Bacigalupa's CASA BACI

A World War II Veteran and 9-11

AGAIN -- More Than Half a Century Later

PACKING A CARRY-ON BAG for a scheduled afternoon flight from Albuquerque to Baltimore/Washington International airport, I heard the phone ring. My son was calling from across town to tell me what he was witnessing on television. I tuned in within seconds to see the second tower of the World Trade Center struck by the hijacked plane, to watch as both towers burned then collapsed, to join Americans everywhere in shock and horror as our cherished way of life suffered permanent change.

NO POINT in continuing to pack. Or doing anything other than try to ingest, with disbelief, the images and reports of the attack on the Pentagon, the downed plane in Pennsylvania, the terror in the streets of New York.

SEVENTY-EIGHT YEARS OLD, a veteran of European Theater campaigns in World War II, Id wanted to believe with so many other veterans of that long-ago conflict that wed forever spared American civilians the horrors wed seen inflicted on innocent non-combatants in foreign lands ravished by armaments and madmen. The knowledge that the United States had not been invaded, not bombed while we fought abroad sustained us over many years. Even when a post-Vietnam era labeled all wars immoral and futile and by inference, "our war" as well. Even when we recognized, accepted, that stolid wall which separated American civilians from American veterans, and conceded the barrier could never be breached. On September 11, 2001 that wall came tumbling down.

WITHIN FOUR DAYS after the Terrorist Attacks, a rescheduled flight took me to the east coast. If airports in New Mexico and Maryland were overly crowded with passengers whod been stranded by canceled flights, and heightened security checks produced long lines, there was nevertheless an eerie sense of normalcy about flying. Airport television screens and newspaper headlines, avidly scanned by travelers, flaunted images of the ravished icons in New York and Washington but no one spoke of what we were seeing. Instead, small talk, the ubiquitous exchanges one has long been accustomed to among people en-route from one place to another. Only when you looked into a neighbors eyes was the pain beyond selective silence betrayed.

WITH FAMILY AND FRIENDS in Baltimore, telecasts invaded every living room, punctuated all our conversations. Yet somehow we kept TV in the background, opting to renew familial relationships, resisting sustained comment on the flickering images and anxious commentaries. Was the trauma too acute for words, the sorrow too grievous to express, the confusion about what had happened and the apprehension for the future beyond verbalization? As a former New Yorker who had lived in and loves the city, I spent sleepless nights watching, alone, the continuous coverage of sad developments at Ground Zero and the violated streets of Manhattan.

BUT I WAS NOT TEMPTED to take the short train ride to New York, instead drove to the Jersey Shore which had provided so many occasions for leisure and renewal in the past. Off season, with resort hotels depleted of guests, few pedestrians on the streets of Avalon and Stone Harbor, the beaches sparsely visited by only a few hardy sun-worshippers resisting the surrender of summer. Flags everywhere, Old Glory at half-mast atop shuttered hotels and motels, fronting shops and waving from porches and windows of homes not yet closed-up for the winter. On benches in the sun sat a few elderly year-round residents, two of whom like myself, World War II veterans hesitantly sought words to express their feelings. "So unlike Pearl Harbor," one said, "for which wed been prepared, awaiting for years our entry into the war in Europe. Knowing Roosevelt was dead-on when he said our generation had a rendezvous with destiny. And Hawaii wasnt yet a State, the world was still large, everything beyond our borders was far-away-places-with-strange-sounding-names. Most of us were convinced that whatever the cost of lives among the military, there wouldnt be war on the homefront, our civilians would be spared. But this . The World Trade Center ." And his words trailed away.

I WALKED AT SUNSET to a deserted beach. The roaring surf was glorious music, thundering out all other sound, respite from the incessant TV replays of anguished cries in the streets of Lower Manhattan. Gulls circled overhead, sandpipers raced at my feet. I waded at the edge of the sea, remembering having done so along this same coast as a youth, mindful that in that distant era Id emerge from the waves with legs stained by oil from ships torpedoed in the Atlantic. At that time Id looked east, across the sea toward Europe, knowing Id face combat there, convinced this shore would never be breached. No oil stains on my legs now in this first week following 9-11. And I looked not east but north, toward New York. Was that blood in the sky merely an exceptionally colorful late-summer sunset? And what was the pain in my chest if not heart break?

MY SOLITUDE WAS BROKEN by a young man treading the sands, approaching me from the south. Even above the pounding waves and cries of the gulls, I became aware that, eyes down and unmindful of me, he was singing to himself. As he drew closer, he looked up, saw me, but did not abort his song. So very young, untested, an American youth whose generation had known little but affluence, instant-gratification, a culture saturated with the trivialities of media sensationalism, celebrity gods and goddesses, O J Simpsons and Monica Lewinskys, White House Scandals, gratuitous sex and violence pervasive within the popular arts; and, yes, progressive callousness to horror spawned by domestic evils of serial killers, uni-bombers, guns and killings in our schools, mad terrorists in Oklahoma City. Could this young man and his peers have any idea of the pain felt by someone my age for our violated, bleeding country?

HE PAUSED BRIEFLY in front of me, acknowledging my presence with a nod of his head. His song, softly chanted, did not cease. I recognized the tune, realized without surprise, with full acceptance of its inevitability that he was singing Im In a New York State of Mind. Tears streamed down his face. He walked on, and I watched long his lone trek along the American shoreline. Until that blood-red sun sank, and dusk fell, and the young man rounded a distant land spike, disappearing from view.

By Drew Bacigalpa, originally published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, 9 November 2003

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