Our Fallen Unity

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When I was growing up my mom became emotional every December 7. With tears welling in her eyes she would attempt to describe the fear that she felt upon learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the confidence that the nation gleaned from President Roosevelt’s address to the nation. In all honesty I was hard pressed to understand why she remembered that event each year with such great reverence. I’d listen to the repetition of her story and view it through the lens of ancient history rather than that of the life changing event that it was for her. It was not until I experienced the assassination of President John Kennedy that I began to have a fuller appreciation of why it was so important to her to never forget what had happened in her own youth.

When the horrific events of 9/11 unfolded in real time as I was getting ready to go to work seventeen years ago, I realized for the first time just how soul searing a violent act against our country felt. In that moment I knew how my mother had felt on December 7, and why she was never able to forget the shock of what had happened. Like her, I now find myself reliving the horror of September 11, and it never fails to leave me untouched by a kind of grief and longing for the world as it had appeared to be before that fateful day.

Of course, I like most of my fellow Americans had been far too blissfully ignorant of the undercurrent that had been building toward that brazen act of terrorism that might as well have been called an act of war. I was enjoying my life as never before, having reached a peak in my career, and measuring my contentment with a host of friends and the arrivasl of my first grandchildren. The times were so good, almost perfect, and my worries were few. I was far too busy living the good life to worry about signs that things were not as right as I thought. Suddenly on that September day I felt my confidence and even my trademark optimism collapse along with the twin towers. A kind of fear that I had rarely known invaded my psyche, strangling the fairytale world that I had created for myself.

I remember wondering if our country would ever again be the same, and in many ways that concern was well founded. I tend to believe that most of the political problems that our country faces today rose to the forefront on that day. In the ensuing seventeen years they have become more and more complex because of the divides in the way the citizenry viewed the event. Literally one fourth of the present population was not even born on September 11, 2017. Another significant portion was to young to really understand what was happening. Then there are those who watched the attack unfold forming the differing reactions that are inevitable given our human complexities.

I tend to believe that those who are of a more conservative bent are not really racist or any of the other isms that are bandied about so frequently. Instead they were simply shaken to the very core of their beings on that day. They see progress as being a way to reinstate the sense of security that they felt before that day. Others have a perspective of hoping to defeat terrorism by providing a sense of contentment and justice to more people. They truly believe that if we try to be understanding and make life better for everyone that we will finally be able to live in peace. Then there are the youngest among us who have moved on to other issues that seem far more important than dealing with terrosism. It is the friction, the push and the pull, between contrasting solutions that is causing the rancor and distrust between us.

In many ways the events of September 11, 2001, did so much more than take down two buildings and kill thousands of innocent people. It damaged all of the citizenry. We are scarred and our wounds still have not healed. The terrorists accomplished the unthinkable in turning us on one another. I doubt that even they ever thought that the ultimate result of their attack would create a psychological battlefield within families, friendships, cities, states and the nation. Essentially we have yet to come to terms with our biggest fears therefore everything that we touch is tinged with distrust.

I am reminded of my teaching days whenever I witness the misunderstandings between individuals with differing opinions that are now so commonplace, and often filled with hatefulness. It occurs to me that everyone is chattering, but nobody is taking the time to quiet the scene and make a genuine effort to hear and understand what each person is trying to voice. We can’t get to the heart of the issues because there is so much confusion about what people actually believe.

I suppose that if we were to really learn anything from 9/11 it would be that we are far more vulnerable than we ever thought we were. We all suffered in some way on that day. We internalized our emotions and considered ways to move forward, but we weren’t willing enough to share what we were thinking. As our pain grew we allied ourselves with those who appeared to be like minded and turned our backs on those whose beliefs differed. Over time we fell into the trap of justifying ourselves by vilifying anyone with whom we did not agree. The battle lines were drawn, and few among us have the courage to admit that in many ways we have all been wrong and in many ways we have all been right. Our real enemies have won, while we bicker among ourselves.

I had a more difficult time thinking about 9/11 this year than ever because our nation is so fractured. I even attempted to push it from my mind until my granddaughter interviewed me for a school project. All of my old emotions came rushing back into my mind. It was as though I was watching those terrible images all over again. Then on the anniversary of the event I cried as I heard the national anthem being played at the 9/11 memorial site. My chest heaved as I watched a New York City firefighter ring a bell for the fallen. I was reminded of how united we had been for a brief moment. I thought of President George W. Bush climbing onto a pile of rubble and assuring the rescue teams and all of New York City that we heard their plaintive cries. We were the United States of America, the united people ready to do whatever it took to restore a sense of well being.

