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9/11: A Remembrance of Things Past

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What's the timeline for forgetting an event we swore we'd always remember? Flipping through the Los Angeles Times this morning, I found no mention of 9-11, so maybe twelve years is the expiration date.

For me, it was a bit earlier. In 2008, while driving north from Cape Cod to Boston, I followed a small white truck adorned with a single, one-word bumper sticker: "Remember." It took more than twenty miles trailing behind that vehicle, shifting lanes and freeways, and slipping beneath a series of bridges bedecked with American flags and Styrofoam cups wedged into the chain-link fences above, many of which spelled out "Never Forget," before I recalled the impending anniversary.

Before I could summon up the moment when I first heard the news of the brutal assault on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and of a plane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field. I was shocked at how easily those terrifying days had slipped from my memory.

And staggered, because I had flown into New York hours earlier for a set of meetings the next day at Grey Towers National Historic Site; located in northeastern Pennsylvania, it was maybe fifty miles from Wall Street. No sooner had I arrived at the former home of Gifford Pinchot, founding chief of the U.S. Forest Service, than word spread of the attack. Almost instantly, like all federal installations, the site went on full alert, its gates closed and staff sequestered.

The next day, our work suspended, I took off in a rental car for the long drive home to San Antonio, where I then lived, a two-day race through a grieving country, tear-stained, silent, in disbelief, wrapped in crepe.

In retrospect, it seems inexplicable that I had erased those images or failed to recollect that in the smoky aftermath I had even written about my odd relationship to the World Trade Center, an essay that I'd crafted as a nudge to my conscience.

For I had never much liked the Twin Towers. Their overweening size and raw architectural ambition, their cold, slick skin of steel and glass had made the whole unsightly, untouchable, and inhuman. The jutting thrust of their sheer walls were repellant in another sense -- they created a powerful wind tunnel that literally swept away pedestrians as if they were the leaves, hot-dog wrappers, and newspapers daily swirling up into the dark, steep canyon.

My dislike of the center's architecture is tangled up with a modest grudge I bore for some of those who poured its foundations and hammered it into being. In early May 1970, with construction in full swing, many of the workers on the cavernous 16-acre site were given an unusual holiday; the unions cut a deal with their bosses to release hundreds of workers to go to Wall Street. Their mission was to bust up an anti-Vietnam War protest that Students for a Democratic Society and a coalition of peace groups had sponsored.

Before dawn on May 8, hundreds of activists rallied in lower Manhattan to memorialize the murder of four Kent State students mere days before and to try to shut down the nation's financial capital. Two friends from high school and I joined those marching in the streets. At noon we buttonholed stockbrokers, clerical staff, and passersby in search of those who we thought might help end the war. The discussions, often heated, nonetheless were a remarkable display of democratic discourse at the most intimate of levels -- face-to-face dialogue among people who did not know one another but who were willing to interrupt their daily business to talk about the central issue then confronting the nation.

For the hard-hats, such talk was cheap, or at least unpatriotic. And when they arrived at the close of the lunch hour, marching en masse behind an American flag, they immediately began to provoke fights with the protestors. As they bludgeoned those standing on the steps of the old customs house, and cleared the street before it, the badly outnumbered police hastily moved a set of wooden barricades to seal off the intersection of Nassau and Wall -- right at the Stock Exchange -- hoping to separate the two groups; anti-war demonstrators, in whose ranks were woven the simply curious and the hungry, filled the block that backed up to Trinity Church on Broadway.

Tension along the dividing line increased, words and fists flew across the thin blue wall of separation. Then, with a surge, the workers broke past the police, and a mêlée erupted.

Caught in a tight mass of humans in panic, stunned as we watched a secretary trip over her heels and be trampled by those fleeing the workers' onslaught, my friends and I did the only thing we could recall from marshal training (a consequence of attending lots of previous demonstrations): We pivoted to face the crowd, put our hands on peoples' chests, looked them in the eyes, and urged them to slow down. It didn't work or help. When my buddies were carried off in the rush, I found myself alone, in a weird moment of suspended animation. The thunderous sound of hundreds of feet pounding the pavement slowly receded into silence.

This was not good. But without thinking, I put up my arms to restrain the next person who came towards me. When I awoke, I was lying in a nearby gutter, a policemen's knee on my chest. "Don't fight back," he shouted. As if.

My retaliation for the swift punch that decked me has been to disdain that which that powerful arm helped construct. Yet some of my long-nursed animus vanished the last time I caught a glimpse of the World Trade Center.

Late in the evening of September 10, 2001, aboard a much-delayed TWA flight making its final approach to Newark Airport, I squinted through a rain-streaked window at the New York City skyline. Slipping in and out of the fog, back-lit by the flash of distant lightning, the twin towers shimmered invitingly. Twelve hours later they were gone.

This is a much-revised version of an essay published in the Pitzer College Participant, Fall 2001.

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