From Sept. 11 to Eternity

For America for Christmas this year there’s only one gift, a history book. And we should all get busy writing it.

Today is the 60th anniversary of “the day that will live in infamy,” the sneak attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. We know a lot about what happened on Dec. 7, 1941, but not enough. Some of the best of what we know came from a work of fiction, James Jones’s great classic novel, “From Here to Eternity.” Jones had been there that day, a young enlisted man at Hawaii’s Scofield barracks, a nascent novelist looking for experience. He got it. He wrote the great novel of World War II. It is amazing to realize that unlike the great novels of World War I, “From Here to Eternity” hinges on the day the war began, at least for America, and never touches upon the war’s execution or ending—and it was published near the end of the era in which novels really, truly mattered, when they were seen not as a tributary off the great river of American literature but the river itself.

It was a great book with wide cultural impact. People knew the names of its characters; I can still remember my father watching TV once about 20 years ago as someone played taps on a bugle, and my father said, “Play it, Prewitt.” A reference to Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, the brokenhearted Southern boxer who wouldn’t fight but who could make a bugle sing. The great novel was made into a great movie directed by Fred Zinnemann. Like the novel of course but unlike the recently released movie “Pearl Harbor,” it actually had a story, a wonderful story of a lonely wife in a bad marriage and a tough man in a cold barracks, not to mention Pvt. Angelo Maggio, Prewitt’s best friend, a tough little Brooklyn boy who had issues with authority.

Sixty years later we are at war again, and I happen to think the estate of James Jones should flood the market with a new paperback version of “From Here to Eternity.” It would become a great bestseller again, would speak to our times and would give America a sense once again of what it is to be a soldier in the army of our country. Modern novelists don’t know about those things.

But none of this is, strictly speaking, today’s subject.

*   *   *

Today’s subject is the subject that will not go away, Sept. 11, 2001, and what we know of what happened then, and there. I hope there will be great novels about it—it is nothing if not rich material—but until then there are data that we have that must be saved, and soon.

Do you know what it was like to be a secretary in the White House on the morning of Sept. 11 and to hear, as you passed him in the hall, a Secret Service man’s radio squawk that there is an incoming airliner aimed at the White House and everyone must run, now? Do you know what it was like for Lynne Cheney, the wife of the vice president, to be hurried down into a secret room in the deepest innards under the White House? Do you know what it was like for the desk assistants at CNN who spent that morning at their posts doing live TV while, for at least part of the time, they had reason to believe the next suicide bomber was coming for them?

Do you know what it was like for anyone beside yourself and your family and magazine and newspaper writers and those you saw talking about it all on TV?

You don’t. And we have to do something about that.

*   *   *

I was in the White House the other day as part of a weekly series in which writers and journalists meet with whoever in the White House staff is free to talk about whatever is on their minds.

Before I spoke, I chatted with some staffers and asked them if they had yet written down what they had experienced during the extraordinary events of Sept. 11 and after. They all said no. And they shook their heads as if to say, “Surprising but true,” and “I haven’t had time,” and “Only fools keep diaries in government.”

One man told me his story of that day. I asked if he’d evacuated the White House and he said yes, and I asked how it happened, who told him to leave, and he said, “No one.” It was fairly early in the morning of course and he’d been holding a staff meeting in the Old Executive Office Building, just across from the west entrance of the White House. Suddenly he noticed people running by. Then a lot of people. Then he overheard from a walkie-talkie words that seemed to mean the White House is the expected target of a terror plane. Then he realized what everyone else seemed to know but no one had formally announced: We have to get out of here, quick. One thing he remembers hearing: Someone telling women to take off their high heels and run.

They ran. They got out of the complex and ran down the street looking back and then running forward again. Someone once noted of truckers that after they park their rig at a highway rest stop, they take the keys, get out of the cab, walk about five yards and then turn to make sure the truck is there before they walk on. That’s how it was with people fleeing the White House, I gather. They’d run 10 yards and then stop and look back to make sure it was there, run 10 yards, stop and look back.

