Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Blood Lines
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 even soothing.

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, remembered in
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 mythical Peoria.

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 anthologies Idaho's 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