Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Places and sights and sounds and feelings.

That is all I feel truly qualified to relate to you this evening.

Emotions are high and insults are flying like no-see-ums. I want to share with you some of the things I have seen, and how they have touched me.

Tuesday evening, while I was on my way to downtown St. Petersburg, I saw a man parked on the side of the road, in a particularly bad patch of driving rain. He was standing on top of his car, crying, and waving a huge American flag. I honked and waved, but the image was burned indelibly into my brain.

All over the country, Americans are shrugging off their recent haze of complacency and apathy toward world events and volunteering in huge droves. Volunteering their services, their money, even the blood from their veins. No one is asking for money, no one is asking why they should be bothered. The only thing on their lips is "How can I help?"

In downtown Tampa, within two hours of the bombing news, there were seven hundred people lined up in the blistering sun outside a Home Depot to give blood. A man from Nabisco walked into the nearby Winn Dixie and signed for a huge amount of Nabisco products and started handing them out free to the people in line. Pepsi, Coca Cola, and several ice and bottled water companies also sent nearby trucks to unload and assist the people who were, by the time they had waited five hours to give blood, sometimes dehydrated. It was like the companies that had been, for so long, focused only on profits and dividends, suddenly decided to throw tailgate parties all over the world. Restaurants in New York began feeding volunteers and local people free of charge, and many companies have come forth almost without hesitation and done what they could to make the situation bearable.

This is not something that I, as a member of this generation, was prepared for. It has never been cool to be a volunteer, it has never been cool to be altruistic in any form in this country for longer than I or my generational cohort can remember. But this week, everyone is helping out when and where they can, and no one is laughing at them.

The Red Cross, which just this year discovered they were broke, is receiving an unprecedented show of support from almost every corner of the United States. There are people lining up in droves to donate the blood that is usually so precious and spare. For every victim of that disaster, there has been one American who has stepped forward to donate their blood, their time, and their sweat, to help us as a nation recover.

In an incredibly touching gesture, the guard at Buckingham Palace observed a silence and played the Star Spangled Banner. I stood in my living room, and, for what was probably the third or fourth time in these past days, felt tears welling in my eyes.

I stood with my hand over my heart.

Me.

I was the guy that refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance after the OJ Simpson debacle. Today I stand, a changed man, with changed ideas, and a changed perspective on human nature and on Patriotism.

I was driving home this evening from work and I heard the old song that I used to think was so meaningless. It was "When the Children Cry" by White Lion. The notes of the guitar resonated into my soul, and the words hit home in a way that I'm not sure any other song has done since the attack.

I drove down the road with one hand rubbing wet eyes, and fighting sobs. Realizing that my home, New York, the center of my childhood, and my home, had been viciously assaulted and that thousands of people lay dead under the most horrible of circumstances just miles from where once I thought nothing interesting would happen.

It was assaulted and violated, and I wasn't there. I have been living in Florida for several months, and the distance from this tragedy has made it an almost unreal experience. When that song played, though, it was like I was driving right down Lexington Ave.

Finally, the scenes of patriotism and goodwill over the past few days have been outstanding. I can remember in my high school days attending a function during the summer called "Boys State", in which 1400 junior-year high school men were brought together to experience the workings of a democratic government and given to try our hands at it. It was a very influential experience for me, and one of the most memorable moments was a service during which a retired veteran of World War II recited a poem titled "It's Not A Rag".

The poem outlined his experience with a group of young American boys who were disrespecting the flag and using it as an oil rag to fix their cars. He described looking at it and seeing all of the various conflicts and events that the stars and stripes had been flying over. He described all the lives of the men who carried the flag in the name of liberty. He described their sacrifices and the profound sense of duty and honor that the flag had inspired in generations of Americans.

Toward the end, to show our appreciation for his beautiful rendition and our deep respect and shame at being a part of a generation to fail to respect the flag, we stood in silence, put our hands over our hearts, and began singing the national anthem at the direction of a particularly-charismatic and impromptu boy in the front. This old man, I can still see him clearly as if he were standing in front of me now, he began to cry as he read it, shouting the words in hoarse and quaking voice, telling of men who had gone to Korea and Vietnam and had never come home. All the while, our voices hummed or sang in a low voice the "Star Spangled Banner."
At the conclusion of the poem, he repeated as an echoing assertion "It's not a rag. It's not a rag. It's not a rag." As his voice trailed off, he looked up at us, obviously touched and at his emotional limits, and sobbed silently for a moment in the quiet gymnasium. He was perhaps seventy, and had no hair and thick spectacles. He wore the full dress uniform of a retired US Marine.

Then the greatest roar of applause I have ever, in my life, heard went up like the sound of a thousand battle cries. 1400, 17-and-18- year-old boys, most of us for the first time getting a taste of what it meant to have respect and honor and to be men, screamed, clapped, whistled and applauded for what must have been at least fifteen full minutes. The man, I forget his name, smiled up at us with visible pride and relief. He could see in our faces that we were not the generation of heartless and affectless slugs that he feared. We poured every ounce of our souls into that round of applause (which, as an aside, I'm quite sure is also one of the loudest things I've ever heard in my life), and when we left with sore throats and tear-filled eyes, we knew that we had at least a chance of being worthy of all the love and bravery that our forefathers have shown us in their sacrifices.

I still to this day have never felt the equal of that moment, and it stays with me always as a reminder of those that have gone before me that I might be free. I think of that day often, and I remember the sound of the man's voice, and the feeling that my heart would explode in my chest as we surged as a whole generation to bridge the gap between that generation and ours. We wanted something, anything, to happen that would let us as a generation prove our worth, our steadfast patriotism, and our worth as Americans for which another whole generation sacrificed their loved ones and their lives.

Today, at the cost of thousands of those who we loved, we now have that reason. We have, in the face of this incredible tragedy, received a chance to truly test our mettle against the evils of the world. We are already proving, through the selfless actions of the past three days, and the examples of bravery in the face of terror, that we are more than equal to the task and we are ready to again defend liberty.
There a million things that I would say further, but unfortunately my little slice of Florida is expecting to be hit with a category one Hurricane sometime in the next twenty-four hours. My thoughts are in New York, but my body and my life are here, and I must look to them. I must make an effort to archive my vital computer files and prepare for emergency evacuation if that becomes a necessity. I look forward to seeing you all post on DyingDays in the future, and I want you to know that I do, in fact, read the page almost every day. Though I do not post regularly anymore, I still feel that you are a part of my family. May God keep you and your families all safe in the coming days.

As a parting note, I urge all of you who read this to remember that the children of the world are watching, just as we watched when the generation ahead of us went to war in various parts of the world. We are the ones who must set the examples of respect and honor and selflessness that the children who watch us will follow. Keep that in mind, and we will overcome.

Little child
Dry your crying eyes
How can I explain the fear you feel inside?
You were born into this evil world
Where man is killing man and no one knows just why
What we have become?
Just look what we have done
All that we've destroyed, you must build again
When the children cry
Let them know we tried


It's not a rag.