Friday, September 11, 2009

The World Stopped Turning

Today is September 11th. It has been eight years since the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington DC. Sometimes, it feels like only yesterday…

Today many, many people will be writing about that horrendous day in this country’s history. We need to do that. We need to try to purge it from our systems, I think…although I’m not so sure we can ever successfully eliminate it altogether. The events were simply too tragic and unbelievable. The losses too unimaginable.

Today, rather than write about my own memories of that day, I am going to paste in a copy of one of the columns I wrote for The Irregular after returning from my trip to New York City in May. To those of you who visit and read, I bid you a warm ‘hello’ and a welcome. If you are an American, I am sending you a hug. If you aren’t, I could sure use one, if you’ve any to spare. The world is getting smaller, you know, and we’re all in this together.

During my recent trip to New York City, I was determined to see as many of the sights as possible. I had only two free afternoons in which to experience the biggest city in America. My friend Patty and I walked for approximately eighteen hours during those two half-days. I was sore, but I was happy. We traipsed up and down and around city blocks, rode the subways, and climbed more stairs than I could count. But we saw The Big Apple!

Times Square. Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and the Hard Rock CafĂ©. The Empire State Building. Trump Plaza and Central Park. Grand Central Station. Rockefeller Center, NBC and ABC Studios. Broadway, Park Avenue, and my favorite avenue, LEXINGTON! Hell’s Kitchen, the Garment District, the Diamond District, and the Financial District. We shopped in Swatches, ate in Little Italy and, in thrall, watched the indoor ferris wheel at Toy’s R Us. With a backwards ‘R’.

But two of the places that Patty and I visited made profound impressions on me. One was due to the sheer glory of actually seeing it in person, instead of on a television screen--and the other was for the feelings of deep respect and unimaginable loss that it engendered.

Patty and I took the ferry to Liberty Island. Across New York Harbor we cruised, topside in the open air, the Statue of Liberty shrouded in fog ahead of us. I snapped photo after photo of Lady Liberty, simply enchanted that I was looking at her with my own eyes--not on TV, and not in the pages of a magazine or a textbook. There she was! Proud, tall, and green!

Just as the ferry pulled up to the dock, the sun broke through the clouds, and the haze and murk dissipated. I could see her clearly. She dwarfed the small island, the Park Service Buildings and especially the tourists that strolled around her base. Families, students, friends like Patty and me…we were all there to see this wondrous gift bestowed upon our country in 1886 by the people of France, to commemorate our centennial. She was a larger-than-life symbol of friendship between Americans and those far across the very sea we were traversing.

We went ashore and made our way through the gift shop and out into the park proper. The grass was lush, and the deciduous trees created a canopy overhead that dappled the sun-tickled ground at our feet. The paved walks were spotless, the sea wall solid and well-built--everything was pristine. Perfect.

And The Lady. I can’t describe the feeling of pride I felt as I stood there in the early evening sunshine, looking up at this American icon. Through my mind flitted images of some of the movies I’ve seen in which this statue was torn from its foundation. Washed away by a gigantic tidal wave, zapped by an alien laser, uprooted by a tornado and targeted by a terrorist regime. And yet, there she stood, right in front of me. Torch lifted high, face serene, she was stalwart and unbending, watching over the harbor of the greatest country of free men and women in the world. I got goose bumps. A tear. And a smile.

That was the final tourist attraction that Patty and I visited while in New York. But it is not, in my opinion, the most important one. As symbolic as Lady Liberty is, she is just a bit of copper-sheathed steel. Inanimate. A thing of beauty-- but a THING.

Before catching the train to Liberty Park, Patty and I went to Ground Zero. The place where the World Trade Centers once stood—themselves proud and tall.

I’d had reservations about going. I wanted to pay my respects, and yet, seeming to be a tourist in a place where so many lives were lost made me feel… I don’t know. Cheap, perhaps. Like someone who got a charge or an adrenalin rush from being in close proximity to such a calamity. And that in no way was a reflection of how I felt. In the end, Patty and I discussed it, and we decided to visit the site.

There is little remaining that resembles the images that were flashed across television screens worldwide in the days and weeks that followed September 11, 2001. Images of smoke and fire, of twisted steel and debris-filled streets. The ruins are gone, and atop the firm bedrock of the plaza, new industry is taking place. Massive cranes, dump trucks, and laborers in reflective vests are all toiling to replace what was lost with something new--some other edifice that is proud and tall--and significant. Some monument to our strength of spirit, our resolve, and our willingness and desire to move forward with confidence and hope. And in the middle of that concrete jungle that is Manhattan’s Financial District, the sun shone through on that misty afternoon, illuminating the site of one of our nation’s newest battlegrounds. It seemed to shine just for me. My own beacon of confidence and hope.

We made our way to the Visitor’s Center. It is a small museum overlooking Ground Zero, and is housed right next door to one of New York City’s fire department substations. As we waited in line to enter the Center an engine pulled up, a firefighter jumped off the truck, and he moved to direct the driver in backing the rig into its bay. Painted on the side of the truck was a memorial. Ten members of that tiny station were lost on 9/11. My throat closed, my eyes watered. Ten men from just that one, close-knit company. How sad. But how proud I felt to be counted as an American alongside such men!

I’m not going to go into detail regarding what the museum has on display. Anyone who’s interested can easily find photos and information on the internet. I found I simply couldn’t stay inside for very long. In a small back room, two whole walls are covered with the photographs of all those who died as a result of the terrorist attacks on the two towers. I sat on a small bench and stared at those faces. There were smiling faces, hopeful faces, faces caught unaware by the camera and displaying surprise, uncertainty, chagrin. Human faces, just like mine and like those of my loved ones. Faces that belonged to mothers and sons and children and friends. As I sat there, I could hear the screams, I could smell the smoke, and see the flames and the twisted metal. I could feel the panic, the worry, the despair. These faces were never to be seen again, except in photos such as these, and in the memories of those who remained behind to carry on.

I wept.

I don’t often contemplate what it means to be an American. I’ve always been one. I take it for granted. I’m guilty as charged. But once in a while, I’m given a rare opportunity for a moment of reflection. A pause for thought. The WTC Visitor’s Center presented such an occasion. It reinforced my pride in country, but even more—it renewed my pride in my fellow Americans.

As I left that memorial site, I found myself humming the tune to a song. I haven’t heard it since1976, when my cousin Holly and I sang it at a celebration of our country’s bicentennial. It’s been thirty-three years, now--and I can’t remember all of the words--but these few came flooding back into my mind.

Here is a land full of power and glory; beauty that words cannot recall. Oh, Her glory shall rest on the strength of Her freedoms; Her glory shall rest on us all. But… She’s only as rich as the poorest of the poor. Only as free as the padlocked prison door. Only as strong as our love for this land. Only as tall as we stand! Here is a land full of power and glory. Beauty that words cannot recall. Yes, Her glory shall rest on the strength of her freedoms. Her glory shall rest on us all!

As I took one last look at the walls papered with the images of our countrymen and women, I realized that Her glory is resting very well, indeed.

God Bless America and the people who make Her great.


  1. Just wonderful, so moving..Down under we only saw it on TV and remember we were staring open mouthed watching in real time when the secong plane hit the other tower.
    Couldn't believe such evil existed in the world today but as we have seen it's all about us.
    Thank God for the strength of the USA. Without your great country I shudder to think where the rest of us reasonable people on this planet would be now.
    I love your writing and am proud to be your friend

  2. Oh, Ali g.

    You don't want to make me cry, do you? (I've already done that today, you know.)

    Thank you. And...ditto.