After a computer crash this fall, I was going through old files that had been backed up on a disc, and ran across this post. I remember every detail of the events it describes, but I have absolutely no memory of ever writing it down.
Even though it focuses on 9/11, its subject matter is the honor, dedication and courage of our military, so I’ll share it on this Veterans’ Day.
I’m not a veteran, but I write about them. More specifically, I write about heroes.
As an author, I conjure up the traits that I most esteem and put them together to create a character that is heroic, noble, honorable and self-sacrificing.
Soon after September 11, 2001, I found out that I had a lot to learn about heroes.
As many of you will probably recall, September 11, 2001, was a beautiful Tuesday—bright blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. I was a newspaper editor finishing up pages for a 9:30 a.m. press time when we were alerted that a plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center. In the midst of bantering back and forth about which editor (Page 1 or Page 2) was going to tear apart her page, the second plane hit, and the mood changed in an instant. As we all know, by the end of that morning, the country had changed as well.
Of course, all of the editors ended up re-doing their pages that day, but the morning is mostly a blur of minute-by-minute updates coming across the wire—some of it news, a lot of it rumor.
I was so moved by the tragedy that within two days I was heading to lower Manhattan with my Jeep loaded with masks from my local Red Cross unit. It wasn’t hard to find the outer perimeter of defense that had been set up after the attack. Every street was filled with blue—New York City police officers standing literally shoulder to shoulder for blocks and sometimes two and three deep.
After I had been stopped by these gentlemen and had every inch of my Jeep checked, I was permitted to pass through and move closer to the destruction. Anyone who has been to Manhattan would not have recognized the streets so starkly and eerily empty. There were no cars, no people—just a smoky film that hung in the air thick as grief, and a smell I will never forget.
When I reached the next line of defense, made up of the National Guard, I was again stopped, this time by well-armed servicemen who surrounded my Jeep. I soon noticed a no-nonsense officer walking toward me at a rapid pace. (When I say no-nonsense, I’m talking about a real don’t-mess-with-me guy who made my heart race with uh-oh-what-did-I-do kind of thoughts).
“You can’t go any farther.” His tone and his appearance were so intimidating that I did not answer or move. “You can’t go any farther,” he repeated, “with that plate on the front of your car.”
It wasn’t until he began to crack a smile that I realized what he meant. I had a NASCAR #8 on the front of my Jeep (back in those days that was Dale Earnhardt Junior). This Guardsman was a Dale Jarrett fan, and thought it more appropriate if I added another 8 to make it #88. (Which ironically, is Dale Jr.’s number today).
Amidst heartbreak and sorrow, destruction and the acrid smell of jet fuel, this moment in time left an imprint on my memory that will remain forever. I looked around at the faces of the men surrounding me and knew in an instant we were going to be all right. This country was going to get through this tragedy with the same courage, guts, determination and tenacity that made it great to begin with.
Every September 11 is a day of heartbreak and pain—but it is also a day of hope. Scars remain, but the terrorists who sought to destroy the American spirit did not succeed. I witnessed that unique spirit on my trip to New York City in images that I could not draw my eyes away from, yet did not want to see.
As George W. Bush said in Shanksville during the unveiling of the memorial there: “Evil is real—and so is courage.”
To combat that evil, the world needs heroes—not like the ones I create for my novels—but like the ones who serve us every minute of every day in the military. Mostly unnoticed, but always ready for action, they serve, sacrifice and represent the very best of America.Thank God for them. Today and every day.