For whatever reason, this third year after the ten-year anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York seems for many of us to have felt different. Different as in, forgotten. This was the first topic of discussion this past Wednesday morning as a few of us gathered on Fire Engineering’s Humpday Hangout.
Capt. Mike Dugan to me is the kind of man you want you’re son and daughter to know. Long handle bar mustache, bright Irish eyes, a hearty laugh. Measures you as you walk through the door and knows who you are long before you’ve introduced yourself. Mike won’t put up with any crap and I think he’ll call a man out as he sees him. Mike loves the job. He obviously carries the scars that so many New Yorkers do from 9/11. So there he is standing in a store, in New York City, in his Class A’s on the morning of September 11th and some casual observer says to him, ….”what are ya’ all dress up for?” Hit the Captain like a slap across the face, I think. It was like someone leaning on a dagger that’s already been shoved in so deep, the scar tissue is grown around the hilt, but it still hurts when its nudged. “What’dya mean, ‘what am I dressed up for?”
Others in the group mentioned the lack of ceremony. Chief Lasky mentioned the ceremonies and events that have happened in years past, but are not happening now. No tone out. No moment of silence. Has the country forgotten already? Have our brothers forgotten already? Perhaps, or maybe, we are holding on too much. “Riding FDNY’s coat tails” it’s been called. There’s may be some truth in that, I’m thinkin’.
We haven’t all forgotten our oath. Mike and Rick know that. And as I stood there in the cold that morning, feeling like I always do on September 11th, I thought to myself, “Will this be the year that nobody shows up for the reading of the names?” I wondered. After all, I live and work the job in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Frontier…or what’s left of it. You’d think if anyone would have an excuse to give up standing in the cold (it gets cold early here) we would. After all, we’re what…5000 miles away from the World Trade Center? Perhaps I would have thought that way in the year 2000. But not after 9/11. That day, the miles evaporated into the “Clear Blue Sky”.
What does it mean that the world around us has chosen to forget? To not wake up and think up it first thing. That was yesterday. Move on, get over it.
Its A Generational Thing – The Promise
Clear blue sky. I remember that morning like a vivid palette. I remember where I was, what I was doing and what it felt like. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. Because it literally flipped my life upside down. The actual impact took some time to sink in, but it was a time of several distinct characteristics of this life as a fireman, coming together for me. Suddenly, the “Brotherhood” spoken of, that I had begun to pay attention to, assumed a drastic prominence for me. All at once, it was an all consuming thing. I think it was like that for a lot of us. The events of 9/11 molded the way many of us looked at the job from then on. I won’t include everyone in this, because I do know several good guys, that just don’t feel that way. Why? Well, I think its a foundational thing, but that’s a topic for another day.Â This generation of firefighters, the 9/11 Generation, made a vow. We made a promise, we swore on it. We would never, ever forget.Â But as time goes by, many are asking, “What does that mean?Â Is it the same thing for all of us?”Â I don’t feel like it should be a huge production.Â If it really impacted us, should it not show every day of the year?
So there I am, another cold September morning. Its 9 am Alaska time, Capt. Dugan has already had his dose of cold realism on this sad day and here I am, preparing for mine. Today will be the day, …no one will care to show. No one will want to remember.
Outside the City house, Local 1324 has its Engine 4 straddling the bays, all shiny bright red. Wooden ladders glistening. I love old rigs. Two tables, one with the bell for the ringing of the four 5’s and one for the 343 flags to be placed as the names are read. A podium in the middle. Traffic growled by. A few of the local drunks milled around down the block, not sure what the fuss was about. Its cold this morning.
Dan hands me the cards, he’s having a rough morning too. “Good to see you here, Brother. Will you pass these out?” I look down into my hands at the name cards. Names I know so well now. Every single one. Behind me stands a few members of my department, a few from one or two of the others,Â a regional manager or two and two young soldiers from the nearby fort. Not many. I look back at Dan and cannot hide a sigh. “I don’t want to be here right now…” He looks relieved. “ah, …and I thought I was the only one feeling that way.” He gives voice to the Promise. “Never Forget”, says I. “Never Forget” says Dan. I hand out the cards. As I do, I realize that I am handing these names out to several members who could not have been beyond the first grade when the event we are memorializing actually happened. What is it I am asking of this younger generation?
