We remember…

I remember growing up hearing stories about where people in my parent’s generation were when President Kennedy was assassinated. My grandparent’s generation could tell you where they were on a Sunday in December when news broke of a sneak attack on America’s fleet in the Pacific. To me, those dates and names were pages in a history book. I was too young then to appreciate that these events weren’t dusty history to the men and women who lived through them. They were visceral, living parts of their life’s narrative.

As each year we’re further removed from the shock and disbelief of a September morning. For more and more of our citizens, September 11th is just one more of those dates that mark an historical reference point rather than a life experience. For those of us who lived through it and the days that followed, though, I have an increasing suspicion that the day will always feel a bit like current events – a recent memory, still very much alive and tangible.

The stories of where we were, what we were doing, and who we were with will probably always be seared into our individual and collective memories for as long as one of us remains to tell it. The confusion at first report, the wide mouthed disbelief at seeing the second plan burrowing in, the continuous loop of smoke rising from the Pentagon, and two buildings that crumbled in front of us are were a clarion call to arms, to unity, and to remind us that our long experiment in democracy was and remains surrounded by those who would snuff it out.

Seventeen years on, it’s a punch to the gut I can feel just as strongly today as I did all those years ago. Over all the long years from then to now, we sought justice and rough vengeance, we rebuilt, thousands of families found the internal fortitude to go on living and endure, but most important, on this day and always, we remember.

Ten plus six…

Before writing tonight’s post I went back and read over the the ones I wrote before. Some of them are pretty good. Some of them are angry. Some are sad. Most are a little bit of both. Honestly I always get a little choked up looking at these posts about an all important date that with each turning of the calendar recedes just a little further in our national collective memory. At best, September 11th is always a date I find filled with melancholy.

Ten years ago, I happened to be in DC in a work trip. I was busy and not really paying attention to the calendar when the day started. By the end of it, though, I’d spent the day dwelling on heroes who fought against and subdued the worst impulses of their own generation.

While thinking of Sir Winston, I wrote:

I went to see Lincoln tonight. It just seemed fitting somehow. But the words that stuck in my head weren’t those written to bind up our nation’s wounds. They’re still too fresh for that. All along my long walk tonight, I was recalling Churchill’s words from the frosted depths of the Cold War… “We have surmounted all the perils and endured all the agonies of the past. We shall provide against and thus prevail over the dangers and problems of the future, withhold no sacrifice, grudge no toil, seek no sordid gain, fear no foe. All will be well. We have, I believe, within us the life-strength and guiding light by which the tormented world around us may find the harbour of safety, after a storm-beaten voyage.”

Winston would have understood the 21st Century. Sure, we have different clothes and different music, but it’s the same old world. He’d tell us to never give in and to stay the course. He knew that the only way to defeat evil was to pummel it into unquestioned submission. Winston would have understood.

Churchill, of course, is best known for his leadership during World War II, but the charming thing about him is that he seems to have a quote for all purposes. Some are inspirational. Others are dry with humor. The very best are usually both at the same time. The ones I find myself thinking about most often, though, are the ones that call us to persevere in the face of adversity, against the longest of odds.

It’s September 11th again. So much has changed and so much is still exactly the same. I still think Winston would understand our modern world, perhaps even better than do those of us who are living in it. Sometimes I get the distinct impression that we don’t understand a damned thing.

You can read the full post from September 11, 2007 here: https://jeffreytharp.com/2007/09/11/requiem/

Time flies…

I heard a statistic this morning that 25% of the people living in the United States weren’t yet born on the morning of September 11, 2001. I don’t know how accurate that number is, but fifteen years is a pretty long time and there do seem to be an awful lot of young people wandering around these days. To them, today’s date is something from a history book – about as tangible as the attack on Pearl Harbor or the burning of Washington. For those of us who lived through that gut wrenching September day long ago, though, it’s not so much history as it is something we carry with us every day.

