Friday, October 26, 2001

Images of infamy

They will always be with us

        We will all have indelible fragments of memory about Sept. 11. A word, a phrase, a picture, that years from now will trigger a replay of all the horror we felt Tuesday.

        That's the way it is with a big catastrophe. You may go for months or years without thinking about it. Then you see or hear something that rings that inner bell and all of those scenes come rushing back.

        We know what those images will be: the jet suddenly coming into view and then disappearing into the side of the World Trade Center; the burning skyscraper that suddenly seems “to melt like a big piece of chocolate,” as one witness described it; the Statue of Liberty alone in New York Harbor with the smoke-shrouded skyline as a backdrop.

        With Pearl Harbor we visualize the sinking Arizona, the capsized hull of the Oklahoma and the waves of enemy planes overhead. With the Kennedy assassination there is the grainy shot of the limousine after the shots were fired; Jackie Kennedy in her blood-stained suit standing next to Lyndon Johnson as he takes the oath; and the salute of little John Kennedy Jr., as his father's coffin passes by.

        Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination — ask anyone who lived through either and you will hear personal memories of vivid details that trigger those historical images.

        For me those details include the sound of Miss Sullivan, my sixth grade teacher, sobbing in the hallway outside our classroom after she learned the president had been shot. We were sent home from school but the teachers hadn't wanted to tell us he had died. The school bus rolled past the post office and I remember seeing that the flag lowered to half-staff and realizing that meant he was dead. To this day, the memory of that bus ride flits across my consciousness whenever I pull up to a post office.

        For my mother the memories are triggered by construction sites. I remember her telling how she and my father had gone for a walk one Sunday afternoon to check out a new apartment building going up down the street from where they lived in Washington D.C. They were young, wanting to start a family, and wondered if they could afford one of the new apartments. There was a guard shack at the site and the watchman was listening to the radio when the program was interrupted with the news of Pearl Harbor.

        She said they went home and my father lay on the couch in the darkened living room for the rest of the day. A few weeks later he joined the army and it was a long time before they again thought about new apartments or having children.

        On Tuesday, my children, both nearly adults, each called me at work. Their first questions were about their mother, who was in Detroit on a business trip. “She's not flying back today is she?” asked my daughter. My son, away at college, wanted to be sure that this wasn't the week his sister had been taking a planned trip to Boston.

        I was proud of their maturity and concern, but was sickened to realize the terrorists had managed to touch them even in a marginal way.

        They both wanted my reaction to what was happening, trying to gauge it to their own interpretations of the significance of the moment. It was an act of war, wasn't it? As big a blow as Pearl Harbor? How did I think the country — the president — would react?

        Following their example, I called my mother. I wanted to hear if this attack could really be compared to Pearl Harbor. “This is so much worse, there are so many dead, I don't understand why they hate us so much,” she said.

        I don't know if we will ever understand the hatred that starts such a slaughter. Nor do I know yet what will come to be the little chips of memory that will trigger the images of Sept. 11 in our minds. But they are there — the sounds, the sights, the indelible stains — and they will be with us forever.

        Contact David Wells at 768-8310; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: Cincinnati.Com keyword: Wells.


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