Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Last Minutes

Morning mist rises upon the Sacred Ground.
It was a beautiful, clear-blue-sky Tuesday morning. After a typical hot, humid southern summer, the first nip of fall promised relief. I was upstairs in my office, writing advertising copy and pausing on occasion to contemplate the gentle thumps of the tiny elbows, knees and feet from the baby (Jack) who was growing restless inside my belly. I enjoyed quiet in the mornings—no television or radio until much later in the day. The house was quiet, void of the usual hum of the air condition, which had labored all summer, and too soon for the furnace. The one reminder of the outside world were the freight trains. Our 150 year-old plantation cottage vibrated with their passing, but after two years living there, I didn't even notice the sound—unless the engineer blew the whistle. At a little after nine am, a more startling noise broke my tranquility: the phone rang. I considered letting the call roll over to the answering machine, but I thought it might be a client, so I picked up. It was our friend Bruce.
   "Oh my God, are you watching TV!?" he asked.
   I don't recall the rest of the conversation or if any other words were shared. By then my husband and I were downstairs watching fire blazing out of the World Trade Center Towers. We didn't know what had happened until later that day as reports were released that in total, four commercial airplanes had been hijacked by terrorists and deliberately crashed into key American targets. Well, three had been flown into targets. One plane, United Airlines Flight 93, did not hit its mark, and I wouldn't fully understand the importance of that event for another ten years.
    On September 10, 2011*, I found myself sitting behind hundreds of cars, SVUs, buses and motorcycles, creeping along a winding road in the lovely Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands. The remote, rolling countryside was familiar to my southern-girl sensibilities, yet the landscape felt distinct. The difference was the absence of long-leaf pine crowding the woodland edges. This was a land of hardwood, too cold in the winters to support such tender growth. The houses, too, were more substantial, built of stone and brick and without large, breezy verandas. The people here draw inward for warmth and comfort, and they extend that warmth out whenever the need arises.
   One might have thought I was in queue for a Disney attraction by the size and length of the line, but on this day the attraction was quite different. We pilgrims were visiting the somber scene of the Flight 93 crash site, near the small town of Shanksville, Pa. There is no easy way to get to this place. I flew into Pittsburgh, rented a car and drove almost two hours to get to Somerset County. For almost four hours I lurched along the approach road to the Memorial in my rental. The lack of frustration among my fellow drivers would have told me this was a unique occasion had I not already known it was the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Strange that such a tragic and violent act was now effecting such kindness and compassion. I began to appreciate the karma yielded from the events of that day.
   When I finally arrived at the Flight 93 National Memorial, I was greeted with more lines. There was no grumbling or complaining. An air of reverent excitement held the day. The site itself was abuzz with media. The large satellite vans cast their dishes to the sky on a nearby hill, and beyond them, mounted Park rangers kept vigil. On top of the visitors plaza, armed CIA agents told a more somber story. Beyond them was the field, the Sacred Ground on which 40 passengers and crew members, and four terrorists, rest. This place, I realized, was not so much a monument as it was a battlefield, like the fields Gettysburg or Shiloh.
   Twenty thousand visitors poured into the Memorial that weekend—and the site was not yet complete. The skies threatened rain. No matter. Rubber boots were the order of the day. But the clouds burned off by the time former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush took the stage. They spoke of the extraordinary courage exhibited by the 40 people on that plane. These men and women were fully aware of their fate. They had time to assess the situation. They talked to their relatives and knew that their plane was one of four hijacked that day. They knew the other three planes had hit their marks. They knew their plane's course had been changed and was now barreling toward Washington D.C., rather than San Francisco, where vacations and business meetings awaited never to be fulfilled. They knew there were only a few precious minutes left...and what did they do? They could have spent that time whispering "I love you's" to family and friends. They could have spent that time shouting prayers to God. They could have spent those last moments lost in unspeakable terror. But they chose to take action to thwart the intentions of the terrorists, and they ended their flight and their lives in the process. They took action for the right reasons. They knew they could not save themselves, but they chose to at least try to save other innocent lives. And they did.
   And these 40 Heroes, as they are now called, set forth many reactions with their concerted loving act. As I stood and looked out over the field where a great boulder now marked the spot of impact, I was moved by the humbleness of this site. Golden rod and black-eyed Susan, the last blossoms of summer, punctuated the tall grass. Thousands of people came to pay their respects to this remote patch of land—and more than a million visited here before the park even opened. Why? Why would we go so far out of our way to see a forlorn field of wildflowers? Although there were many family members of The Forty present, most of the visitors had no direct connection to that flight. Some, like me, were members of the press, sent here to report a story, but the majority were regular people, regular citizens...just like the passengers and crew of Flight 93.
   In truth, any of us could have been on that flight that day. We never know what will happen when we kiss our loved ones good bye and board a plane or, for that matter, hop in the car to drive to the grocery store. Yet we live as if we know the outcome. We take for granted that we will arrive at our destination and return home without event. Walking the length of the Memorial to the shiny marble Wall of Names and running one's fingers across the engraved names of the dead connects us to the sense that we live with the allusion of invincibility.
   I like to think that I live in the moment, but I fail to do that most of the time. That night, as I drove through the mountains back to my hotel room, I wondered what I might do different if I knew I was going to die. Of course, I do know I'm going to die, it's just not so eminent yet. If I only had a few moments left on this earth, what would I do? Who would I call? What would I say?
   This is the legacy of the Flight 93 National Memorial and gift given to us by the forty men and women who died on that plane that day: Will we live whatever time we have in fear? Or will we spend our time acting in compassion and love? If we lived each moment as if it were our last, would we act differently? I think so. If, like those forty passengers and crew members on that ill-fated flight, we were given the omniscience to know the eminent moment of our death, we would act more heroically with whatever time we had left. Because, fortunately, we are not so different that the 40 Heroes. It truly could have been any of us on that flight. With so much anguish, suffering and hatred in the world, we can look to their example to provide hope for all mankind. We do have the ability to rise above our individual concerns and act out of pure unconditional love and compassion.
   That night, I called Jack and told him how much I loved him. Then I swallowed my pride and called a friend who I swore I would not call, and I listened while he told me things I did not want to hear. I filled the space between us with understanding, rather than disappointment. And I placed my faith in something greater in this world than terrorists and uncertainty, and I knew I was not alone.

* The Flight 93 National Memorial was dedicated the day before the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks.

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