The Millennials’ First Memorial

It is 11:32 AM on Saturday, August 13, 2016. I am in New York City, making my first ever visit to the National September 11 Memorial. The sun is hot, the air is heavy with humidity and the people crowd into Starbucks for momentary reprieves from what can only be described as biblical heat. Today’s “real feels”—as the radio in the cab from JFK explained—are projected to surpass 100 degrees.

I am standing in a crowd of people lining the engraved bronze perimeter of the South Pool, less than a month until the fifteenth anniversary of the tragedy. I have pushed my way to the front and shouldered my way into a spot, drawn by the gravity of falling water and the alluring murmur of North America’s largest man-made waterfall. I position myself and stand still, enduring the sting of sweat rolling behind my Ray Bans, down the sides of my nose and into my eyes. The gentle burning of perspiration is ameliorated by saline. I’ve been moved, unexpectedly, to a somber flow of tears.

I did not know at the time which of the two pools, North or South, I was standing in front of. I did not care. My visceral reaction to the two expansive craters—the inverted tombstones where the towers stood fifteen years ago—was the same as taking a balled fist to the solar plexus. I did not speak, I did not move. I stood, rail-stiff, breathing heavily through my nose, my tongue pressed to the roof of my mouth in an attempt to quell the tears.

Every tenuous connection I’d had to September 11—television shows, essays, old news clips on YouTube—was now contextualized. What was once only a terrible abstraction was now irrevocably and gut-wrenchingly real.

***

Minutes before this moment, I had been walking through Manhattan with both of my parents. They were the ones intent on seeing the Memorial. Due to an amalgam of circumstances—weather, my general aversion to memorials, being twenty-three and with my parents—I was fairly indifferent.

There’s a pervading and deserved sense of guilt that accompanies indifference as you’re walking to the hallowed location of the single greatest tragedy to occur on American soil. This guilt grows exponentially when the same event also resulted in the largest loss of rescue personnel America has ever seen. This statistic gains significance when your oldest friend is a person in the business of rescue—a lifelong public servant, an active duty Coast Guardsman who just signed on to be a full-time firefighter in Winthrop, MA—over which Logan’s flights incessantly drone.

If there ever was a foil to my ambivalence towards the U.S.A., it would be this friend, named Doogie. In search of guilt-reconciliation and patriotic insight, I texted him.

I told him I couldn’t explain why the ardent national pride felt by Americans didn’t resonate with me. I did not know why, but patriotism never struck any of my more sonorous chords.

His response was lengthy and included statistics of firefighter deaths and personal bits from his life of public service. I admittedly didn’t finish reading it because, mid-sentence, I heard the sound of falling water and was drawn immediately to the giant craters—the footprints of the Twin Towers I then remembered I’d once seen from the window of an airplane in August of 2001—weeks before they’d be erased from the skyline.

The water’s rising hum grew to a quiet roar as I neared. The sound washed out the white noise of overheard conversations, of bodies radiating wet heat in the high sun. It seemed like a ceaseless pouring of tears, ever renewable and ever justified. I walked ahead quickly, leaving my parents behind, to the edge of the Memorial. I rested my hands on the bronze plates, looked over and down, unable to see the bottom of the pit where the water fell. My jaw tightened, my breathing slowed.

This was the first time I’d visited a memorial to a tragedy I’d actually been alive for.

In D.C. I’d seen the memorials for the Korean War, Vietnam, WWII—everything the mall had to offer. Growing up outside of Boston, historical landmarks were always close by. History was readily accessible, but all of it from before my time. To visit these memorials was merely to put faces to the names of events I’d read about in textbooks. There was an insurmountable detachment.

Standing at the edge of the pool, there was nothing of the sort. I looked up and thought of the sound of metal crashing down, of the sheer mass of the South Tower gaining velocity as it collapsed, joined by its twin 29 minutes later when the North Tower gave way into a cloud of rising dust, engulfing Manhattan. The very spot where I’d planted my own two feet. What would that have been like? I thought of the city’s streets turned black. The television footage I’d first seen as a third-grader became three-dimensional as I looked around, imagining.

Standing at the edge of the pool I was eight years old again in a classroom, unsure of what was going on. I remembered going home to my parents and having them explain it to me as best they could. I remembered feeling like I was in a movie, that what was happening couldn’t be real. This was America, my home, where I’d always felt safe. This stuff didn’t happen here. I remembered being scared—not for myself but for my grandmother in Cambridge. What was next? The Hancock Tower? The Prudential Center? For the first time in my life, the deceptively warm blanket of American security had been compromised.

***

It was indeed hallowed ground, and America’s wound—which I now recognize as mine—is still fresh. I grew angry at the people leaning too heavily on the Memorial, putting their elbows down and leaving forearm-shaped outlines of sweat.

“Those are people’s fucking names.”

I moved my own hand aside. “Edmond G Young Jr.” The text of his name was separated onto two different plates. I thought about his family—how it must’ve felt to stand where I was standing and to see his name.

