Remembering 9/11: "Let's Go Chase Tornadoes"
September 11th turns 21
Below is a post I wrote in 2002, about a visit to Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Within the space of a few short years, one of the teenagers in that picture below would be working in the White House, another in Afghanistan, another in Iraq.
The ripples of 9/11 changed the lives of Americans in ways we still don’t fully understand. For some of us, it is still a scar of a wound that will never heal. For others, it's proven far too easy to forget.
“Let’s go chase tornadoes
Just me and you
Don’t often catch em
But man, when you do
Just grab that catch rope
Crawl out on the wing
We won’t come down til we
Own that thing.”
— James McMurtry
My family stopped in Pennsylvania this past week to hike and stop by the highest point in Pennsylvania – we’ve done about a dozen state high points together over the past couple years, and Pennsylvania’s has a beautiful view (as opposed to Virginia; our highest point is in the middle of a forest). We drove to the north, through small towns and past horse buggies, traveling slowly towards Shanksville, the crash site of Flight 93.
Springsteen was playing on the stereo when my sister and I drove past the town’s welcoming sign: “Welcome to Shanksville, a Quiet Little Town.” Underneath that was a High School logo: “Home of the Vikings.”
The flags were everywhere on Main Street — in windows, on porches, rows of miniature flags standing along front yards. There was a small sign, a flowing flag on a white background, pointing the way to the Flight 93 temporary memorial. The wind was at our backs.
There were only a few cars on the back roads, winding slowly between sunlit farmers’ fields, filled with corn and freshly bound hay bales. The tiny white signs guided us along, past farmhouses with peeling paint, broken down trucks on cement blocks, black cows and green pasture. There was a faded piece of plywood propped up against one of the porches: “Never Forget the Heroes.”
As we topped the rise of a hill, a field that bore all the marks of an old strip mine came into view. Some reports claimed that Flight 93 went down in a farmer’s field, but they were wrong. The field is actually owned by a coal company, which still has two massive old coal rigs set yards away from the road, like rusted metal giants, twins sleeping in the long grass.
The temporary memorial was a spread of gravel in the middle of the field and a section of a high chain link fence set into the ground, swaying incongruously in the wind. About a dozen cars were parked there as we arrived – the visitors, young and old alike, walked quietly along the fence, looking at the poems, flags, letters and little trinkets stuffed into the chain links. Some took pictures of a flag stretched across the ground several yards away, marking the impact site of the plane. Others wept, uncontrollably.
In that field, on that quiet sunny afternoon, there was no separation between the reality of death. This wasn’t TV footage. You could squint into the sun. You could smell the air. You could hold the dirt in your hands, and watch the wind carry it away.
In the rest of the country, almost a year has passed since the crash. In that field, it still feels like it was yesterday.
I wonder what it must have been like on Flight 93 – not the actual action, the sequence of events, but the thoughts of the passengers and the terrorists as they approached their confrontation. What did the passengers think as they traded glances on that plane, scared but united, preparing to lay down their lives? Did they think of their loved ones? The regrets of a life cut short? The promises they would never keep?
Sacrifice has often proved to be evil’s undoing. There is something about evil that abhors sacrifice in all its forms — for loved ones, for friends, for strangers. Perhaps George MacDonald had it right when he wrote that Hell has but one principle: “I am my own.”
On September 11th, evil stormed across the earth like a tornado, seeking to kill, ruin and destroy our nation and our people. Tornadoes are vicious, dangerous things, random and merciless. And when the men and women on Flight 93 saw those dark clouds coming their way, they didn’t duck or run, awaiting the inevitable. They grabbed a catch rope and dug in their heels – and they brought that twister down.