After 140 days stuck in Pennsylvania with the wanderlust blues again, we’re on the road once more.
More than two weeks have disappeared into the rapacious maw of eternity since I wrote the above sentence.
We’ve traveled more than 2,500 miles and seen everything from the Great Smoky Mountains to the enveloping flatness of Lubbock, Texas. We spent a week in Austin, ingesting music, tacos and alcohol at a frightful pace. Now we sit in a corporate outpost in northeast Albuquerque, beneath the bruising Sandia Mountains. Through it all, this Web journal sits derelict, ethereal weeds threatening to choke the life out of it for good.
So, so. It was refreshing as it was troubling to be back in the home country, for reasons too obvious and tortured to parse right now. My sister,
now two nearly three months out from the end of her cancer treatment, came down with some nasty complications earlier in the month, delaying our departure.
On the up side, Debbie’s stint in Paoli Hospital afforded me extra time to neglect the routine automotive maintenance I had meticulously avoided for four and a half months.
Neglect it I did, with gusto.
Everything from checking the Petroleum Monster’s oil to making sure all lights functioned properly to assuring we had ample propane for cooking was scrupulously overlooked. I even made sure we hit the road without current Washington state tabs and registration, daring cops from Taneytown to Texarkana to pull us over and impose heartbreaking fines. We had renewed said tabs six months ago while eastward bound, and they sat unmolested on our kitchen table outside Gig Harbor as we embarked on our westward trek.
All the above made me appreciate the following more acutely than ever: If you tally the vast spectrum of everyday skills and traits that in aggregate make up the average life, I am crap at roughly 90-95 percent of them. And so it was that I endured richly deserved humiliation when Becky’s ever-accommodating father, now firmly convinced of my idiocy, took up position behind the behemoth to check the working condition of the lights as we prepared to ease out of the Breslins’ driveway at 531 Woodside Ave.
One of the many things I’m
not so good terrible at is writing down the stories I accumulate in a timely fashion, so as not to risk losing them for eternity. Take a look at Arnold Via (below), for instance.
Some face, ain’t it?
It’s always tough to regain the rhythm of the road, shed the fear of dark highways and overcome discomfit with all things alien and strange. Hoping to jump-start our return journey, I concocted a plan to visit Mr. Via, former vice president of American Atheists, in Grottoes, Va., at the family’s ancestral compound in the winsome Shenandoah Valley.
But he’s not just Arnold Via the atheist, close comrade and friend of slain atheist leader Madalyn Murray O’Hair. He’s also the one and only Kenny Via’s (great) Uncle Arnold.
Kenny Via (who only seconds ago delivered this searing taunt from the electronic cheap seats: “When are you gonna write something, you lazy bastard?” Good question.) ranks as friend extraordinaire and all-around mensch. While we went AWOL in America, Kenny Via has been selflessly scooping cat shit and nourishing an invisible feline at our abandoned house in the methamphetamine wilds outside Gig Harbor.
First of all, some linguistic housekeeping: Arnold Via, 85, pronounces his surname “Vie,” which rhymes with “why” and (I’m so lonesome I could) “cry.” This is how the family traditionally has articulated the name in the northern Virginia hill country. The apostate Vias of western Washington pronounce it “Vee-ah,” which rhymes with (Mamma) “Mia” and (agua) “fria.”
Now that we got that out of the way, on to our departure. We left Thursday night (March 8), making our way diffidently through Delaware and Maryland, passing in silence the ghosts of Antietam, who’ll celebrate the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest day this fall.
Acquainted with our genius for dawdling, Kenny Via did not want to bother his uncle with news of our visit until he was sure we’d make a good-faith effort to show up. As we blundered onto the road, Kenny discovered his uncle, battling a case of gangrene that has claimed one of his toes, had left his Grottoes home and is residing at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Martinsburg, W. Va.
