Atheist in a Foxhole

by Terry Davis

 

Four principles governed my father's life: 1. Look at things to see how they work; 2. Know how to fix things when they break; 3. Love the job you're doing; 4. Be a man who does what he says.
 
Joe Russell was not a moralist or philosopher.  He was a mechanic.  Those are his behaviors and my words to describe them.  He lived those principles and taught them to me and my brother by example.  It was later - after he and mom and Jesse were dead and I was desperate for a way to live - that I saw how he had lived and put it into words.
 
Principles reveal themselves in action.  He showed me how to fix a flat on my bike with tire irons instead of screwdrivers so I wouldn't puncture the tube.  None of my friends had even heard of a tire iron.  When I broke a pane out of the storm door with the handle of my fish pole, he showed me how to cut the glass, how to replace it, anchor the pane in the frame with glazier's points, then seal it with glazing compound.
 
I was in fourth grade when I asked Mom about the word vacuum on my spelling list.  She made me look it up, but I still didn't get it.  I. State of emptiness. 2. Space in which the pressure is significantly lower than atmosphere pressure. And so?
 
So Dad walks me down to the three-car shop he built on our five acres northwest of Spokane.  We've gone over the principles of internal combustion, but he says he left something out.  He has a Triumph Cub engine on the bench, 200 cc., single-cylinder.  The cylinder head is off, so we're looking down into the combustion chamber at the crown of the piston.  He turns the engine sprocket and the piston goes up and down with a swooshy gulp.  He grabs the head and sets it on the cylinder.  He grabs the carburetor and holds it up to the intake port.  "Okay, Dad says, "what makes the air-fuel mix flow into the combustion chamber?"
 
I refer to the following as the gas engine litany: spark plug ignites fuel-air mix and explosion drives piston down into combustion chamber; exhaust valve opens, piston is forced upward by action of crankshaft, and exhaust gasses are expelled; exhaust valve closes; piston goes back down, intake valve opens allowing air into chamber; fuel-air mix is sucked into chamber; intake valve closes; rising piston compresses fuel-air mix; spark plug ignites mixture and explosion drives piston ... and so on.  I didn't say it quite like that when I was ten.
 
"Okay," Dad says.  "But what makes the mixture flow into the combustion chamber?"
 
I look at him.
 
"A vacuum," he says.
 
I look at him.
 
"When the piston moves down on the intake stroke it creates lower air pressure in the combustion chamber than in the carburetor, so the fuel-air mix is sucked in.
 
I look.
 
"There's no air in the combustion chamber for that fraction of a second," Dad says. "And there's all kinds of air pressure in the carburetor and in the world.  The air-fuel mix shoots in to fill the vacuum."
 
"Why?" I ask.
 
"Because that's the way nature works," Dad says.
 
My father did not say nature abhors a vacuum, which is an inaccurate observation as well as a cliché.  Nature doesn't abhor anything.  Nature has no feelings.  Nature just is.
 
Dad conducted himself as though no force natural or supernatural existed to help him through the world.  He lived as though he and his family were an unaligned nation, and only by living with meticulous care, and with the grace of fortune, would he be able to lead us through the world safely.  I think he believed that the forces of nature, in league as they are with the forces of chance, are too strong.
 
I never saw him pray or set foot in a church.  I don't think I ever heard him use the word God except in common phrases such as God knows or for God's sake, the imperative God damn and the adjectival goddamn. When he couldn't figure why something wouldn't work the first time he eyeballed it, he might use the more generous expletive which included both deities: Jesus fucking God.  Dad didn't use this one much; he didn't mind offending deities, but he didn't like offending people.
 
He never talked to me about the thoughts behind his actions.  He may not have wanted to articulate them, or he may not have been able to.  I suppose it's also possible that he didn't bring his mind to bear on such questions.  But it doesn't make sense to me that a man who could re­wire a B-29 while people were shooting at him would be a stranger to introspection.
 
Dad saw to it that my brother and I had chores.  Starting when Jesse was three he had to put his toys in his toy box before he went to bed.  And it didn't take him long to understand why.  Dad would come in to check on him, step on his tinker toys in the dark and smash them to smithereens; Mom would kick one of his favorite army men under the dresser and he'd think he lost it.  The clincher, though, was Jesse himself getting up from a bad dream to snuggle with Mom and Dad, and taking a header on his Texaco tanker truck.
 
Jesse didn't survive to articulate it, but by the time he was six years old he'd learned that we become the cause of most of our accidents when we don't pay attention to how we live.
 
