Still Proud to be an American
But Covid Times aren’t anything like the communal spirit we felt after 9–11
I found it difficult last year to rally around the flag. There, I’ve said it.
Our elected leaders — well, those at the top — failed us in 2020. But it’s not just those in charge. I still come upon “mask deniers” in my local commercial venues every so often, such as grocery stores and restaurants (where we only eat alfresco, as they say in Italy), although those folks are few and far between these days. I’m happy to report that most of the residents of my little corner of the U.S. of A. are getting with the program. And with the vaccine’s arrival — fingers crossed — we have some hope to cling to these days.
Those who politicize mask-wearing or give off the “who cares?” vibe to the health of others just plain perturb me. Last month, I was in a bike repair shop; I’d wheeled my used Huffy Beach Cruiser in to get a tune-up. I, of course, wore a mask. The young man at the counter, who had two large bottles of hand sanitizer located on the counter where he leaned, didn’t sport a face covering, and looked at me quizzically when I didn’t move any closer than about 15 feet toward him. He realized, after glancing at the older gent behind him working on bikes, that he didn’t have his mask on. He then complied with state law, immediately.
“Sorry about that,” he murmured sheepishly.
“No problem,” said the non-confrontational moi, although it was fixin’ to be a major difficulty had he not followed the law in my presence. I know my rights, including the right to leave his small shop and find assistance elsewhere.
I was watching the TeeVee the other day, and came upon a “personality” (this wasn’t Faux News, but I was unclear if this CNN talking head was a real journo or not) who proclaimed that the Covid-19 death toll was “many times that of 9/11.” Come to think of it, he probably was a “personality,” because he wasn’t too specific about this alarming statistic. So I sat down this afternoon and figured it out. I know that the U.S. Covid death toll rises every microsecond these days, but as of right now, this second, close to 350,000 Americans have lost their lives to this insidious virus. OK, do the math, like I did on Thursday. A total of 2,977 Americans at three different sites (the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Arlington, VA, and a lonely field out in western Pennsylvania) died on September 11, 2001.
I’m not much at math, but I mastered simple division in middle school. Figure it out if you’re going to be responsible about spewing statistics — the United States has suffered approximately 117.5 Nine-Elevens to-date, all because of Covid-19.
Sorry about the upcoming cliche, but that’s a monstrous number to wrap one’s head around, especially for one who experienced 9–11 under the scared and watchful eyes of a classroom of teenagers.
Politicians gather in New York, D.C. (the Pentagon technically is located across the Potomac River from our Nation’s Capital in Virginia), and western PA every year in mid-September to memorialize the close to 3,000 people who lost their lives on that beautiful, crystal blue-sky day.
The 40 passengers and crew who died in a lonely farmer’s field near Pittsburgh tear at the strings of my heart the most. Maybe it’s because the place where they died is so lonesome; perhaps because New York and D.C. always get the most press; but also because there were so few casualties on Flight 93 — compared to the overall total — but so much valor. And I guess it’s also because I’ve visited all three locations, and Shanksville, PA weighed heavily on my mind that morning 19 years ago.
On September 11, 2001, I sheltered-in-place with 28 terrified AP Lang students. The TV in the corner of Room 215 broadcast the demolition of the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon — but then we found out there was another plane on the radar.
At 9:45 a.m., authorities began evacuating federal buildings, including the White House and the U.S. Capitol. A reporter broadcasting from a chaotic scene on Capitol Hill told us that hijackers had commandeered United Flight 93 and it was headed for D.C. We very much thought we would become a target. The White House is a relatively tiny place, and the experts said it would be difficult to pinpoint 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW with any precision from a seat in the cockpit of a commercial airplane, especially if the pilot lacked experience. The Capitol Building, perched high up on Capitol Hill, was a likely target, but those who knew said that any building within 10 to 15 miles of those two national monuments should, perhaps, expect the worst.
Our principal, broadcasting over our school’s PA system, broke into wall-to-wall coverage to tell us that the school was in lockdown. All 28 sets of eyes looked in my direction.
“What does that mean?”
“We’re not going anywhere — for now.”
“Are we safe?”
I repeated what Dr. Smith, the only person in charge at that school whom I ever trusted implicitly (this was almost 10 years before Mickey Mouse and his Merry Band of Idiots), had just told us.
“We’re as safe as we can be,” I reiterated. “No one is entering — or leaving — the building. We’ll listen for further instructions.”
It turns out that we didn’t have to worry for long. United Flight 93 never made it to Washington. The passengers fought back, shortly after radar indicated that those flying the plane had turned the lumbering jet around, and were, indeed, headed in the direction of D.C. The plane fell from the sky, and 40 brave Americans perished in a farmer’s field in western Pennsylvania.
In 2012, I visited the Flight 93 National Memorial. It was still very much a work-in-progress, but the barren acreage that once nourished crops was a stark, and fitting, contrast to the more formal, and unfinished, monument to the brave souls who perished there.
That was the flight on which 32-year-old Todd Beamer, a computer software salesman from New Jersey, uttered the prophetic words that will forever be associated with 9–11, heroism, and fighting back. Some of the passengers were on phones to loved ones, and in several cases, telephone operators, when the plane crashed. Before the Boeing 757 went down, those on the ground who were listening to the chaos aboard the plane later said they could make out a distinctive command, credited to Beamer, before a group of passengers rushed the cockpit.
“Let’s roll!” he hollered. Shortly after that, the line went dead.
This summer I was involved in some pretty heavy basement decluttering in anticipation of our upcoming move and came upon a series of photos from my visit, along with a haiku I penned the day I visited. Yes, I get chills when I think about 9–11, and the hours we passed in fear, while I tried to put on a brave face. The goosebumps returned when I opened a box that was destined for the dump and read this, scrawled on a piece of paper I’d apparently ripped from my trusty steno pad, which I carried religiously back in the day.
𝘰𝘯 𝘕𝘪𝘯𝘦 𝘌𝘭𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘯
𝘮𝘺 𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘶𝘣𝘴 & 𝘐 𝘸𝘢𝘪𝘵𝘦𝘥
𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘱𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘤𝘳𝘢𝘴𝘩
Although we can compare numbers, at least in the calculation of those lost to the virus, the Covid-19 crisis is a completely different experience than 9–11. A really stinging simile simply escapes me, but most of 2020 was like a bad opera that refused to end, but kept stringing the audience along with hope that, in the end, the Fat Lady really would sing. So much shrieking. But so much quiet desperation, too.
U.S. coronavirus deaths now equal more than 117 times the number who died on 9–11. So long ago. But the memories are never very far away.
I’m proud to be an American, even though right now my faith is wavering. But I can still have hope. I’m dedicating 2021 to hope, and to the return of the American Spirit. And that’s what’s helping me hold it together these days.