THE VigilanceVoice  

Dec. 18--Tuesday--Ground Zero Plus 98
Cliff McKenzie
 Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent Team

            Some things make you want to cry.  
            I felt sad this past Sunday when I watched the final skeleton of the World Trade Center being crushed into the rubble.
            It had stood for as long as the building had collapsed, a defiant reminder that you can “kill some of us some of the time, but not all of us all of the time.”   The twisted steel outer skeletal structure that had been the engineering marvel of constructing skyscrapers when the building opened in 1972, now was being mashed and pulverized into the gaping tomb where the Terrorists had flown two fuel engorged jet planes in their attempt to cripple America with fear, intimidation and complacency.
            Amidst the ruins, a lonely Christmas Tree had been lighted.   It was a bizarre moment, trying to bring cheer into the heart of the holocaust. 
            That made my tears a little more acidic as it welled in my eyes, and slowly drained down my cheeks.
            “I didn’t want to see that come down,” said my friend, Peter, at Starbucks as we had coffee and talked.   “It meant the end of an era.  It meant we weren’t safe any more.”
            Peter talked about his complacency.   After the first attack on the World Trade Center, security was heightened.   He was sure nothing like this could ever happen again.   He fell, as so many did, into a state of assurance that we were “ready for anything.”
            “It bothered me so much when they flew the planes into the building and it collapsed,” he said.  “I felt like a fool thinking we had our defenses ready.  Now, I know better.”
            Peter is a true New Yorker.  He’s been here many years.   I haven’t.  I came from Orange County, California just two years ago Christmas.   I hadn’t absorbed the Twin Towers into my heart and soul, or let it become part of the marrow of my being as so many had.  I hadn’t even been to the roof of the 1,368-foot building, or seen the awesome view that everyone spoke about.
            My attachment to the Twin Towers was born on September 11 when I was at Ground Zero, watching them burn, watching people falling or jumping from them.   I was there when they collapsed, and debris shot out and people screamed and fell and many died.   I was there when I thought I would die, assured the Terrorists had blown up the subways and released a deadly biochemical.  I was there helping people and writing, and feeling the dull thud of America’s security breeched, and the dangers that represented to my two daughters in New York City, and my two grandchildren who live and play and grow here.
            So when the scene of the last skeleton of defiance was torn down, I choked back a lump in my throat.  Scenes of people running, screaming, their eyes wide with fear, their sobs and words of “we’re all going to die,” rang in my ears, flashed in my mind.
            It brought back the sadness of the American Flag being taken down from the American Embassy in Saigon and the people clinging to the skids of the last helicopters taking off before the Viet Cong swarmed over it, taking possession of our “soil” and grinding their heels in our faces as we retreated from the quagmire of a political war we could never win.
            It reminded me of the spooky feeling I always feel when I walk along The Wall in Washington D.C. and touch the names of my comrades who died in that war.   I felt the reverse of what Francis Scott Key felt when he stood on the stern of the enemy’s ship and wrote the words: “Oh, Say Can You See…” which has become our National Anthem.
            In virtual seconds, the Twin Towers, once the engineering marvel of the world—110 stories high, its foundations sixty-feet deep into the earth—became no longer 16 acres of power and might, but instead, a great, gaping wound, a ruptured womb of security, bleeding, tattered, ravaged by madmen who rank above Jack The Ripper.
            It was a sad day for me.
            I thought of the bravery and courage of those who died that day.
            One person I thought of heavily was my friend’s brother, a war photographer, Bill Biggert.   He traveled the world, shoving his camera in the faces of death and destruction, always eager to get in the thick of it all.   He didn’t use telephoto.  He liked to push his camera full frame in people’s faces, to capture the angst, the sweat drops, the pain of war and conflict.
            Once, he had even photographed Osama bin Laden.   He had been in many wars, many battles.   But his ironic death was to be in Manhattan on September 11 as he shoved his camera into the faces of firemen and police and emergency workers struggling to save thousands from the holocaust.   
            On the fateful morning of September 11, I had coffee with Emily, his sister.   As the Terrorist plane flew overhead, I knew something was wrong.  It was too low, its engines screaming.   I grabbed my computer and rushed down to the World Trade Center.  Simultaneously, in another part of town, Bill Biggert was grabbing his cameras and rushing down there too.
            “Be careful, Cliff.  God, be careful,” Emily said to me as I rushed off toward Lower Manhattan. 
            I survived.  Bill Biggert didn’t.   He died taking pictures.  I lived to remember.  I lived to shed a tear for Bill and for countless others.
            So when I watched the skeleton of the World Trade Center being torn down, and the lights of the Christmas Tree, I felt a sadness that men and women who have seen so much senseless destruction in their lives feel.   It was a hollow emptiness.   The same emptiness I had carried around for thirty-five years from Vietnam.
            But one thing held me together.   The flags.

Out of the ashes of destruction has come a unity, a common thread of Patriotism

            Out of the ashes of destruction has come a unity, a bond, a common thread of American patriotism that has justified in some small way the horror of September 11.   The sacrifice of all those victims of the September 11th attack has not gone for naught.  
            I see in the flags that fly a Spirit of Resurrection.   I see and feel that America has been awakened from years and years of selfishness, and complacency and “me-ism.”  
            For the first time in my lifetime, the words E Pluribus Unum—Out Of Many.  One.  has meaning to me.   Many died on September 11.  But out of those unfortunate deaths has risen one nation.
            I feel a pride today in America.   I feel a unification.   I feel part of other Americans as I have never felt before.   The bitterness in me for being shunned and spat upon when I came back from Vietnam to a nation of hate and anger and recrimination, has been salved by the new patriotism.
            Just the other day on 39th and 5th Avenue I saw an American Flag all twisted by the wind, snarled around the flagpole.   I was standing by my daughter’s Jeep I had borrowed, looking at the flag, wondering if people still cared about their country three months and some days later.
            Then I saw a Hispanic man, probably an emigrant, coming up from the basement of the restaurant where the flag stood.   He brought up a tall ladder.   I sensed a moment of tribute about to occur, and loaded my camera.
            He climbed the ladder toward the flag.   And, as I clicked one picture after another, he untwisted the flag so it hung proudly.  Then he came down the ladder, put it in the basement, and went back inside the restaurant.
            I stood there for a long, absorbing moment.   I thought of the Resurrection of Patriotism.   I thought about a man from another country adopting America as his.   He had seen Freedom’s Flag all twisted and disheveled, and took a moment out to right its power.
            Then I felt another tear.  Not of sadness as I had felt on Sunday, but a tear of joy and happiness and pride that made all the horror of September 11th bearable.
            America had grown stronger.
            I had grown prouder.


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