Work made sense.  Jesse cleaned his room so his stuff didn't get wrecked or wreck him.  I took the garbage out because it was ugly and smelled bad and attracted vermin when I didn't.  I fed our dog Yogi because he couldn't open a can, and because we all loved him and didn't want him going hungry. But I could never make my peace with raking the yard.
 
We had a huge yard with big old pines and elms, so the crop of needles and leaves was staggering.  I liked most work, and I could talk myself into liking what wasn't immediately likeable, but I hated raking leaves.  Leaves were where Dad and I parted company.  We were not buddies when it came to rake work.
 
One Saturday in late fall of my seventh grade year I went out to rake after Dad had told me for weeks to do it.  The whole yard was covered: pine needles on the bottom, leaves over top of them, and the whole mess wet from rain.  I stood in the middle with my brown cotton gloves, my rake, my wheelbarrow, and my awareness of life's inequities.
 
I was overwhelmed.  I started where I stood.  I raked a five-foot circle clear, then I raked another circle in another place; then I loaded the soggy mass into the wheelbarrow and pushed it to the garden.  When I got back, Dad was standing with a rake in his hand in one of the circles of bare grass.
 
He handed me the rake.  "Let me show you something, Karl," he said.
 
We walked to a corner of the yard and Dad started raking.  He raked back six feet from the corner; then he started at the clear spot and raked another six feet.  He did that until he had a rectangle of clear grass running the length of the yard.  At the bottom of the rectangle lay a row of leaves and needles.
 
"See that row?" he asked.
 
It was hard to miss.
 
"That's a windrow," he said.  "The leaves and pine needles are bound up together.  They're binding on each other, and when the wind comes it's going to have a harder time blowing them around.  That's why it's called a windrow.  And look at that straight line," he said.  He couldn't have made it straighter with a T-square.
 
"A guy can be proud of a straight line," Dad said.
 
Did I experience a linear epiphany?  Did I redirect my life's goal of playing professional baseball and become a raker?  No, I did not.
 
But I raked the whole yard in windrows, and the work went easier.  And I did feel satisfaction in the straight rows of leaves and pine needles and the perfect square of bare shiny grass.  Symmetry is another word I never heard my father use.  But it was another thing he taught me.
 
When I'd done half the yard and had a big pile in the fire pit Dad showed up with the kerosene can and soaked it down and lit it.  He tossed a pallet on.  After a while the kerosene burnt off and that great smell of burning leaves and needles blew out over the yard.  I kept coming with more; then I took a break and tossed on another pallet and watched the flames and the gray smoke.
 
"A guy can always find something to like about a job," Dad said.  "If you don't like the feel of the rake through your shoulders, maybe you can like the smell of the leaves.  Maybe you can like the color of the grass that's under there.  If you're digging a ditch for waterline, you can like the feel through your foot and up your leg of the shovel biting into the ground.  If it's rocky ground, and it's hot and the flies are swarming and you're thirsty and it's a miserable sonofabitch and you can't think of a single thing to like, you can always like it that you're alive enough to dig a ditch, that you're not in the ground yourself."
 
Dad served with the Army Air Corps in the Pacific.  He was an airplane mechanic.  The only war story he ever told was about being in a hangar on Iwo Jima when a Japanese 150mm artillery shell hit.  The hangar was huge, Dad said, with a lot of men and planes in it, and it was reduced to sticks and corrugated metal.  He was underneath a Marine Corsair at the other end from where the shell hit and the fire started.  Guys knew he was in there.  They called to him and he called back, but digging him out went slow.  He heard men screaming and planes exploding.  The fire got close enough for him to feel the heat and hear the crackling of wood and the crumpling of the long sheets of corrugated metal.  His buddies gave up digging by hand, and a man Dad had never met -- a man named Karl Fisher from Muskatine, Iowa, jumped on a bulldozer and shaved a corner off the rubble.  The blade caught a wing on the Corsair and gas went everywhere, including all over Dad.  He scrambled through the mess, rolled to his feet and ripped off his clothes as he ran.  He was naked as a jaybird when the Corsair blew.  Dad was fine, but a piece of aluminum from the skin of the plane flew through the dozer's rollcage like a circular saw and cut Karl Fisher from his belt buckle to his spine.
 
I never heard my father thank God for saving him, like a wide receiver on TV thanking God for helping him hold that tough hook-and-go.  But I did hear him thank Karl Fisher a number of times over the years.
Joe and Merry Russell named their firstborn Karl Fisher Russell.
 
As I look back I imagine how Dad’s time in the Pacific might have shaped him.  I don't know that it did, but a guy's way of life has to have an origin somewhere.
 
