Ginger Strand finds out what the hell Kurt Vonnegut was doing in the Osage Hills in 1939.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Oklahoma Eden

by Ginger Strand

05/03/2016

On a warm day in December, Woolaroc ranch hands are rounding up the bison for the annual inspection and culling. A stampede of black fur and rolling eyes is thundering through the paddock when a bull and a cow, calf in tow, make a break for it. The trio bolts across the ranch road and into the fields beyond, as if escaping from a painting by Frederic Remington. As if saying, “We are free.” As if saying, “This is God’s country.” Frank Phillips might have planned it this way, a self-reliant family of buffalo to represent his beloved Wild West. It’s what the Okie oil baron—founder of Phillips 66—monumentalized by building Woolaroc Ranch.

The bisonic getaway occurs less than a mile from the Woolaroc gatehouse.  “Uncle Frank’s Rules of the Ranch,” reads a sign just past the pay booth. Rule one: “The West Is Wild.” Except it’s not, of course, not here, in this 3,700-acre playground, this cowboy fantasy carved from the rolling earth of Osage country. Every Tulsa school kid knows Woolaroc—Woods, Lake, Rock—that staple of fourth-grade field trips, that blessed day free of classroom and cafeteria. And if the lake is man-made, the fish are stocked, the buffalo purchased—four new ones recently from Ted Turner!—the teepees built by white men and the “haunted grove” frankly phony, does that make it any less thrilling when the driver hits the brakes because a 12-point buck elk is staring down your school bus with aggression and a hint of amour?

One person thought not: Kurt Vonnegut. On the eve of World War II, Kurt and two teenaged buddies spent an idyllic four days at Woolaroc, the capstone of a road trip through the West. It was perhaps the last week of innocent happiness in Kurt Vonnegut’s life. When contacted, the folks at Woolaroc were amazed to hear it. They had no idea that among their illustrious guests was the author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, the man who introduced the concept of a karass into the culture. They were in Vonnegut’s karass, and they didn’t even know it.

Their surprise makes sense. Woolaroc’s long list of notable visitors—Henry Ford! Tom Mix! Rudy Vallee! Cardinal Spellman!—seems to hail from an entirely different era than the one that brought forth Vonnegut. It’s difficult to imagine that icon of antiwar humanism, that irreverent and irascible leftie, falling for tales of Tom Mix. And while Vonnegut wrote and spoke frequently about his Indianapolis upbringing, his wartime experience in Europe, his time at G.E. in Schenectady, and his idyllic childhood summers at Lake Maxinkuckee, he never publicly mentioned that trip to the West and Woolaroc. Yet his diary of it—forgotten in an attic for decades and recently acquired by the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington—is vintage Vonnegut. It’s funny, observant, sarcastic, heartfelt, and rollicking, a combination few besides Vonnegut ever pulled off. And it reveals the special position of Oklahoma in Vonnegut’s mental map.

*

In the summer of 1939, Kurt Vonnegut, George Jeffrey, and Bud Gillespie were rising seniors at Shortridge High. Somehow they had convinced Bryant Gillespie, Bud’s dad, to lend them a Packard coupe. They had a rifle and a letter from Kurt’s father, directed to local police chiefs, declaring them to be good boys. Their itinerary was based on a trip Kurt had taken two summers earlier: Hillis Howie’s Prairie Trek, in which the Indiana educator shepherded a group of boys through Colorado and the Southwest, teaching them to camp and live off the land.

The trio called themselves The Rover Boys, and indeed they lived like boys in a story. They camped their way through Colorado, where they had to flee from drunken workers on strike. They collected the skulls and arrowheads for The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. They explored abandoned mining camps and Native American ruins, toured history museums, and attended park ranger nature talks. They rented a canoe and tried to paddle it. They ogled local girls and chatted with cowhands. Bud obsessed over finding the perfect ten-gallon hat until Kurt and George dragged him into a souvenir shop and made him buy one.

Their trip took them through the Rockies, down to Cortez, Colorado, and then to Gallup, New Mexico. They paid a visit to Howie’s New Mexico camp, Cottonwood Gulch, where they regaled the current crop of Prairie Trekkers with their impressively autonomous adventures. Then they headed east, through Albuquerque and Santa Fe, dropping down into El Paso, where they took a quick visit to Juarez, Mexico. Vonnegut bought cartons of cheap cigarettes for his family. From there they hit Carlsbad Caverns on their way to Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Woolaroc was scheduled as the grand finale. Bud’s family owned an oil well in Oklahoma; his dad, Bryant Gillespie, made the arrangement with Frank Phillips. On the road, the three friends even took up the habit of calling the oil baron “Uncle Frank.” After a month of sleeping on the ground and eating beans from cans, their visit to Uncle Frank’s would be a godsend: real beds, good food, and all the swimming, riding, and fishing they liked—the perfect Wild West adventure, a dream come true for cowboy-story-crazed kids.

