February 7, 2000


The First Stone
A 21st Century plague?

Here Comes the Sun
Whatever happened to solar energy?

Juvenile Crime, Adult Time
Why are we so afraid of our kids?

Condemned No More
The greening of America's industrial wasteland.

God Bless You, Dr. Kervorkian
A special report from the Pearly Gates.

News & Views

A new interventionism.

A Terry Laban Cartoon

New Sensation
Vladimir Putin charms Russia.

Double Bind
A Colombian mayor is caught in the middle of the civil war.

Father Knows Best
Welfare reformers want to push marriage on poor moms.

Union Planet
Saturn workers vote out management collaborators.


The Flanders Files
Do-it-yourself disarmers win in court.

Frances Goldin: Agent for Change.


The Writing on the Wall
BOOKS: Public Murals and gang graffiti.

The Ventriloquist
BOOKS: John Ashbery and the Vivian Girls.

Sentimental Journey
FILM: Sweet and Lowdown and Cradle Will Rock.

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

By Kurt Vonnegut

My first near-death experience was an accident, a botched anesthesia during a triple bypass. I had listened to several people on TV talk shows who had gone down the blue tunnel to the Pearly Gates, and even beyond the Pearly Gates, or so they said, and then came back to life again. But I certainly wouldn't have set out on such a risky expedition on purpose, without first having survived one, and then planned another in cooperation with Dr. Jack Kevorkian and the staff at the state-of-the-art lethal injection execution facility at Huntsville, Texas.

I hope the following reports convey a sense of immediacy. They were taped in the tiled Huntsville death chamber only five minutes or so after I was unstrapped from the gurney. The tape recorder, incidentally, like the gurney, was the property of the good people of Texas, and was ordinarily used to immortalize the last words of persons about to make a one-way, all-expenses-paid trip to Paradise.

There will be no more round trips for me, barring another accident. For the sake of my family, I am trying to reinstate my health and life insurance policies, if possible. But other journalists, and perhaps even tourists, will surely follow the safe two-way path to Eternity I pioneered. I beg them to be content, as I learned to be, with interviews they are able to conduct on the hundred yards or so of vacant lot between the far end of the blue tunnel and the Pearly Gates.

To go through the Pearly Gates, no matter how tempting the interviewee on the other side, as I myself discovered the hard way, is to run the risk that crotchety Saint Peter, depending on his mood, may never let you out again. Think of how heartbroken your friends and relatives would be if, by going through the Pearly Gates to talk to Napoleon, say, you in effect committed suicide.

About belief or lack of belief in an afterlife: Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort.

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I'm dead. My German-American ancestors, the earliest of whom settled in our Middle West about the time of our Civil War called themselves "Freethinkers," which is the same sort of thing. My great grandfather Clemens Vonnegut wrote, for example, "If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?"

I myself have written, "If it weren't for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn't want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake."

I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great, spectacularly prolific writer and scientist Dr. Isaac Asimov in that essentially functionless capacity. At an AHA memorial service for my predecessor I said, "Isaac is up in Heaven now." That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. It rolled them in the aisles. Mirth! Several minutes had to pass before something resembling solemnity could be restored.

I made that joke, of course, before my first near-death experience--the accidental one.

So when my own time comes to join the choir invisible or whatever, God forbid, I hope someone will say, "He's up in Heaven now." Who really knows? I could have dreamed all this. My epitaph in any case? "Everything was beautiful. Nothing hurt." I will have gotten off so light, whatever the heck it is that was going on.

My late Uncle Alex Vonnegut, my father's kid brother, a Harvard-educated life insurance agent in Indianapolis who was well read and wise, was a humanist like all the rest of the family. What Uncle Alex found particularly objectionable about human beings in general was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy.

He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, "If this isn't nice, what is?"

I myself say that out loud at times of easy, natural bliss: "If this isn't nice, what is?" Perhaps others can also make use of that heirloom from Uncle Alex. I find it really cheers me up to keep score out loud that way.

During today's controlled near-death experience, I spoke to John Wesley Joyce, dead at 65, former cop and minor league ball player, owner of the Lion's Head Bar in Greenwich Village from 1966 until it went bust in 1996. His was the country's most famous hangout for heavy-drinking, non-stop-talking writers in America. One wag described the clientele as "drinkers with writing problems."

The late Mr. Joyce said it was the writers who made it their club of their own accord, which hadn't pleased him all that much. He said he installed a jukebox in the hopes it would interfere with their talking. But they kept coming. "They just had to talk a lot louder," he said.

During what has been almost a year of interviewing completely dead people, while only half dead myself, I asked Saint Peter again and again if I could meet a particular hero of mine. He is my fellow Hoosier, the late Eugene Victor Debs of Terre Haute, Indiana. He was five times the Socialist Party's candidate for president back when this country still had a strong Socialist Party.

And then, guess what, yesterday afternoon none other than Eugene Victor Debs, organizer and leader of the first successful strike against a major American industry, the railroads, was waiting for me at the far end of the blue tunnel. We hadn't met before. This great American died in 1926 at the age of 71 when I was only 4 years old.

I thanked him for words of his, which I quote again and again in lectures: "As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

He asked me how those words were received here on Earth in America nowadays. I said they were ridiculed. "People snicker and snort," I said. He asked what our fastest growing industry was. "The building of prisons," I said.

"What a shame," he said. And then he asked me how the Sermon on the Mount was going over these days. And then he spread his wings and flew away.

It is late in the afternoon of February 3, 1998. I have just been unstrapped from a gurney following another controlled near-death experience in this busy execution chamber in Huntsville, Texas.

For the first time in my career, I was actually on the heels of a celebrity as I made my way down the blue tunnel to Paradise. She was Karla Faye Tucker, the born-again murderer of two strangers with a pickax. Karla Faye was completely killed here, by the State of Texas, shortly after lunchtime.

Two hours later, on another gurney, I myself was made only three-quarters dead. I caught up with Karla Faye in the tunnel, about a 150 yards from the far end, near the Pearly Gates. Since she was dragging her feet, I hastened to assure her that there was no Hell waiting for her, no Hell waiting for anyone. She said that was too bad because she would be glad to go to Hell if only she could take the governor of Texas with her. "He's a murderer, too," said Karla Faye. "He murdered me."

Dr. Jack Kevorkian supervises my trip to near death and back. Your reporter from the Afterlife has to sign off now. Jack and I have been asked to vacate the lethal injection facility, which must be prepared for yet another total execution.

Speaking for both of us, I now say, ta-ta and adios. Or, as Saint Peter said to me, with a sly wink, when I told him I was on my last round-trip to Paradise: "See you later, Alligator."

Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You Dr. Kevorkian, from which this story was excerpted, has just been published by Seven Stories Press.



In These Times © 1999
Vol. 24, No. 4