Somewhere along the way we forgot what we had set out to do. We lost our way. Now is the time to open our hearts and our minds and to remember who we really are as people. We should not fight with each other anymore. If we are to honor those who lost their lives, then we must find ways to get along or the very foundations of what we most cherish will fall. 

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Fire

fire-generic-750xx724-407-0-38When my youngest brother, Pat, announced to our mother that he wanted to become a firefighter I suspect that she believed that he was just going through an adolescent phase that would soon enough pass. She told him that she would not give him her blessing to enter the Houston Fire Academy until he had first earned a college degree, a requirement that he dutifully completed. With his diploma from the University of Houston in hand he returned to her once again to announce that he had applied to become a candidate for the Houston Fire Department. This time he was only informing her, not asking for her permission. Shortly thereafter he began his training and was so taken with the lessons and skills that he learned that he graduated number one in his class. It was a proud day for him and all of our family when he earned his badge and a job at the downtown Houston Fire Station Number One.

Pat threw himself wholeheartedly into his work and it was not long before there was a major fire in the downtown area that was so large that it made the nightly news and there in a photograph for the ages stood my brother aiming a stream of water at a wall of red flames that dwarfed him. The image showed his back with his last name emblazoned on his jacket. It was a frightening reminder of just how dangerous his job really was. As a family we tried not to think too much about the kind of things that might happen to him but again and again there were reminders that firefighters literally place their lives on the line each time that they respond to a call for help. They never quite know what kind of situation awaits them and for the most part they rarely discuss what they have seen with those of us who would rather not be reminded of the dangerous possibilities.

Pat was as happy with his career as anyone that I have ever known. He spoke glowingly of the brotherhood and friendships that he shared with his crew members. He proved his mettle as a leader and began to work his way up the ranks, eventually becoming a Captain at one of the neighborhood stations. It was apparent that his men loved him as much as he loved them. They became a second family for him in an environment where he felt confident that he was living his dream.

He returned to school first to earn an advanced degree in Public Administration and then another in Fire Safety. He became such an expert in his field that Mayor Lee Brown tapped him to become the director of the Fire Academy. It was a post that he cherished because it allowed him to share his expertise with young men and women who were as eager to serve as he had always been. He upgraded the rigor of the training process with an eye to preparing his charges for the special demands of being a first responder in one of the nation’s largest cities. It was a very happy time for him but before long he was moving into other arenas of leadership.

He became a District Chief and then a Regional Chief. He helped to investigate fires and to set and maintain high standards for all of the firefighters in the city, all the while humbly doing his work without mentioning his ever growing status within the department. He was always far too busy working for the betterment of Houston to brag about his accomplishments but the men who had worked for him often whispered their admiration.

One of Pat’s most exciting moments came when he accompanied a group of Houston firefighters to New York City on the occasion of the opening of the 9/11 memorial. They traveled by motorcycle all the way from Houston and then participated in a parade in downtown New York. He was so moved by the stories of bravery that he heard from comrades from all around the world. It was a grand moment in which he truly realized the importance of his work and stood shoulder to shoulder with people who understood the unique challenges and joys of being a firefighter.

I can’t imagine what kind of courage it must take to don the heavy equipment of a firefighter and hop onto a truck for a ride to an unknown disaster. On any given day our firefighters know that they may walk into situations from which they will never return. Even in the best of circumstances they often experience damage to their lungs from the continual exposure to smoke. They may fall from the rafters of an attic or have a ceiling come down on their heads. They encounter life and death situations over and over again and are only able to relax once they are safely back at the station. Still they eagerly report to work again and again just as Pat has always done.

Pat Little has served the City of Houston with pride and enthusiasm for thirty six years. He has tirelessly worked during hurricanes, floods, freezes and even when he felt sick. On some nights the alarms awakened him so many times that he had little sleep. There were Thanksgiving and Christmas days when he was faithfully executing his duties while the rest of us were relaxing and celebrating without him. Missing even a single day of work was always anathema to him. He rarely complained when he had to be absent for the milestones of his children or when he had to forego special occasions because he was saving a life. Now his outstanding and selfless career is finally drawing to a close. On Sunday his crew is hosting a party for him and on October 11, he will retire for good. He will be remembered and revered by both family and fellow firefighters for the joy and dedication that he brought to his job for all of those thirty six years. I have little doubt that given the opportunity he would gladly relive his life as a firefighter all over again.

Congratulations, Chief Patrick Little, on a job well done. We are all proud of you and humbled by your quiet courage and your unflagging determination to make a lasting difference in the world. You have done well in a world that is all too often marked by evil and greed. You are our hero, a man who has shown the meaning of service.