*

You wouldn’t know from Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction that he was obsessed with the Wild West as a kid. Like tales of space flight and time travel, Western stories generally feature a conquering hero alone in the wilderness. Vonnegut wasn’t much for wilderness, and he didn’t care a bit for conquering heroes. He was far more interested in community and collectivity, in the ways that people succeed or fail in helping one another through life.

“Cowboy stories and policeman stories end in shoot-outs,” Vonnegut told his Paris Review interviewers in 1977, “because shoot-outs are the most reliable mechanisms for making such stories end.” His novels are nothing if not self-conscious un-writings of such tales. Characters who believe in mythologized versions of the world, like Roland Weary trying to bend his war experiences to the format of the three musketeers in Slaughterhouse-Five, are fodder for dark comedy. It’s no accident that Howard W. Campbell Jr., the double agent who performs his role as a Nazi too well in Mother Night, appears dressed in “a white ten-gallon hat and black cowboy boots decorated with swastikas and stars” when he attempts to recruit Americans to the Nazi cause in Slaughterhouse-Five. Mythic roles—lone cowboy, artistic genius, self-made man—too easily slip into fascism, into treating other people as minor characters, bit players in a great man’s glorious tale.

The most thorough debunking of the myth of the individualist hero is Dwayne Hoover in Breakfast of Champions, whose lousy brain chemistry causes him to believe the premise of a Kilgore Trout story that is the myth’s reductio ad absurdum. Convinced that he is the only conscious creature in the universe, Dwayne Hoover runs amok, damaging all the people who might have saved him. They’re only robots after all, bit players in his lonely biography.

“This was the reason Americans shot each other so often,” Vonnegut tells us in his own voice. “It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.”

*

One Sunday, the 27th of August, The Rover Boys approached the ranch. After some trouble finding the place, they arrived at a huge gate. A bell sounded and a small man came out of what they thought was the lodge. His outfit—red silk shirt, neckerchief, huge hat, cowboy boots—couldn’t have pleased Bud more. They thought he must be Uncle Frank, but he turned out to be the gatekeeper. They had four more miles to drive before arriving at the lodge. All along the road, they gawked at the buffalo, zebras, elk, and gnus in the fields flanking the road.

The massive lodge struck them momentarily dumb. When the housekeeper, Mrs. Zuhlke, let them in, they felt self-conscious about their grubby, road-ravaged appearances. They were shown to the guest rooms upstairs. Each room, Vonnegut notes, had its very own bathroom. “Beside my bed,” he reports, “I noted a ‘phone and a series of buttons with museum, bath house, kitchen, stable, library, etc., upon it—ho, hum!”

Mrs. Zuhlke summoned them to lunch—buffalo—and informed them that the Phillips’s were in Europe, and the three of them were the only guests. Given free run of the well-stocked ice box, each boy drank at least five Cokes that first afternoon. Back then the ranch was only open to tourists on Sundays, and Kurt joined the sightseers for a tour of the museum. After that, he and George lay in the upstairs loft, smoking Mr. Phillips’ cigars and blowing smoke rings over the heads of the tourists, who were only allowed downstairs. Then they went into Mrs. Phillips bedroom and lay on her bearskin rug, admiring the huge collection of photos of Woolaroc guests that hangs on her walls to this day. Dinner that night was wild turkey.

The next day was even better. Bud and Kurt went riding with the stablehand, a “wiry little cowhand that used to be a jocky.” Bud wore his cowboy hat and boots and a pair of chaps he found in the lodge. Kurt dug up a pajama top, which he topped with an Osage beaded jacket, a costume he himself found ludicrous. Lunch was unidentifiable game, and then they went fishing. After dinner, Bud and Kurt went riding by moonlight. The ranch felt like a fairyland, and Kurt “felt quite at peace with the world.” When they got back to the lodge, George was smoking a cigar and a pipe at the same time.

On Tuesday, Bud and George went to Bartlesville with Mr. Zuhlke and toured the Phillips’s town house, but Kurt stayed behind and wrote in his journal. They ate the fish they had caught for lunch, and in the afternoon cowboy-obsessed Bud dressed up and went for another ride, while George and Kurt went fishing, then came back to the lodge and listened to news on the radio. Disaster loomed: Hitler was threatening to invade Poland on September 1 if his demands concerning the Polish Corridor were not met. After dinner, Bud went out riding again, leaving Kurt and George “to better our minds with some of the spicier stuff in Mrs. Phillip’s library.” George read French crime stories and Kurt read tales of the frontier.