If I were to walk into Great Mills High School today I could show you exactly where I was standing in the lobby when someone passed by and told me about an explosion at the World Trade Center. I commented wondering why they were running old footage of the bombing back in ’93. No, that wasn’t it, they assured me, dragging me down the hall to the library where a dozen people stood gape-mouthed around a television cart.

Bells ring. Class changes. I’m due back in my own room. Walk me into that room today and I can show you exactly where I was standing, elbows propped on my lectern, when we saw the first shaky images of the Pentagon burning and then when the towers fell. A lot of these students were military kids and maybe they “got it” more than some others. It might have been the first and only time in my brief teaching career I experienced a room of quiet searching, of contemplation, and of understanding that fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters would soon be going in harms way. There was no use trying to “teach” anything at that point. The best I could manage in that moment was just talking, individual conversations about what happened, about terrorism, and about what came next.

In my head the details of that morning are still every bit as vivid as that damned bright blue sky. I don’t expect that will ever change. Time flies, they say, but there are some moments, no matter how far past that stay with you forever.

The last perfectly average day…

September 11I don’t remember a damned thing about September 10, 2001. It must have been a perfectly average Monday. I was a second year teacher just trying to get through the week – or more likely trying to get through until Thursday and pint night at the Green Door.

America went to bed that night a nation more or less at peace with the world – victors of the Cold War and long past the 100 hour ground war in Iraq – we contented ourselves with international peacekeeping and the occasional cruise missile strike. We collectively went to sleep not knowing what would happen a few hours later. We went to sleep not knowing we were already at war and that the enemy wasn’t coming for us from across the ocean, it was already here living amongst us. For a few more hours, ignorance was bliss.

Not long after dawn, thirteen years ago tomorrow, the enemy came out of a vivid blue sky, targeting indiscriminately men and women and children and killing our kin and countrymen in their thousands.

I don’t remember anything about the 10th of September, but I remember almost everything about the day that came after it. If I let it the whole thing can spool through my memory like a newsreel. When I think about it now, especially today, the anniversary of the last day that was perfectly average, the sting and loss and anger all come back. It’s just like it happened yesterday.

That’s for the best. So many are bent on forgetting – on reinventing a past that never existed – that those of us who lived through it owe it to ourselves and to the next generation to never forget what we saw and what actually happened on those days in September. As for me, I’ll never forget. I’ll never forgive those who did it or those who supported them and who support them still. At every opportunity I’ll call for my country to be vigilant, to take the war to the enemy, and to beat back the gathering international darkness using every element of our national power.

We’ve all most likely seen the last of our perfectly average days. From here on out I’m afraid we’re destined to live in interesting times.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The 9/11 Memorial Gift Shop. I hear people are up in arms about there being a gift shop at the freshly minted 9/11 Memorial in New York. Fine. I don’t get it, but I certainly don’t claim to hold a monopoly on righteous indignation. I hear the argument that that the site of the World Trade Center is hallowed ground; that Americans are interred there. Arlington National Cemetery is hallowed ground too. It’s sanctified by the blood of generations of America’s patriots, but they still operate a bookstore there catering to the millions of visitors who show up there every year (there’s one at the Pearl Harbor visitor’s center too). On Ebay you can buy artifacts raised from Titanic’s resting place in the North Atlantic. I hear that 9/11 is different, but that’s only because it’s still fairly recent in our living memories. In any other context, it’s just another memorial – like Arlington or Pearl Harbor or any of a thousand other places. I can’t wrap my head around selling trinkets at one being any worse than doing it at any of the others.

2. Finger licking. There’s something altogether repulsive about someone who licks their fingers to separate the papers that just came rolling off the printer and then hands your set of prints over as if they’re doing you a favor and all that paper isn’t now covered in their cast off saliva. It makes me throw up a little in my mouth… and there just isn’t enough hand sanitizer on the planet to make this an OK thing to do.

3. Anything that delays your departure from the office on the day before your 4-day weekend starts. I think this one is fairly self explanatory.

