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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)

Comments

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 14, 2021:

Strange and magical, my friend Manatita!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 14, 2021:

Thank you Li-Jen! All is well with my family, thank you, and I send blessings to you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 14, 2021:

Lora, as always, I appreciate your heartfelt comment. Thank you so much. I hope all is well with you and your family.

manatita44 from london on March 14, 2021:

Yes, fame is highly overrated. Some get breaks and others remain genius in the ghettos. A strange life!

Li-Jen Hew on March 14, 2021:

Hi Bill, thank you for opening up and sharing your story. Good to know that you have found some inspiration from the past and turn it into something we all can learn. You end the hub with some positivity, to help each other in times of need. Hope all is well for you and your familly.

Lora Hollings on March 12, 2021:

What a moving piece, Bill. I would say your father was a very good judge of human nature. A very profound topic, indeed, that makes us all think about when it is our time to pass from this world. And hopefully, we can be there for others to make this transition a much less difficult one. I loved your candid thoughts about this subject and your expressive writing! I’m glad I found this article as you leave us with much to contemplate. Best wishes to you in Olympia.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 12, 2021:

Thank you, Greg, for sharing about your father's death. Hope indeed! Where would we be without it, eh?

My best to you in Moscow! I think spring has arrived, finally, and I'm more than ready for it. Enjoy your bikerides this weekend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 12, 2021:

Thank you Ruby, and may God bless you as well, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 12, 2021:

Blessings always, Misbah! Thanks again!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 12, 2021:

Very true, Devika! Our fathers and mothers played a huge part in developing us as humans. They deserve to be remembered.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 12, 2021:

Thank you Nithya! A lot of people certainly agree with you. Imagine how many prayers are being said, around the world, at this very moment.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 12, 2021:

Thank you Bronwen! My goodness, I would think WW1 would be enough for any man.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 12, 2021:

Maybe that's where that saying came from, John! Sounds like a lot of soldiers said it. Thanks for mentioning that, and have a great weekend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 12, 2021:

Pay it forward, Mr. Happy! I can't think of a better way to spend a day than in helping my fellow man. I really need to get better at it.

Janis Joplin was the Queen of Rock, period, end of story. So sorry she flamed out so early.

Blessings always, my friend!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 12, 2021:

Mr. Happy, as always, you drive a stake through the heart of bullshit. Thank you always for reading, and commenting, and really giving a shit in writing meaningful comments. You are appreciated!

greg cain from Idaho, USA on March 11, 2021:

Bill - another fabulous piece of writing, friend. I’m so glad I found it this evening. My own father died a slow death from cancer, and during his last days he talked about a supreme being in ways he’d not done much of before. “If you don’t have hope,” he said, “what do you have?” His words really gripped me, and convinced me of the idea in your father’s words. There ain’t no atheists in a foxhole...

As always, thanks for sharing your brilliant knack for storytelling. That this one is true makes it all the more captivating.

Best to you and your bride in Olympia from me and mine in Moscow.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on March 11, 2021:

Bill, we all hope there is a God and heaven. It takes a lot of faith. God bless you my friend. I enjoyed reading about your father, and I felt your pain that night you called for healing.

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Poets on March 11, 2021:

Thanks a lot Mr.Bill

Peace and Blessings

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 11, 2021:

There's your comment, Misbah! Thank you so much for your caring and touching words. They mean a great deal to me, and I can tell you are a very loving human being.

Blessings always

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Poets on March 11, 2021:

Mr. bill, you are not alone

We are with you, we are your HP family and you are a respectable member.

We all need kind and generous family member like you

May God bless you always

I know even if we knew, we are not alone we still want to listen it.

The story about your dad is very touchy and yes it is so very true that there ain't no atheists in a foxhole.

Stay blessed always

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 11, 2021:

Thank you for sharing that, Mary. You and I were about the same age when we lost our fathers. It's far too young to lose a parent.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 11, 2021:

Thank you very much, Dora! He deserves to be kept alive, as do we all, in the thoughts of others.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 11, 2021:

Thanks so much, Brenda! I wonder if I'll be praying when I face my own foxhole. I suspect I will be.

Blessings always

bill

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 11, 2021:

Manatita, thank you! As always, you have gone right to the heart of the matter . . . love!

As for recognition of my writing skills, I have it from my peers. Fame is highly overrated, me thinks, so I'll be happy if I continue to gather respect from my peers.

