The Germans who come upon Weary and Pilgrim are part of the “mopping up” after the battle. Two of the five are very young (and beautiful), two are old, and one is ready to retire, a “good soldier” who possesses boots so well-shined one can “see Adam and Eve” in them. Pilgrim sees Adam and Eve as he lies, battered, on the ice.
Another religious reference, this time to Adam and Eve, the father and mother of humanity in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Adam and Eve represent both a state of purity and the inevitability of “falling,” or erring, which gets Adam and Eve kicked out of Paradise. It is their fate to wander the earth, as it is Billy’s fate to “wander” through time.
Pilgrim is helped up by one of the beautiful young boys. The scouts who had abandoned Weary and Pilgrim are shot nearby as they wait to attack the Germans. Weary is disarmed by the Germans, who find his bullet-proof Bible and the lewd picture of the woman and pony. Weary’s boots are given to the beautiful young boy, and he is given the boy’s clogs. Weary and Pilgrim now both have inadequate footwear. The two are taken to a small cottage where other American POWs are housed. Pilgrim falls asleep on a chaplain, a rabbi, who has been “shot in the hand.”
Weary is forced to exchange his boots, given him by the army, for a pair of clogs that will constrict his feet, cause gangrene, and ultimately kill him. This series of very small events, cascading into a catastrophic one, is typical of the novel. Death, when it comes, does not always occur in battle, or from a falling bomb. Derby instead is shot for an extremely minor offense, and Weary dies simply because his shoes don't fit. In these instances, Vonnegut highlights the cruelty of fate.
Billy comes unstuck in time. He is looking at a “jade green mechanical owl,” part of the optometer he is using on a patient. He has just fallen asleep in the office. Pilgrim looks out the window at his car parked in the lot. A license plate is dated 1967 and Pilgrim wonders how the time has passed so quickly. He reads an article in an optometry review arguing for a “European Optometry Society” and is alarmed by a clock chiming noon. Then he is back in World War II. While marching, Pilgrim is filmed by a German correspondent in a staged reenactment of his capture.
The owl is heard by Billy in various time periods, and seems to come unstuck with him as he travels through different parts of his life. The German correspondent filming Billy’s “capture” describes just how strange and difficult it can be to document the “reality” of war. Billy’s capture was similar to this reenactment, but of course the reenactment itself is not “real.” It’s simply play-acting.
Billy is back in 1967, in his Cadillac. He is driving through Ilium, NY’s “black ghetto,” which reminds him of devastated cities he saw in the war. Parts of Ilium are to be “renewed” and developed, which Pilgrim finds acceptable. At the Lions Club meeting Pilgrim attends, a speaker argues that US involvement in North Vietnam is necessary. The North Vietnamese, the speaker argues, should be “bombed back into the Stone Age” if they will not surrender. Pilgrim does not see a reason to protest the Vietnam War.
Here the “traveling through time” is brought on by war: the American officer argues that North Vietnam should be bombed “back in time.” Similarly, Vonnegut has inserted a comparison between cities ruined by war, like Dresden, and urban areas in the US ruined for other social and political reasons, and illustrative of the divisions that exist in American society.
On Pilgrim’s office wall is a prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom always to tell the difference.” It helps him and his patients to “keep going” although Pilgrim is not happy with life. Pilgrim meets the speaker, an Army major, who says Pilgrim ought to be proud of his son’s service as a soldier in Vietnam. Pilgrim says he is proud.
This prayer will also come unstuck in time and follow Billy. Although Billy is happy that his son is serving his country—and avoiding the problematic behavior the son exhibited in high school—it is clear that Vonnegut worries about the Vietnam War and believes it is a complex conflict with a high potential for needless violence.
Pilgrim goes home to nap. He has a large home and owns parts of various businesses in Ilium. He is “richer than Croesus.” Pilgrim goes to his wife’s bedroom and turns on the vibrating bed in order to sleep, but he can only cry softly to himself. The doorbell rings and Pilgrim looks outside: cripples are coming through the neighborhood to sell magazine subscriptions, a “business” which Pilgrim knows is a scam. He continues to weep and finds himself back in Luxembourg, in World War II.
The vibrating bed and Billy’s crying also follow Billy throughout the various stages of his life. Billy’s wealth provides all sorts of material comforts but, in the post-war years, cannot quite seem to displace whatever underlying anxiety or deep-rooted sadness that causes Billy to cry when he is alone.
Pilgrim sees “St. Elmo’s Fire,” a kind of radiant halo, around the heads of the Americans and Germans and finds it beautiful. As the Americans march eastward, German reserves march westward to continue the fight. One spits on Weary. They continue their march into Germany, and Pilgrim finds himself in a railroad car bound for a POW camp.
Billy’s vision seems like something a “pilgrim” might experience while in the throes of an ecstatic religious experience. Although Vonnegut remarks throughout that Billy does tend to follow organized Christianity, it is clear that he thinks often of Jesus and, in his concern with time, fate, and death, returns again and again to religious questions.
A colonel dying of pneumonia asks Pilgrim if he was one of his men. Pilgrim is ignorant of military terminology and does not understand the question. The colonel, who calls himself Wild Bob, believes he is addressing his men, although no one among the POWs was in his unit except Weary, who is too preoccupied by the pain in his feet caused by the clogs to notice. Wild Bob says they will be reunited at his house in Cody, Wyoming. Vonnegut says that this happened, and that he and Bernard O’Hare were there to witness it.
Here is an instance of Vonnegut inserting himself directly into the story, “bearing witness” to the events that have taken place and lending them credibility. All along there is an implication that, whether or not Billy Pilgrim is real, the description of World War II are accurate. Here, to underscore this point, Vonnegut steps into the action of the novel to argue for the truth of the events he's depicting in his novel.
Pilgrim is placed into a train car with his fellow privates, Weary with soldiers of his own rank. An older hobo grouped with the privates says their treatment and situation in the boxcar is “not so bad.” Pilgrim catches a glimpse of the luxury in the railcar for the German officers. Wild Bob dies in the colonel’s car and his corpse is carried out. The trains are marked with orange and black banners, to signify they are filled with POWs and not to be bombed by the enemy.
The orange and black “do not bomb” pattern returns throughout Billy’s life—it follows his travels through time. The hobo, who argues that their treatment is not so bad since he has experienced worse in peacetime, reminds the reader that, although war can be brutal, sometimes life itself is just as awful for some. In this way war is merely an extension of life, a natural outcome of humans’ lives.
Pilgrim’s train, the lowest in the hierarchy by rank, does not move for two days. “Water, and loaves of blackbread and sausage and cheese” are passed in to the car through ventilators, and “shit and piss and language” are passed out. Pilgrim dumps helmets full of human waste out the ventilator. He falls asleep on the floor of the car and is transported to 1967, the time of his abduction by the Tralfamadorians.
Billy is once again given an unfortunate position, because he is weak and does not look like a soldier. He is the communicator between the worlds inside and outside the railcar, just as he is a communicator between the alien world of Tralfamadore and earth many millions of miles away.