August 11, 2002—Ground Zero Plus 333

A Scalp Of Vigilance
Cliff McKenzie
   Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

       GROUND ZERO, New York City, August 11--"I found a scalp over there."
       My younger daughter pointed to an empty lot near the World Trade Center as we walked in the dim evening light last night toward Broadway, the main artery running through Lower Manhattan.
       "Did you have to pick it up with your hands, or did you use something."
       "I had a picker."
       She made the comment matter-of-factly, quietly, reverently.
       I had never asked her what she found or how she felt when she dug through the rubble of the World Trade Center attack, searching for any survivors, for artifacts of the dead that might lead to their identification.   Some things you just don't talk about.
       My daughter isn't a talker, at least, not about certain things.   She's a federal special agent who works undercover, and her job requires a wall of secrecy I respect, as do the other members of our family.   Daily, she faces death, for those she seeks to arrest are usually heavily armed.  
       Last year, she volunteered nightly to go to the disaster site and work to find any lingering life, but, as was the sad case, there were so few survivors.  Only scraps of human life could be found, some ejected blocks from the original site.   Such was the case of the scalp she found.
       When the buildings collapsed at Ground Zero, I frantically went in search for her.   I knew every law enforcement officer within miles would be called to the scene.   I was near the epicenter when it crumbled in a horrible roar that still rings in my ears, and as the dust settled, I immediately began looking for her, hoping to find her to insure she was Okay, and offer my help.   None of the cell phones worked,  I was unable to reach her until later that night.  I sighed deeply when I did, happy she was safe.  But sad that one of my children was thrust in the midst of war's madness, staring it in the face.

       When I finally talked to her, I noted something different in her Voice.   The beautiful 30-year-old child who had dreamed of being a special agent had now turned into a grave digger, donning a mask to keep the stench of death from gagging her, and turning over chunks of  blasted concrete one by one in hopes of finding survivors of a Terrorist attack that ripped through the heart of Americans, and shattered our sense of peace from foreign invaders.
       Her comment last night, nearly a year after the attack, was a sign of closure.  During the insanity of fruitlessly searching for life under the grave of twisted metal and concrete, she had changed.  We all changed.
          The innocence of her youth was converted by the horror of war.  It was not unlike my conversion  in Vietnam, or that of most of those who witness war's lethal ugliness.    No one is ever the same once they have smelled death.  Its acridity wipes out, erases and stains forever one's sense of immaturity, one's belief in the good of human nature.   It brings reality home--a dark reality that one wishes he or she had never witnessed--especially when such horror involves the innocent, those who didn't volunteer to die as warriors do.

         Her comment came on the heels of a beautiful evening celebration.  We had been visiting Nelson A. Rockefeller Park in Battery City, in celebration of my wife's birthday.   Both of my daughters, my three grandchildren, my wife and I, had elected to have a picnic at the park's playground.  It is our favorite in all of New York City.  It overlooks the Hudson River and is lush with greenery, dotted with  beautiful architecture, sculptures, ponds and walkways where people stroll and bike and roller blade, or just sit on a bench and watch the sailboats and Circle Tour boats, or gaze at the Statue of Liberty far out in New York Harbor.


  The sunsets are breathtaking this time of year.  Old sol takes on the hue of golden orange as he settles down between the high rises of Hoboken, New Jersey.  Rays of fiery orange splatter off the shiny chrome railings of the playground's self-propelled merry-go-round as young, joyous children pedal and laugh, and yell in glee.   It is always refreshing to listen to the cheers of the Innocent, the children who will inherit legacies we leave behind--some good, some bad.

        Over the past year, we had avoided the playground for obvious reasons.   We didn't want the kids to see the destruction of Lower Manhattan, plus, there was a concern among parents the sand was contaminated from the fallout.  The park is relatively close to the World Trade Center, and the entire area was covered with ash.   A famous picture taken o September 11 shows the park drenched in ash, with empty strollers everywhere where mothers grabbed their children and ran, leaving behind anything that might slow them down. Recently, all the sand in the playground was replaced, part of the renewal of the area, symbolic of  Lower Manhattan's rebirth.

        The area has been struggling to regenerate its once magnificent power this summer..   Over 500 free events have been scheduled to attract people back, and last night on the Esplanade Plaza, an open area where concerts and events are held, Irish step dancing was featured.   An Irish band played music and helped onlookers learn to dance, including the children.    Little attention was paid to the great hole in the sky, a gaping vacancy in the heavens where the Twin Towers once stood vigil over the city.     

