Thursday, June 2, 2011

Memorializing the Past, Mulling Over the Future

At St. Thomas the Apostle School
‘Some guy gave me this business card at some trade show,’ Jon said, holding the small rectangle of gold metal up to the light. ‘I didn’t think I’d ever need it but for some reason I held onto it.’

Three years later Jon dug it out of a drawer and called the number etched in the corner.
In addition to the cross, Jon’s memorial sculpture will include a Book of Names, stainless steel pages etched with an alphabetical list of the 2,997 people lost on September 11th. This book will be attached to the base on which the cross will soon stand. It is being made in Elkhart, Indiana.
We said our journey was evolving; this was just a gentler way of saying we couldn’t stick to a schedule if our very lives depended on it.

People came up to talk at every gas station, restaurant and motel. Circumstances led to extended stays in Oklahoma City and New Orleans. The threat of tornadoes blew us off course (so to speak). Through it all we kept contacting Dan Brekke in Elkhart, again and again changing the date we would be stopping by his company, Indy Metal Etching.
When we finally made good and showed up at his door, Dan had half the community there to greet us. Company employees, firemen, policemen, friends, acquaintances, even a local reporter; a hundred people at least were on hand to see "some kind of big memorial sculpture" or whatever it was Dan had told them was coming.

The trip had gone well enough without being able to plan each and every stop. Jon and I had actually agreed out loud many times along the way that we'd rather the journey unfold on its own, the two of us guided only by whim and gut inspiration.

Still, the scene in Elkhart could not have been a better, more perfect manifestation of our hopes for this loosely-scripted story.
Dan Brekke and his employees brimmed with quiet enthusiasm, honored (as so many of them said) to lend their time and their abilities to the creation of something that, even out here, held profound significance. As yet unfinished, the Book of Names lay on a table inside the sprawling metalshop as a visible testament to the pride our friends were putting into something that was not even part of the original plan. The emotional weight of their involvement hit home when Deanne, Dan’s wife, stood before the crowd to say a few words.
‘When we think of those who were lost on that day, we think of individuals.’ Deanne’s voice was one of a strong person – strong even when drowning in a wave of emotion. ‘But creating this book...carving letters into steel...we see people with the same last name. Families…’

Knowing so many were lost on that day saddens the heart. Watching them take form as their names appear under the etcher's hand breaks the heart right in two.
Mike Compton, Chief of the Elkhart FD, was not content to just watch. He made the drive to New York City, along with fellow firefighter Matt Rhodie, to help out - "do something"- in the days after 9-11. ‘We worked from the 12th to the 14th, doing whatever we could to help,’ Chief Compton explained. ‘Then went back the next week for three more days.’ He told us how, climbing through the wreckage, he found a hole in the rubble that reached four floors down. ‘By that time, with all the stuff in the air, we knew there was no way we were going to find anyone alive down there.’

In his eyes the regret still lingered.

Learning to Remember
Escorted by the Elkhart Police Department we eased down the road to St. Thomas the Apostle School. The students were assembled outside along the edge of the school parking lot; two hundred school children greeting us with cheers and waves and perfect childlike chatter. Yet under their bubbly energy was a sense of understanding.

Among the adults also out there waiting to see the cross was a man named Mr. Collins. As a firefighter he had gone to New York, bringing a thousand travel kits for his fellow firemen – soap and towels and toothpaste and razors, donated by businesses and motels all around Elkhart. In the few days he was there in New York, and then in the weeks and months that followed, he collected newspaper clippings and gathered whatever literature he could find about that terrible day. As a teacher at St. Thomas – and a well-liked one judging from the students’ interactions with him - he conducts a special class, held once a year, dedicated to the events of 9-11 and the aftermath. His students, too young to remember, some not even born at the time, show a measurable understanding of just what happened that day.
Along with the dozens of students placing hand-written messages inside the cross came two young men with very special offerings. One took off a bracelet he was wearing in honor of his friend and classmate’s mother who had recently lost her fight with cancer. Isaac Torres took out the medal he’d won for placing second overall in a triathlon in Pachuca, Mexico. 'The race was a worldwide fundraiser for cancer research,' he told us. ‘People are suffering everywhere.’ He looked at his hand and let his medal slip from his fingers, through the hole in the side of the cross.

Later, back on the road...
We met Mark ‘the truck driver’ Duras, at a gas station in his hometown of North Lima, Ohio. Mark served in the US Air Force and spent time in various parts of the world.

‘Growing up here (in the US) we never had anything to fear,’ he said as he recounted in vague detail what was going on overseas. ‘I think 9-11 was kind of a reality check.’

His friend and dispatcher, Patty, agreed. ‘That some foreign group planned this, picked such monumental targets, executed it…you think about how it happened here, just like that, no one saw it coming, those buildings fell down just like that…’

Like many, Patty needed time to put her thoughts on the past into words. Her ideas about the future came out more quickly, though perhaps no more easily.

‘The further you get from any incident the more complacent you get. Oh they got lucky, it’ll never happen again, some say. Others stay vigilant. I think we have to stay aware and careful because it’s going to happen again. It’s just a matter of time.’
But while the end, for any of us, is just a matter of time, what we do with our time is what matters.