Remembering America's Heroes
As we search for perspective on the September 11 attack, we pay tribute to America's heroes.
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02
The tears are fresh here. The people walking slowly down the unfinished plywood exit ramp at the Ground Zero viewing platform seem lost in their own pained reverie. Eyes are red. Their glances toward those in line waiting to climb the entrance ramp are sympathetic and knowing. Trudging up the gentle incline, past the hand-painted banners from schoolchildren carrying the message "God Bless America," the gravestones in the cemetery behind St. Paul's Chapel come into full view just as the magnitude of the devastation becomes visible below. The platform's stark wooden walls, reminiscent of the black marble facade of Washington, D.C.'s Vietnam War Memorial, are filled with handwritten messages penned in black, green or red ink or Magic Marker or just pencil.
"We will Never Forget You. The Fleck Family. 12/30/01." "Paul Gilbey. I miss you so much. You will never be forgotten. Love always, Sandra." "We didn't know you then. We will never forget you now. Barry. 1/10/02." There are messages from every state of the union, as well as Ireland, Canada and the Netherlands, among others. Ignacio from Toluca, Mexico, wrote, "Hate destroyed your towers, but it will never destroy your valor or your courage. God Bless America." There's not a square inch of the walls on the actual viewing platform that hasn't been inscribed with messages. As you leave, on the last piece of plywood at the bottom of the ramp, the words of Debbie from Texas jump out: "It will never be over."
It's a cold and windy but sunny day in January, nearly four months to the hour after Al Qaeda terrorists flew commercial jetliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, in New York City, and the Pentagon, in Washington. Dozens of men, women and children pack the platform. Since the viewing platform opened on December 30, lines of two to three and even four hours long had jammed the streets of lower Manhattan, finally forcing the city to start issuing free tickets just to control the crowds. The quiet, reverential whispers of the crowd are nonetheless lost in the low rumble from the line of dump trucks carting debris from "The Pit," the underground cavern filled with the remnants of the collapsed towers where most of the work is being done now. The arched arms of cranes and steam shovels frame the twisted piles of steel girders and dirt, and the ongoing repairs to the facades of the World Financial Center on the far side of the site.
One thing seems absolutely clear; everyone here is seeking a place where they can come to grips with the horror, maybe even to discover a place where they can restore some of the solace that vanished from their lives on September 11. It's not an easy place to find.
The process of healing has occurred at a different pace for each of us. Each time I've felt some degree of equanimity about the attacks, I'll read another gripping account of someone who survived the collapse of the towers, or someone who didn't make it out, or someone who fought with the hijackers on United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. Or I will feel the tears running down my face at the Ground Zero viewing platform, my breath labored, my stomach tight with anxiety. Each time, I'm reminded that all is not normal. Nothing is the same. And, I know in my bones that I haven't found enough distance yet to put my feelings of anger and anguish in some kind of permanent perspective.
Those are some of the reminders that September 11 has changed me. Forever.
Some basic things aren't different. After all, I'm an American just as I have been my entire life. But I'm keenly aware today that I had forgotten what that meant. It wasn't that I couldn't recall the words to the Star Spangled Banner, the Pledge of Allegiance, "America the Beautiful" or "God Bless America," but I couldn't remember the last time I'd sung or recited their words with feeling or with tears in my eyes. I'd used the Declaration of Independence as a theme for editorials in Cigar Aficionado, but I'd used it to make points about personal freedoms, not as a foundation for my love of America. I'd never owned a flag.
Don't get me wrong. I was not unpatriotic. I'd spent too much time in Third World dictatorships to not have a passion for the cornerstones of American democracy: human rights, the right to vote, the right to our opinions, the right to worship as we please, the privileges of wealth and prosperity. In fact, I was a vociferous defender of those freedoms and privileges, even adopting a traditional conservatism about the appropriate, diminished role of government in our lives to preserve our precious freedoms. But like most Americans, I had grown complacent. It wasn't that I had forgotten our nation's core values, but I wasn't reminded often enough about what it takes to ensure that they exist forever.
That's where I first felt the differences, that first Saturday after the attacks, when in a driving rainstorm I set out to find a flag. My local discount retailers, Kmart, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Target and BJs, were all sold out of American flags. I searched the Yellow Pages, where I found a flag store about an hour from my house. I called. The proprietor had a few remaining, but said people were coming in like crazy and he wouldn't hold it for more than an hour. I begged him to save me one. He said he couldn't promise anything. I got in my car, and started calling him every 10 minutes to report my progress on the rain-slick freeways. Finally after the third call, he laughed, and said, "It's put aside. It's got your name on it. I know, I know already; you're on your way." I stood in line as others bought their flags. When the next day dawned sunny, that 4- by-6-foot Stars and Stripes hung in front of my house.
There was the flood of tears that accompanied the first renditions of the Star Spangled Banner and "God Bless America" that I heard on television in the first weeks following the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Every time I've heard them since, the tears come again. Celine Dion on the televised memorial service that first Friday night. The Yankee Stadium service for the fallen police officers, firefighters and emergency workers. The first World Series game on television. The Wine Spectator's "New York Wine Experience" when Douglas Rodriguez, of the New York City Police Department, sent chills up my spine with his stirring performance of "God Bless America":
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