September 11, 2001
That fateful day in September, ten years past, Anne and I were on a trip up the coast. The plan was to spend two weeks at our leisure on a journey, sight seeing, exploring, thinking, writing, doing our art.
Not much went toward our intentions. As the days unfolded, I recorded them and published some of the thoughts and observations in the Cedar Key Beacon. Much of what follows was printed there:
A Transition From Positive Expectations
After a false start costing us a day, we were on our way. We got as far as Hershel’s at Otter Creek. We stopped for sausage biscuits. The TV was on, a crowd glued to it. A second plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center and they had watched it just moments before. One man there couldn’t even talk, couldn’t get out of his mouth what he had just seen.
Stunned, we climbed back into the car and headed on across the State and up the coast. We stopped for the night at Jekyll Island. The weather was closing in. Many places weren’t open. People were checking out. We checked in.
The next day was oppressive, and you all know what was dominating TV and radio and people’s thoughts and all talk. The weather forecast was discouraging. A tropical storm was brewing thunderstorms all along the coasts. Depressed and frustrated we headed inland and upland looking for sun and pleasant weather. I wondered about long-term effects. Would credit cards still work? What had just happened?
The Healing Begins
A day later, we entered the sunshine and cool dry weather. We worked our way to the mountains. We stopped for a few days and explored. We watched Friday’s service from the National Cathedral barely three days from the horrifying disasters in New York and Washington. And at the end of the service as that deep, low, slow, sonorous, onerous bell tolled, the sound dropping from that bell, hovering as if a cloud, and that bell tolled again, and again, forever. And that lone woman, head held high, still in the Cathedral long after it had cleared, finally breaking down, head in hands, sobbing.
But the healing had begun. Anne and I walked the ridges and the mountains and the valleys. We noted the Solomon’s Seals, low to the ground, their dark red berries on the ends of the single fronds.
We stopped to admire the groves of touch-me-nots in the shadier damper areas, their fragile leaves and stems supporting those magnificent orange blossoms and those swollen pods that spring open if you touch them, throwing their seeds yards away.
We stopped again and grabbed handfuls, pocketfuls, of those grapes that grow wild along trails, munching on the grapes as we went.
They Rang the Bells at Noon
A couple days later we went deep into the Blue Ridge. We saw no signs of civilization, save that the road was paved, no wires, no cables, no road signs for miles. We picnicked in a sunny area. We were within a few feet, give or take, of a mile above sea level. We watched the mist that had gathered in the low places, the valleys, rise and disappear as the sun crested the ridge.
I write this in a pub down off the road on a hillside. A few minutes ago, they rang the bells at Noon. It is Tuesday barely a week after the National Tragedy. They rang all the bells in town. And soon the bells were joined by the engines sounding their sirens at the firehouse down the hill. And the bells kept on ringing and tolling.
These people in this little community, where not that long back you had to have a tall, tall antenna to catch East Tennessee State, the only sporting event around, were remembering the Tragedy.
And this Tuesday past, they rang the bells at Noon.
Into Bluegrass Country
After a short stay, we resumed our travels through the heartland. We crossed the Continental Divide through the rugged mountains east of the Rockies. We came out on the Cumberland Plateau and headed north and west into the Bluegrass Country. Flags were flying everywhere. Where did they find the flags?
We walked the country roads along the bean fields, the tobacco fields, and along vast stretches of the hilly grassland surrounded by wood fences, some white, some black, housing thoroughbreds of the most magnificent kind. We were in the Big Horse Country where they cut the fields of bluegrass and save the seeds for sale. Everywhere you looked were flags.
We moved on to that small town of less than ten thousand that is considered the Bourbon Capital of the World, the place where Stephen Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” where Tom Lincoln, Abe’s father, established his reputation for building Lincoln Log Cabins, where lived the man credited with first putting steam power to boats, where eight distilleries operate yet today as we talk.
We left, stopping a few miles up the road at the Bernheim Forest and walked the trails and the gardens of the Kentucky Arboretum. Again, flags…
A Tribute From the Heartland
We headed north and into the agricultural heartland of this country. We drove through the countryside avoiding the interstates. We crossed one-lane bridges. We went by cornfields, some picked, some ready, and along soybeans in various stages of maturity and harvest, and the wheat fields, most already harvested.
We stopped and picked some stalks of the soybeans, the leaves already browned and fallen. We gathered some field corn already dried in the husks. And we munched on these as we journeyed. We stopped along an old hedgerow of trees, shrubs, planted so as to serve as an ancient fence, and picked up a couple of “monkey balls,” hedge apples, green and darkening, the fruit of those shrubs, about the size of softballs.
We went out early one morning to catch the colors of the sunrise on the various stages of harvest. And Anne got a few shots of old two story homesteads, windmills still nearby, one with an American flag draped from the porch rail.
In central Indiana we went to a tribute to America, a cabaret of barber shoppers in a National Guard Armory next to a huge air field once used as a training base that only hours before the performance had given word, in the wake of the Tragedy, that security was okay for gathering. The largest flag I’d seen indoors hung on one wall.
And somewhere near five hundred locals from this community turned out for the occasion. And as the fun filled evening, full of slapstick and male voices in four-part harmony in an uplifting concert, wound down, some fifty or so barber shoppers completed the final set as all in attendance rose and joined in for “The Lord’s Prayer,” “America the Beautiful,” and “God Bless America.”
The Return Home
And as we returned to Cedar Key, we couldn’t help but recall that in a few day’s span, we’d seen the purple mountain’s majesty, we’d roamed the alabaster cities, we’d walked the fruited plains, and we know the solidarity. We saw it first hand, from the flags at the construction sites, the farmers on their tractors, their harvesters, the common people who rang the bells at Noon, and who gathered for a cabaret, and for prayers where ever they were. And we had been within a couple of hours of D.C. and the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, and had crossed the Ohio River more than once. We’d truly been from Sea to Shining Sea.
This is America the Beautiful.
God Bless America.
A Post Script; September 11, 2011
Plastic still works. Wall Street was rebuilt. Flags still fly. A war on terrorism was declared and still goes on.
And a few weeks back, when word came out about those U.S. Navy Seals and the death of bin Laden, I thought about the past ten years and all the pent up emotion from those years and the long term affect on the world. And I found a safe haven in the bathroom on the floor and I cried. The tears ran deep and I cried. My nose ran and I broke out in a drenching sweat…
I was home alone.
And I cried…
God Bless America…
Copyright © by Gene Benedict – September 5, 2011