Keeping Hold of the Butter Knife from Breakfast
Tim commented, to Andrew’s final memorial post, this morning, that he didn’t personally know anybody killed on 9/11/01. I suspect that the majority of us with roots in the Northeast are in some way personally connected to the list of the dead, although perhaps without knowing so.
Fortunately, my closest contact is with the living — friends who ran from the debris (and spent years dealing with the experience), and a brother-in-law who helped to ferry people across the Hudson on his tug boat. It doesn’t take much reach, however, to touch others who did not survive to share the experience of my friends. Here’s a September 2002 piece that I wrote for a now-defunct online column:
The Heart Is Always More
Todd Ouida was born on my first birthday. I didn’t know him then. I went to a different elementary school, so I didn’t know him when he was forced to stop attending as a regular student to grapple with panic attacks for three years. I didn’t even really know him when he returned and our two elementary schools fed us both into the River Dell Regional junior and senior high schools, where he became a 5’6″ starting defensive back on the varsity football team. I knew of him, of course, because we shared a birthday and it was a small school.
Even our small school has had a number of brushes with history. As I recall, there was a plaque by the auditorium with the names and portraits of alumni who had died in Vietnam. I think there were three. The usual understanding of that war being what it has been throughout my entire life, such memorials have always seemed to ask, “See what they did to our community in order to fight their war?” I think it was one of my high school history teachers who related to me that every town lost some of its children.
Of course, memorials ought to be kept as tributes, and I don’t mean to dishonor those young men when I suggest that the motivation for etching their names in metal and stone seems to be to make a statement about unnecessary loss rather than about accomplishment. They were heroes all, but the Vietnam War Memorial’s emphasis on names rather than representations confirms that, in the words of the National Park Service’s official Web site, “The purpose of this memorial is to separate the issue of the sacrifices of the veterans from the U.S. policy in the war.”
Sacrifices. It seems that the quickness with which we commemorate the deaths of our citizens corresponds to the degree to which they were sacrifices — victims. The memorial for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing has already been completed, each name etched in its own symbolic chair. The Vietnam Wall predated the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and both came before the World War II Memorial, which isn’t slated to be dedicated until 2004, about sixty years after that war ended.
If this trend continues, the September 11 memorial might be finished long before time has granted its designers much historical perspective. Hopefully, it will nonetheless capture the mood of our times. Just as the Vietnam War era marked a tremendous shift in citizens’ conception of the United States of America, the Vietnam Memorial’s lack of iconography makes quite a different statement than the statues and proclamations of grandeur and confidence that had come before. I think the September 11 memorial ought to make a statement of internal, national reconciliation. Sacrifice and confidence. Compassion and strength. Personal loss and triumph.
I envision a field of stone pillars recalling the World Trade Center towers in a pentagon formation, each about ten feet in height and bearing the names and portraits of those who died. Interspersed, for the visitor to come across while walking among these pillars, would be statues of the various heroes of that day — firemen, policemen, emergency and medical workers, and regular citizens — all in poses corresponding to their activities, helping others. At the center of the field would be a statue of the three firemen raising the U.S. flag, above which a giant sculpture of an eagle would hang, wings spread, from some type of supporting structure.
As for my high school, I don’t recall any plaques devoted to alumni casualties of other wars that occurred before I walked the halls, and as far as I know, alumnus Marie Rossi, who died in a post-ceasefire accident in the Gulf War, has gone without such a tribute. But I think Todd Ouida and Scott Rohner, class of ’97, ought to have one. They both worked on the 105th floor of One World Trade Center, which American Airlines Flight 11 hit between the 95th and 103rd floors.
Todd and Scott’s memorial ought not be placed with the Vietnam one by the “official” entrance, near the auditorium and administrative offices, but by the common entrance, near the gym and the cafeteria. The two ought to be a reminder that the world is not separate from our lives. Every student at River Dell High School will play a part in history. It is unavoidable. They don’t have to go in search of it; they don’t even have to be drafted into it. History will come to them, and the implication should be that they ought to live their daily lives heroically and triumphantly, no matter how profound or mundane the sacrifices that they are called upon to make.
(For more information about Todd Ouida, visit The Todd Joseph Ouida Memorial Children’s Fund at www.mybuddytodd.org.)
Then there’s the 9/11 connection that I discovered in 2004:
I turned to Google to see if I could confirm that Celita Schultz’s televised dojo had been mine and to see whether she’d bought it from my sensei or something. Ms. Schultz’s featured spot on the front page of the Kokushi Dojo’s Web site quickly confirmed that my memory had been accurate, and I took a moment to smile at the discovery that the sensei’s younger daughter, Liliko, has also been to the Olympics (in 1996). But then stories of being flipped by girls and flying from bicycles lost their profundity.
In the upper left-hand corner of the Web page is a picture of a boy with an afro and a trophy. The caption: “Kokushi Student Hero: September 11th Hijacked Jet.” Jeremy Glick. You may recall the name as that of one of the passengers who defeated whatever plan the hijackers of Flight 93 had. In the series of headshots of the men to whom Todd Beamer said “let’s roll,” Glick is the one kissing a baby. His daughter.
I’d thought it neat randomly to spot on TV a room in which I’d spent many memorable hours. Small world. Small indeed, and not so much neat as awe-inspiring when one realizes the subsequent heroism of somebody with whom I very likely shared that room at one point or another.
Callings will come when they come; we may not know the hour or the form. In the meantime, we can only attend to life and do our best to choose wisely, to love well, and to remember those who’ve shown us what it means to fulfill a purpose for which we didn’t even know we were preparing.
Jeremy’s call from the flight to his wife, Lyz, is worthy of our meditation, these nine years later:
“Honey, it’s bad news.”
“There are some very bad men on the plane. The men have a bomb and they have a knife. They are Arabic-looking men. They are wearing red headbands and there are three of them.”
“We’ve had no contact with the pilots, but the men have taken over the plane and have moved everyone to the back of the plane and left us here.”
“Lyz I need to know something. One of the other passengers has talked to their spouse, and he said that they were crashing other planes into the World Trade Center. Is that true.”
[His wife pauses, not knowing what to say, but finally tells him it is true. There is a pause of a few minutes after hearing this.] “I love Emmy, take care of her. Whatever decisions you make in your life, I need you to be happy, and I will respect any decisions that you make. Now, I need some advice – what to do? Should we, you know, we’re talking about attacking these men, what should I do?”
[His wife pauses for a long while, but finally tells him she thinks he needs to do it, after which there is another puase for a couple of minutes.] “OK, The others and myself have voted to attack the terrorists. I have my butter knife from breakfast.. You know, I’m going to leave the phone here. Stay on the line, I’ll be back.”
[The father in law takes the phone as Jeremy’s wife could not bear to listen. There was a few seconds of silence folowed by a scream. More silence followed by another scream … then … nothing. Jeremy never came back to the phone.]