September 11, 2001.
I was a part of a drama troupe in college. We had arrived on campus a couple of weeks before the other students so that we could read through mountains of skit scripts and formulate our show.
The six of us had sequestered ourselves in an out-of-the way rehearsal room near some faculty offices. On 9/11, we were finishing up our reading sessions. There were few students on campus, as the term hadn’t started.
So on that morning, we were already busy reading and joking. Our faculty advisor called. “Check out the TV. Someone flew a plane into the world trade center,” he said and hung up.
We didn’t think much of it. “A Cessna? Like a small, prop plane?” we wondered. Reminded us of the small plane someone had flown into the White House a little while before.
A few minutes later he called again, “Stop what you’re doing and get to a TV. I’m serious.”
We did. We rushed over to the nearby cafeteria building. TVs were on and several people were huddled around in the largely empty building. Like most people that day, our lives were forever changed.
About a year later, in August, I was on tour with the same drama troupe. We were at a picnic in an area of New England. There were several children sitting outside, flipping through a 9/11 memorial coffee table book. They were making fun of the pictures, talking about how silly the men looked in their firefighting gear, how silly the people looked as they ran down the street with ashen faces. They laughed and laughed.
And I remember being bothered by that. I remember thinking, ‘You kids shouldn’t laugh about that. You should show some respect.’ I did say, “That is something we don’t joke about,” but didn’t make a big deal of it. They were kids.
Soon after my time with the troupe was done, I joined the military. I served my years and went to war. Every September, we would rouse ourselves and remember, giving tribute to the 3,000 lives lost that day, steeling ourselves toward our larger cause.
But as the years go on, 9/11, like any other commemorative day, will fade.
Oh certainly WE won’t forget. We lived through it. It affected us deeply. We can picture ourselves, where we were standing, what we were thinking. For many, it influenced life changes. For many, it involved losing friends, burying them on foreign or domestic shores. WE will never forget.
But as the years go on, 9/11, like any other commemorative day, will become a historical footnote.
People who weren’t born then, or who were too young to truly feel the day’s effects, will learn about it in school, tie ribbons to such-and-such or attend a ceremony. But it’s not the same.
I can’t know what it felt like to have heard about the shooting of JFK, I can see it in documentaries. I can’t know what it felt like to hear about the attack on Pearl Harbor, I can only hope that a film director can properly capture the day’s meaning…or in the case of Michael Bay, endure as he turns the “day of infamy” into a PG-13 love story with popular starlets.
These days lose their potency. Because it is the doom of man to forget.
There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow. — Ecclesiastes 1:11
Memory, like all things, decay. It’s a part of the natural cycle. We forget our loves, our hurts, the joys of simple things. We grow tired of our favorite dishes, of hearing stories read to us, of seeing sunrises, of our collection of movies, the patterns of our furniture. We constantly want new things, new experiences.
As the years march on, fewer and fewer will remember. Bumper stickers will fade and peel. Fewer companies will put out commemorative videos or change their profile pictures. There will be fewer FB posts. Kids will fuss at having to stand still for the moments of silence. Emails will go out, telling employees they must attend the nearby ceremony, so the department ‘has a good showing.’
It reminds me of the lyrics to a song written about WWI:
So now every April, I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Renewing their dreams of past glory
I see the old men, all tired stiff and sore
The weary old heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask, “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question
There are new Playstations. There’s a new season of Game of Thrones. New presidents come around. New policies enrage or enliven us. There’s a new phone. People gather together to give respect to days of memorial, but it’s not with the same intensity and passion of younger anniversaries. People move on.
And, you know, that’s okay.
Because it’s also a source of strength. It’s perseverance. It’s optimism, perhaps unrealized. It’s hope in the future. It’s the ability to try again—to defend again, to build again.
Some might say, “Yes, but if we forget, won’t we be doomed to repeat our mistakes? Won’t history repeat itself?”
Ask some of your historian friends, history is repeating itself. We do repeat our mistakes.
Yes, it is the doom of man to forget.
However, it is the boon of man to persevere.
And Americans, especially, as beloved or hated as we may be, are known for this spirit of perseverance, unbounded courage, innovation and hope. It’s why people historically have flocked to our shores. It’s why people historically have built lives here, despite poor circumstances.
It’s why, even with the fading of the embers of the passions from 9/11, I don’t despair.
I’ll take my place in time, make my stands, say my words. I’ll let who I am be who I was.
And life will continue.
I will not forget.
So there was this thing called July 4th a couple of days ago. Happened on a Wednesday, which made the whole week one big stretch of get togethers and lead-ups to get togethers. I was a fan.
My roomies from DC, Adrian and Sarah, were incidentally going to be in Austin, just an hour and change north from my whereabouts. So, I was able to get up there a few times and chill with them. Sarah has family in Texas. They were the hosts for the Austin excursion…some 12 or so of them.
I’ve never had a large family. Dad and I are it for the Salmons clan (meaning I’ve got to get at least four or five wives so we can crank out 20 or 30 kids). My Mom has a brother and sister, so there are a few of them, but they’ve always lived ways away; so holidays, birthdays and such are usually solo/immediate family affairs.
So when I get the chance to spend an evening with aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, step cousins…whatever, it’s a cool change of pace.
Sarah’s Austin crowd got together on July 4th. It was a backyard BBQ sort of deal. Red, white and blue, paper plates, mounds of food. Fantastic.
One cousin brought his guitar and joined in with one of the uncles. We had ourselves a bit of a singalong with requests and original songs by the musicians. It was pretty cool actually. I even had the chance to break out a song that, frankly, hadn’t come to mind in a decade.
Songs are like jokes…you hear them all the time, but when pressed to actually present one, they all seem to hide in the corners of your mind. So it was with me when Sarah’s mom, Corinne, asked me to sing.
“Josh, do you sing?” she asked during a lull between songs.
“Yes,” I said.
“In public?” she asked, smiling.
I then had to think of a song. For all the church musicals, theater musicals, holiday musicals and whatnot I’ve been in, I couldn’t remember a single song–especially one that could be pulled off without a great deal of help from the musicians in the crowd.
So I started to sing “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” written by Scottish-born Australian Eric Bogle about the failed WWI campaign of Gallipoli. It was the only song I could remember from start to finish. And I could sing it without any instruments.
Well it was a big hit–so much so that I was asked to sing it again when I was up that way two days afterward. I was very flattered that they liked it.
Of all the ways to help America celebrate its independence, singing about Anzac soldiers falling on Turkish soil may seem out of place, but the sacrifice still garners remembering. Much like those who have helped us remain free.