Memorial Day: A 9/11 Postscript

Editor’s note: This piece on the dedication of the memorial to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack at the Pentagon was originally published on Sept. 12, 2008.

Photo by Greg Barber/Express
YESTERDAY WAS yet another 9/11. It wasn’t like the original, which was a flurry of horror, conjecture, sorrow and fear. Nor was it like the second one in 2002, during which we learned that the old hurts from the first were closer to the surface than we’d realized.

Nor was it like the third. Or fourth. In fact, by the time this Sept. 11 rolled around, the day had, in my mind, become what it was destined to be: an indelible moment, sure, but one whose impact had weathered with time.

Photo by Greg Barber/ExpressThen, while at work, I saw photos of the memorial to 9/11 victims that had just opened at the Pentagon.

That struck a chord.

It’s easy for people to see the Pentagon as a cold, concrete edifice — easier still because it houses the most powerful military machine the world has ever known, mighty enough to destroy everything alive several times over.

For me, though, the Pentagon is where Dad works. Always has been.

As I grew up and moved from my native Virginia ‘burbs into the city, I oriented myself by the Pentagon. I parked there to ride the Metro. I cooled my heels at its bus hub. Even though I roamed its rings only once that I remember, at the age of 9 or so, I felt a connection to it — it’s where my father has spent most of his days since Richard Nixon was calling the shots.

On the morning of that first 9/11, I heard a report of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York and did what any good journalist would: I sprinted to my car and drove briskly to work.

My route in those days took me past the Pentagon, which, as I sped by it that morning, sat as sternly as it always had. Arriving at work, I careened the car into a space, bolted up the stairs and punched the power button on the television to see what I’d missed while in transit. And there on the screen was the Pentagon, with a smoldering jagged scar where the wall I’d just passed used to be.

Out the window, I could see the smoke in the sky. In the distance, I could hear coworkers consoling a sobbing woman who had arrived just minutes after me. We traveled the same route; she’d seen the plane hit.

Photo by Greg Barber/ExpressI remember, after several tense hours of worry, calling my sister when I found out that Dad was OK. I remember going to my parents’ house, at my mom’s insistence, after the day finally ended. And I remember a raucous night with friends days later when I finally laughed again.

It was those memories that drew me to the Pentagon memorial last night. As I walked toward the building, I saw a massive flag draped on the wall, just as one had been seven years ago, when the collapsed pieces sat crumpled in place before they were removed and the building allowed to heal.

The crowd numbered in the hundreds, many sitting in temporary bleachers to hear a special opening-day tribute that bathed the area in patriotic song.

At the memorial site, onlookers crunched through newly laid gravel as they inspected the rows of memorial benches, one for each victim who died on the ground and in the doomed plane. Each bench is lit from below; each features a pool of water underneath.

Photo by Greg Barber/ExpressSome people browsed in the detached way that’s common at downtown memorials, where the wounds aren’t so fresh. Some sat down on the benches. To some, those being honored were strangers. To others — you could tell by their tears — they were not.

My 9/11 experience wasn’t uncommon or heroic or tragic. That day didn’t impact me as painfully as the families still pouring out their grief in the dark Thursday night. But even for someone like me, who will be lucky enough to see my dad walk my sister down the aisle at her wedding this month, seeing a memorial in that place — having somewhere to share in this shared national experience — brought an unexpected measure of peace.

I hope they felt it, too.

Photos by Greg Barber/Express

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