We took a little mini vacation and spent two nights in Gettysburg. My son is a great history lover, particularly wars, and specifically the Civil War. You can imagine the pull Gettysburg has for him. He recently memorized the Gettysburg Address, and he was itching to see the place where Lincoln gave the actual speech all of those years ago.
Me, I was a little worried. It is a Civil War buff’s playground, it’s true, but it’s a solemn place. Where we live we are surrounded by Civil War history. Literally. Somehow up there, it was different. Such a huge battle, so important, and so many lives lost in such a short time. Ian tends to be pretty tender-hearted, and I wasn’t sure what he would think. He did fine–he was shocked, I think, but like so many of us, it was such a long time ago, it tends to lose some of the heart-wrenching potency. It was in another time, and another world–a world that my eleven year old son, who thinks I’m old–can barely even fathom.
On the way home today, we went to the Flight 93 National Memorial Site. That tragedy, my friend, happened in a world that we can not only fathom, but that we live in still today.
The site is still a temporary arrangement. The crash site is in a field at the foot of an old strip mine, and the metal building that was once part of the mine, which stopped producing in 1995, serves as an exhibit room now. At the time of the crash–a day which I’m sure I don’t need to name, but anyway, on September 11, 2001–it served as the base for the investigation and eventually the recovery. Also, the media crush gathered on the overlook that now serves as the visitor overlook.
It’s not a very fancy memorial, but for all that, it says a lot. There is ongoing construction, so it’s not peaceful, or beautiful. There is a makeshift chain link fence with two signs hanging on it that show where the site of the crash was on that day, and tells a little bit about what happened, and what the memorial will be like when it’s finished this September, which will of course be the ten year anniversary. Inside the exhibit, there are more details about both, and pictures of the 40 passengers and crew who died that day. There is a guest book, and a place to write a message and hang it on the message wall. I wanted to, but I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what NOT to say.
What can anybody say? Forty people got on a plane that day, that’s all. At Gettysburg, so many thousands approached that battle, as so many of them had done before, and as some would do again, and what were they thinking? At the National Military Museum, I heard a quote, which I can’t remember verbatim, but which basically said, any man who faces death and mutilation without fear is a lunatic, but one who fears death and mutilation, but faces them anyway because of duty and honor, is a hero. I’m sure not all of the boys at Gettysburg wanted to be there, some maybe didn’t choose to be there, but once they were there, they faced death, and fear, and they were heroes–blue or gray, black or white–they did give the last full measure of devotion.
So, forty people got on a plane. Thousands of people do that every day. Do they think they might die? I doubt it. The truth is, any of us might die any time, but we don’t necessarily go around thinking about it. Those forty people, they had plans, dreams, ideas–their whole lives planned out. We know now, some very bad people had different plans, and things changed for those forty people on board Flight 93. I sit here in my comfortable chair, with my family asleep in various parts of the house around me, and I don’t know if I would have done what those people did.
Maybe they would have said that same thing, too. They weren’t soldiers, after all. They were just people on a plane. Suddenly, they were confronted with the possibility of death, and fear, and what did they do? They faced it. They knew what had happened with the other planes. They knew what was going to happen to their plane, too, I bet, but they faced it. They didn’t set out to be heroes, and I know their families would rather have them here than have a million memorials dedicated to them–that’s how I’d feel–but it happened, and they lost their own lives in an attempt to keep others from dying. What is that but the last full measure of devotion? Maybe quoting the Gettysburg Address is cliché, but it’s a simple, beautiful speech, and those words meant something then, and they mean something now. I think of the fear they faced, and the heartbreak of their families, and of that memorial, and of my son, and my daughter, and I am so glad that there are still heroes, still people who can face fear and death, and face it with a courage I can’t even imagine.
We hear bad things so much. Our lives are inundated with the terrible things that people do. But sometimes, people do things that aren’t terrible, but wonderful. Sad, and awful, but wonderful. When people do terrible things, I’m so glad that there are other people who will stand up, even though they may not have volunteered for the job. Those people lived a hundred and fifty years ago, and ten years ago, and today. If you pray, or meditate, or whatever you do, think about those forty people, and what they did, and the hard anniversary that’s coming up for their loved ones, and say thanks for all of the heroes, then and now. Then go give your kids a kiss. I think I’ll do that now, too.