        After dancing, we went to the children's park to play and picnic. Our oldest daughter had her three children with her, Matt, 6, Sarah, 4, and the newest addition, a little boy six weeks old, conceived in the aftermath of 9-11.   We ate and played with the kids, their endless energy a reminder of the power of youth.   As the sun set deeper into the skyline, and the light began to fade, we packed up and began to wend our way home to cake, ice cream and the opening of presents.  

       My younger daughter, the federal agent and I, led the way down a narrow passageway, fortressed on each side by thick chain link fences guarding new construction that was underway to reface the area. As we existed the passageway into an open area near Murray and West End, my daughter pointed to the open field and said, "I found a scalp there."

      "You could spend a good part of your life tracking down the story," I said, "of the person you found.   You could search records and find out who he or she was.  You could write a heck of a story about that."
       "I don't think I'll do that, Dad."
       My daughters know I see everything as a story, a puzzle that cries to be put together. 
      "I understand," I said.  And then was forced to query:  "Was it a man or woman?"
      "I think a man, but I'm not sure"
      We spoke no more about it.  Just her admission of some of her feelings was a major obstacle overcome, I thought.   She's a very personal woman, who keeps her life private and  talk about lawbreakers away from her niece and nephews.   I knew better than to pry.  If she was going to talk about it, she would.   Prodding had never proven to be a good tactic with her.

           Silence fell as we walked in the quiet of the night, listening to the Voices of the children and their G-Ma and Mom, chattering behind us. I paused to take a few pictures of old plastic American flags tied to temporary phone lines strung between trees, and a Verizon truck boasting American miniature flags from a garden of antennas spearing from the hood and cab.   One was a black Vietnam Missing In Action flag.  Ironic, I thought, how many were MIA from the World Trade Center. Over half, to be exact.

       One of my closest friends in New York City lost her brother, a war photographer, to the disaster of 9-11. William (Bill) Biggart was known for his uncanny ability to thrust his camera into the face of war, capturing it full-frame.  He  rarely used his telescopic lens, preferring instead to be within inches of whatever or whomever he shot.   He had been with the firemen when the first building collapsed.   They only found his hand and his photo equipment, but his hand was enough to identify him.  It gave his family closure that he wasn't an MIA.   Over half of those killed on September 11 have never been positively identified because no part of their remains could not be found.
       I thought about my daughter's contribution.   She found a part of a human being who had been sacrificed in a horrible attack upon the innocent.   I hoped that the scalp she discovered had been DNA-ed, and that its owner's family also had closure.
       My friend told me Bill Biggert's casket contained only his hand, a small but vital  fragment of his human form.   I wondered if the family of the person whose scalp my daughter found also did the same.

        Regardless of finding any positive identification of those countless MIAs of 9-11, I believed their Spirits of Vigilance stood tall, proud and recognizable above Ground Zero.    They may have lost their human form, but not their Spiritual Form .  I have seen them since the first day of Ground Zero, standing alert as reminders to us all that Terrorism is about injecting Fear, Intimidation and Complacency into its victims.  I knew they were Sentinels of Vigilance, promoting and encouraging us all to face Fear with Courage, to overpower Intimidation with Conviction.  Rather than feel Complacent that we were powerless,  the Spirits of Vigilance were calling us to muster the Courage and Conviction to take the Right Action to protect our children, and their children's children's children from future harm, rather than abdicate that responsibility to government or others. 
       I thought a lot about the person's scalp, and the hand of Bill Biggart as we walked in silence, the sounds of the city muted by the warm summer's night.  The scalp represented the mind, where we can choose to think in terms of Terror or Vigilance, where we can chose to live in Fear or Hope.   And the hand--representing the ability to take action--to grip the Sword of Vigilance and hold its hilt tightly, to ward off future attacks, to stand guard over the innocence and safety of our children.

       I also thought about the Sands of Innocence, the fresh new sand that filled the playground.   It was composed of millions of grains, small, and by some viewpoints, insignificant grains.   But, when put together in one sandbox, they became a powerful platform of protection for a child, limiting any damage if a child fell, and providing endless ways to dig it, pile it up, pour it, redig it.   The sand had been washed clean.   The children were a little safer.
      The Sands of Innocence, I thought.   The Scalps of Innocence.  The Hands of Innocence.  They were all part of one formula--Vigilance--the ability to use our minds and our hands in a structured synchronization to guard and protect the present and the future.

Go Aug. 10--Wives Of Vigilance

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