I was proud to be a journalist covering television Sunday.
The TV and radio coverage of the 9/11 memorial services In New York and Washington and Shanksville, Pa., was as diverse and moving as the names being read at Ground Zero, an honor roll but also families talking directly to their loved ones, a father who loved Gummy bears, a son that the world had seen as a single person, but for whose mother had been the whole world, a request for a last game of golf together in heaven.
The coverage I saw managed to capture the general and specific of the tragedy, tastefully, extensively, and yes, beautifully.
Essentially the networks were all covering the same thing, but in very different ways. It was a rainbow, rather than a roadblock, of memorial coverage.
CBS concentrated on the reading of the names. It was Sunday morning, after all, and it has made a franchise out of taking contemplative pauses on Sundays to focus on the sounds and images of life rather than narrating them. That ever-present litany was like the bagpipe drone in a rendition of Amazing Grace, with the other notes, the grace notes of moving interviews, the jarring strains of archival footage, provided by other networks.
When I switched to Fox, it was a Chris Wallace interview about how we should be treating weapons of mass destruction in the newly fragile Libya ten years after the attacks. I switched to NBC, which was covering Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks at the new Shanksville memorial to Flight 93. ABC was interviewing the son of a flight 93 victim whose father was a pilot and who, he was sure, would have been able to bring the flight down safely had he gotten the chance. Back to CBS for more names, then to Headline News for video from ten years before, legislators singing God Bless America on the steps of the Capitol, Republicans and Democrats not at each others’ throats but at each others’ sides.
Back to Shanksville. The Vice President talked of the pain of the victims, their courage of reliving the day publicly. He said he knew the feeling of getting a call that takes a loved one away, not having to add how much his mother’s death had affected him. But he also made the point, echoed elsewhere, that it was he who was honored to be in their company.
Back to the roll of names on CBS, read by alternating pairs of victims’ relatives. They were names, but then they would get to the end of their section, when they added the name of their father or mother or daughter or uncle or aunt, and an anecdote or a shared catchphrase, and it was suddenly heartbreakingly personal. “Give pop a hug and a kiss for us all.”
John Hendricks, founder of Discovery Communications, gave the Keynote at the Pennsylvania memorial, talking about Liz Waino, the Discovery Channel Stores executives who was on the flight. He talked about the need for a global communications effort to combat the misunderstanding and hate that culminated in the attacks.
Back at CBS for a single-flute version of Amazing Grace that soared and pierced at the same time. More names. Among the names was O. Kristin Osterholm White Gould. She was 65, a freelance journalist and author. I was immediately struck by how many roots and branches and leaves of family trees were part of that name. Multiply the victims by the the lives their pasts and presents touched, and by the potential lives that now will never be, and the victims number in the millions.
I was only to the ‘G” names when I had to leave, a little after the last bell tolled at ground zero (at 10:28) marking the fall of the second tower, so that I could take bins full of Encyclopedias (lists of names again) to my Mother-in-Law.
I turned on the car radio and flipped to the noncommercial station in time to hear Paul Simon perform Sounds of Silence. Then over to C-SPAN radio for more names, and yet more names. Then a sudden uneasiness as I saw a plume of grey smoke rising to the sky up ahead. It was an RV engulfed in flames, but I was suddenly reminded of my drive in to work on 9/11. I was listening to WMAL(AM) as I passed the Pentagon at just about the time that they were cutting to an ABC Radio report of an apparent small place collision with one of the Twin Towers. At almost that exact spot, I notice on a commute a few days later, there are a pair of towers, apparently part of the Pentagon heating or cooling plant, two white, rectangular towers just visible over the guard rail, with an everpresent plume of steam that billows from one and floats eerily across the other.
I didn’t get back for over two hours, and the names were still being tolled. And, reportedly for the first time, being rubbed onto sheets of paper by relatives and friends from the raised names on bronze plagues on the Memorial walls that now define the empty–but not negative–spaces at Ground Zero, spaces once filled with all those lives and all that promise.
Over to CNN, where they were profiling Michael Hingson and Roselle, the service dog who helped her master down 77 flights to safety.
The simple reading of the names is what affected me most deeply and sometimes without warning–bringing the unexpected clutch at the throat and wet eyes (that and a Winnie the Pooh bear lying on the cold stone of one of the memorial walls). Names of seemingly every nationality: Abraham and Isaac, Addams and Washington, Kim and Gonzalez and Ishikawa and Jean-Pierre and Schmidt and Grabowski and Morabito and Green and DeLucca and the string of “Kelly’s” that reminded us, if we could ever forget, of all those New York City Firemen who defined their lives when they climbed when others were descending. Yes, it is about time for the interoperable broadband communications network, or whatever we need to do as a country, to insure our first responders have at least as smart a communications device as an eight-year-old at the shopping mall.
There were plenty of images, of course, ghosts from the past of smoking towers, the disbelieving faces, the heads buried in their hands. There was the President and First Lady in a long shot, standing in a field at Shanksville dwarfed, perhaps only by perspective, by tall yellow flowers. I thought of another President in Pennsylvania as a killing field was being turned into a memorial cemetery. “We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
During the New York ceremony, former New York Governor George Pataki read the last stanza of the Poem, “The Names,” by Billy Collins, Poet Laureate at the time of the attacks.
“One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.”
The poem made me think of my own brother, Al, who was in the Pentagon but survived because he was sitting in this desk, and not that one. Names in a hat.
Life goes on, as it must. The roll of names ended, a little while after NFL football’s 1 p.m. kickoff, which itself had been proceeded by huge flags rolled out across those other green fields. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh sandwiched between uniformed heroes at the edge of one flag, patting it as gently as those big hands can. Chants of “USA!,” The National Anthem–that opening-day moment where everything is possible for every team. And then a Sunny Sunday afternoon with enough clouds to remind us of those we lost and enough blue sky to remind us how wonderful life can still be.
I took another break to ride my bike down by the lake and survey the damage from last week’s floods from the remnants of Lee , a tropical depression that seemed to hit harder than Irene the week before. The pavement of the Lake parking lot had been lifted in strips and carried away, the bicycle path was blocked by downed trees where it had not been redirected in sheets of tar and gaps of gravel. Where the creek bent around the ball fields, the batting cages were filled with mud, the fields furrowed by stumps and trees that had warped and twisted the backstops in an eerie reminder of that other twisted metal.
But I knew as certainly as we have rebuilt, if not entirely recovered, from that terrible day ten years ago, that kids are going to playing in that ball field next spring. And we will be parking in that parking lot, just on more grass and less asphalt.
Families of every color were out kicking soccer balls and cooking burgers and probably hugging their kids just a little tighter. As I rode by, the rear tire on a Jeep said it best. “Life is good.” Yes it is.
But we will never forget.