A hand on my shoulder

13 Nov

“There are no atheists in the foxholes.” That line came out of Bataan, Philippines, in 1942. It captioned a fuzzy picture of a young, dirty American looking across the top of his foxhole. He was alone, fearful and waiting. What extravagant promises did he make to his personal Gods in night’s darkest, loneliest moments? “Give me this night and I will give you all my days.” How often did I hold my breath while begging that this burden would pass and I would see tomorrow. Many of us found renewed faith, a new faith or a clearer insight which endured for life or for as long as needed. It often faded as the sun came up and danger passed.

What I found one night in the mountains of Luzon was not religion by definition. I discovered a simple reality, and for me, truth. It had no standard components: no ancient laws, suffocating rituals, self-justifying traditions, and fearsome inquisitors. It discovered me on the most fiendish night I ever knew. To explain, I must step back to another lifetime.

Understand. I had been religious in every sense of that enigmatic word. There were no religions truer than mine and I would fight to uphold its honor. No one was holier, guiltier, more subservient or more scrupulous in his conduct. To assure abidance Hell’s fire singed us hourly and the devil stood nearby and smiled. We all knew him personally. Mea Culpa to the tenth power, my fault. We created infractions so that our gentle pastor’s time would not be lost in the confessional. Certainly, we confessed more sins than we committed. I do penance every day and wonder why.

Our keepers taught us manners, obedience and how to respectfully reject those not of our color or sentiments, and where to draw the line when those people forgot their place. Our grey stone church was the heart of life, as secure as Gibralter. It kept me safely in and them out. Doubts and questions were prohibited. Our zealots kept watch to forestall gum chewing, giggling and scratching our private parts as we marched, eyes to the ground to beg forgiveness four times each week. Not until I became Solly Gold’s age, did I become aware of prejudice, bigotry, hypocrisy, the perfidy of young ladies and the perfect wisdom of those who wore black and spoke with raised fist and pointed finger.

In contrast to such stifling rigidness, our universalist Army Chaplain knew no rules. He operated a rapid action, foUow-the-guns church that assembled in gutted cellars. He had no time for pride or prejudice. He is remembered for giving us hope in the middle of agony, for his good humor, warm heart and indifference to shell fire and ritual. Whatever his religion of the moment, it was the right one and he delivered it equally to all comers sans apology. I remember when he drove a bullet pocked, bloodied ambulance at death defying speed with me in it; he did not think himself important.

My unshakable contract with religious doings was shaken when I was eleven. I was invited to the solemnization of my best friend’s becoming a man. Solomon Gold was my counselor; an honorable, older man wise to such mysteries as the purpose of life, why girls act that way and algebra. I listened at his feet during hot summer hours, on the stone porch of Willy’s Bakery. Solly was bound for hell as I would be if 1 went to his celebration. Although his God was older by far, my God was tougher. There was a photograph of Him in our book. With one look at His angry face I knew the odds. Mr. Gold, a shoemaker who was Solly’s father helped me through it. My counselor perished over Italy on a bomber flight from Africa. Age: twenty one and I was not allowed to be with him when he became a man.

Having gathered some skills in diplomacy, I avoid land mines: religion, most politics, racial abrasions, marital conflicts, road rage and teen morality. Otherwise I engage in such virtuous activities as not judging or berating those who differ, or preaching righteousness to sinners. You think you hear a heretic, a non-believer, don’t you? This is a believer, believe me. Humbly, I ‘confess’ (that word still curdles in my gut) that I cannot specify what it is that I am a believer of, or under what banner I should wave my icons, alert to the drums of infidels, my friends from down the street who look and talk Hke me. I have certain uncertainties.

Of some things I am reverently, absolutely sure. There is an obligation attached to the gift of life. It resides in a hope for universal brotherhood. That’s easy. Secondly, I believe that just being, devouring time, space and resources does not validate our membership. Clams can do that. We have to work outwardly, consciously at living and leam how to share what we are and what we have; a smile and a word may suffice. On the third point: I believe we should believe, upon whatever grounds we can obtain, that there is a superior state and a supreme being that we may perceive but not presume to define – by size, shape, color, texture, gender, or the noise of millions who proclaim him, her or whatever as their elected champion. That being must reside behind a partitioning veil of which we know absolutely nothing – except that someone is there and cares for us without regard for the richness of our vestments or the intensity of our shouting, delusions or malice.

What follows is at the heart of my trust; a simple incident on a single night.

At dawn, our wasted platoon was parceled out. One squad was to continue down the road. Another to hold in place. Third squad to flank and secure the high ground. Easy enough but ill-fated. By mid afternoon two more men were added to the dead of the day before, others were wounded, retrieved – and we moved on. It was minutes from darkness, too late to dig in when we stumbled into a defensible place in the dry wash of a stream bed, far forward of any support. With the company scattered and our platoon cut thin, each of us was alone. After sundown, the enemy taunted us, looking for the one who would break, call out or run. They crossed within yards of our line; we might have touched them. Then, we waited.

I can’t describe the extreme dread of that night. Scared, yes. That’s too easy. Terrified? No, judgement suffers. All we could do was … wait in our suffocating sweat and chill, don’t break – don’t breath, don’t move, don’t open your canteen or unbutton your fly; don’t scratch, nod off or whisper to the next guy. He isn’t there. What to do? Wait for the shadows of dawn, the most vulnerable time. Trust your instincts, rifle and grenades. Listen like never before and talk to your soul.

At what moment it happened, I can’t say, but it was during a perfect blackness and silence; there were no stars, no distant noises. Of the incessant buzzing and chattering of the night animals, there was none. Instead, beside me in that rocky stream bed there was a living, whispering presence. I was not dreaming or imagining and it was surely not one of our people. Old combat hands on perimeter didn’t move. To do so was suicidal; friends routinely killed friends. There was no faint music or celestial chorale; not a sound or a breath, just a certainty that when this unearthly night was done I would be alive to feel the sun. There was a firm, encouraging pressure on my left shoulder and I knew, without doubt that no matter what happened, whether 1 survived or perished it would be alright. Then I realized that he or it had gone, or was waiting nearby, just in case. The message was clear.

I enjoy deliberating the virtues, beauties and blemishes of the major religions and their expedient variants: so many overaged contradictions and complications to untangle, to ponder and crusade for at the price of trust, peace, friendships and lives. One day or night, I expect to wake up, look about and see again how simple it all is. How simple is the act of humbly reaching across a small divide and touching the other side to finish the quarrels of centuries. My friend from nowhere might be there and remember me. On that dread night long ago, someone from beyond my reach touched and comforted me. I was not alone then and realize now that I have never been alone. That is the sum of my faith and quite enough for me.

Maybe you noticed and were amused. When I am into some deep or shallow reflection, perhaps seeking the solution to someone’s problem or my own, I put my right hand on my left shoulder. It’s compulsive and it’s not an itch. That is where I was touched that night. You ask, “am I a believer.7′ Yes, totally, and no, I don’t know what I believe but I believed that night.

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