Cooperstown Crier - Your Source for Hometown News - Cooperstown, Baseball Hall of Fame

From Fly Creek

September 13, 2012

Thinking of Shanksville

 We’ve just passed Sept. 11, an undeclared national memorial day. Eleven years are gone since that cloudless fall morning when our nation changed forever. No one has proclaimed it a national holiday. Perhaps someone should.

But how could we make a national holiday of so horrible an event? Holidays are happy times — for laughter and song, for fireworks, for picnics, for NASCAR, for carved pumpkins, for gluttonous feasts, for climactic football clashes, for singing carols, sitting by fires. How could we have a sad holiday?

We used to. There’s a sad lesson for us in what happened to Memorial Day.  That national commemoration had been officially established back in 1868, when North and South were mourning their combined half-million dead in that fratricidal civil war.  To urge the yearly placing of flowers on soldiers’ graves, it was called Decoration Day. The goal was assuring that memory of the dead from our wars would not fade away. The Day’s enduring goal was to be, “Lest We Forget. . .”

And so, to this day, the placing flags on veterans’ graves, the patriotic oratory, the community parades. But in the minds of most, the “Lest We Forget” dimension of the day has dimmed, eclipsed by a transmuted holiday, a kind of day of national glee. Not so much a day to honor national martyrs, any more. It’s a time to kick back, chill out.

Nobody would say it, but “Summer’s coming, dude! The dead are dead. Today, let’s live it up!”

The slow demoralizing of Memorial Day took place over decades. It was all but complete when, in 1971, a compliant Congress converted it to a three-day holiday weekend.

Thank God, you can still see the original intent alive in our nation, especially in small towns and rural areas like ours. But in cities and surely on television, though you might get a few solemn comments from the news team, a few quick pictures of the Arlington wreath laying and old cannons, you know what now fills the minds of Us, the People. It’s time to party.

And so perhaps we need a new, formal national holiday; not an excuse to getting off school and work, but one that would remind us of just how precious our nation is and what prices have been paid for our freedom. Perhaps it should be each year on Sept. 11.

Nine years ago, Anne and I visited Shanksville, Pa. Today a memorial is there, replete with yellow-striped asphalt parking lots and visitors’ center. The raw fields that we saw nine years ago are largely covered over; and with them, the raw emotions:

“We’d traveled south to visit two of  [Anne’s] old friends in southern Pennsylvania — down Interstate 81 to the Pennsy Turnpike at Carlisle, then west for a couple of hours to Bedford.

“Bedford reminded me much of Cooperstown: handsome Main Street with potted shrubs and flower boxes everywhere, tree-shaded residential streets flanked by mostly Victorian homes; these were set back beyond broad lawns with (of course) still more shrubs and flowers.  The town seems to be proud of itself, and rightly so. Mind you, they don’t have a Lake Otsego, but they’re on the way to making the most of the town’s river frontage.

“When we’d arrived, our Bedford hosts Jim and Jo had previewed a neighborhood dinner and a bandstand concert we’d be attending. Jo then added quietly, ‘And we thought you might want to visit Shanksville. It’s not an hour away from here.’

“Shanksville, an obscure hamlet thrust into tragic fame. One of the settings for America’s worst day, where United Flight 93 dove straight into the earth. Now cars stream through Shanksville, heading five miles out to the barren acreage of a former strip mine. There, next to a tree line, a huge hole gapes.

“We traveled the five miles after Shanksville, the last of them up a dirt road and past rusting shovel cranes that loom like dinosaurs against the sky. Then we walked down a path and onto a large square of crushed stone.

“You’re not allowed close to the crash site. You squint across at it from the temporary memorial, a flat hilltop more than a football field’s length away that hole. But nothing blocks the view; strip-mining long ago despoiled the area. Only sparse, sickly grass grows on the acres between you and the cavernous hole.

“The temporary memorial is simple: two tall flagpoles, a rough wooden cross and, to one side, a twenty-foot length of chain-link fence about eight feet high.

