Billy Pilgrim, the main character of this novel-within-a-frame, is introduced through a series of scenes in his life. Included in this series is a summation of the most important events, ranging from his birth through his daughter Barbara's bringing him back home from New York City after he appears on a radio talk show. On the radio program, Billy reveals his having been kidnapped by Tralfamadorians and taken to their planet, Tralfamadore. Held in a zoo by the Tralfamadorians, Billy mated with Montana Wildhack, a pornographic movie star from Earth, while his captors watched. In the novel, events in Billy's life come and go in no particular order; his pilgrimage is written in no strict chronology.
The most important happenings in Billy's life related in Chapter Two concern his World War II experiences. A summary of these army experiences leads to Billy's first encounter with time tripping. During his early military training, Billy becomes a chaplain's assistant. While on maneuvers in South Carolina, he is granted a furlough to attend his father's funeral in Ilium. His father has been accidentally shot while deer hunting. After the funeral, Billy is sent overseas and assigned to replace a chaplain's assistant killed in action.
When he joins his unit in Luxembourg, the regiment is under attack by German forces. The enemy attack creates a great deal of chaos and leaves many, including Billy, dazed and wandering behind German lines. With Billy are three others: two regimental scouts and Roland Weary, an antitank gunner. All are hopelessly lost, without food or maps.
Billy's group wanders for three days in the snow and cold under constant sniper fire. Weary constantly prods Billy to keep up and not fall behind. Raised in a family that idolizes weapons of torture, Weary fantasizes that he and the two scouts are the Three Musketeers.
During one of the times when Billy lags far behind the others, he comes unstuck in time; the rest of the group remains stuck. He fast-forwards to the time of his death before traveling backwards to a time before his birth. Next, he moves forward again and stops at a point when he is a child. He then travels to the year 1965 and visits the nursing home in which he has placed his mother. The next time trip takes him briefly to a banquet honoring his son Robert's Little League team. Suddenly, it is New Year's Eve, 1961, and he finds himself extremely drunk and removing a woman's girdle at a party of optometrists. He passes out.
When Billy regains consciousness, he is back in 1944. Weary is shaking him, urging him to move forward. Although Billy pleads to be left behind, Weary insists on saving him. The scouts grow tired of Billy and Weary's wrangling and desert them, after which Billy travels in time and finds himself at a lectern in a restaurant, receiving an ovation from the Ilium, New York, Lions Club: He has been elected president of the club, which is ironic given that his passive actions throughout the novel demonstrate that he is anything but a lion. He again returns to World War Il just as German soldiers are capturing him and Weary.
At the beginning of this chapter, a rapid series of brief, biographical events is presented in strict chronology. This chronology of these events is contrasted with Billy's coming unstuck in time in 1944, in a German forest, leaping in and out of the future and the past. The randomness of the events suggests that free will has no effect on the ordering: Billy cannot choose the sequence; he must experience the events as they happen. The interplay of past and future scenes occurs according to a predetermined pattern, although it is unclear who or what determines what that pattern will be, or when it will happen.
On Earth, time is chronological, linear. One moment follows another like beads on a string. But the Tralfamadorian concept of time is that all events exist simultaneously. If a person views all time simultaneously, that person will have knowledge of all events. Godlike, the Tralfamadorians seem to have transcended impermanence, never dying; they possess a capacity of omnipotence. Likewise, Billy, a prophet of the Tralfamadorian gospel, seems to be approaching a state of omnipotence. But no one, except the science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout, takes him seriously. Billy's daughter, Barbara, threatens to put him in a mental institution; on a radio talk show in New York City, he is ejected from the studios for his views.
During his ordeal behind enemy lines, Billy is often near death. According to Weary, the Three Musketeers — Weary and the two scouts — save Billy's life again and again. Billy's salvation in Luxembourg is but a preview of his ultimate salvation when he is executed in Chicago. After all, according to Tralfamadorian philosophy, all events, including death, are equally meaningful. Therefore, death is not an end in itself: Death is simply one more event in a person's life to be lived and relived again and again.
Lake Placid a village in northeast New York in the Adirondack Mountains; site of the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980.
the Green Berets members of a U.S. Army Special Forces outfit known for their heroic deeds during wartime; an elite troop of soldiers trained in counterinsurgency and guerrilla warfare.
Vietnam A country in southeast Asia, it was partitioned into North Vietnam and South Vietnam after 1954, and reunited in 1976 after the end of the Vietnam War (1954–75).
carbon-monoxide poisoning Colorless and odorless, carbon monoxide (CO) is a highly poisonous gas formed by the incomplete combustion of carbonaceous material, such as gasoline.
rumpus room a room for plays and parties, often in the basement of a house or building.
cockles idiomatically, one's innermost feelings.
flibbertigibbet a silly or scatterbrained person.
vox humana Latin, meaning "human voice."
vox celeste Latin, meaning "celestial voice."
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) German composer and organist of the late baroque period.
Martin Luther (1483–1546) German theologian and leader of the Reformation.
Luxembourg a country in northwest Europe; created as a duchy in 1354 and declared a neutral territory in 1867.
the Battle of the Bulge the last German offensive on the Western Front during World War II, occurring between December 16, 1944, and January 16, 1945, in the Ardennes region of southern Belgium; "Bulge" refers to the wedge that the Germans drove into the Allied lines before being repulsed back.
Indian file single file.
Colt .45 automatic the popular name of the .45 caliber Colt U.S. Army M1911 Al semiautomatic pistol; named for Samuel Colt (1814–1862), the American firearms inventor who developed the first revolver.
Tiger tank a heavily armored tank, weighing 56 tons and mounting a long 88-mm. gun, used by the Germans during World War II.
Spanish thumbscrew an instrument of torture used to compress the thumb, causing extreme pain.
dum-dums hollow-point small-arms bullets designed to expand upon impact, inflicting gaping wounds.
derringer pistol a small, short-barreled pistol that has a large bore; named for Henry Derringer (1786–1868), an American gunsmith.
the Great Depression the period of drastic decline in the U.S. economy from 1929 to 1940; immortalized in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
Shetland pony a small pony originating in the Shetland Islands, in northern Scotland.
deedlee-balls small balls usually made from yarn; often used as accessory decorations.
Doric columns heavy columns with plain, saucer-shaped capitals and no base.
Tuileries Gardens the public gardens located in the center of Paris and designed for Louis XIV.
The Three Musketeers the three main characters (Athos, Porthos, and Aramis) in Alexandre Dumas' French historical romance The Three Musketeers (1844).
Bronze Star a U.S. military decoration awarded either for heroism or for meritorious achievement in ground combat.
the Parthenon the chief temple of the goddess Athena, built on the Acropolis at Athens between 447 and 432 B.C.
the Lions Club a service club organization founded in Dallas, Texas, in 1917, with member clubs throughout the U.S.