Nearly 10 years on, airplanes still appear in the distance, vaguely at first, then clearer, then louder, then cringingly closer, wailing past the Pentagon.
Pentagon Memorial a quiet lesson for the living
Truckers still grind gears on Route 27, commuters still honk and rev and skid to rubber-burning stops in the clotted traffic.
But the human ear possesses special gifts, and, somehow, in that two-acre plot of ground called the Pentagon Memorial, especially if you really try, the ear can filter out all that noise and latch onto the sound of peace. It gurgles in the bubbling pools beneath 184 benches, the symbols of 184 lives lost on that day in September. Close your eyes, and listen to the water. Peace.
And then it stops.
Does it every day.
Every day at 9:37 a.m.
The pause feels like a challenge, a subtle admonition, jarring you, nudging you to think about what happened here at that very moment on a sunny morning in 2001 when a Boeing 757 turned into a weapon of mass destruction.
In its three-year life, this space — the first national Sept. 11 memorial — has become a place for the tourist and the mourner who isn’t intimidated by logistics. It is “not easy to get to,” says Thomas Heidenberger, a retired airline pilot whose wife, Michele, was a flight attendant aboard the plane that slammed into the Pentagon at more than 500 mph.
Most visitors pile out of Metro trains on the opposite side of the Pentagon and snake through parking lots to the other side, walking past one sign after another warning them against taking photos, a prohibition that ends when they arrive at the memorial. It has also become a destination for schoolchildren, with the creation of educational programs for children as young as kindergartners. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the site draws about half a million people each year, memorial officials say.
The memorial — one of the most compelling in a city packed with memorials — makes the visitor work to figure it out. It is far from a literal expression, not like the Iwo Jima Memorial, which explains everything in a glance. Instead, it’s an abstraction, pushing visitors to sort out its meaning and decide how to relate to it.
Here is a group of teenagers, advancing tentatively through the thicket of benches. Three boys plop onto a cantilevered bench, pull out their water bottles, place them on the granite surface.
“It’s a cemetery!” one of the girls screams, her face reddening, every inch of her tensing. “Not a table!”
Lisa Leonard, a retired Army colonel who volunteers as a docent, has heard it before. Once it was German tourists. They thought it would be disrespectful to sit on the benches. “But it’s not a cemetery,” Leonard told them. Not a cemetery, at all. Go ahead and sit.
Leonard, who was working in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, likes to scramble into the planting bed that rings the memorial and pull back the fronds to show visitors the top of a simple, unadorned concrete wall. It starts three inches above ground level — one inch for each year of the too-short life of Dana Falkenberg, a passenger on American Airlines Flight 77, the youngest victim of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. The wall rises in step with the ages of the victims, Leonard will say, cresting at 71 inches to honor John Yamnicky, a retired Navy captain who was on the same plane.