Humanist Perspectives: issue 181: Andy Mulcahy Found Humanism on the Battlefield as a World War II Veteran

Andy Mulcahy Found Humanism on the Battlefield as a World War II Veteran
by Nancy P. Swartz

I

first met Andy Mulcahy at the Victoria Police Station in 2002. No, I wasn’t visiting him in The Big House, that’s where the Victoria Secular Humanist Association (VSHA) met on Sunday Mornings.

[Andy] joined the Canadian Scottish Regiment at barely 17; it was 1939. Preparation for war took Andy across Canada and Europe, right up to the Normandy beach landing on D-Day June 6, 1944.

Some people probably thought that was exactly where a bunch of atheists and agnostics belonged; however, we met in the Police Department’s Community Meeting Room, and there were no charges.

Husband Jerry and I had wanted to join a humanist group for years, but there wasn’t an opportunity, living on an off-grid island. But once we found our place in Victoria, and bought a car, we decided to look up the group.

Andy was the chair; the small group had decided not to use the title of president, wanting to be egalitarian. But they did need a treasurer, and Andy approached me about the job. Over time Andy’s history was revealed and I felt his experiences should be recorded. In 2007, thanks to the editing of respected author Tricia Dower, Silent Girl (Inanna 2008) and Stony River (Penguin 2012), VSHA published Stories of Secular Humans about the lives of three remarkable VSHA members who had been profoundly affected by the Second World War.

Andy named his part of the book “Slouching Towards Secularism.” He was born in 1922 in Victoria BC, and joined the Canadian Scottish Regiment at barely 17; it was 1939. Preparation for war took Andy across Canada and Europe, right up to the Normandy beach landing on D-Day June 6, 1944. It was hellish; Andy was a hero, but claims that many others were better men, yet not lucky enough to survive. He said, “Of all the battles we were in, the one on June 8 was the worst.” But he added that crossing the Leopold Canal and the battle at Heseler Feld (“Slaughter Hill”) in Germany stand out in horror. Andy said, “I used to pray to live one half-hour more. I don’t know why a half-hour, but maybe I felt that was the best deal any god could give me under the circumstances.”

It was October 1944, the dawn after the terrible Leopold crossing, when Andy awoke “to see dead Germans nearby and to hear moans and cries.” He said, “Out of the blue it occurred to me that there was no such thing as a god. I didn’t mention it to anyone at the time because I thought they already knew. I didn’t want to look like a fool...it all made sense.” He reasoned that belief in god, like Santa Claus, was for children.

The fighting ended for Andy at Heseler Feld; hit by an MG 42 bullet. His release from hospital had been held up, so on VE-Day May 7, 1945, Andy and a friend sneaked out of the hospital to join the celebration, but by the time they got over a wire fence with Andy’s weak arm and his friend’s leg in a cast – the boys missed the party. Andy left for Canada on a hospital ship the next day.

On the back cover of Stories of Secular Humans I wrote: “The account of Andy’s D-Day action is riveting and the experience informs the man he has become: intelligent, generous, modest and dedicated to increasing human happiness through promotion of a reasoned understanding of our world. Told with self-deprecating wit, his story takes us from his boyhood in Victoria, BC, in the 1920s and 1930s to his war years of 1939 to 1945 and beyond.”

The book is available by contacting www.vsha.ca if you want to read about Andy’s earliest years.

They say that organizing secular humanists is like herding cats – surely this applies to the VSHA.

Andy and I went from being the best of friends to agreeing to disagree.

It started when he decided to retire from the board. For years Andy had generously paid for and produced the VSHA newsletter, politely refusing earlier offers of help from members or our treasury. The remaining members of the board were sad and a bit worried to see him go.

Marianne Brackenridge, our long time Secretary was the natural successor to Andy as chair, agreeing to add to her responsibilities. I remember the meeting when she said to Andy, “We’re sorry to be losing you, Andy, but at least we still have our newsletter.” Andy replied, “VSHA doesn’t have a newsletter. This is my newsletter.”

We carried on and our membership continued to grow. We had 80 members at that time and in the next couple of years we reached over 100. Andy continued to produce and mail out a monthly secular humanist newsletter including all VSHA events and Marianne’s speaker meeting notes.

Andy saw early computers fail spectacularly but was still intrigued by them. Far from being discouraged about the potential of computers, Andy became an early adaptor.

He said, “I went to Bellingham, Washington and got a TI (Texas Instruments). It was just a small machine, but was considered the best in the business. It was one of the first ones. You could type in all kinds of mathematical things. But when you started it up again it was completely blind because there was no hard-drive in those days. And then I went to an Atom... and Amiga came next. Amiga has to be the best machine ever built. Again it had no hard-drive; you had to match up these little disks...The only things these computers could do is boot. That was it.

Then in the 1980s, the Radio Shack Tandy came out. It had a hard-drive, so you didn’t lose everything when you shut it down. I went through three of them over a period of time, they were pretty good and they were cheaper than some of the other models. Of course then Windows came along with the possibility of using a mouse and other things like graphics. The first one was Windows 97 then Windows XP and Vista, which is terrible.”

