Daughters of the Dirt
/ Sarah Higdon
by Stephen J. Lyons
On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, my wife, Jan, and I walked through
the shaded streets of this small central Illinois farming town to donate
blood at the local Methodist Church. The sky was bright blue and the humidity low. No dust in air, nor debris or fire. The hot summer was ending
and we could feel the first stirrings of autumn in an approaching Canadian
cold front. Acorns fell and broke at our feet. Combines devoured crops in
the nearby fields like giant insects. Leaves in the upper reaches of maples
and oaks blushed. Everything was changing.
This is the Heartland. How will it play in Peoria (two hours from here)? is
the question often asked to gauge major decisions made in Washington D.C.
and New York City. The Heartland is viewed as normal, a Goldilocks region
where the porridge is never too hot or too cold, but just right. Here, the
streets are named for presidents. On Friday evenings, everyone attends the
high school football game. Here, doors stay unlocked. American flags fly
even in peacetime. Lawns are kept trim. Charity is a way of life. Decorum
is the expectation.
Not far from our destination, near a small city park that sits at the base
of our town's water tower, we came upon a boy crouched near his fallen bicycle. School books are splayed out on the sidewalk and he is holding a
bleeding knee. He is no more than eight-years-old, an age where a boy can
still cry openly in front of adults. His hurt is monumental. He shows us
additional bloody scrapes on his elbow and above his narrow hip. In a day
filled with so much blood and sorrow, the young boy's tears are tender and
He tells us where he lives. Jan puts her arm around him and takes his books. I pick up his
bike and we begin to walk in the direction of his home, but soon his mother pulls up in a mini-van, jumps out, and says "Look
like someone had an accident." She is concerned. "When he took so long I
started to worry. Thank you." The boy gets in the van without a word, the
side doors slide shut, and his mother drives him home to supper.
In a few minutes he will witness, with unceasing repetition, the day's events
on the television -- the jets disappearing into the upper floors of the World
Trade Center. He will see the rolling balls of fire; the small specks later
revealed as people jumping from window ledges -- cascading down from the
towers to the sidewalks below. Perhaps he will notice the networks scrambling to come up with a headline that sums up the unbelievable:
America Under Attack. America under Siege. America's New War.
From that moment on, Osama bin Laden's image, his seemingly gentle, old-world face with black eyes, thick lips, and salt-and-pepper beard, will
be on every network channel, every newspaper's front page; his name will
fill every sound bite on every radio in the United States. We will see bin
Laden reclining in a cave, then firing an assault rifle, then holding a walkie-talkie. "See, he is left-handed." Bin Laden at his son's wedding,
sitting in a lotus position like a poet or a yogi. We will learn he is the
son of a wealthy Saudi land developer, the heir to perhaps three hundred
million dollars, and the mastermind of so much destruction and carnage in
the world. Bin Laden, our new enemy. Wanted: dead or alive. He hates us and
now we must hate him.
In the face of warnings by child psychologists to filter out repeated viewings of these disturbing images, the boy will no doubt process this
information overload, and then he will finally understand that September
11, 2001, two weeks into his new school year, when his new spiral bound notebook was barely opened, was not a normal day. "Where were you when?" he
will be asked, twenty years later. "What were you doing when the towers fell like elevators cut from their cables?" And he will carry this day
forever in a mental photo album just as my generation carries black-and-white television images of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing our
own napalm, and a South Vietnamese officer firing a bullet into the head of
a Vietcong prisoner of war; the assassination of John F. Kennedy followed
by John Jr. saluting his father's flag-draped casket, and finally the grainy slow-motion money shot of Jack Ruby dispatching Oswald. ("Watch the
man in the hat!" Cronkite told us.) Somewhere in our memory is Birmingham
with its violent lunch counters, its high-pressure hoses and snarling dogs,
and, then King murdered on a motel balcony, someone pointing out into the
void. All of this grim history lurching forward and offering up image after
image until the generations converge at Ruby Ridge, Waco, Oklahoma City and Columbine. Timothy McVeigh, Randy
Weaver, Bull Connor, James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, David Koresh. Now we can add the World Trade Center, the
Pentagon, a track of woods in rural Pennsylvania and Osama bin Laden to the list. This, too, is the world the boy lives in. This is our country.
Where were we when it happened?
In the long days of around-the-clock coverage to come, it will be said that
we are at war, and that even though young, freshly-scrubbed boys that have
just begun to shave will stand at attention on the decks of departing aircraft carriers, it will be a "different war," one fought secretly
off-camera and online, and in many countries names we cannot pronounce and
whose capitals we cannot locate. A renewed sense of patriotism surfaces.
"Demand Soars for U.S. Flags," roars the headlines. America Fights Back.
"We will smoke the enemy out of his hole. We will drain the swamp," our leaders promise.
On the morning shows and evening news casts, the anchormen and anchorwomen
will find "terrorism and crisis management" experts to calculate the odds
for bio-terrorist attack, the releasing of botulism, anthrax, VX, Sarin and small pox. "It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when." Within
twenty-four hours we will learn what "kill zones" are, and reporters will
report that two-hundred-dollar gas masks are "flying off the shelves," and
even though they may bring immediate psychological comfort to fearful consumers, ultimately the masks cannot
prevent damaging exposure to chemical and biological agents anyway. We only have seven
and a half million small pox vaccinations currently on hand, we are cautioned, but
forty million more doses have been ordered. Symptoms include a rash and general flu-like conditions.