With the sad news in hand, we camped Thursday night in Martinsburg and hoped to spring upon Uncle Arnold early the next day.
As usual, nothing went according to plan. After hours of confusion, worry and some critical paving of the way by Kenny, we arrived, in the spirit of A.P. Hill at Sharpsburg, late in the afternoon at Uncle Arnold’s fifth-floor room.
At first blush I thought we had stumbled upon the last, ancient Civil War veteran lying on his death bed. Arnold looked up and greeted us with a confused, troubling mumble.
It didn’t appear we were going to have much of a visit. Given a chance to regroup, however, Arnold rose to the occasion and came out swinging like a true Via. We stayed for several hours, had a wonderful time and even took a walk around the ward before bidding Arnold adieu. By the time we left, we were such old friends that Arnold even took off his shoe and sock and granted Max’s request for a peek at his amputated toe.
Arnold, alas, had difficulty deciphering my hopeless Yankee mumble, leaving Becky to serve as translator. And then, about halfway through our visit, I brilliantly managed to delete the record of our conversation from my laptop.
Arnold Via grew up the son of William “Shake” and Cora Bell Via in Grottoes. He figures his daddy got his nickname from his skill at cutting wood shingles. He’s one of at least five (and maybe as many as seven) Via boys to serve in World War II. He never married, though he says he fell in love a few times along the way. And he says he hasn’t had a drink since Dec. 21, 1975, about the time he left the Merchant Marines and moved back in with his mother.
As it went, we didn’t talk much about his tenure with American Atheists, or his close association with American Atheists founder and longtime president O’Hair, who was abducted and murdered along with a son and granddaughter in 1995.
We chatted about his conversion to atheism and his time spent in the hellish crucible of World War II as an anti-aircraft gunner on the USS Denver, a light cruiser that endured its share of torment in the Pacific campaign.
On Halloween 1943, the Denver was hit by three eight-inch shells off Cape Torokina during the Bougainville campaign. The shells failed to explode, sparing the ship serious damage. Two weeks later, she wasn’t so fortunate.
Sometime around 3 a.m., the Denver was struck by an aerial torpedo, leaving the ship adrift in Empress Augusta Bay off the coast of Papua New Guinea.
“Six times the Japanese made a raid on us in the morning to keep us awake,” Arnold said. “On this particular morning they started in, we opened fire and three of them slipped through. One of them got pretty close and dropped the bomb.
“It knocked out three engines, killed 20 people, put the kitchen out of commission.”
The survivors were left in dicey straits, their crippled ship a sitting duck bobbing in dangerous waters.
“We were dead in the water,” he said. “We noticed Japanese bombers circling over head, looking like a hawk getting ready to grab a chicken. They dropped some bombs that hit nothing. They were pretty poor bombers. I was thankful.”
After getting towed to Mare Island for repairs, the Denver returned to the Pacific the following June. In October, Via encountered perhaps a more profound terror, staying at his gun for mind-bending stretches in a frantic effort to fight off kamikaze bombers during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. On Nov. 27, a bomb from a downed kamikaze exploded, wounding four Denver sailors.
“I was on the bow of the ship on the port side,” he said. “I saw eight of them crash one evening at Leyte Harbor. They all missed their targets. … We shot down several of them. They would circle around for a convenient time to start down. I helped shoot down two of them myself. I enjoyed that.
“Come to think of it, it’s a shame. Those young people in those suicide planes had orders not to return. They headed out to mission whether they liked it or not. Just young people people, teenagers.
“War is a dirty business, no matter which side you’re on.”
I asked if the hell of war triggered his conversion to atheism. It seemed a reasonable guess. He laughed sardonically.
“That made me a better Christian when we got hit, a stronger believer, because I was saved,” he said. “I must’ve thanked Jesus a hundred times, or a thousand times.”
His journey to atheism came full flower in a makeshift Catholic church on the Philippines, when a priest’s attempted conversion backfired and blew up in his cassock. As Arnold kneeled before the baptismal font, he was hit by an epiphany.
