September 16, 2001
The sun had just dropped behind the trees, casting long, orange shadows across the ballfield; the sky, layered like the silky, clear waters of the tropics, turned an opalescent blue. In groups of twos and threes and fours young families and long-retired residents converged on the baseball diamond
carrying candles, American flags, and a sense of historical imminence. Our lives, we all sensed, would never be the same. The future felt dangerously uncertain.
We were gathering to mourn the victims of September 11th, to acknowledge our emotional and physical vulnerability, and perhaps to distill our desire to help into a coordinated communal response. And we were there hoping to find the strength necessary to bear the awful press of impending events.
No one old enough to remember Pearl Harbor either as personal or national narrative could escape the parallel: our country had been attacked; a prolonged struggle against an unknown enemy lay before us. How many more victims the conflict might consume we could not begin to reckon.
At our feet sat the children we vowed to protect, the children who might eventually be drawn into that conflict by the very pledge we were prepared to make: that we would, in the words of a fallen president, "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
As the skylight began to fade, we lit our candles, passing the delicate flame from family to family like some sacred talisman.
But could we even conceive, in the warm twilight of a benign September evening, how great that price might be, what sacrifices such a commitment to freedom might entail, what future horrors awaited us?
Slowly the infield began to fill, neighbor greeting neighbor, asking the dread question: "Is everyone in your family okay? Did you know any of the victims?" As the first speaker approached the microphone our conversations stopped.
Parents encircled and hushed their young, hoisting a few to their shoulders, each a smiling emblem of all we held most dear. The rest disappeared among the protective legs of their somber, sad-eyed mothers and fathers, wondering, with vague apprehension, what prompted this rare solemnity in a place usually filled with so much noise and celebration.
The last amber streaks of sunlight left the field, the air cooled, the sky turned briefly to flame. Two local officials came forward to speak of the community's resolve followed by members of the clergy who recited prayers of mourning and hope. Then, as the skylight began to fade, we lit our candles, passing the delicate flame from family to family like some sacred talisman until infield and outfield alike flickered with a twinkling enchantment reflected in the wide-eyed gaze of the youngest children.
This is how wars begin, I thought, taking the small flame from my neighbor and passing it to my wife, in the purity and innocence of shared prayers for peace, on tranquil fields peopled with those we hold most dear, impelled by good intentions. These are the moments we will reflect back on when, battered, perhaps, by experience, we yearn for the simple innocence of unknowing.
A long moment of silent prayer was invoked. Mothers and fathers clasped hands, embraced their children, bowed their heads. How long would it be before we reconvened in celebration, free once more to enjoy our abundant freedoms without fear of assault? Would we ever know complete victory in this fight against terrorism or were we facing an enemy as insidious and implacable as the human capacity for evil? Would the broken ever be healed, would the grieving ever rejoice, would America ever be whole again?
Out of the silence came a single, sweet voice, singing softly. Soon the whole field joined in, some choking back tears, others allowing their eyes to express the anguish and pride we all felt. The flames flickered, flags fluttered, hearts trembled. Unimaginable tragedy had wrested us from our daily routine, stripped us of cherished certainties, exposed our terrifying vulnerability. A new malevolence was loose in the land. Was there no safe harbor?
I searched through the crowd for my own teenage children and found them standing with uncharacteristic gravity among their friends. They too understood the stakes. They had seen the gruesome images; they knew suddenly there was risk in being American, that death might come at any moment, even out of a clear, blue September sky. Could any of us expect to weather the coming storm unscathed?
When the singing ended we moved through the darkness to the blacktop where the school children played each day. Crickets had begun to chirp, streetlights had come on, and the windows of nearby homes glowed a warm and welcoming yellow. But though the air had grown cold still we lingered,
reluctant to relinquish the fellowship and comfort we had found in the company of each other.
One by one we knelt and placed our lit candles around the perimeter of a huge map of the United States painted on the playground, our faces briefly warmed by the flickering image. Then, having gathered our children to us, we stood a moment to admire the light our small community had kindled, each flame speaking of the hopes and prayers that illuminated America that memorable night from sea to shining sea.
© Steven Schnur