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Reflections of a foxhole atheist

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It was late in 1944, and this inexperienced, callow, dazed and, above all, clueless 19-year-old crouched in one end of a shallow coffin-length foxhole; an older GI sat on a box at the opposite end, concentrating on reading his bible. My childhood Christian brainwashing was wearing off, and I felt resentment for having been abused/brainwashed by Christians before reaching the age of reason.

By the time I reached that foxhole, I had lost my respect for the book, so I chided him: “Why are you wasting your time reading that?”

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.”

Pretty U.S.O. Red Cross girls would occasionally catch up with us during a lull in the fighting and load us up with officially sanctioned cigarettes to help relieve the constant tension we were under. Most of us, including me, smoked plenty.

A German artillery shell exploded close enough to shake me, causing my cigarette to fall from my fingers. I leaned deeper into the hole to retrieve it. At that precise instant, while I was head down and bottom up, another German shell exploded even closer to my little ditch in the Ardennes. Steel fragments zipped over my raised butt, whistling, whirling and whining.

I still had energy to vent on “the stupid bible reading” I assumed was still going on. Resuming my original crouch with the recovered cigarette burning safely between my fingers, even before taking a puff I began to comment: “Are you still reading that . . . ?” trailing off with the realization that my “holemate” wasn’t listening, or reading, or anything. There was a hole in his helmet through which a steel splinter had cracked his skull on its way into his brain. He was freshly dead, his beautiful human brain liquefied by shrapnel.

Christians say I should have converted on the spot and plunged into a frenzied bible-reading orgy to ensure my entrance into heaven. Any true believer will tell you that I, by smoking, was sinning, while the newly departed was doing the heavenly thing by reading the bible and that God was now holding him in his bosom for safekeeping till the resurrection. Or maybe he was already at the pearly gates, showing his Good Conduct medal to Saint Peter for a courtesy military pass entitling him to a special welcome and VIP treatment, with no embarrassing questions asked and acceptance guaranteed.

I could have instead decided 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 induced by the sleep deprivation which began the moment I was absorbed into the Army’s tender bosom.

As if the above weren’t bad enough, I’m going to have to risk incurring your incredulity by sticking to what I remember. I still think I entered a surreal alternate reality the moment I fell into the hands of the military. Let’s agree the world was and is a crazy place, and you and me a little crazy too, before I tell you the rest.

Irreligious reprise

The next incident was so like the first that my memory blends them into one. The only thing I’m completely sure of is that it happened twice, including a replay of the basic elements: the bible reading, my derogatory comment, the explosions, the falling cigarette (I must have dropped a lot of cigarettes in foxholes), then rising to discover the sudden scrambling of my foxhole buddy’s brain with the concomitant unwitnessed, instantaneous, forced departure of his life essence.

According to Hollywood, I should have cradled the dead buddy in my arms while the enemy stopped shooting long enough for me to curse God with tears of rage before picking some wildflowers to scatter over his body. Actually, I had met both companions on the day of the incidents, and I don’t remember anything before or after the main event, so the story ends with the holes in their heads.

Several people I’ve asked have taken the side of my short-term foxhole buddies and interpret this as a sure sign that “it pays to be ready,” and say I should have undertaken the bible-reading orgy. People with strong faith in a personal God afflicted with a mania for meddling in our lives think “The Lord” was singling me out with a personal warning, repeated so as to get through my thick skull and overcome my nascent skepticism.

Never mind the two dead soldiers. God works in mysterious ways, and collateral damage is common and inconsequential when the eternal destiny of one of God’s chosen is at stake. The bible is replete with innocents sacrificed for the benefit of the predestined, who are the only ones that count. Why not flatter myself by imagining I was one of the fortunate chosen few?

God wasn’t able to squelch my contrarian streak. Instead of being impelled toward bible reading and preparations for a happy transition from foxhole to heaven, I took the negative side of the lesson and concluded that bible reading and preparing to die would be followed by little holes in my head through which the life essence would be forced to vacate the premises.

I became an atheist in a foxhole. I was offended by the 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 wise and tender mercies, while all around me human beings were dropping like flies. I resented the craven Christian 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. Common wisdom proclaimed there was no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole. I resented the well-known declaration by war correspondent Ernie Pyle and assorted chaplains who clamored: “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

Whenever I heard it, I wanted to shout: “Here’s one!” or “Don’t speak for me, speak for yourselves.”

Foundation member Edgar Valderrama, 85, lives in Texas and Mexico. He was born in New York, where his parents, who lived in Mexico, were trying their luck as classical pianists, later returning to Puebla, Mexico. He was drafted in early 1944 and discharged in 1946. He spent most of his life working as a machinist and tool-and-die maker to finance numerous ill-conceived businesses.

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