Peace, my brother, and thanks always.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 11, 2021:

Thank you for your thoughts, Linda. I hope you are correct.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 11, 2021:

James, I think wartime experience definitely changes one's perspective, especially, as you say, when the bombs are bursting all around. Thanks for your thoughts.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 11, 2021:

Hi Bill sounds like going back down memory lane gets you thinking all over again. Great article and nobody should forget about their dads. Thank you for sharing about your dad.it is only what you will know best and from your side of it definitely a treasured memory.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on March 10, 2021:

We do not know what is going to happen the next second. It must have been devastating to see your father pass on so suddenly. Saying a prayer makes us strong to face whatever comes our way.

Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on March 10, 2021:

Love it! My father served overseas in WW1 and was deeply disappointed when he was not accepted to join in WW2, but his experiences in the first one certainly strengthened his faith and trust in God.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on March 10, 2021:

I enjoyed this, Bill. Stories about your father are always touching. He obviously had a big influence on you even though he passed away when you were young. His sayings were wise, and I had heard this one before. In fact, I think my own father or one of my uncles used it..they all fought in WW2.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on March 10, 2021:

This brought back memories of my own, my own father not talking about the war he fought, his death when I was 18, and my own husband's death. I am a Catholic and I do pray. I prayed so hard for my two childhood friends dying of Covid> I wish I was there beside them when they called on God.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 10, 2021:

Bill, memories of your dad conjure up deep thoughts in you about life and spirituality. He's so real, and you keep him alive by living his counsel long after he has passed..Thanks for sharing.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on March 10, 2021:

Well, I fumbled with the keyboard and pressed "enter" when I should not have I guess lol

I wasn't done!!! LOL (Whether anyone likes it, or not lol)

So this line: "Jesus driving a Mercedes" made me think of that Janis Joplin song: "Mercedes Benz":

"Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz

My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends"

"Only once in my adult life have I prayed." - Sounds to me like your prayer was answered but then again, one can always throw that experience in the "coincidences" bin and ignore it.

"Pay if forward" - Typo on that "if" but yes, I second that thought! "Dar din dar se face Raiul" - "Gift by gift Heaven is created".

May Wakan Tanka always walk with You.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on March 10, 2021:

"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." - One of my grandmas would go because the entire village would talk about it if someone didn't show-up to church on Sundays. So, it was a pretend/peer-pressure activity.

"But on that beach at Anzio, mortars dropping on us like fireflies on an Iowa night" - So, I never cared to look at the Anzio Beach - never been to Italy but I lo, looked-up some photos and the beaches are so nice there: full of hotels, beach umbrellas, slides, etc. It's a sobering thought to take in consideration that where those beach umbrellas are sitting people lost limbs and lives.

"They were just hedging their bets, Bill," - Sounds like they all read "Pascal's wager" LOLOL

"We don’t want to be alone." - Yet, we were born alone and will die alone (except of some twins who are born together). Not trying to be macabre but that is our "human condition" and we would do well to prepare properly. Why would I care if anyone "gives a shit"? Am I living their life, or mine? I live independentaly

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on March 10, 2021:

Bill,

What a great, intense article.

I can picture those men in the foxhole praying with all their might.

It would be a terrible situation to live through.

I do believe we all pray at times like these...no matter what we believe.

I'm certain God heard thoughts from your dad when his heart attack took him away from you so suddenly.

Sorry you had to be see him suffering, but glad you were beside him during those last moments.

This article speaks the truth...there ain't no atheists in a foxhole.

Great write.

manatita44 from london on March 10, 2021:

First, I wish to say that this is writing at its best, Bill. I truly hope that some day you will be remembered for it. In fact, your thoughts would do well - if you're not already ahead of me - in turning your attention to a collection of stories or something, about your dad.

Now I usually laugh a lot when you write and today I wish to say it's part of your spiritual input. Guru ji has said many times, that humour helps the soul! He told us many jokes and sometimes we even watched 'fawlty tower's as a play, in his presence. I love that line from you:- "envision Jesus driving a Mercedes to a stockholder’s meeting."

About prayer and atheists. Guru ji admits it in one breath and dismisses it in the other. For him there are no such thing as atheists. He takes their side, though.

If you believe in Love, which they do, or empathy and service ... and so on, spiritually, you can be way ahead of those, who prayed in the churches regularly in Ghana, while they had slaves in neck collars in cellars beneath. 'Nuff said.

