Monday, September 13, 2010

Let's roll . . . to Shanksville

I spent all Friday saving up tears. I went to Shanksville Saturday morning and knew I’d need all I could get.
A history buff, to me it’s more poignant than even Gettysburg. 
I read so many where-were-you-on-9/11stories over the weekend I thought I’d share mine.
I was at the Barnes & Noble in Greensburg, Pa., about 15 minutes west of my Latrobe home and about an hour east of Shanksville, a tiny coal patch town I’d never heard of.
I’d had September 11, 2001, circled on my calendar for two months. That was the day Bob Dylan was releasing “Love & Theft,” his first collection of original recordings in five years. I was going to pick up a copy of The New York Times and spend a lazy morning on the porch listening to Dylan and reading The Times.
Then the planes started hitting the buildings and the ground not far from my home. In fact, had I not been in watching the news, it’s likely I’d have seen Flight 93 careening over my house about five minutes before it was forced down.
I could grasp the strategic significance of hitting places like New York and Washington, but couldn’t fathom why planes were falling out of the sky near my rural home.
I’ll never forget the sirens running for the next three hours down U.S. Route 30, about a half mile from my home, all first responders bound on a rescue mission from which there would be no survivors.
Val and Josie, two weeks shy of her 1st birthday, got home later that afternoon after a harrowing drive from downtown Pittsburgh. We sat outside on this still-splendid September day and hugged and cried and prayed for the future of little Josie babbling and playing at our feet.
I remember going to bed that night wondering if the Empire State Building would still be standing when we awoke.
In the years since, my wife and I have splashed tears at Shanksville, pop. 245, several times. And I was flattered in 2008 when the National Parks Magazine asked me to attend the ceremonies and write about the new $60 million park being constructed there to commemorate Flight 93 crew and passengers.
Everyone is now familiar with the story of how 40 perfect strangers became perfect heroes in the skies near my western Pennsylvania home. Ranging in age from 79 to 20, you couldn’t have picked a better random sampling of Americans.
There were jocks, Mexicans, gays, businessmen, veterans, Jews, toymakers, tourists, students and bureaucrats. None of them wanted to die that day, even if it meant being immortalized as heroes.
They were only human.
Flight 93 reminds us that still something to celebrate.
Here’s one of the 2008 stories I wrote about the freedom pilgrims who wander daily to learn more about Flight 93 and what it means to you and me.
Where souls still soar
Awash in tears and tributes, Flight 93 a global beacon for liberty lovers
It is among the world’s most unlikely tourist attractions. There are no rides, no entertainment, no scenic wonders, no grand columns of marbled antiquities.
But sometime this summer, the 1 millionth person in fewer than eight years will drive at least two hours from the nearest major city, up a tire-jarring rustic road, past a ramshackle tin can recycling center to a hardpan dirt parking lot. He or she will walk to a desolate stretch of gaudily decorated chain-link fence and if they’re anything like the multitudes who’ve preceded them, once there they will begin to weep.
“This place means so much to people everywhere,” says Flight 93 memorial park security guard Michael Lashley. “In just the past week, I’ve met people from New Zealand, Japan, Russia, Finland and all over America. It’s usually way out of their way, but they say they just felt like they had to stop.”
This tear-splashed and now sacred ground is a global beacon to those eager to embrace a story of heroism that to them is so stellar it seems to shimmer.
“We’re honeymooning in America and we wanted to pay our respects to the people who gave so much,” said newlywed Maria Lomenz of Sicily, Italy, who was with her husband Sal.
“We were in New York and we knew we had to make the drive to Shanksville,” says Julie Turner, who was traveling with her 20-something friends Nick Eustace and John Avison from Oxford, England. “What happened here will never be forgotten. Hero’s an overused term, but certainly not in this case.”
Eustace, a UPS delivery man, remembers making an afternoon delivery in London when a panicked package recipient pulled him into her living room to watch the overseas news. “I remember staying the next couple hours crying with this complete stranger.”
Avison contrasted the Shanksville memorial with its hodgepodge of tributes ranging from the sublime (beautifully composed poems painstakingly inscribed on stones) to the curious (Nerf balls, kazoos, Matchbox cars) to his homeland’s famous aloofness. “Americans are a very proud people and I admire that,” he says. “This is something each American feels in their hearts and they come and express it so beautifully.”
Flight 93 museum curator Barbara Black is responsible for cataloguing all the tributes. She says what may seem silly to some have greater meaning to the giver. For instance, no one could figure out the meaning behind the simple brick left behind by an anonymous soldier.
“It wasn’t until we found an unsigned note that had nearly blown away that we learned the meaning,” she says. “This soldier had joined because of  9/11. He was in special forces and had been sent to Afghanistan. The brick was from an al-Quaeda headquarters they’d bombed and taken over. It was just a brick, but it meant so much more.”
Stories like that are why security guard Lashley always includes big, dark sunglasses as part of his official uniform. The sunglasses are meant to conceal his emotions. He says it wouldn’t do for visitors to see security crying, something he frequently does, and he wants to maintain a professional reserve.
At Shanksville, even the stoic faces of authority run with tears.


Tia said...

Beautifully written. Thank you.

Chris Rodell said...

Thanks, Tia. I hope you can make it there one day if you're ever wandering through Pennsylvania. I'm sure the finished park will be stunning, just as the event that inspired it is.