“I went running out of there as fast as I could,” he said. “Once I had a chance to catch my breath, I thought ‘that son of a bitch almost got me.”
Editor’s note: Remember that tragic bit above about how I deleted the first half of our conversation? Sitting here half-awake in a demi-McDonald’s tucked into a Walmart Supercenter, wrapped up in a great corporate enigma, a full nineteen days after our visit, and one day after finally posting this chronicle, I discovered the missing file while looking for some other missing notes. Here follows in full the transcription of Arnold describing his conversion:
“I wasn’t a born-again atheist, I was born-again Christian,” he said. “I thought I was a good Christian. My mother wanted us to be good Christians. When I went into the Navy, I was a good Christian. I did church service on the ship, prayers and everything to go with it. When I was in the Philippines, when I asked the chaplain about going to Sunday morning church, he said he would love to have me. I didn’t know what it meant then. … I went in and sat down and started getting a little nervous. …
“The more I sat there, the more I thought about it. I knew nothing about Roman Catholics at the time. I had never seen a Roman Catholic in Grottoes. This guy was speaking in a foreign language. He was halfway through the baptism when all at once it hit me. I said, ‘this guy’s crazy, and I’m crazy.’ I converted to atheism in front of the alter. I almost ran out of the church I was so mad at myself. I stood outside and thought, ‘the son of a bitch almost had me.”
Atheism, he said, was a foreign concept at the time.
“It was a strange experience,” he said. “I never did figure it out. I gave it serious thought for the first four or five years. I couldn’t find anything written on atheism. I couldn’t meet any atheist on the streets or the bars or the cat houses.
“I thought I was the only one in the world. I didn’t realize what an atheist was. … I had never heard of the word before that before I converted. That’s what shocked me so bad.”
He says he suffered a series of mental breakdowns brought on by his time on the Denver’s bow. He drifted for four or five years after the close of the war, trying to make sense of the hell he had endured and his newfound faith.
Turns out he wasn’t alone. He says two of his brothers also had embraced atheism during the war. His oldest brother, Rufus, returned from England with book by New York atheist Joseph Lewis called “The Bible Unmasked.” (Lewis was founder of the Free Thinkers of America.)
At the veterans hospital, Arnold says he prefers to spend his time in solitary contemplation. He usually turns down invitations to play bingo or gather for donuts.
“You find out who you are when you don’t go out of your room and spend your time alone without interference,” he said.
Has anything in the intervening decades prompted a crisis of faith?
“Hell no,” he said. “Not now. Hell no. I’ve been sick and had a hundred incidents that would’ve challenged most people. I grow stronger. …
“It’s all over with. I’m atheistic and that’s the end of it.”
He says he doesn’t talk about his beliefs in Martinsburg, afraid he’ll offend someone on staff and make life more difficult for himself.
“I’m not going to shake the tree,” he said. “I don’t want them to criticize me. I just want them to leave me the fuck alone. They will eventually find out. I’ve been approached by half a dozen of the staff, some of them wearing big crosses on their necks. It don’t bother me. It can’t bother me. So I’m not going to say something deliberately to upset them.”
In the end, does he have any prescriptions for living the good life?
“You enjoy life as much as you know how and try to be good without being religious,” he said. “Just try to take care of your family and treat yourself right.”
Lagniappe: A few thoughts from Arnold Via
- “I think we could do the world a favor if all humans would drop dead in the next 24 hours and just let the earth sit here and rot.”
- “I don’t trust doctors, preachers, married women.”
- “I think a couple is a wonderful thing if they can live together and grow up together and be in touch. I couldn’t handle it myself.”
- “Have you ever thought about the end of the world? No? Start. According to the records, there’s seven billion people on earth today. You can bet your last dollar a mere 100 years from now the majority of those seven billion will be dead, rotten and forgotten.”