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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.”


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