The State of Our Union

Man in turban waving American flags in front of Washington MonumentA Personal Travel Experience

Like most Americans, the events of September 11 not only changed my world but changed how I view the world. With the collapse of the World Trade Center, I found that any pursuit, any item on my to do list, absolutely anything at all, suddenly seemed unimportant and inconsequential.

On August 23 I was part of a group tracing the Montana portion of the Lewis and Clark expedition (spending the last night in a teepee). It was exhilarating – I loved being a travel writer. I taught a travel writing class the evening of September 10 and planned to begin heavy-duty promotion for my first book the following morning. Life was good. But one early-morning phone call, “Cynthia, turn on your television. A plane just hit the World Trade Center,” changed everything.

For the next 10 days I felt inexorably sad and overwhelmingly helpless, due in some part to my West Coast location. The realization became clear – I must get involved. A call to my friend, Linda Mathes, CEO of the Red Cross National Capital Chapter, achieved this goal. We met years ago at the Dallas Red Cross toward the beginning of each of our respective careers.

“Can you use my help in D.C. ? I’ll make coffee, distribute sandwiches, write press releases, capture the events on film, whatever you need?” Her response was simple, “Thanks, friend.” Later she tells me that after the call, she said “Cynthia’s coming” to her cat and cried.

I depart on an American Airlines flight from San Diego to Dulles the following morning. The airport is almost empty and the flight only 1/3 full. I feel like a pioneer.

We decide that my role will be the chapter’s “unofficial” photographer. Upon my arrival, we hit the Red Cross circuit. First stop is the Lincoln Memorial for an interfaith candlelight ceremony organized by the local Muslim community. I’m introduced to a Red Cross husband and wife volunteer team,Tom and Judy. When I tell them I’m from San Diego, they’re impressed that I flew crosscountry to do something for the Red Cross. “Don’t be impressed,” I say, “this will be therapeutic for me.” As Judy dispenses bottles of water, she nods her head in agreement, “I’m so privileged to be helping here.”

There are several speakers, including Linda, addressing this solemn audience. One is a gentleman who is half Afghani and half American (his grandmother was a Daughter of the American Revolution). He speaks about Islam, “Hate is not a rung on any religion’s ladder.” The most touching part of the evening, however, is a group of Muslims carrying a 25’ x 35’ American flag down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial while singing “God Bless America.” As expected, tears are shed.

Over a late dinner, Linda shares the story of a 5-year-old boy who visits the chapter saying, “I’m too young to give blood, but I thought you could use these.” He has a bag of bones for the rescue dogs. She sites a letter from a Brownie troop member, “Dear Red Cross, You’ve done a great job bandaiding people up. Your friend, Madeline W.” Then Linda mentions a staffer’s brightest memory – an overseas call from a British woman “just to hear an American voice.”

I yearn to see our nation’s capitol building. It is both disconcerting and comforting to see the grounds completely surrounded by fencing. I stop and speak with two Capitol grounds policemen and ask if they were on duty September 11. “It was total mayhem,” says Sergeant Galintine. “We heard and felt and a loud boom – it was the plane hitting the Pentagon. We saw the plume of smoke and were radioed that the Pentagon had been hit. We knew a fourth plane (with terrorists) was in the air – all planes were immediately grounded. But when we saw a 747 flying directly over the capitol – it’s restricted air space, you know – everyone thought we were the next target and began running.” (The plane was heading to Reagan National; following orders to land at the nearest airport.)

“It was sudden gridlock – everyone trying to leave the city,” said the policeman who directed traffic that definitive day. “Then nothing, like a ghost town.” I listen to this fateful story; but I see evidence of our proud and strong country everywhere –in office windows, from car antennas, plastered on store fronts – the U.S. flag.

Because the Pentagon crash site is considered a crime scene, it requires special approval to go there. I visit with a Red Cross group. We are taken to a hillside overlooking the damaged portion of the massive five-sided building and stand in the area where victims’ loved ones attended a memorial service mere days ago.

Intertwined into the fencing are left-behind tributes to those lost – flowers (now dried from the sun) are woven into the orange mesh alongside red, white and blue flags. There is only one picture of a victim – it’s of a young military man. Nearby is the sound of a 21-gun salute from Arlington Cemetery.

Though the fencing keeps us approximately 150 yards from the crash site, the building’s innards are exposed– desks and a computer monitor are visible through its invasive, gaping hole. We see the singed building front, evidence of intense fire and smoke, now a familiar sight to most.

It’s a sobering but healing visit because I also experience Camp Unity. Indicative of its name, this tented city was assembled on Pentagon grounds to provide round-the-clock rescue workers, FBI investigators and other pertinent personnel with their every need – food (there’s a McDonalds, Burger King, Outback); haircut (barber shop); spiritual retreat (chaplains and a chapel) and a supply tent with items like nail clippers, sunscreen, socks, snacks, even dog food (for the rescue dogs).

Positioned on an inside fence is America’s Unity Wall. Written messages are encouraged on this oversized white board (equipped with red and blue markers). Created for Camp Unity, it brims with thank yous, patriotic sentiments and hopes for the future. With a red marker I write, “I’m so proud to be an American.”