*

Oklahoma only appears four times in Vonnegut’s novels, each time apparently calculated to get a laugh. In Mother Night, a man from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, writes to ask Howard Campbell, the Nazi double agent, why he “didn’t get out of Jew York and come live in God’s country.” In Breakfast of Champions, Kilgore Trout hitches a ride with a trucker moving “seventy-eight thousand pounds of olives to Tulsa, Oklahoma.” Slapstick’s post-republic America is divided into fiefdoms, including one governed by the Duke of Oklahoma. And Jailbird’s narrator is fired by Assistant Secretary of the Army Shelton Walker, an Oklahoma businessman, and owner of “the largest tire distributorship in the state.”

The only time Oklahoma appears in the works of Kurt Vonnegut as a setting, rather than a punch line, is in the posthumously published short story “Armageddon in Retrospect.” In that story, a folksy Oklahoma oil baron named Jessie Pine reads the works of Dr. Selig Schildknecht, of Dresden, Germany. Schildknecht’s astonishing claim was that “the only unified theory of mental illness that seemed to fit all the facts was the most ancient one… that the mentally ill were possessed by the Devil.” Pine, who has always been embarrassed at his own lack of education, is delighted to find an erudite scholar confirming his own belief that “onliest thing in the world that’s wrong with folks is that the Devil’s got aholt of some of  ‘em.”

The oil baron founds the Jessie L. Pine Institute of Demonology in Verdigris, Oklahoma, and from then on “every spurt from half the oil wells in Oklahoma was a nail in the Devil’s coffin.” Only one of his employees, however, takes the mission seriously: Dr. Gorman Tarbell. A retired physicist, Dr. Tarbell shows up one day and takes on the challenge of finding and trapping the Devil. After years of experimentation, he succeeds in summoning the Devil by conducting a black mass in a ruined church outside of Schenectady, New York. When the Devil appears, he possesses Dr. Tarbell, so his assistant, the narrator, must trap the doctor himself in his own windowless, devil-proof cell. But at the end of the story, we learn the narrator’s name: Lucifer J. Mephisto. So perhaps the Devil has not been trapped, but has cleverly disposed of the one man who came close to tracking him down.

It seems strange that this story is set in Oklahoma, where the teenaged Kurt Vonnegut lived out a cowboy idyll. Or maybe, on looking closer, it’s not strange at all.

*

On day four, Kurt and George rode, swam, and drank an endless stream of sodas, but Bud was in the saddle morning,noon, and night. The other two were sure he must be sore, but that night Bud subjected his corpus to more cowboy fantasies. George and Kurt were left to hang out in Uncle Frank’s library, perusing an anthropological tome called Sex Life Among the Primitive Tribes. When that grew dull, they drank beer and began feeding the player piano the ranch’s extensive collection of music rolls. George was smoking three cigars simultaneously, and Kurt had “succeeded in paving the floor about the piano with roller music,” when a group of strangers arrived: Uncle Frank Phillips’ private physician and some guests who were being shown the ranch. Taking in the disorder and the smoke, not to mention Sex Life Among the Primitive Tribes, the doctor and his guests beat a hasty retreat.

Woolaroc still has that player piano. It’s a Steinway Duo-Art grand encased in bark, using a method invented at the ranch. Woolaroc lore has it that before he had it veneered, Phillips shocked his guests one night by casually striking a match on the instrument. That Woolaroc story seems like one Kurt would have appreciated. Player Piano was, of course, the title of his first novel, the instrument symbolizing a technocratic view of the world that treats human beings as inefficient robots instead of seeing each one as precious. As Rabo Karabekian declares in the climax of Breakfast of Champions, every person should be seen as “one vertical, unwavering band of light,” a consciousness sacred and pure. Not to see every person that way is to subscribe to the worldview that makes atrocities possible, nightmares like Hiroshima and Vietnam and the firebombing of Dresden, where demonologist Dr. Schildknecht was born.

On Thursday, August 31, The Rover Boys drove home. As they pounded the road for Indiana, their car radio informed them that Hitler had invaded Poland. World War II had begun. The devil was at loose in the world, a devil that would end up trapping Vonnegut in his own windowless room in a ruined cathedral, the Dresden basement called Slaughterhouse 5.

Once home, Kurt wept to think that “the neatest thing that ever happened to me was at an end.” And he laughed as he reviewed their adventures. Overall, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever be that happy again.

And of course, he wouldn’t.


Originally appeared in This Land: Spring 2016.