Just like most Americans, I was shell-shocked as I watched the events of Sept. 11, 2001, unfold before my eyes. With eyes glued to the television, I felt a knot in my stomach, coupled with the knowledge that life for me and the United States would never be the same.
I had always considered myself patriotic, although I didn’t really know the meaning of the word. I learned a lesson that day that I will never forget. I was working as an activity director at a nursing home located 45 miles from my house. Upon awakening that fall morning, I switched on the TV and set it on CNN, as was my customary daily routine. I proceeded to the kitchen to turn on the coffee pot, when I noticed the newscaster saying there was a terrible “accident” at the World Trade Center in New York City. A plane had crashed into it. Hailing from that general area, my interest and concern were piqued as I immediately sat on the couch to learn more about the “accident.”
I was aghast at the sight I witnessed next.
While the commentator was solemnly describing the events of the first plane hitting, a second plane crashed into the other tower. I remember thinking at the time that this was the end of the world. When Aaron Brown of CNN informed us that the Pentagon, as well as an open field in Pennsylvania were also sights of disaster, I felt like a character in the Twilight Zone.
The possibility of this being an accident was clearly erased, as information and conjecture began to pour in. A group known as Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for these tragedies: their leader, Osama bin-Laden, was the mastermind behind it. Bin Laden was already credited with being responsible for the damage and loss of life on the USS Cole. He’d also been associated with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
The sorrow I was experiencing was quickly replaced by anger. I had served aboard a United States warship in those waters, and I was willing to go back and find the demon who’d caused this.
I wanted to eradicate the world of this tyrant once and for all. Realistically, my age prevented me from doing this. I felt helpless and did not know how I could help.
I’m sure all Americans were touched by the horrific killings of our citizens on our home soil. The events of that day are not news any longer, and by now I have heard and read many accounts of that day.
That morning the only remedy, I could think of, was go to work and carry on with business as usual. This was wishful thinking on my part. As I began my long commute, I noticed there were no planes in the air as my trek took me past the local airport.
My parents were slated to visit me in a couple of weeks, so the immediacy of the situation came upon me. This was no TV show: this was real life, and it hurt.
I distinctly remember my girlfriend calling me and apologizing for some silly argument I cannot even recall. Tomorrow is not promised, she said, and we need to take advantage of every precious moment we have. I instantly felt guilty for ever arguing with her in the first place. Life was too short. I arrived at the nursing home and noticed that every television set in the building was on. My fellow co-workers were watching, and a hush could be heard throughout the place. There was clip after clip of the planes crashing, followed by the heartbreaking reports of one of the victims of the Pennsylvania plane. The man had actually called his wife from the plane, just as it was being overtaken. The last words his wife heard from him were, “Here we go!” as he and others attempted to thwart the hijackers. There were no survivors.
Part of my duties at work were to investigate my residents’ backgrounds, as well as their spouses. Some families visited; sadly, some did not. A few of our residents were veterans, and they had served in the Second World War as well as the Korean War.
Most of the time, that was the extent of the information spouses would offer me, if they knew anything at all. Up until then, I did not consider this information to be very important, since all of my patients were memory-impaired and low-functioning. What did it matter, I foolishly wondered.
As I walked into the lounge area that day, I noticed Sam, one of our oldest residents, sitting with his daughter by his side. The TV was recounting how New York City policeman and fireman had lost their lives as the towers came crumbling down. These heroes were going up the steps to rescue people as others were coming down. These men and women were, and continue to be, patriotic, brave, and honorable- in ways I may never know.
What I witnessed next, I swear I will never forget. In utter silence Sam was crying as he watched the TV. Speculation of more bombings on our homeland was offered by the now-hoarse commentator. Prior to this, Sam had what is known as a “flat” affect: normally he just stared into space in any situation. To me, his reaction that day was monumental.
It was then that Sam’s daughter informed me that he was a bombardier in World War II, and that he had lost many friends on dangerous overseas missions. Unbelievably, Sam’s only son was a fireman.
The overriding emotion Sam demonstrated to me that day was patriotism. It had never left his heart. Finally, to me, patriotism cannot be merely defined by words, movies or books. It is that sense of duty, that feeling of obligation, or the sorrow of loss that one experiences in times of peril, disaster or even joy. Patriotism has no labels. Sometimes patriotism is not free, as New York’s finest taught us that frightful day. You don’t have to be a fireman, policeman, soldier, or politician to exhibit patriotism, as my girlfriend so tenderly reminded me. Patriotism does not involve hate; it is etched in love and honor. You will know when you feel it. Just ask Sam.