“The only thing you could go on the net for was the Free Net, strictly through the telephone lines. You had to use languages to communicate. I didn’t do a great deal with the computer in those days; I was just playing around with calculations and mathematical stuff. We used it just like a calculator and it was amazing to see it do very complex mathematical problems. But it wasn’t really worth the trouble; you had to keep putting the tape back in. Later, I used the TV for the screen when the Atom had an all in one word processor. And with that I wrote my first letter to the editor.”

Andy has had 100s of “letters to the editor” published across Canada.

Today, Andy is on his computer seven hours a day. He said, “I use five humanist and atheist list servers. A lot of it is junk, but a lot calls for research and response. I research webpages, I check webpages. Emails need answers and research. I even use the computer for a dictionary.”

Andy Mulcahy
Andy relaxes outside the Tea Room after a summer’s day stroll through beautiful Abkhazi Gardens in Victoria, BC with wife Joanne, and visitors Heidi and Richard. Photo by Richard Young, 2009

Andy uses social media, too, but not for socializing. He said, “I’ve been using Facebook for about a year and a half. It’s a pretty effective way to get information out. If you write a letter, you can only write to the editor once and maybe you won’t get another one in the newspaper for a long time. But on Facebook you can go ahead and put out as much as you want. My last letter was about religion being the cause of anti-Semitism.” He grins and says, “It was followed by a whole bunch of letters all jumping on me.”

And about Twitter Andy says, “One of my Tweets about the need to get rid of Harper got sent around 3,500 times. So you have a real effect. You can show a lot of people your point of view and it really seems to work. In the paper you get one letter in and a small percentage actually read it. And ten percent of them might change their attitude. That’s why I use twitter because it’s a lot more effective.”

Then I asked Andy what he found most useful about computers. He thought for a moment, while his wife Joanne poured tea, and said, “I guess the most important thing is you are able to communicate with society. To a lot of people, this is the biggest boon for seniors that you can imagine. For people who can’t get out of a wheelchair, get down the street, look at Stephen Hawkins, he’s got a brilliant brain working all the time. When you’re not able to go to meetings, the computer is a way that you can get your messages out. I get my message out through VSHA as well as Facebook and Twitter. I spend a lot of time on humanist list servers and I send out my newsletter to all those places. I also get newsletters from those places too.”

Besides publishing a monthly secular humanist newsletter, Andy has a blog for his poetry and commentary. His blog is www.SecularSamaritans.wordpress.com and it’s called Modest Monist. Andy said that without a computer it would be rough for him, that he would be isolated.

He continued, “It gives me something to be interested in; it’s something that keeps me going every day. I feel I have more say in the country.”

But Andy cautions, “On the Internet there is a vast amount of information and what’s important is that you be able to decide if it is valid and useful to you.”

Then he said, “I read about a guy in Winnipeg who walked 40 miles through a blizzard so he could get to read a book.

Today you can get more information coming to you on your doorstep than you can handle. Acquiring the information is not the problem.”

He gave me an example, “A lot of people look up medical things but go to the wrong places and get the wrong treatments that are pretty rough. The skill is in determining what is valid.”

I wanted to know how Andy became a secular humanist. He said, “I started out believing. I went to church and stuff like that. But after we came back from the war and got settled down, the news of the Holocaust came out. And then women would be beaten for not going to church. I was opposed to the religious stuff that was going on. But what really triggered me was an old short story by Shirley Jackson called The Lottery. It showed how a culture develops rules that are really cruel, but no one thinks of them as cruel.”

“A lot of guys my age still think Jews steal children for their rituals. I believed that kind of stuff when I was in my teens. Then I joined the Army because there was a real depression. A soldier said Jews have all the money; they could buy anybody they wanted. That’s the way we all thought. Some people just don’t change thinking that way; their attitude is the same. I’m a strong believer in rejecting information from your brain that is no longer valid.”

Andy credits books for giving him the depth of information needed to change his mind. But after reading books he turns to his computer. He said, “Books first change the way I think about things, and the computer also helps eject information from my head replacing it with new information.” Every day on the computer he goes to the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, and our local paper, the Times Colonist, as well as the Global Secular Humanist site.

He said, “The New York Times is unbiased in my opinion; you get an idea of what’s going on today.”

Laughing, he added, “If you want to get the radical side, you get the National Post. That is, radical to the right – there are no radicals to the left!”

That’s Andy – an original and still going strong. Raise a glass with his friends and admirers, August 3rd on the occasion of Andy’s 90th birthday.

Nancy P. Swartz has recently completed a MA in Professional Communications from Royal Roads University. She and her husband Jerry divide their time living off-grid on Prevost Island, and in Victoria, British Columbia. They are active members of the Victoria Secular Humanist Association. Currently, Nancy is researching and writing a series of articles that reflect secular humanist perspectives.

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