Attached to the fence are hundreds of token gifts — teddy bears, baseball caps, police and fire company patches, fire helmets, hardhats, even some lad’s football helmet. When the fence fills up, the tokens are removed, cataloged, and stored.

Then the fence fills up again.

“Also attached to the fence are two plywood boards painted white. When these become crowded with felt-tip messages to the dead, they’re also replaced and stored. Notes of gratitude, in fact, cover every flat surface at that place  —  along the site’s guardrails, even on plastic trash boxes. Across the top of one of these, touchingly misspelled, we saw the enduring quote of that day: ‘Let’s role!’

“In the shock and horror of 9/11 itself, an added terror was our nightmare paralysis. We could only watch it all unfold, could do nothing to stop it. But this hillside recalls the exception. Here, in our airborne surrogates, we were able to defend ourselves, to fend off at least one part of the horror.

“Fifteen or 20 air minutes away had been the likely target, the United States Capitol. Without action by brave, doomed men and women, the white dome would have taken the hit, perhaps a thousand more would have been killed. No wonder we’ve drawn those few heroes to our hearts.

“On the Saturday we visited, the sky was a brilliant blue, as it had been on 9/11. Though about a hundred were on the site with us, it was almost silent: flags snapping in a steady breeze, their lanyards clinking against the poles, just a murmur of hushed voices as people stood and looked across the field. The adults, most often, had arms around one another.

“We saw a photo while there — of Shanksville kids, K-12, next to their boxy brick school. On the asphalt playground, they’d arranged themselves, a hundred of them, to spell out a big, blocky THANK YOU.

“The photo must have been taken from a plane; the message could only be seen from the sky. But perhaps that was the idea.”

 

1
Text Only
From Fly Creek
  • From word to phrase to sentence As usual, Dennis Savoie started it. Old friends, we long ago discovered our mutual interest in oddities of words and language usage. His most recent challenge to me: Is our flag properly called "spangled" with stars?

    July 24, 2014

  • 'They were out of step but Jim!' All right, skip the drolleries about the headline. The quote is actually the title of a 1918 song by Irving Berlin, who, with George M. Cohan and other songsmiths, was producing patriotic pieces by the dozen as the Yanks were going "Over There!"

    June 19, 2014

  • Replanting has taken root Lots of boxes still to be unpacked and stuff to be put on shelves and into closets, but Anne's and my shift into Cooperstown is almost done. We're securely replanted at 24 Delaware Street and already feeling at home.

    May 8, 2014

  • There's reason to hope I hadn't planned this piece for my April column, but something happened that was impossible to ignore. Within a week, three different friends (count them, three!) from different parts of the country emailed to say they'd come across an old Crier column that they'd saved for twelve years and had sent to many friends because it meant much to them.

    April 17, 2014

  • Let not thy left hand know That headline's a Bible allusion, trenchant advice not to preen when doing good: "But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth." Amen, I say.

    March 6, 2014

  • How good to be back! "Tis I, the Spirit of a Thousand Columns Past, back after a twelve-month silence to talk at you again in the flesh!"

    January 2, 2014

  • Mammon Triumphs in Turkey Bowl Editor's Note: We're thrilled to announce the return of our columnist, Jim Atwell, and his legendary column "From Fly Creek." Jim's column will be an occasional feature, when he is able to write or he has something he wants to contribute. We celebrate his return with one of his classic columns.

    December 5, 2013

  • Rolling toward a stop I’m slowing down, friends, rolling toward a stop for this column. The best way to describe my reason is through an analogy: I want you to think of me as a horse-drawn wagon and driver â€" not just as the driver, but as the whole shebang.

    December 27, 2012

  • Giving gnomes a home Whack a mole, if you must, but never a gnome. You'd enrage those who dote on them. And there are many such people, though maybe not as many as gnomes. Gnomes are everywhere.

    November 29, 2012

  • Hauling history home Anne and I have a trip ahead of us. We'll be trundling south in our bought-used-but-still-great Mercury Mountaineer SUV.

    November 15, 2012