Terror

ground-zeroIt only took a split second on that September day for everything to change. The sky was blue. It was one of those seemingly perfect mornings when we all went about our business with a little more spring in our steps. Who could be unhappy with the sun shining so magnificently and the weather showing the promise of cooler days ahead? When we saw that plane heading toward a building in the middle of New York City it didn’t make sense. We wondered if the pilot was lost, sick, having a heart attack. Once the plane hit without any attempt to adjust course a sickening feeling of horror began to slowly overtake us. By the time a second plane flew straight through the other tower, a third slammed into the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania our national innocence had been shattered. While we have been attempting to deal with the aftermath of what happened fifteen years ago an entire generation of children has grown up under the specter of terror. September 11, 2001, was a purposeful attack on our psyches and the years have not yet healed us.

I used to live near Hobby Airport in Houston, Texas. I grew to love the sound of the airplanes moving over my home as they traveled to and fro. I liked to imagine where the people were going and what fun lay ahead for them. My girls and I often walked over to watch the planes taking off and landing. There were no barriers to our movements. We were free to stroll unencumbered into the departure areas and press our noses against the glass walls to watch the activities playing out on the tarmac. We often met our out of town guests as they exited the aircraft or sat talking with them until they departed. We didn’t pass through metal detectors or take off our shoes. We didn’t have tickets and we still moved in and out of the airport as though we owned it. After September 11, we would never again enjoy the luxury of using the airport as an adventurous destination on our leisurely walks. I would never be able to show my grandchildren the fun that their mothers and I had so often enjoyed.

I remember the silence that ensued for days after the attack. The sounds of the plane engines that had become so much a part of my routine were gone. It was eerie not to hear them and when they finally returned they were suddenly frightening. Air travel became a source of anxiety for me rather than a joyful experience. I became wary and watchful and admittedly nervous. Just getting through the long lines, the guards, the scanners became a distasteful chore. Understanding why such measures had to be taken added a hint of danger to what had before been so delightful. Post 9/11 children would take the inconveniences for granted, not knowing how free and easy travel had once been.

Our country would react to that horrific morning by engaging in a war that now seems never ending. We believed back then that we would slap a couple of terrorist hands and then resume our happy lives. Instead we are still fighting an elusive and shadowy enemy. We take down one group of terrorists and another is spawned. We are unsure of how to defeat those who would harm us so that we might return our world to a sense of normalcy. In fact we secretly wonder what normal is. For the young it is the reality of living under a constant threat and still managing to carry on as though nothing has happened. For those of us who witnessed those terrible events that will never fade in our memories it is a longing for a sense of peace and security that may never have actually been as concrete as we believed that it was.

The years have taken their toll on the world. Governments have toppled. Societies are warring. Here in our own country the wreckage of 9/11 revealed scars and disagreements that have been festering for decades. We want someone to care for us and maybe even make it all go away but we cannot seem to find solutions that are satisfactory to all of us. We argue over the effectiveness of policies and attempt to place blame. Where once we were rather naive and happy go lucky, now we are cynical and argumentative. The psychology of terror has slowly but surely done the work that it set out to do. We no longer feel as safe and strong and noble as we once did. Instead of concentrating on the root of our problems we now verbally attack one another.

A generation of children has grown up in this atmosphere. They are now in the early years of their adult lives, attending college, studying in high school or middle school. Social networking is as natural to them as making a phone call was to us. They get their news on the Internet. Cell phones are their libraries and means of communicating with their friends at one and the same time. They are subjected to a barrage of information and temptations all day long. The forces of terror and extremism attempt to radicalize them by playing on the confusion that young people so often experience. They can visit websites and watch videos that extol the virtues of jihadists and political fringe groups. They have easy access to dark ideas that continued to grow even after our best efforts to stop the terror that we witnessed on September 11.

Today we mostly go about our business trying not to think too much about what happened fifteen years ago. We remind ourselves that more people are killed in car accidents than by terrorists but each time we have to pass through metal detectors and open our purses for inspection just to watch a baseball game we are reminded of the dangers that might strike at any time. We tell ourselves that we won’t be bowed down by evil but we know that we have changed. We are less trusting and more cynical than we once were. We felt so innocent on that beautiful September morning only seconds before that plane did the unthinkable. Just like that our comfortable cocoons came crashing down and none of us would be quite the same.

I believe that the malaise that so many of us feel in this election season can be traced all the way back to that terrible day. We continue to search both for someone to blame and someone to be our hero. Thus far we can’t seem to agree on who is who. That is the crux of our terror. Osama bin Laden would smile to see us warring with one another. It is what he hoped to accomplish. He often said as much in his hateful videos.

We took away the debris from the September 11 disaster. We honored and buried the dead. We built memorials lest we forget. Now it is time to heal our souls and show our children and the world that the terrorists have always been wrong. They can never take away our freedom and our strength.