A year after Sept. 11 catastrophe, resilience, catharsis, hope
Special to The Times
There were no Amber Alerts then, no photos on milk cartons. We were vaguely warned not to take candy from strangers, but the reason was unclear and the danger distant and remote. In 1963, I walked to and from kindergarten alone, and it didn't seem scary at all.
The world has always been a dangerous place, of course, and if we remember otherwise it's because we were young once.
I walked home one day that fall, the Friday before Thanksgiving, to find my mother on the phone, agitated, telling me to hurry and turn on the TV. I was 5 years old, and if I wasn't quite sure what a president was, I knew what dead meant all right.
It started then, that day in Dallas, our reliance on television to bring us the bad news.
Everything I needed to know I learned from Walter Cronkite when I was in kindergarten, and there would be others. Howard Cosell interrupted a football game to tell me John Lennon had been shot. Peter Jennings guided me through the Challenger accident. Bernard Shaw huddled in his hotel room and told me about bombing in Baghdad.
Those of us old enough to remember when it started still shudder at "Special Bulletins," praying selfishly that it's somewhere else, not home. It's an explosion in India or an attack in Africa or an assassination in some far-off place, but please God, don't let it be here.
We know where we were when Kennedy was shot, or FDR died or the war was won. Let's keep it at that.
We couldn't, though, and we now know where we were on Sept. 11.
Here on the West Coast, we were just getting up, approaching a new day that would soon be newer than we liked. We sent our kids to school and worried about nightmares, and then we watched. The same scenes, the same terror, the same planes, over and over. Still we watched, as if waiting for something to change.
If New York's twin towers were a symbol of sorts, marking our economic prowess, then their destruction coincided with exposure of the darker side of capitalism, Enron and WorldCom, corporate greed and vanishing pensions.
We watched our economy stagger this past year, and those who had been icons of the American Dream suddenly became just crooks.
As the winter of our discontent slid into summer, those entrusted with our spiritual care became suspect, our children were being snatched from their front yards or beds, and our landscape was burning.
In the fall of 1983, I went to Dealey Plaza in Dallas, despite some hazing from my wife's relatives for being such a tourist. I stood on the grassy knoll and looked up at the sixth floor of the book depository and down at the triple underpass, and backwards at the 20 years that had been most of my life so far. Vietnam. Birmingham and Watts. Kent State. Watergate. Bobby and Martin and Malcolm X.
I was almost overwhelmed by an urge to play Charlton Heston on the beach in front of a broken Lady Liberty, to yell out, "What happened here?" and listen to my voice ricochet off the buildings like rifle shots.
I wondered this year if my children would feel the same way, if they'd travel to whatever memorial stands in New York and think, this is where it started. This is where we lost our innocence, where we realized the world was a scary place and it stopped being fun.
And even if none of the scenarios played out, no nuclear devices in Puget Sound or crop dusters spewing chemical weapons, the other shoe had been dropped anyway, leaving us anxious, one eye focused on suspicious-looking strangers and the other, of course, on CNN.
And then my son twisted his ankle. He slipped on the stairs and the swelling was sudden and massive, and after some talk of a trip to the ER, we propped him up in the living room instead, foot packed in ice and elevated. We turned on the TV for company and suddenly, by accident, we saw what we had been waiting for.
Ten months of watching and little hope, and then on a Saturday night in July, the work lights went on in Pennsylvania, giving proof through the night as nine men were lifted out of the ground alive. My family and I watched as the reporters, familiar faces by now, barely suppressed grins and expressed their amazement. We've finally got good news, folks, they seemed to say, and if there was catharsis in this year it was then and there.
We needed to see them pull somebody out. We needed to see survivors. A nation rich with symbolism needed to be reminded that if there is such a thing as an American character, its greatest strength is its resiliency.
Nine miners, the bluest of the blue collars, coated with soot and soaked to the skin, survived in the pits of Pennsylvania, and America took a breath again.
Unearned suffering is redemptive, Martin Luther King Jr. said, and this has always been our secret and our strength.
World wars, depression, political scandal, assassinations, national tragedy: We redeem ourselves by clearing the rubble and building again. We redeem ourselves by comforting the victims and capturing the perpetrators. We redeem ourselves by watching and remembering.
They have lost already, the terrorists. If the war was begun in the Manhattan morning, it was lost minutes later in the skies over western Pennsylvania, a few miles from the miners, when the plane headed for the White House was forced down by passengers who decided to fight back. It was lost when legions of firefighters rushed into burning buildings. It was lost with the last-minute e-mails and whispered goodbyes into cellphones. I love you. Remember me. Never give up hope.
It was lost for them at the start, for those who crave death in the name of glory will never defeat those who cherish life and liberty, and that is the essence of who we always have been. We just need a reminder now and then.
We're young enough to remember what our symbols stand for. We will sing our national anthem this September, and it will evoke the image of a man on the deck of a ship, finding hope in a tattered piece of cloth flying above Fort McHenry. We are bred with hope, born optimists, a country that was founded on promise and the premise that pursuing happiness was a God-given right. "Do you believe in miracles?" the sportscaster asks, and we do, of course we do, we always have.
They cannot imagine us, a nation that still dreams and always looks forward. Our flaws are dwarfed by our capacity to suffer, to endure misfortune and continue. We find strength and sustenance in our symbols because they remind us that we have been here before and won.
They remind us that the smoke will always clear and dawn will always break, and we will nudge our neighbors and point. Look, we say. Our flag is still there.
Chuck Sigars can be reached at ChuckSigars@aol.com.