What is it we expect? I don’t have to wonder about brothers like Buist, Grimes, Weatherly and the others. It was such an impact, I know that They will always be standing next to me on cold September mornings. We have this bond we share. We are together in this. But I really do not expect those coming into the service now, to understand. I don’t think you can “make” them understand, anymore than if we went to New York and said “We know how you feel”. The hell we do…And I don’t ever want to be perceived as riding someone’s coat tails for glory. We do this simple ceremony because it was the impulse. It was our gut reaction to a life-changing event that happened so far away, it might as well have been in Peking. But in spite of its power in our lives, obviously for so many people, …they’d rather just let it slip quietly away. I think we all cringe when we see the word “Hero” now. I know I have for a very long time. What an abused word.
I close my eyes, deep breath. It had to start at some point. One day, no one will show up at all. That’s okay, I’ve told myself, we F.O.O.L.S. will keep the vow. And I mean that. It’s okay. I might not feel that way in New York, but this is far away from Ground Zero. People that have not experienced the intensity of what we do for a living have a hard time understanding our motivation. So I look at our tiny crowd of name readers and say, “For those of you who have never read in the ceremony before, you need to understand that we have read these same names here, for thirteen years. Read them carefully, …and with respect. If you mess up, don’t get all crazy with it, just do your best. Read their company first, then each name below, giving each one a pause.” All nodded understanding. “Thank you for coming”, I say to the small gathering.
Its time to begin. The mic is turned on. Did I mention it was cold out? This is Alaska after all. Snow is only a month away. Snow that will stay for seven months…The light glistens on the old bell, waiting to ring the Four 5’s.
The bay door begins to open and I am literally gobsmacked as a solid crowd of seventy or so souls comes quietly out from behind old Engine 4. I hadn’t even realized they were there, keeping warm in the bay. They were off duty guys, the Chief’s wife (he passed away of cancer in 08), City members, Chena, Ester, the Fort, more University guys, Steese, the recruits I just finished with in the Academy this summer, public employees, friends, probies, old brothers and sisters. Some whom I have never yet seen at the service before…. I nearly lost it.Â Stepping out into the cold September morning, they made the usual half moon around the old Engine.Â Our favorite piper, John, eyes glistening, was warming up his drones.
About half the crowd had never read names before. Sure, they butchered a few pronunciations. Those of us familiar after so many readings, ….yeah, we squirmed a bit. The bell rang out its 5’s. We held ourselves silent. We prayed. Cars drove by. A delivery truck rumbled past. The drunks staggered by like they do every time, making their own verbal contributions. Our constant companions.
This was our generation. Our promise. For those of us who watched from afar as the Towers came down. Who choked back our shock and cries. We who knew, before anyone ever breathed a word, that so many New York firemen were instantly dead. We made the promise to “Never Forget”. So I am so humbled that so many, in such a small frontier place, turned out to be a part of 9/11. The young, those new to the job, taking on our promise. John played the pipes. Its haunting drones carrying out across the street. Another truck rumbled by.
What This Does Mean…
So our generation of firefighters makes this promise, to never forget. As a mentor of mine put it, “Like the Passing of the Armies”. We stand and honor their passing, as if to say, “What if it had been us? What if the roles had been reversed?” And here is why I feel we must continue to keep the vigil. Its not over, not by a long shot. After Pearl Harbor, we left the Japanese Empire in the sands of Iwo and countless other Pacific Islands. But the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan are still soaking up the freshest blood of our young people and it looks very much like they will continue to do so. Everyone wants us to support everything, and soon we will have nothing left to give. Who will be our friend then? At home, our society is boiling with violence, and Hollywood and social media feed it. When we have nothing left to give to our neighbors, ..what will it be like in our own streets?
We are needed like never before.
Never Forget. Because there has never been a more vivid, clear portrayal of public service. I am not advocating that we die in the line of duty or raise it up for our young members to worship, though I am sure there are those who will say that is exactly what I am doing. Look at it! Open your eyes! How can we forget? We are not people of violence. We are those who bring aid, who respond whenever called, who bring cooling water, bring life-saving help, we stand before our own people armed only with our integrity! And we may die doing it. And God, let it not be, but if it be your will… so be it! We will not shirk our duty. Our pedigree is too deep and honored. No one will ever be able to say we didn’t serve our people in their time of need. Sometimes, I think that time is not very far away.
So I think we who witnessed it, need to continue in observing 9/11. Maybe our ceremonies will grow smaller, maybe they should, for whose burden is it to carry but ours? But the younger generation will know how dedicated we are in remembering such sacrifice. Our quiet, solemn stance will speak volumes to the wise among them and they will understand how sacred we hold this job as each note sounds as the bell strikes, this honorable service we have committed our lives to. And how very aware we are that, “There but for the grace of God, go I”.
So says this Leatherhead, …Never Forget.