Were they mad his name was broken up onto two segments of bronze? Maybe Edmond Sr. was there, his son dead, never coming back. Maybe Edmond Sr.’s time had already come, and it was Edmond III who’d stood there, his father dead. Maybe they both stood there, at the division between plates, a fatherless son and a sonless father.

This same imaginative process can be carried out for any of the almost 3,000 names.

***

I’ve always had an issue with the idea of memorials. Gravestones I can understand, but memorials to tragedies—they become more tourist attraction than anything. People go to say they’ve been, not to think about what they’re standing in front of. I saw more selfie sticks than I’d like to have seen that day, at the Memorial. People of all shapes and sizes standing in front of those big rectangular depressions, selfie sticks extended, fat smiles on their faces as they planned out their Instagram hashtags to optimize their like-count. I was overcome with the urge to go on a rampage, smacking sticks out of the hands of their insolent wielders, spitting “it’s not about you” in their faces. It’s about Edmond G Young Jr. whose name is etched into the bronze of the South Pool, Panel 74, because this is where he died, along with these other names that seem to be nothing more than consonants and vowels upon which people rest their elbows. Every front-faced iPhone I saw might as well have been taking a selfie with a corpse at an open-casket wake. Not just a faux pas, but a reflection of something inherently flawed within modern humanity.

I almost took a picture before leaving. Not a selfie, just a photograph to reference as I write this. I couldn’t bring myself to lift my phone up and do it.

***

As much as my dreams revolve around an expatriate fantasy a la Hemingway or Fitzgerald, as I grow older I can’t help but recognize that I am inescapably and profoundly American. As was Hemingway, as was Fitzgerald. Love us or hate us, we are what we are—and usually that means we’re damn proud.

Though when I went to the September 11 Memorial, I wouldn’t describe what I felt as pride, but rather as a feeling of inclusion and duty. I am here. I am an American. For better or for worse, this is what I am, and you can be absolutely certain that I will stand here silently and pay my respects to the people who died here. To the firefighters who knew they were probably going to die, but did not hesitate to act—the people who’ve inspired my best friend to build a career where he helps and saves others.

Researching the history of the Memorial, I was surprised to find that there were more than 5,200 design entries from 63 countries. The winner and designer of the Memorial was New-York based and London-born Israeli architect (and ex-soldier), Michael Arad.

At first, I was a little put off by the fact that we’d accepted entries from countries other than our own. This was an American tragedy on American soil, it should be an American memorial designed by an American architect. I don’t care how damn pretty something from Italy or France might look—this is meant to be an American memorial. Then I re-evaluated. This was a human tragedy. Yes, it happened in our home, but America isn’t meant to be exclusionary. It’s a cliche, but we’re the melting pot. That’s our strength. That what makes us us, and that’s something to be proud of. To think that the ripples of the September 11 attacks were confined strictly to our fifty states would be remiss. I was embodying the very thing I’d abhorred about patriotism—its occasionally ignorant and exclusionary blindness to the fact that there’s more to America than America. We are a metaphor. We are unique. We are, as John Winthrop said, “a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

***

I walked to that memorial one man, wrapped up in an underlying contempt for our my country and its overabundant, self-righteous arrogance. I left a different man—one who was proud to have been born here and nowhere else—proud to be, as the lyric goes: an American.

I still do not deny the fact that there are things we’ve done that we shouldn’t be proud of—things going on still today that are inherently and unforgivably wrong. But in front of the memorial I went through a marked transition akin to those moments that make you realize the depth of familial love, the fragility of our very existence.

America is my home. As a child, when asked where I was from, I’d reply “I’m Portuguese and Italian.” I understood that people who were actually Portuguese or Italian would take offense to this, that I was from a small town in Northern Massachusetts—a.k.a. America—but I maintained that Portuguese and Italian was my heritage and that was what I was. I now understand that the only proper answer is one word: American. When I write, my voice is that of an American writer, and that gives me chills to say. The fact that I am an American is something I will never be able, or want, to change. Something that will never be taken away from me.

In his piece for Rolling Stone, 9/11: The View from the Midwest, David Foster Wallace recounts a conversation held with a neighbor after the attacks on The World Trade Center. They’re talking about the American flags that have since been put out all over Bloomington.

Wallace writes of his neighbor’s assertion that “there’s a very particular etiquette to having your flag at half-mast: You’re supposed to first run it all the way up to the top and then bring it halfway down. Otherwise it’s an insult or something.”

I see my transition, from academic renunciation to heartfelt embrace of my country, as running my flag all the way up my own flagpole and nowupon visiting the site where the Twin Towers fellI have properly lowered it to half-mast.

Having been alive, if only only eight years old at the time, September 11 was my generation’s first tragedy. It is now our first memorial. It commemorates the event that will define our era. For my peers who have only experienced the news-clips, sound bites and headlines, I urge you to visit your memorial. Provide yourself the requisite contextualization to truly love your home. Stand before the pools and remember. In remembrance, may we all lower our heads, lower our flags, and remember what we are: Americans. United, we stand.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I’m suggesting your post to the editors of Discover.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. James Freitas says:

      Thank you!

      Like

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