As the 9/11 anniversaries stretch past the 10-year mark, I find myself feeling like one of the veterans of Shakespeare’s young King Henry Bolingbroke — one that managed to loiter at a distance from the thick of the battle, but stayed close enough to give a vivid report.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
When I was first dating my Albino Ex — in the twilight of the Nineties — we used to walk from his rooms to a hillside East of an unlovely row of buildings collectively known as the Navy Annex, already on their way out now, blind boxes full of clerical offices. On a cool autumn evening like this one, the summer haze swept off by a few good storms, the air thin and kind, you could see the lights of Washington receding in delicate perspective, the illuminated shapes of the Washington Monument and the other memorials, the Capitol, the Libraries of Congress. We took visitors there.
They made the hillside into a memorial garden for the dead of 9/11, a bench with the name commemorated for each.
People went a little crazy in the days after the plane hit the Pentagon. They besieged the fire houses round about with more homebaked cookies, flats of bottled water, crude posters of gratitude, you name it, than anyone can imagine. I, remembering well the carol of the Little Drummer Boy, called up Arlington’s Station Number One, a short walk from my house, and offered to come stand by with my portable massage table and unknot those who had been working double and triple shifts. For about ten days it became a second gig: I would hammer out a stiff back, and hours later hear on my Ex’s emergency scanner the same man I had worked on, checking in from the Pentagon roof where the jet fuel had reignited. One night I went down to the fire station closest to the Pentagon and wrung out a bunch of police officers, most of whom didn’t want to take off their Kevlar because getting out of the gear is such a dick-dance; I suspect I am in a small minority of massage therapists with experience in working around bulletproof vests.
Today it is all very quiet and ordinary, where all these things happened. Station One responds to old duffers who have fallen and can’t get up, or cross streets where moving vans have taken down power lines. The bus and subway transfer points at the Pentagon have been fortified, and emit a deserted sodium-vapor glow that can be seen from the highway as you drive by.
Neighborhoods in Iraq, for example, are not so normal. I think of that when I get too reminiscent about Crispin’s Day.
It’s still strange, sometimes, to see that first luminous, aconite-blue sky of autumn, smell the scoured cleanliness of the September air, and detect in it not a trace of burning. For an afternoon and an evening you could step out onto my screened porch and breathe air that probably had tiny molecules of dead people in it.
I never want to get any closer to history than that, thanks very much. Even nicer if history stops meaning large numbers of dead people. I don’t hold out much hope for the human race, which seems addicted to stupidity, but wishes have to count for something.