In the eighteen years I knew him I never heard my father use the word morality.  He did use intregity, but mostly it was honesty.  Dad would say of people, "He's an honest man, or "She's an honest woman."  If my father had no moral sense, then on what basis would he have taught me to keep my word?  He did have a moral sense; he just didn't have a moral vocabulary.
 
I see now that practicality was the guiding principle of my father's life.  He explained why I needed to be home when I said I would: he and Mom knew I was a boy who did what he said he'd do, so if I weren't home when I said I'd be home that meant I wasn't capable of coming home, and that meant trouble.  So was I always home when I said I'd be?  Even after I gained the independence that a driver's license and a '51 Ford give a teenager, did I always roll in when I said I would?  Not a chance.  But I always called.
 
Dad was consistent.  If he said we'd go fishing, we went.  If he told Mom he'd fix the screen where the flies were getting in, the screen got fixed.  And when we didn't go fishing when he said he would, or when the screen didn't get fixed on time, he'd look me or Mom in the face and say, "I screwed up."
 
Dad's ultimate example of integrity -- although he never used that word -- was his foxhole speech.  I never appreciated it until he wasn't around to deliver it anymore.
 
It was a summer evening in 1956.  I was waist-deep in a hole in the unplanted part of the garden.  I'd started digging to gather fishing worms, but after my Prince Albert can was full I got another idea.  Dad spied the dirt flying and ambled over from the shop.
 
"I'm digging a foxhole," I say.  "I'm staying here tonight.  I'm going to spotlight the deer."  Deer had been decimating our apples.  I hold up the big battery lantern.
 
"Too bad you don't have a buddy to keep you awake," Dad says.
 
I look at him.
 
"What if you get tired and fall asleep and those deer walk through your perimeter?  They'll eat the apples, and you'll never even know they were there."
 
I tell him I can stay awake.
 
"If you had a buddy you could trust," Dad says, "you could sleep awhile.  He'd wake you when he said he would, then he could sleep awhile.  Then you'd wake him when you said you would.  When the deer came, one of you'd be up to wake the other."
 
I tell him I'm not tired.
 
"A guy gets down in a hole and leans his head against the dirt after a hard day," Dad says, "it can be so easy to fall asleep you don't even know when it happens. Then when the night is darkest, the deer walk in and eat your hat off."
I look at him.
 
"But if you can trust your buddy, and your buddy can trust you," he says, "you both get a good sleep.  You won't be seeing visions of those deer sneaking up on you. You'll be the ones to give the deer a surprise."
 
As I hit these typewriter keys, I see my father silhouetted in the last glow of sun as he walks between rows of beans back to the shop.  It breaks my heart to think he had been volunteering to be my deer-spotting buddy.
 
So why did this careful, practical man drive a plastic car?  It was Fiberglas, actually, a 1958 Corvette.  But when a drunk in a Buick Roadmaster wagon hits you and your wife and youngest son sitting on her lap at 75, the difference between the two non-metals isn't relevant.  We had other cars: a '53 Willys Overland, and a two-wheel drive GMC.  But Jesse begged to ride in the ‘Vette.
 
And why would this careful, practical man bring his little boy to be the third person in a two-seater?  Maybe Jesse begged to go, and maybe Dad’s discipline wasn’t running on all cylinders that day.  It was July 4, 1963, and I was playing a double-header.  Maybe Mom and Dad felt that Jesse needed an afternoon alone with them.  It was a seventeen-mile drive north from Spokane to the little town of Deer Park for the drag races.  They would watch from the pits with Dad and his hot rod pals, then have a cookout by the slow little stream in the park on the other side of town, away from the roar and the fumes, where Mom would sit and read until Dad and Jesse tooled in top-down. Yogi had to stay home: no room in the two-seater for a silky moose-dog.
 
Was the death of my family a lesson in caution?  No, it was not.  I ride Dad's 1962 Harley-Davidson Duo-Glide every day the weather allows.  And I don't wear a helmet.  Do I have something to prove?  Do I think I'm a tough guy?  No.  I just don't like wearing a helmet.  Protective gear or not, we all take our chances with chance.
 
There is no atheist in a foxhole.  This cliché implies that when the direct hit is on its way, every one of us knuckles under to our fear of death and begs God to intercede.
 
I wonder, in those last seconds when the Buick wagon bore down on the Corvette grill-to­-grill, if Dad begged God for a hand.  Everything I know about him tells me he was too busy trying to fix on his own the lethal thing that was breaking.

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