::five years on

11 09 2006

The thing I remember most strikingly about September 11th, 2001 and the days that immediately followed is the silence of the sky.  US air space was closed to all traffic on the morning of September 11th, and the ban held for something like a week.  It left the night sky eerily empty quiet.  Quiet in the way a person in shock is quiet.  The way a person will sit in stunned silence trying to wrap their minds around what their eyes are telling them as they stare a gaping whole in their body or the empty space where a limb used to be.

At the time, we lived just a few miles from a moderately busy regional airport, and regularly could see larger planes flying over on their way to or from Sacramento International Airport.  Sometimes we would even see training flights from the former Mather Air Force Base, which still had a sizable amount of military activity despite the majority of the base being closed and turned over to civilian activities. 

I sat outside that night smoking and looking to that pitch black night sky, and wondering if there would be some semblance of hope in the stars that had not yet emerged to poke through the glow of the city.  I mourned for my country–something I hadn’t really ever done before–and I mourned for the innocence lost and the terrible hatred brewing out of it.

There used to be a guy from the Nation of Islam who would stand outside the door to the supermarket up the road from me on Tuesdays.  He’d hand out his paper and talk to whoever wanted to talk to him, though he kept conversation with non-blacks to a minimum.  I’d waive at him whenever I saw him, which was often.  I went to the supermarket late on that afternoon to get a bottle of wine.  I remember how much I wanted to have a drink and just get some  of the tension out of my neck.  He was there, standing behind his table with his news papers spread out, rigid and defiant.  Maybe a little scared.  I’d already heard reports on the news of people who appeared to be middle-eastern getting jumped, shop owners running out and buying every American flag they could get their hands on.  One Sikh convenience store owner in Arizona or New Mexico had already been beaten to death, and the sun hadn’t even gone down yet. 

I walked up and told him that he needed to pack up and get out of here as fast as he could.  He stared at me for a second, trying to read me and trying to decide which rehearsed response he would use.  He started to say something and I cut him off.  People are going crazy with rage, I remember telling him.  They are looking to avenge thousands of deaths, and right now every Muslim on the planet is responsible for those deaths.  Today is not the day to be out here.  Today is not the day to fight this fight.  I went inside before he had a chance to say anything, and he was gone when I came out 10 minutes later. 

Two more years I lived there, and I never saw him again.

My semblance of hope came two and half years later with the birth of our second son, Liam.  He was born two days after the Iraq war started.  Talking to my wife on the couch in the early morning on the day he was born, we wondered what we were bringing him into.  Wondered how we would protect him from it and not allow him to be tainted by it.  We are still trying to do that, every day.  Not just with him, but his older brother Zachary, and their baby brother Elliot.  

Zachary has now lived half of his life under the shadow of war–he’s got an uncle who spent a year in combat in Iraq and he hears every single day about death and destruction and mayhem.  He doesn’t understand it, and he asks questions often.  Sometimes they are very detailed questions about very specific things–strategy or weaponry or some such thing.  Sometimes the questions are much more general and impossible to really answer.  Questions like, Who is actually stupid enough to think that any good will ever come from a war?  When he asks these questions, he is pissed off, and the edge in his voice is sharp.

I used to try and defend the last resort of war in some way.  I would remind him of our trip to Germany in the winter of 2003, and of our trip to Dachau.  I would point out the millions who died in the Holocaust, and that millions more would have died–could maybe still be dying today–if war had not liberated the camps. 

The last time I used this argument, he was disgusted with me, and it showed. 

“That is a fluke and a cop out,” he said, almost spitting, he was so mad. 

“You’re right, at some level.”

I don’t try to answer the questions anymore when they come so angrily.  I just hope for him and the others that war doesn’t forever silence and darken their skies.





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