Saturday, September 11, 2004

 

The Places Of September 11th.

I’ve obviously been back to the Pentagon since the attacks.

It was rebuilt, and quickly, and today you wouldn’t know anything had ever happened. There will be a memorial there one day, but the building itself—and the dedication of those who work there—is perhaps the best memorial possible.

On December 30th, 2001, I visited Ground Zero with my brother Thom. They had just put the reviewing stand up, and the lines were incredibly long. I decided then that I’d rather not see the hole in the ground. I didn’t need to; I could see the hole in the sky. So we instead walked around the site, looping back around Battery Park.

What struck me most that evening was the vast amount of debris you still saw, even months after the attacks. I remember one spot in particular, a little fenced-off area next to a sidewalk. It couldn't possibly be much more than a hundred square feet. Scraps of paper were still tangled in the chain-link. Bits of plastic from computers and printers and copiers lie on the ground just beyond the fence. These pieces probably were sitting right where they landed that terrible morning, waiting for my brother and I to see them there.

One could imagine all this in busy offices, sitting atop desks, in the hands of people. Useless paper-- spreadsheets, memos, book binders. Stuff that if deliberately thrown away would be meaningless.

But this wasn’t trash—these weren’t the mundane discarded remnants of daily life. Everything in those little piles of debris had been ripped from the people around them in an instant, against their will. It was no accident; it was a crime.

I’m ambivalent about the plans to rebuild on the World Trade Center site. While I agree that life must go on, I don’t want someone eating in a Sbarro’s above hallowed grown. And hallowed ground is what Ground Zero is.

That's also true about a field in the Middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania. That ground is also sacred, as deeply sacred as the fields of Gettysburg found far to the east.

I hadn’t had a chance to visit the Flight 93 crash site until this past August. I had taken some time off from work, and driven home to Chicago to see friends and family. On my return trip to Washington, I saw the signs for the Somerset exit, and instantly wondered how far the crash site was from the Turnpike. Without knowing exactly where to find it, I took the risk anyways and got off the highway.

Now, after you exit the Turnpike, there are no official signs telling you where to find the field. So, I first stopped at a gas station and asked for directions, and I could tell by how fast the clerk gave them to me she had given these directions many times before.

Go down this road, turn on this road, follow that road, and you’ll be there. If you’ve traveled more than 15 minutes, you’ve gone too far.
Alas, either she gave me the wrong directions, or I’m nowhere near as good a navigator as I like to think I am. I ended up driving around Somerset County for nearly two hours trying to find the field.

Every fifteen minutes or so I would get frustrated to the point of turning around, only to spot a handmade sign along the side of the road reading “This Way To The Temporary Flight 93 Memorial.”



Even following those signs did me little good, as I still ended up driving in circles more than once. I would have stopped again to ask for directions, but trust me when I tell you that there is absolutely nothing on these roads but farms, houses, and one-stop sign “towns” every ten miles.
Eventually, I lucked out, and I found the road leading to the crash site. As I turned off onto the dirt road and headed over a rise, I noticed signs for a recycling business, and the giant heap of scrap metal behind them. This scrap yard is probably less than an eighth of a mile from the crash site, although its hidden from view by a rolling hill.

I also discovered that the “field” isn’t really a field at all. When you see the crash site on television, you could be excused for believing that Flight 93 crashed in a farmer’s plot. It didn’t—it crashed atop, or at least next to, a landfill. If you remember the view of the crash site as delivered on television, all you would have to do is turn 180 degrees around and walk a few hundred yards to find yourself beneath the mammoth cranes operating at the fill.

It was suddenly clear why there's no “official” memorial to Flight 93, at least not yet. The National Park Service will probably end up purchasing the land from the fill and recycling yard in order to “reclaim” the land for a proper memorial. That will undoubtedly take time and money, and I'd guess a few lawyers before it's all done. In the meantime, the area around the fill is infested with some disgusting gnat-bug things. These managed to cover my car in just the few minutes I was outside walking around the memorial.

The makeshift memorial is just that: makeshift. A small oval-shaped area, not much larger than a basketball court, covered in white gravel. Some flagpoles stand in the breeze. The only building is nothing more than a hut donated to the Park Service so visitors can get out of the cold and rain. There is a tall wood-and-wire “wall” where visitors can leave mementos. Hats, pins, patches, photos, notes, letters, flowers, poems, newspaper clippings, American flags—they’re all up there. A number of people, about half a dozen, were there with me, at 6:00 PM, on a Monday. Some leave, some show up.

You can see the crash site off in the distance. There’s an American flag marking the spot.

There are several stone memorials donated by different groups and organizations, all commemorating those who gave their lives on Flight 93. A giant crucifix was erected, which I’m sure will be removed the moment the Park Service gets its chance—tsk, tsk, you can’t possibly have any religion in the public square, you know. More flags and medals and mementos placed on the ground before the monuments, or atop the monuments themselves. It’s an intensely personal memorial, and a tremendously moving one.

As I left there, I reflected on my visits to the places touched by September 11th. Each one has its own unique atmosphere.

The Pentagon is all business-as-usual, get-back-to-work, "we are competent professionals who have a job to do."

The Flight 93 field is where we won our first victory in this war, a people’s victory. It’s a solemn place, a memorial to the ones who died so that others might live. It's a proud place now, and it'll be a fine place soon.

As for Ground Zero, I don’t really know what it feels like. Not only is it too soon, it feels as if it will always be “too soon.”

We want to move forward, New Yorkers want to press ahead. As ghoulishly odious as they can be, the sidewalk merchants crawling over Ground Zero at least represent the spirit of New York: Fuhgeddaboutit.

Yet you still feel a numbness, even a shock walking near the site. Every American witnessed that day; every American knows that site is a graveyard. The empty hole in the sky has yet to be filled by something new. The new buildings going up will inevitably help us deal with our loss, but every New Yorker, every American, will remember that day for as long as they shall live.

As we should.

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