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The Words of My Father: There Ain't No Atheists in a Foxhole

1944

My father was a soldier in World War 2, part of General Lucas’s boys at Anzio during Operation Shingle, an operation which started just dandy, thank you, but soon became a nightmare caused by poor judgement and delay.

Anyone on that beach, that day, saw things no human being should see. Period. End of story. Our minds are not accustomed to seeing bodies torn asunder, limbs detached, blood flowing like rivers. Take a farm boy from Iowa, run him through six weeks of basic training, training which has nothing to do with the true realities of war, and he simply cannot adjust to the horror.

Dad didn’t talk about that war. When asked he would tell me that war is not something you reminisce about, and anyone who does has forgotten how terrible it was – but- one of his favorite sayings, which has stayed with me for decades, is this: there ain’t no atheists in a foxhole!

My father!

My father!

RELIGIOUS?

My dad? Religious? Not a chance! He was a Catholic in name only, mostly to please my mother. He sent his only son to Catholic schools because they offered the best education and not because he wanted his son to embrace that particular religion. He went to Mass every Sunday because it was easier to go than it was to deal with the aftermath of my mother’s anger and disappointment.

That’s just the real of it!

He cussed like a proverbial sailor. He was a brawler with a quick temper. I doubt seriously if he really ever prayed when he was at church, so his declaration about theology and faith was confusing for me, at my young age, at least until I asked him about it one day.

“Bill, I have known some hard men, most of them in the military, men who had no idea what fear was like, men who chewed nails and spit out paperclips, men who barely knew how to spell ‘God’ and certainly had no desire to pray to Him. But on that beach at Anzio, mortars dropping on us like fireflies on an Iowa night, no escape except to swim across the ocean, those same men were praying like they had been altar boys all their lives. The most devout atheist will suddenly find God when it looks like his ticket is about to be punched, and you can take that to the bank.”

I had one more question for him.

“But why, Dad, if they didn’t believe in God? What good would it do them?”

He laughed.

“They were just hedging their bets, Bill, just in case they were wrong and there actually is a God.”

He laughed again.

“No, seriously, it’s like this: they were scared shitless, and they were just hoping someone was listening to their pleas. When you’re facing death, you really don’t want to be alone, you know?”

AND THERE YOU HAVE IT IN A NUTSHELL

We don’t want to be alone. We want to believe that someone is listening. We want to believe that someone gives a shit.

The human condition!

I’m not a religious person. Organized religions make me very uncomfortable. I was raised, after all, a Catholic, and I’ve seen what can happen when the frailties of man are hidden by a clerical collar. I’ve seen the hucksters on television, selling religious snake oil, asking for money to support their extravagant lifestyles, and I can’t, for the life of me, envision Jesus driving a Mercedes to a stockholder’s meeting.

But I am a philosopher, of sorts, and I have studied religions and theologies, and I’ve done my share of deep thinking over the years. For me, logically, the thought of a Creation is not far-fetched. Everything has a beginning on this planet. Everything had an origin. So even if you accept the Big Bang Theory of Creation, where did those first particles of matter come from? That question right there opens the door, in my mind, and allows the possibility of a Creator to enter.

Do I pray to Him, or Her?

Only once in my adult life have I prayed.

The night I thought I was dying, from alcohol poisoning, in a hotel room in Anchorage, Alaska, fourteen years ago. I was praying like a newly-ordained cleric on that night, asking God to please keep me safe, please allow me to keep living, please get help to me before it was too late.

There ain’t no atheists in a foxhole!

The silent scream of Edvard Munch, the famous painting, that was me that cold November night, please, someone, anyone, hear me, I exist, I am confused, I am lost, I am . . .

The Scream!

The Scream!

JANUARY 6, 1969

It was cold that night, dipping into the teens. Fresh snow covered the lawn, the streets. It would go on to be a record-breaking month, snow on the ground every single day of that month, weird for Tacoma, Washington, Land of Mild Temperatures.

I had come home that day, a Friday, from college, for the weekend, arriving at dinnertime. I visited with my parents, gave them a summary of my week, met my girlfriend, Eva, talked to her for an hour or so, came back home and was watching The Tonight Show with my dad when he got up, went into the bathroom, and collapsed from a heart attack.

I screamed to my mother to call 9-1-1. I rushed into the bathroom, dad straining, clutching his chest, white foam coming from his mouth, his eyes looking somewhere I could not see, and I held his head, waiting agonizing moments for the aid car to arrive, watched the life leave his eyes, said goodbye to him through tears, all over so quickly, literally a matter of five minutes, life to death.

And I wonder today, during those final moments, was there an atheist in the foxhole? I wonder if dad summoned up the last vestiges of strength in him, bit back the crippling pain just long enough to say a prayer to his god, a god he hadn’t spoken to in twenty-five years, not since that morning on a beach called Anzio, when the mortars were dropping like fireflies on an Iowa night.

My formative years!

My formative years!

2021

I think of these things today, a different war raging around the world, so many suffering silently, so many screaming but not heard, unemployed and homeless and helpless, hoping someone, anyone, will hear them, not wanting to be alone when the cloaked man with a scythe comes callin’.

There ain’t no atheists in a foxhole!

I try to be more aware these days. I try to remember how I felt, on that chilly November night in Anchorage, and how my silent scream was answered, a friend flying up from Seattle, finding me, getting me the help I desperately needed, and I try to be that answer for others, in some small way to make a difference, let them know they are not alone, that someone is listening, you know? Pay if forward, that sort of thing, for it seems to me that’s what humans should do for each other.

Sometimes we are the answer to the prayers prayed by someone in need.

Just something to think about.

Thanks for joining me. Thanks for reading my thoughts. Thanks for letting me know that I’m not alone.

It’s important!

2021 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

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