Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An Atheist in a Foxhole

This week  St. Anonymous had a Veteran’s Day service. It was also the day for the fall UMW bake sale and I had promised to bake pumpkin bread, so I had to be there. (There is a sad story connected with the pumpkin bread, but that’s for another post.)

The Veteran’s Day service was very moving. Pictures of veterans and other memorabilia decorated the narthex and the altar, and interviews with vets and their families provided part of the sermon, which was based on the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Yeah, well, that’s Dr. J for you, but it fit.)

Since my dad was a World War II vet, I began thinking about him, and realized it’s been fourteen years, almost fifteen, since he died. It hasn’t seemed like that long. As I was lost in bittersweet recollections of my dad, Dr. J, as I think of our pastor, in speaking of a veteran she had known at another church said, “And he always used to tell me that there are no atheists in foxholes.” 

“Somebody ought to tell her about Pat Tillman”, I thought in passing, before another realization hit me. My dad had been an atheist in a foxhole.

I’m sure his dog tags listed his religion as Catholic, and my dad was never very forthcoming about his atheism, but he was always honest about it with us kids, or at least with me. He didn’t try to attack the religious beliefs I held as I was growing up, but he did talk about his own lack of belief. He even tried going to church with me for a while, but he just didn’t believe any of it. I’m not sure he would have called himself an atheist, but the word fit the beliefs he held when I was growing up.* 

So on our way out of church, I took a deep breath and said to Dr. J, “I think you need to know that my dad was an atheist in a foxhole.” I hope I didn’t say it in a mean way (I tend to sound harsh sometimes when I mean to be matter of fact), but Dr. J, sweetheart that she is, immediately got it. “I am so sorry,” she said. “I will never say that again.”

When I got home, I dug out the interview that an Associated Press reporter, Kenneth Dixon,  did with my dad in January of 1944, at a field hospital in Italy after the Battle of San Vittore.  Dad wasn’t wounded, but he had strained his Achilles tendons and could hardly walk. (I come by my bad feet honestly.) My brother Frank, his oldest child, had been born eight days before but he didn’t know it yet.

The reporter captured my dad perfectly. “The short, dark infantry lieutenant with the shock of curly hair and a three-day growth of beard was talking a blue streak.” (I used to say that my dad was the first man I ever saw wear an Afro.) Dad had gone to Italy in May of 1943 as a replacement officer after going through Officer Candidate School - a "ninety day wonder". 

“I joined this outfit when it was policing up the brass after the Tunisia campaign. Man, that’s tough. When you come in you’re a brand new shavetail. No battle experience, but the GI’s under you are all veterans . . . They’re thinking wothehell does this guy know about war and you can’t blame them. They’ve seen it and you haven’t . . . And then when you get a little outaline they start talking about Hill 609 and Kasserine Pass and . . . all you can do is sit back in the corner and shut up.” 
“But now there’s a lot of difference. I can talk with them. They know me and I know them and we’ve been across the Volturno together and up Mt. Pantano and into San Vittore and after this I can talk about those places. Jeez’ it’s great.”

After the war it didn’t seem so great. He did share some stories with us (the ones he could tell), but he could never reconcile himself to the idea he had killed people, even though he knew those same people would have killed him. Dad told us his senior officer wanted to put him in for a medal but he declined. 

Kenneth Dixon ends his story with this:

He got up to go out to the ambulance to be taken back to the station hospital. Hobbling through the door he said, “Anyone who doesn’t want to be in the infantry is crazy.”
“What about those who do want to be in the infantry?”asked a grinning corporal.
“They’re the craziest of all,” quipped the lieutenant from Brooklyn. 

*Later in life, in his late 60’s, dad became a Rosicrucian when he was introduced to that belief by a childhood friend with whom he had reconnected.

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