Death comes in seven days if one is not treated.
And, in the shaky weeks to come, we will hear stories: CEOs who, in seconds, lost hundreds of young, bright employees, leaving thousands of
children; the spouses who did or didn't get one last "I love you" on a cell
phone from a hijacked plane, a smoke-filled stairwell, or an office inferno
on the hundredth floor. Over and over, we will be told of heroic firemen,
of chaplains performing last rites at lower Manhattan's "Ground Zero," of
two office workers who carried a wheel-chair bound stranger down dozens of
flights of stairs and out of harm's way. The same people will weep and tell
the same stories on Larry King and Oprah and Geraldo and the Today Show.
Despite the exhausted, tireless rescue crews and the sniffing cadaver dogs,
no one will be found alive after the initial attack, not in the Trade Center, not in the
Pentagon, not in the Pennsylvania woods and not in the burnt wreckage of the four jets. Even the planes' black boxes refuse clues
to such madness. We are left empty handed, except for statistics: four thousand dead from more than eighty countries,
missing-persons photos hung like broadsides on telephone poles, and placed
tenderly beneath lighted candles in Union Square.
Everything is different now: life in its fragility more precious and more
fleeting. As if we didn't know this already. As if we needed to be reminded.
Even with our broken hearts, broadcast live twenty-four hours a day with
regular commercial breaks, despite the empty airport concourses, the plunging DOW and jobless claims rising to 1992 levels, and the chilling
warnings of additional attacks carried out this time from crop dusters; in
spite of coverage of Palestinians dancing in the streets of The West Bank
to celebrate our fall from grace into the familiar rubble that defines their lives, the President will urge us to "get back to business," to spend
money, to go about our lives with some semblance of normalcy-to return to
4:30 p.m. in the Heartland. The line to donate blood at the church almost
reaches the outer door. Upstairs in the sanctuary a two-hour prayer vigil
is about to begin. Red Cross personnel scurry about distributing questionnaires regarding sexual partners, drug use, and recent trips to
sub-Sahara Africa. Older women, who have experienced Pearl Harbor as girls,
are set up folding chairs, take down names, and place calls to regional headquarters requesting more needles, more pint bags, more blood coolers,
more of everything. A sergeant in the Illinois National Guard hovers near a
clock radio to listen for news of possible call-ups. Rumors pass down the
row of chairs: Missiles bombarding Kabul. More jets falling from the skies.
Gas to rise to $5 a gallon tomorrow morning. (Indeed, at the only traffic
light in town, cars spill out of the Super Pantry in a long line to fill
their tanks.) The next day, gas prices are unchanged and the lines vanish.
The church dining room resembles a makeshift hospital, and although everyone in it is
bleeding, no one is wounded. Donors lie in chaise lounges squeezing pieces of plastic to keep the blood flowing. All ages are
represented. A teenager to my left takes only four minutes to fill a pint
bag. I am complimented by the Red Cross nurse on my big veins. She says they expected forty donors and were now approaching one hundred and sixty.
"Well be here as long as people keep coming in," she says, gently inserting
a needle into my arm.
After we donate our blood, we are led to a table, where we are seated and
given paper plates and cups. Piled on trays are several varieties of cookies, one shaped like a Dutch windmill, pimento and Velveeta cheese
sandwiches on white bread; potato and tortilla chips. Milk, coffee,
water and orange juice are the drink choices. The snacks remind me of the boy
with skinned knee, by now covered with a Band-aid. By now he would be sitting down to dinner. By now he would know everything.
At the recovery table, we make small talk, try to connect the community dots ("Do you know so-and-so's sister in Champaign?"), and even though it
seems wrong, we even laugh a little, just to try it out. We have now been
in the church basement for three hours. Still, the line is just as long as
when we arrived.
Jan and I leave the church and enter a new world holding hands. The streets
are empty of pedestrians and it is already dark, another sign of a changing
season. We pass the lighted windows of a downtown dance studio. Classical
music drifts out and young women-pretty in their leotards pliť and pirouette across ancient woods floors in front of full-length mirrors.
Other signs of normalcy follow us home. Two smiling girls on bikes were delivering the newspaper with the headline "Planes Slam N.Y., Pentagon."
And, even though all professional sporting events would be eventually canceled, the local football game would be played Friday as scheduled.
Grain trucks pass us heaped with corn and soybeans. Backyard windmills turn
in the prairie breeze. A firefly flickers. Tree frogs sing an off-key duet
with cicadas. Still I could detect another sound, this one unfamiliar but
certainly not new. At the end of yet another day in our beautiful and broken world, I imagined all our blood mixing together, vein by vein, pint
by pint. Even as I recognized the unmistakable dirge of our collective mourning, I find this thought comforting.
Stephen J. Lyons is
the author of Landscape
of the Heart, a single father's memoir. His articles, reviews,
essays, and poems have appeared in many national magazines and journals
including Newsweek, Salon, Chicago Reader, Sierra, High
Country News, Witness, Commonweal, The Sun, Hope Magazine,
Manoa, Whole Earth, and New Age. His writing appears in the
Poetry : A Centennial Anthology (University of Idaho Press), Passionate
Hearts (New World Library), Living
in the Runaway West (Fulcrum Books), and Bless
the Day (Kodansha Press).
Read more of Lyons's work here