Each summer the youngest amigo, Luke, and I go for away by ourselves for a few days to explore someplace together and bond. Last year, we ventured to Chicago so I could introduce him to the city of big shoulders — the hog butcher to the world — and the unique glories of Wrigley Field. This year, we returned to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an old favorite, so we could watch our favorite baseball team, the Pirates.
It was a good weekend to make such a trip, as the Pirates were in the beginning stages of a scintillating hot streak. We watched them mount a thrilling, 9th inning comeback win against the dreaded St. Louis Cardinals one afternoon (my scalp, forehead, and upper thighs testified that this should probably be my final day game ever), then followed up the next evening by witnessing a solid win against the first place Milwaukee Brewers. During the latter, Luke was as entertained by the constant commentary by the enormous fellow sitting next to me (“YOWZA YOWZ! PITTSBURGH GONNA GET TWO!”) as he was by the game. “Dad,” he whispered at one point, “what’s that dude even saying??” He thought the racing pierogis were wildly entertaining as well.
After conducting some business the following morning, Luke and I headed up to the Penn State University campus in State College, Pennsylvania, where I spent my graduate school days in the mid-80’s. It had been 30 years since I’d been there, and I was excited to see a few familiar haunts and to catch up with an old friend. On the way, however, Luke and I decided to make a quick stop in the middle of some rolling fields off of U.S. Rte. 30, near tiny Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a spot where dozens of innocent souls lost their lives as crew members or passengers of U.S. Airways Flight 93 on September 11, 2001.
After an hour and a half of travel time, we arrived at the parking lot of the memorial. We ambled slowly along the black walkway, its course corresponding to the flight path of the doomed plane. Tall, gray, concrete walls rose on either side of us, guiding us to the museum entrance and a flight path overlook. Hundreds of visitors walked quietly around us, some silent, others speaking in hushed tones.
For the next hour and a half, Luke and I took individual paths through the understated museum displays. I spent half my time attending to the artifacts, videos, and explanatory placards. I spent the other half watching my son’s response to what he was reading, watching, and listening to.
The events of September 11, 2001 occurred almost three years before Luke was born. He’s heard and read about it, but never confronted the faces and stories in the direct way he did on this day. As he examined the pictures of the smoldering heap of plane wreckage and the investigators combing through it shortly after the crash, Luke’s shoulders slumped. He painstakingly read profiles of various crew members and passengers and shook his head. He studied the descriptions of some of the details of that day — how the flight departed from Newark, New Jersey, bound for San Francisco, how it began to circle back east — probably headed for the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. — as the terrorists took control of the plane in an area slightly south of Cleveland, Ohio, how the passengers began to learn (through in-flight phones) what had transpired already in lower Manhattan and the Pentagon.
How they figured out their likely fate and decided to try to retake control of the cockpit, knowing it was their only chance at survival.
Luke was as somber and serious as I’ve ever seen him. I walked a few paces behind him as he picked up a phone next to a display. The effect of what he heard was palpable. His entire body became rigid, and I sensed he was fighting off the onset of tears. What, I wondered, was having this kind of impact?
I walked over to one of the phones and picked it up. It was a message left by one of the passengers for her husband, her final words of love and thanksgiving and confusion and — yes — utter terror. Luke listened to another such message, then another.
During the remaining two hour drive to Penn State we discussed what we had experienced and I did my best to share with Luke what I remembered of, and thought about, that day, as well as its genesis and aftermath. It was a lengthy, discursive and incomplete conversation. As we approached the outskirts of State College and the completion of our drive, Luke touched my arm in an emphatic sign denoting “I want your attention.”
“I’ll try to remember to tell you this a lot. But in case I forget. I love you.”
“Ditto, Luke, ditto.”
“I feel the same way.”
Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.