Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. He jumps around his life, from senile widower to his wedding day. He has seen his own birth and death many times. He has no control over the trips and they arent always fun. He was born in 1922 in Illium, New York the only child of a local barber. He grew up tall and weak and went on to attend night sessions at the Illium School of Optometry for one semester before being drafted for the Second World War. His father died in a hunting accident while Billy was in training. He went on to serve in Europe, was taken prisoner and was discharged in 1945. He finished his optometry studies, became engaged to the daughter of the schools founder and owner and then suffered a mild nervous collapse. He recovered in a veterans hospital and married his fianc and was set up in business by his father-in-law. Billy prospered and became, to his great surprise, very wealthy by prescribing lenses and frames. “Frames,” observes the narrator, “are where the money is.”
Billy and his wife have two children, a daughter Barbara who marries another optometrist and a son Robert who is a juvenile delinquent in high-school but later joins the Green Berets who reform him and send him to fight in Vietnam. In 1968 Billy and some other optometrists charter a plane to go to a convention but the plane crashes on Sugarbush Mountain and Billy is the only survivor. While he recovers from a fractured skull his wife dies of carbon monoxide poisoning. Billy goes to New York City and gets on a late-night radio show. He reveals that he has come unstuck in time and he was kidnapped by a flying saucer in 1967 and taken to the planet Tralfamadore where he was displayed naked in a zoo and mated with former movie star Montana Wildhack. Billys distraught daughter fetches him from the city but he defends his assertions about Tralfamadore. A month later he writes a letter to the newspaper in which he describes the Tralfamadorians. They are two feet high, have a suction cup at their base and very flexible shafts that terminate in a single hand with an eye at the center. They communicate telepathically. They are friendly and can see in four dimensions and they pity Earthlings for not being able to see time. Billy sets to work on a second letter in which he explains that to the Tralfamadorians death is simply one of many states across time for an individual and to them a person always exists in many other moments. Billy explains that like the Tralfamadorians he now says, “So it goes” when he hears that someone has died.
Billy worked on his letter to the newspaper in the basement of his house. There was no heat and he was clad only in his bathrobe. His feet were turning blue. He was so engrossed in the letter and the thought that it would bring happiness to so many people that he did not hear his daughter calling for him. At this time Barbara is 21 years old and is very much enjoying the sense of responsibility attendant to being married and suddenly having to care for her father. Barbara is upset by the letter in the paper and becomes more exasperated when Billy defends all his claims about Tralfamadore.
The first time Billy became detached in time was in 1944, long before he met the Tralfamadorians. He was a chaplains assistant, an unpopular position, in the Army. He carried no weapons. One Sunday morning while in training camp in South Carolina Billy was playing the portable organ for the service when an umpire arrived and announced that all the men on the hillside had been spotted in a war game and they were all now dead. All the soldiers think this is pretty funny. While on maneuvers in South Carolina, Billy learns that his father has died in a hunting accident and he goes home for the funeral. After the funeral, Billy returns to the Army he is sent overseas to a unit near Luxembourg whose chaplains assistant has been killed. When Billy arrives in Luxembourg it is December and the Germans are engaged in their final desperate offensive of the war known as The Battle of the Bulge. In the chaos of the German attack Billy never meets his unit and never receives any supplies or equipment. After the battle he and three other men are caught behind enemy lines. Billy, the only one with a beard, is dazed and weary and trudges along in the dress shoes from his fathers funeral. One of the shoes is missing its heel and this causes Billy to stagger and limp. Two of the men are scouts who move gracefully and carry rifles. The other man is a clumsy anti-tank gunner who carries a pistol and a knife. On the third day a sniper shoots at the group and while the others take cover Billy stands still and waits for the sniper to continue. Roland Weary snaps Billy out of his daze by using profanity. Weary has been saving Billys life for days and uses cruelty to motivate him. Billy is exhausted and disoriented and wishes the others would go on without him.
