“Isn’t it wonderful that none of us need wait a moment
before starting to change the world.” ~ Anne Frank (1929 - 1945)
Every year, on September 11th, we tell ourselves, and we tell each other. We post it as our status and beneath images of our national symbols.
But what do you remember?
It was January 1991 when I boarded a plane headed for Maui.
With me were my employer, his wife, and the rest of our dental staff; a chairside assistant several years older than my 27 years, and a dental hygienist just barely out of college.
We were all looking forward to eight days in paradise, even if the price was sitting in continuing education seminars for half a day most of the days we were there.
But I had something a little more serious on my mind.
I’d guess we were somewhere over the western edge of Colorado when I said, “Historically speaking, Hawaii isn’t the best place to be in times like these.”
Beside me, Dr. Wiklund, who had gone straight from passing his dental boards to patching faces back together in Vietnam, nodded and looked away, toward the little boxes of blue and white that formed our outside view of the world.
I knew his mind was turning in much the direction mine was; we weren’t officially at war, in fact, there had been no declared war in my lifetime. But we were racing in that direction. And while the conflict wasn’t likely to reach Pearl Harbor or any other part of U.S. soil, with the commemoration of Pearl Harbor Day only a month behind us, we remembered.
Lost in thought, I was startled when our chairside assistant, sitting to the other side of me in the wide center aisle of the DC10, said, “Why?”
My mind had gone so far past my original comment, I no longer had any context for her question.
“Why isn’t it a good place to be?”
Looking past her I saw that our hygienist had the same question.
What was the question exactly? Why, at a time when our country was daily more immersed in a military conflict, based on the history of our last official war and the event that tipped the scales to bring us into it, would I make a comment like that?
Or why would I say it when we were actually headed for Maui, divided by several miles of ocean from the site of the U.S.S. Arizona?
“Well you know, Pearl Harbor.” I said. “Not that history really repeats itself. It was just on my mind.”
Their eyes remained curiously blank. They had no idea what I was talking about.
They had no memory of war.
I grew up on it. When we went to grandma’s house there were three photographs hanging on the wall above her dark red sofa. Three young men, in three different uniforms, in three identical frames.
They’re present in the family photos, grandma and the remaining aunts and uncles perched on the sofa and the three faces above them, frozen in time, always smiling.
I know them only from stories.
I heard how they lived. And I heard how they died.
Went down with the submarine. Never came up.
Lost. On the fields of France.
We don’t know. He just went missing.
I heard the stories of their father, my grandfather. Who died during the war. Of a bleeding ulcer.
I heard the stories from their oldest brother. Who was brought back stateside when they vanished one by one in such a short span of time.
And their youngest brother. Who was too young to serve, but shouldered the role of man of the house when there was no one else to do it.
And their sisters, my mother and my aunts, who “worked out” when it meant leaving home while still a teenager to work for another family in order to stay in school and earn board and keep so that the ones too little to earn a living could have food and a place to sleep.
And their mother. My grandmother was tenacious, fiery and so tiny and sweet that it was hard not to laugh at the story of her chasing a traveling salesman off of her property with a broom because he announced, “Ma’am I have good news!” when she answered the door and she thought surely the news was that one, at least one, of her boys had been recovered.
But of course, it wasn’t a funny story. Not when you imagine her disappointment at learning that his “good news” was that he could sell her something that would make her life easier. That isn’t good news to a woman grieving her sons and her husband and trying to eek out a living on a Colorado dryland farm with no men at home to work the land.
But my mother not only raised me on her family’s stories of war, she also told me about the Japanese families, whose children she’d gone to school with all her life, who were suddenly missing, taken to live under guard at nearby Fort Bent.
And she gave me other stories. I read Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl,” and countless histories and historical novels of the war that formed my parent’s generation.
When I was competing in the poetry division of high school Forensics tournaments my entry was a selection of war poetry. One was titled “Achtung! Achtung!” and the first line began, “I am war. Remember me.”
I knew the stories. I remembered war.
So to look at the blank stares of these two women, and realize that they had no context for what the leaders of our country were contemplating, left me speechless. I did not know how to explain to them the horrors that would be unleashed on the world if there were no peaceful resolution for what was happening in the area we simply referred to as “The Gulf.”
Three days later, I sat under a palm tree, holding a glass of fresh pineapple juice, close enough to the ocean to feel the tug of the tide as it sucked at the sand going out, and watched on the hotel bar’s television screens as the news anchors confirmed; we were, officially, at war.
The trip home was surreal. The larger passenger planes were being requisitioned to transport troupes so our nonstop flight became a three-leg journey.
The atmosphere in each airport was a combination of frantic enjoyment and tense disbelief. Some travelers were loud with complaints at the increased police presence and the absence of trash receptacles and paper towel holders. Some were louder still, rehashing every exciting moment of their time in paradise. And some were silent. Almost reverent. Processing. We are at war. We are threatened. Even here.
You could tell, if you looked at the faces (and the delays gave us plenty of time to look at the faces) who was remembering. And who, if they had ever thought about war before, had forgotten.
I’ve never seen footage of the falling towers. I had a protector who drove halfway across the city when he heard the news, just to make sure I didn’t stumble on the footage on the internet. Because he knew I didn’t need the repeating images embedded in my visual replay centers to remember.
Because he knew the stories alone would be enough. I would never forget.
Most people were shocked and angry and crying for justice. I just cried.
Because war, declared or undeclared, international or civil, with your next door neighbor or even with yourself, might lead to a solution, but never a resolution.
Because, while “might” can be used to conquer a man or woman, or even a country of men and women, it will never change their minds or their hearts.
But, while acts of war do not change minds and hearts, there are unnumbered acts that come out of acts of war that do change minds and hearts. Forever.
The unexpected, inexplicable, kindnesses and mercies.
The quiet voices that refuse to consent to the division of war and instead invite us to remember our sameness instead of arguing our differences.
Those who stubbornly insist that people are people, and people, all people, are of value. And then live by their own insistence.
The heroes who rescue children and kittens, who defend the physically weak and bear up the spiritually strong when the material world is turned topsy turvy around them.
Those are the stories I most remember of WWII and of every war. These stories of friends on both sides of the conflict - who were, as individuals, not foes, nor even friends because they were on the side of our own country, but because they were on the side of humanity.
I don’t remember so much the glories of victories or even the horrors of atrocities. But the quiet voices of simple people whose hearts and minds were opened to the highest purpose we can find in a human lifetime - that purpose that makes us more than human, more than alive.
That is what these stories of war awaken in me - a reminder that people are divine, that we are all angels in disguise. That we all have wings, and we do not need to die to earn them. We only need to spread them to shelter another or to lift another up.
The day we now simply call “nine eleven” has reminded a lot of people to spread their angel wings. Some of the stories we’ve heard. Some we never will.
But perhaps this is the purpose of war - to remind us that we have wings. And to remind us to spread them.
That is what I choose to believe.
That is what I choose to hear when I am reminded, “Never forget.”
“When you conquer by might, you will always be looking over your shoulder. Only when you win hearts and minds will you be able to live in peace.” ~ me