Now spiritual Masters uses sutras/slokas/aphorisms/beatitudes, which can say 10,000 words in one sentence. Speaking of prayer, here's one from my Guru ji:

"Prayer begins, when human capacity ends." - Sri Chinmoy. We even sing it as a song. So your Father was so right! Love you, Bro. You're doing just fine!

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on March 10, 2021:

Bill, you know I'm a Christian, and I personally find great comfort in knowing that someone is always listening to the unspoken words in my heart. I believe that God knew those words your Dad could not speak in his final moments, but they were a part of him, heard, cherished, and accepted.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 10, 2021:

Thank you, Ann, and thanks for catching the mistake, although I kind of like the mistake too. lol

I can't imagine the fear associated with being in a war, and I'm happy that I can't imagine it.

Have a wonderful week, my friend.

bill

James C Moore from Joliet, IL on March 10, 2021:

Our dads have something in common. They both served in Italy. According to my father, he served in Italy under General Mark Clark. He was a medic in a unit that experienced combat. He told me about his prayer life experience while out in the field. Seems like much of our business as usual mindset goes by the way side once the bullets are buzzing by and the bombs are bursting all around.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 10, 2021:

Thank you Peggy! I think Jesus would be perfectly happy living with the homeless. That's where I picture him, on the streets, helping those who need it the most.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 10, 2021:

Thank you for sharing, Pamela! I love that you learn something new at each service. May you always find peace and blessings.

Ann Carr from SW England on March 10, 2021:

That, bill, brought me to tears! You sure know how to describe situations and people.

That saying is great, isn't it? I know people who call in the name of God, whom I know are not believers. And I know people who supposedly are believers who do things that should definitely not be in the name of God. Where's the logic?

By the way, is 'The Big Bank Theory' a typo? I think so, but some warped humour in me says it might not be! What an idea!

My Dad was also in the war, in REME, but came out with a back injury (a pile of bricks fell on him) and was therefore saved. He always had a bad back but was relatively healthy otherwise, until Parkinson's got him. Anyone who had even just the thought of it to fear, must have been plucky or just pragmatic.

Thanks for sharing this and your own story, bill. This has many messages. Glad I got here soon enough.

Ann

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 10, 2021:

Thanks for your thoughts, Rosina! Happy Wednesday to you, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 10, 2021:

Hi Zulma! The good news is that tree sprouted on its own. Clear out an area about two feet in diameter at the base, put mulch over it, and add slow-release fertilizer like rabbit poop. And then just make sure it has water on a regular basis. That's it! Nature will do the rest!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 10, 2021:

Like your dad, mine also served in WWII as a paratrooper. I have also heard that saying many times, and I think that most people in those foxholes, who thought that their life was in danger, probably felt that way. Thanks for sharing your dad's experience with us.

I also went to Catholic school in my early years and perfectly understand how you feel about clergy living the high life. Somehow I doubt that if Jesus were walking the earth today, he would approve of those lifestyles. He was more about sharing, healing, and loving one another.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 10, 2021:

This is an interesting perspective that covers several decades. I have found as I have aged that I look back at various events much differently now.

I have heard the foxhole saying all my life, and fear can sure make you quickly change your attitude. Your dad is like so many men who have served as they don't want to relive that horror I think.

I am a Christian, which gives me much peace. I do not like to see those pastors in their fancy cars, etc. I do not believe that is the way to serve God. I watch church on the computer on Sunday morning, and it is a fairly small service. The service is fairly simply, but I always learn something new.

I enjoyed your article, my friend. Happy Wednesday!

Rosina S Khan on March 10, 2021:

Yes, indeed, Bill you are not alone and neither am I. We are all connected all over the world. But it pays off not to be an atheist but have faith and belief in God because there is always power in prayers. I believe so that way. We don't have to be outrageously religious on the other hand. Happy Wednesday, Bill.

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on March 10, 2021:

Hi Bill.

I've heard that expression before. I assumed it was like when people swear to the Almighty they will change their evil ways if he delivers them safe and sound from their desperate situation. A promise born from the insanity of terror, only to be forgotten once safety and logic return.

Your Dad's interpretation makes so much sense. A simple cry in the night to be heard. I like that. I like that a lot mainly because religion doesn't have to come into it. Sinner or saint, we all want reassurance that someone is listening.

Have a great day, Bill, and here's to warmer days.

By the way, do you know anything about apple trees? My daughter planted an apple seed which she forgot about and it's actually sprouting. Any advice would be appreciated.

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