Roland Weary is an eighteen years old native of Pittsburgh, PA whose only action in the war was to fire a missed shot at a German tank that then killed everyone in Rolands group except himself. Roland had always been unpopular and each time a supposed group of friends ditched him he would find someone even more unpopular and beat the shit out of them. Wearys father was a plumber who collected weapons and torture devices. Weary used his knowledge of arcane weapons to make friends with the people he intended to beat up. He told Billy that a blood gutter was a slot on the side of a swords blade. The worst torture, Weary asserted, was to stake a man on an anthill in the desert, cover his genitals with honey and cut off his eyelids. Wearys knife was studded with spikes and made a wound that would not heal. Billys experience with gore was limited to the gruesome crucifix that hung above his childhood bed. Although Billys mother was not Catholic she played the organ in several churches and had purchased the crucifix in a gift shop.
The scouts insist that the group should start walking again and they enter a forest. Roland Weary is short and thick and carries every piece of equipment and clothing hes received from home. He also carries a copy of the first pornographic picture ever taken. It is of a woman attempting intercourse with a Shetland pony. The woman and the pony are posed in front of a purple curtain and are flanked by two Doric columns. Weary is very warm and has seemingly boundless energy. In his mind he rehearses the story he will tell when he gets home. He will tell how he and his two scout buddies were trapped behind enemy lines and they formed a group called “The Three Musketeers”. Everything would have been all right except for a weak college kid that they had to save countless times. Once they finally were safe one of the scouts asked their commander if he would let them serve together for the rest of the war.
While Roland is daydreaming Billy stops in the forest and experiences his first dislocation in time. He passes from his beginning to his death, which is simply a violet light and a hum, and then he returns to the moment as a child when his father tried to teach him to swim by throwing him into the pool. Young Billy sank and had to be rescued. Then he travels to a period yet to come in his life when his seemingly dying mother, whom he is visiting in a nursing home, asks him how she got so old. While at the nursing home Billy reads an account of the only American soldier to be shot for cowardice since the Civil War. Then he travels to 1958 and attends the banquet honoring his sons Little League team. Next, Billy visits 1961 when, disgracefully drunk, he seduced a woman at a Christmas party, was discovered and ends the night unconscious in the back seat of his car.
Billy returns to the war when Roland Weary, who has returned to the forest to fetch him, shakes him awake. Weary forces Billy to march to where the scouts are waiting. There is the sound of a barking dog which indicates that the enemy is near. Weary asks the scouts what the “Three Musketeers” are going to do now. The scouts have never heard of themselves referred to this way and tell Weary and Billy that they should find someone to surrender to and then they depart. Billy hallucinates that he is skating in his socks and then travels in time to 1957 when he accepted the position of President of the Lions Club. Roland Wearys wrath at being ditched by the scouts explodes and Weary begins to beat Billy. Before Weary can deliver a fatal kick to Billys exposed spine he notices that five German soldiers and a dog are watching them.
The story of Billy Pilgrim begins with a summary of his life that in broad strokes traces the major events of the novel. Like the Tralfamadorians, who can see time and simply visit those moments they wish, the summary imparts to the reader a sense of the whole of Billys life from which the novel will examine individual moments. In this sense, the narrators observation that for optometrists like Billy “Frames are where the money is” has a double meaning because all the important moments of the protagonists life are presented in the novels frame.
This chapter introduces the theme of death that pervades the work. Billy has learned to cope with death by adopting the Tralfamadorian mantra “So it goes”. This mantra appears each time death is mentioned in the novel and serves to dissipate the emotional weight normally attached to the event. With death disarmed Billy, who typifies the stolid American middle-class of the mid-twentieth century, is free to roam through his life and understand it from a unique perspective. The occasion of Billys first trip through time, in which he relives several events of his life, is juxtaposed with Roland Wearys delusional and overwrought daydreams. It is obvious that whereas Billy is content to be a loner in his life Weary is desperate for a real friend but lacks the social skills to succeed. We learn that Billys father threw him in a pool and he nearly drowned. This event begins a pattern in which Billy is content to watch things happen to him and wait to be rescued. We learns that Rolands father, on the other hand, imparted to his son a knowledge of instruments of torture which leads Roland to associate friendship with violence and undermines any social success he briefly achieves.