Just another day…

As Pearl Harbor Day slid past more or less unnoticed by the vast bulk of the country last week, my mind set off wondering how long it would take for the anniversary of the great traumatic events of our lifetime to be considered “just another day” on the calendar. Pearl Harbor was one of, if not the defining event of our grandparent’s generation – the clarion call that freedom itself was imperiled across the globe. In their millions, that generation answered the call and rolled Japanese imperialism back across the Pacific and stomped out Nazi fascism in Europe. They did the impossible because the only other choice was to accept a world where the very idea of personal liberty was an endangered species.

Seventy-two years later, when we collectively remember Pearl Harbor, it’s as grainy newsreel footage or from three inch pictures in a textbook. We remember it as a singular event and not as part of a grand, sweeping epoch of history that saw democracy in the world fighting for its survival. Worse, we see those events as something so far removed from our daily lives that they might as well have been made up by Hollywood.

Like the attack on Pearl Harbor for our grandparents, for us the terrorist attack on New York and Washington are slowly slipping into history. Even now, students in our nation’s high schools are too young to have first hand memories of that clear morning in September. How long do you suppose it will be before that too is something confined to the pages of history and 20-second “filler” clips on the news channels?

We owe it to ourselves and to the future to be better stewards of our history. They should know as much as possible about the world they’re inheriting. We’re not doing anyone any favors when we play down or neglect the sacrifices of the past. If I can be so bold as to paraphrase one of the great heroes of my youth – We must always remember. We must always be proud. We must always be prepared, so we may always be free.

We’ve simply poured out too much blood and too much treasure for landmark dates to pass as just another day.

12 years on…

“We will always remember. We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we may always be free.” – President Ronald Reagan, commemorating the 40th Anniversary of D-Day.

Those words commemorate a different conflict for a different generation, but the sentiment remains. Going on with our lives is the natural way of things. None of us should be expected to live forever in the darkest shadows of that day twelve years ago… but still, we owe it to ourselves and to generations yet to come to remember that we live in a world where those who hate us will use any means at their disposal to do us grievous harm. We’ll go on with life, because that’s as it should be. We’ll go on, as we have following every trial and tribulation, but we will remember. Always.


I was laying in bed flipping channels last night and landed on Discovery or National Geographic or some channel of their ilk that was showing clips from the September 11th attacks. They say that everyone has a handful of events that are seared into their memory and I guess for everyone above a certain age, that’s going to be one of them that sticks with us forever. Watching it last night felt unnervingly like seeing it happen again for the first time, maybe even worse now, because we know everything that’s still about to happen. The disbelief of watching the first plane strike the North Tower, the second plane streaking across the skyline and exploding through the South Tower, and the few grainy frames of a jetliner slamming into the Pentagon, still bring a visceral, sickening tightness to my chest.

Eleven years later, watching those towers fall still feels like getting hit with a sucker punch every single time I see it. Whenever I walk outside and look up to see a vibrant blue, cloudless sky, I remember… and it fills me with equal parts sadness and rage that such a thing could happen on our streets and in this country in the 21st century. Whether it’s 11 years, or fifty, or a lifetime, I don’t think that’s something that will ever go away. Eleven years gone, and it still feels like yesterday.

So we may always be free…

I could post a diatribe about the significance of today’s date and the implications of what we’ve done right and what we’ve done wrong since the morning of September 11, 2001, but I suspect most of you know how I feel, and we all know how I hate repeating myself when it isn’t necessary.

In some ways we are safer than we were on that day and in others we are more at risk. I seriously doubt that we can ever really secure our society against those who value death more than life. Yet today, five years on, we still walk freely down our streets, still eat at the corner restaurants, and order our latte’s without abject fear of being blown to kingdom come for our trouble. Can it happen? Of course it can. It happens in Israel. It happened in England and Northern Ireland during the worst of the troubles. It happened in dozens of two-bit dictatorships over the years, too. But today, we are still free. We are still brave. And despite the best efforts of a madman bent on our destruction, we are still here.

To borrow a quote from President Reagan speaking at the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion: “We will always remember. We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we may always be free.”