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Saturday, September 11, 2010

“Lest We Forget”:Remembering in the Valley…

Memorial ArchMost September mornings fog blankets the Valley, embracing the cornfields in a gentle mist. By midmorning, the Indian Summer sun draws it up into a firmament so blue and cloudless you almost cease to mourn for the season gone by. This month at a moment like this, when the mist swirls away from the blue, two September days come to mind, the first dark and terrible; the second, a day of healing.

I had an early morning dentist’s appointment that Tuesday morning, September 11. It was an 8:30 or 9:00 appointment—I don’t remember exactly. When you know someone’s going to be probing around in your mouth with sharp instruments, you just want the event over and done with early so you can regroup for the rest of the day. As I was preparing my mouth for the presentation, I flipped on the t.v. Immediately I knew something extraordinary must have happened. Instead of a sappy commercial or smiling meteorologist with “your” five day forecast, I saw the skyline of a city. Center screen were twin monoliths towering above the tops of surrounding buildings. A cloud of smoke drifted from the side of one, a horizontal plume dark against a cloudless sky. I stared at the silent screen, toothbrush clenched in my fist. Then the voices…. No lilt to them. No cheery, voluble patter, but a timbre of dead seriousness. A plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. New York City--my first thought was of congested air lanes, crowded air space. Some small plane or traffic helicopter had somehow collided with the gargantuan building. After all, there was precedent for such an incident: it had happened to the Empire State Building in 1945 when a B-25 bomber flew out of the fog full bore into New York’s tallest building. Trecia was still in bed. I rushed to the bedroom with the news.

We returned to the t.v. and listened in disbelief to  news that a jetliner had crashed into the North Tower and that a second had struck the South Tower an hour later. A second jetliner? No accident. No deadly coincidence. Both towers were burning, being evacuated, and a desperate effort was underway to rescue those trapped in the twin 110 story structures.

There’s nothing like a terrorist attack on home soil to take your mind off probing steel and oral discomfort. I doubt I heard a single note of that “soothing” music dentists serve up as a distraction. The rest of the day we spent in front of the t.v. following live coverage of the attack, watching the towers burn, watching until they finally collapsed.

Not since Pearl Harbor and World War II has an event so galvanized a nation. Memorial services for the victims were held throughout the country. Our church kept its doors open for those who wanted a sanctuary for a moment of silence, a quiet place to reflect and offer up silent prayers for the victims of the heinous attack and the fallen first responders. I adjusted the flag on the front yard pole to half staff. It stayed half staff the rest of the month. Ours was a Country in mourning, in need of healing.

Saturday, September 15, 2001: Seattle, a continent away, a day of healing was held and continued for the week beyond. The morning was typical for early September, the sun fog-blocked, solar radiation yet too oblique to burn through the cloud cover. For all who wished to show their respects, a memorial for the victims of Tuesday’s attack was held in the shadow of the Space Needle at Seattle Center’s International Fountain. It was an event I needed to attend, so I picked a bundle of dahlias from the garden and left the fog-shrouded Valley for Seattle.

Marika and I attended together. I stopped by the U District where she was waiting for me. We parked downtown and rode the monorail to the Center. (Fares were waived that weekend for all who wished to visit.) Although it wSeattle Centeras early, around 10:00 a.m., a large congregation had already gathered. Many had brought floral tributes; a wall of flowers even then ringed the fountain and was slowly expanding. Some had put their feelings into words; others expressed their patriotic sentiments by placing flags and photos among the mounded bouquets. words of healingFlags rustled, too, amidst the throngs of people. As if in a holy place, the crowd was hushed, somber, afraid to speak, a public place turned sacrosanct. Only a gentle stream of water trickling down the fountain’s domeRemembering broke the silence. No jets of water shot skyward, the waters stilled in obsequy. Flower MoundThe Valley skies had been quiet since that Tuesday, an eerie silence, because all air traffic had been grounded for four days. Air traffic en route to Sea-Tac International Airport passes regularly over the Valley, and the whine of jet engines overhead is as much a part of Valley noise as the “Boom at High Noon.” But since Tuesday, 9-11, except for clouds and Valley birdlife the skies had been empty, silent…

Until September 15, the day Marika and I attended the Seattle Center memorial. For those not too nervous to fly, air travel had resumed that day. From a willow or some such vining tree, organizers of the Memorial Flowers from the Valleymemorial had constructed a simple arch and adorned it with bouquets and small American flags. From beneath this arch officiants  conducted the morning’s ceremonies. Others had brought dahlias from their own gardens.We nestled our tribute from the Valley down alongside the others and slowly made a circuit of the fountain, reading the tributes and looking at the other memorial offerings.

At one point we heard music and looked up to see, standing in the flowered arch, a slender, long-haired woman playing a violin. The touching notes of that old patriotic song “America the Beautiful” quivered in the stillness of the morning. Almost simultaneously overhead I heard a sound I hadn’t heard in nearly a week: the whine of jet engines. As I looked up, the morning mists parted away to reveal a large white jetliner, one of the first to arrive in Seattle since that awful Tuesday. I thought about the phrase “O beautiful for spacious skies…,” and was overwhelmed by emotion. Something about that graceful jet aircraft, stark white against the brilliant blue Seattle sky, the country picking itself up after such a horrible blow: it was a moment of healing. I’m sure I was not the only one who choked back tears.

Just the day before the attack on the Towers, we had gone to Bellevue for an estate planning session. The law office was on the nineteenth floor of an office building downtown. Two weeks later we returned to sign the documents. The country—the world—was a much different place then. As the elevator whisked us quickly to the nineteenth floor, I thought about those trapped that day on the upper floors of the World Trade Center, trapped eighty to ninety stories higher than our destination and shuddered in horror.

Knowing words have the power to heal, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer invited readers to write down their thoughts and send them in. The newspaper printed the letters in a later edition. I wrote then:

“President Bush reassured his fellow Americans that though America suffered physical loss, “the psyche of the American people remains intact.” That statement is just rhetorical bluster. The psyche of America is bruised. One only had to look at the faces of the thousands who grieved a continent away at Seattle’s International Fountain flower vigil, mourners whose tears could have restarted the fountain stilled at the center of the shrine. The American psyche is forever scarred; the display of the colors of the day, red, white, and blue, speak only to its resilience.”

And I made a prediction, too, one that still holds true nine years later:

“And I am afraid—not of high rise buildings, air travel, death by anthrax, but of the frightful legacy of a changed world for our children and grandchildren. But the greatest of all my fears is that there will be no closure to the heinous act of September 11, 2001. There will be no vengeance, no justice, no healing; a nation as awesome as ours seems powerless to seek out, eradicate or understand such evil, for the awful truth of the matter is there are most certainly more hearts of darkness at loose in the world.”

Now, on the ninth anniversary of the attack on our American way of life, I hearken back to the word “resilience,” for that’s what America has and, I maintain, will always have. At the same time I am reminded as well of William Faulkner’s  1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Faulkner said, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.”And the same holds true, I believe, for our great country.911 Victim

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1 comment:

  1. This is a beautiful post Dad. A very sad and memorable day. As beautiful as it was, I hope to never have to attend such a memorial again. Thanks for this post, it is a wonderful tribute.