When the time on her phone showed the bus was 5 minutes late, she looked for an open bench. In her 23 years of experience, a city bus was either on time or very late. Might as well get comfortable.
She exchanged smiles with an elderly man and joined him on a nearby bench. A sharp fall wind blew across their faces, baring it’s winter teeth as it went.
Across the street was a small cafe; an American flag out front now waving rapidly in the sudden gust.
He spoke first, nodding towards the flag, “Good to see her fly. Wind won’t bother her. She’s seen worse.”
She nodded, glancing at the flag, pulling an ear bud out, and responding, “It sure has.”
He said, “In fact, I remember one time I found a flag. It was so tattered..but they took it from me..said they would hang it high, make sure it could be seen. They said, said it mattered. Mattered that it be seen, still flying. ‘Crushed but not buried’ they’d said..” his voice trailed off.
She nodded, again, “I remember. I remember that it really did matter, that day. That ‘our flag was still there’..” she sang it softly. The lilting notes from the National Anthem, though quiet, seemed to hang, suspended, in the autumn air.
“What a horrible morning. I remember it so clearly. I can’t ever forget. The smoke and the noise. How short a time it was and, yet, I thought it would never end,” his eyes were on the flag, his voice trailing off again, lost in memories.
She turned back to the flag as she spoke, “It was the worst morning, I know. The airplanes. They just came. And it changed. And we didn’t know. We didn’t know how many..”
He picked up her sentence where she had let it fall “..how many more? But, how could we? We had no idea they were coming. The war had come to us. It just flew itself right to our doorstep.”
She spoke slowly, “I don’t think I realized, I mean, wars don’t usually start with the counting of bodies in the thousands, do they? Thousands? Just..gone.”
“Gone,” he repeated, “one minute these were Americans starting their days, healthy and whole, and the next minute? They were casualties of war. On what was, what should have been, just a regular day.”
“Everything changed. Oh, we were still America before that day, but now we acted like we knew it. Like a lion, woken up, caught sleeping and complacent, while the enemy was circling,” she was almost tripping over her own words now, having only just realized how much she needed to get them out. “So many joined up, or re-entlisted, so many felt called to fight – the brave. So very brave. Heroes, really. But that meant, even more loss. But it wasn’t ok, the attack, it wasn’t ok. We had to stand on that truth. We couldn’t just..” her voice shook. She blinked rapidly, fighting back tears, she continued “..couldn’t just stay broken, stay blindsided.”
They were distracted for a moment by the opening of the cafe door. Two young girls making their way inside, laughing, heads bent together over a phone.
“They don’t know. They are young enough that they just don’t get it,” she said.
“They might. I pray they don’t. But they may, still. Like you do.. ” his voiced trailed off.
“I lost my dad that day. He was in the South Tower. I was 8,” she said quietly.
“September 11th,” he spoke it as more statement than question.
“9-11,” she confirmed.
After a moment, he spoke again, “I lost my dad when I was around that age, too. He was a Lieutenant on the Arizona. We had moved to a base, one in Hawaii, that winter.”
“Pearl Harbor,” she whispered.
In the distance, the familiar sounds of a diesel engine.
“My belated ride,” she gave him a rueful smile.
“I should go, too,” he said.
His hand reached for the worn handle of his cane – finding its support – familiar and steadying.
And her hand reached to cover his worn one – finding it familiar somehow, and steadying.
For a moment, they were not separated by 70 years of history.
They were comrades, kindreds, Americans.
History is not new or old; it is remembered and honored.
Those who were taken – should not be forgotten.
Those who ran into the chaos, to do what they were made to do, to save innocent lives – should not be forgotten.
Those brave men and women who joined up, who raised their hands and signed the line, and said “send me” when the fight came to our doorstep – these heroes should not forgotten.
It is the distinguished task of every generation to know and to remember.
May we never be so removed that we forget, and may we never be too young to remember.