Then again, Stern never told the awful truth about supposedly noble human actions in recent times. Everything he debunked had to have transpired before 1950, say. So I happened to sit in on a class where he talked about Hitler’s being a devout Roman Catholic. He said something I hadn’t realized before, something I have since discovered most Christians don’t want to hear: that the Nazi swastika was intended to be a version of a Christian cross, a cross made out of axes. Stern said that Christians had gone to a lot of trouble denying that the swastika was just another cross, saying it was a primitive symbol from the primordial ooze of the pagan past. And the Nazis’ most valuable military decoration was the Iron Cross. And the Nazis painted regular crosses on all their tanks and airplanes. I came out of that class looking sort of dazed, I guess. Who should I run into but Kimberley Wilder? “What did he say today?” she said. “Hitler was a Christian,” I said. “The swastika was a Christian cross.” She got it on tape.

“Did you or did you not say that the United States was a crock of doo-doo?” said Wilder. I had to think a minute. This wasn’t something Kimberley had gotten on tape. “What I may have said,” I replied, “is that all nations bigger than Denmark are crocks of doo-doo, but that was a joke, of course.” I NOW STAND behind that statement 100 percent. All nations bigger than Denmark are crocks of doo-doo.

That was how ridiculous men in uniform had become in academic communities, even though a major part of Harvard’s and MIT’s income came from research and development having to do with new weaponry. I would have been dead if it weren’t for that great gift to civilization from the Chemistry Department of Harvard, which was napalm, or sticky jellied gasoline.

As I said at the beginning of this book, if I had been a professional soldier back then, I probably would have crucified people without thinking much about it, if ordered to do so.

THE LATE UNICYCLIST Professor Damon Stern asked me one time if I thought there would be a market for religious figures of Christ riding a unicycle instead of spiked to a cross. It was just a joke. He didn’t want an answer, and I didn’t give him one. Some other subject must have come up right away. But I would tell him now, if he hadn’t been killed while trying to save the horses, that the most important message of a crucifix, to me anyway, was how unspeakably cruel supposedly sane human beings can be when under orders from a superior authority.

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