Thursday, November 12, 2009




As I crouched in one end of a shallow coffin length foxhole, an older GI (I was 19) sat on a box at the other end concentrating on reading the bible. Unfortunate childhood interactions with religions and some bible reading of my own had culminated in my having lost respect for the book so I chided him saying: “Why are you wasting your time reading that?” or words conveying that sentiment. He responded gravely, "you know, Valderrama that we are liable to die at any moment. We should be prepared for that." I thought or said something to the effect of "Oh baloney."

The cigarettes handed out by the pretty Red Cross girls when they occasionally caught up with us during a lull in the fighting partially assuaged the nervous tension we were constantly under. Most of us smoked quite a lot. The nearby explosion of a German artillery shell shook me so that the cigarette I was smoking slipped from between my fingers. I leaned deeper into the hole to retrieve it. At that precise moment another German artillery shell exploded near our little home in the Ardennes; some fragments zipped over my head, whistling and whining. The bible reading was still on my mind, so as I resumed my original sitting position with the recovered cigarette again safe between my fingers I began to comment: "Are you still reading that....." trailing off when I saw that my holemate wasn’t listening because he appeared to be freshly dead. He was, with a neat hole through his helmet and a piece of shrapnel displacing parts of his brain.

I could have decided the newly departed had been doing the right thing by reading the bible, or I might have come to the conclusion that smoking (and dropping one’s cigarette) saved lives and was therefore good for me. I did not garner an immediate lesson, though, as my whole army career was carried out in an unfocused daze that began with two days of fourteen straight hours Kitchen Police duty the moment I fell into the army’s tender jurisdiction.

We have not reached the point of this story. That comes further on, after another incident took place. I realize it is hard to believe, but the next incident was so like the first that although I am completely sure there were two of them, they are blended generically in my mind as one; the bible reading, my comment, the falling cigarette, (I must have dropped a lot of cigarettes in foxholes) rising to discover the sudden forced departure of my holemate’s life essence.

Several people I've asked agree that they would have taken this as a sure sign that "it pays to be ready," and they would have embarked on a bible reading marathon. If they had strong faith in a personal God with a fixation on the details of our lives, they might have even taken the repetition to mean God was singling me out with a personal warning message. Never mind expending two other soldiers to save one soul, the bible is replete with innocents sacrificed for the benefit of the chosen. Why not imagine myself as one of the fortunate few?

I wasn't able to squelch my contrarian streak. Instead of being impelled towards bible reading and preparations for death, I concluded that bible reading and being ready to die would be followed by little holes in my head through which the life essence would be forced to escape.

I was offended by this constant pressure to expect a big daddy in the sky to solve our problems and all the transpositions and juggling of facts necessary to explain his tender mercies while all around me human beings were dropping like flies. I resented the craven attitude of humbling oneself to beg for mercy from above and saw it as a debasement of what little human dignity was left in the world.

I became an anomaly. According to common wisdom, there was no such thing as an Atheist in a Fox Hole. I even resented the well known declaration by WWII news icon Ernie Pyle and assorted chaplains that went: "There are no Atheists in a fox hole." Whenever I heard it I wanted to shout: "Here's one!" or “Don’t speak for me, speak for yourself.”

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