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September 11, 2011

by Hayden Hollingsworth

The day dawned, the warmth of late summer and clear skies stretching toward the mountains.  Other than putting out the American flag and watching the dedication of the 9/11 memorial, there was a sense of uneasiness about how to spend the day.  The ultimate sucker punch delivered ten years ago required something out of the ordinary, something to reflect the monumental changes those hours brought to all our lives, something to honor those who died.

The television coverage from New York was unusually free of histrionics gracefully leading up to the Brooklyn Youth Choir and the national anthem.  Standing while those children sang, many with no memory of the awful event, called for no apology for tears.  Mayor Bloomberg, President Obama, and former President Bush were impressive in the delivery of their readings; then followed the intoning of all the names of victims delivered by family and friends. There were no speeches; the occasion spoke for itself, punctuated by six moments of silence.

Yesterday my e-mail presented me the opportunity to download a compilation of essays and commentaries made by contributors to The New Yorker in the days after the attack. It is edited by David Remnick.  In a nanosecond it was in my Kindle.  I started it immediately and resolved to read it aloud today.

In times of turmoil many have found solace in the outdoors.  This was such a day. As we headed toward the mountains, we were surprised how few flags were in the yards we passed.  The Blue Ridge Parkway, that 400+ mile testament to good works of the government in the 1930s, frequently has served as a refuge for reflection.  I suspect many have their favorite overlook, a special tree under which to sit, or a meditation meadow.  Among the many available, we chose the first one we encountered.  Its name was appropriate for today: Devil’s Backbone.

Looking out over the valley, Cahas Mountain rose in the distance.  Next to the parkway sign noting its elevation, waving tenuously, was a tiny American flag, staking to the ground a sheet of paper.  Lawn chairs placed, we took up the flag and its note. It was a statistical printout of the casualties of 9/11.  The airline and flight numbers of the involved aircraft were listed, their destinations, the airspeed at the time of impact, the number of passengers and crew, the number of first responders who had been killed, the  dead from the WTC, the Pentagon, and in the Shanksville field.  The total number was 2983.  No notation of who had put the paper there, no sloganeering, nothing but the stark facts.

We replaced the flag with its somber message, looked out over the peaceful scene, and then we began to read the New Yorker e-book.  Many of the authors were familiar names, many were not.  There were poems, short commentary, and lengthy essays each with a notation of when it had been published.

No matter what one feels about that horrendous day, it will be expressed somewhere in this work.  One theme recurs in many of them.  In the space of a few seconds, the world was changed forever.  Perhaps some of these changes would have taken place eventually, but not in an instant brought on by a colossal kamikaze attack.

Through the years in an effort to have a personal connection with the disaster I have often imagined a young person seated at a desk in the Cantor Fitzgerald office, looking up and seeing a 757, impossibly low, coming impossibly fast, straight toward the North Tower.  At 486 mph there would have been only enough time to draw a breath in preparation for the scream that would never be heard.  That imagined scene has put a personal face on the day.

In the Remnick work, an article by Adam Gopnik sub-entitled “We Can’t Go on, We’ll Go On,” has memorable quote from W.H. Auden.  It is from a poem, “September 1, 1939,” written as England descended into war.  He says “the unmentionable odour of death/Offends the September night.”  So it was for weeks after the attack.  Auden sees an enemy gone mad in the worship of a psychopathic god and concludes that we must “love one another or die.”

We must love one another . . . and we will die, nonetheless . . . but not in an all- consuming fireball.  No god ever sanctioned that.

Next year, I hope there will be more than that solitary mountain-top flag on display; we all should put one in our yards, lest we forget.

Download and read the book. It will be an honor to those who can no longer speak for themselves.  It will give courage to persevere, no matter what may yet come.

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