*   *   *

What a moment in American history. I suppose there had been nothing like it since the War of 1812—that night in August 1814 when whoever was in the White House scrammed as British troops, carrying torches, marched down Pennsylvania Avenue for the White House, which they soon set ablaze. (When I worked in the White House for Ronald Reagan they were repainting the facade. In order to do it right they had to strip centuries-old paint. They stripped it right down to the burn marks left by the British soldiers. You could go by and touch them.) That was the night President Madison’s wife, Dolley, saved the portrait of George Washington that hangs, still, in the East Room of the White House. Dolley Madison is said to have cut it from its ornate frame and hid the canvas under her skirt as she escaped in a coach.

That was quite a moment too.

But not enough people took notes on it. We still don’t know enough about that night, and the days and weeks afterward as America recovered, and won back its Executive Mansion.

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What we need from White House staffers now is notes, memories, stories, oral histories of Sept. 11. History needs these things. As William Safire once said, the one thing history doesn’t have enough of is first-person testimony.

And not only from the White House, and not only from Washington. Everyone in American media that day has a story, from the people reporting live the collapse of the first tower—Aaron Brown of CNN watched, aghast, and called the great rush of smoke and ash “a mushroom cloud,” and I realized at that moment that in the first few seconds of the collapse people didn’t know if they were witnessing a suitcase nuclear explosion within the building.

Everyone in the Pentagon has a story. So does everyone in the armed forces, from sailors on aircraft carriers to the pilots who scrambled to force planes down if they had to that day.

The children of our country—they will be writing novels (well, probably screenplays, but let’s hope novels) about what they saw and heard on Sept. 11. But their novels and screenplays will be better, more realistic, more richly observed, if they write it all down now. The testimony of a bright 10-year-old can be a raw and beautiful thing.

So: Everyone should write down, or record, for history, what happened on Sept. 11. And I think everyone should be given a few hours or a day at work to do it. It could be called “The 9/11 History Project,” could be declared a public duty, could be given a special day at schools across the country, and could be led by, say, The Office of the 9/11 History Project within the White House office of Homeland Defense. Just to make it official, and just to have a central place where everyone could send their memories before they’re sent on to the Smithsonian, which might consider building a special room for them.

The record of that day should include the kinds of things people wrote and drew afterwards, too. This was the first disaster of the e-mail era, and we’ve all received cartoons and poems and essays and columns sent through cyber-space, with subject lines that say things like “You HAVE To See This.”

Here’s one I received this week, a poem by an apparently unknown author. The acquaintance who sent it wrote, “This is a must read. This person should step forward and claim this poem. The words are very powerful!”

It’s called “Two Thousand One, Nine Eleven”:

Two thousand one, nine eleven
Four thousand plus enter heaven.
A bearded man with stovepipe hat
Steps forward saying, “Lets sit and chat.”

They settle down in seats of clouds
And a man named Martin shouts out proud,
“I have a dream!” And once he did,
The Newcomers said, “Your dream still lives.”

Groups of soldiers in blue and gray
Others in khaki, and green then say
“We’re from Bull Run, Yorktown, the Maine.”
And the Newcomers said, “You died not in vain.”

From a man on sticks one could hear
“The only thing we have to fear—”
And a Newcomer said, “We know the rest,
trust us sir, we’ve passed that test.”

“Courage doesn’t hide in caves
You can’t bury freedom in a grave,”
The Newcomers had heard this voice before
A Yankee twang from Hyannis shore.

A silence fell within the midst
And somehow a Newcomer knew that this
Meant time had come for her to say
What was in the hearts of the four thousand that day.

“Back on Earth, we wrote reports,
Watched our children play in sports
Worked our gardens, sang our songs
Went to church, walked along.
We smiled, we laughed, knew love and hate,
But unlike you we were not great.”

The tall man in the stovepipe hat
Stood and said, “Don’t talk like that.
Look at your country, look and see—
You died for freedom, just like me”

Then, before them appeared a scene
Of rubbled streets and twisted beams
Death, destruction, smoke and dust
And people working because they must.
Hauling ash, lifting stones,
Knee deep in hell, but not alone.

“Blackman, Whiteman, Brownman, Yellowman
Side by side helping their fellow man!”
So said Martin, as he watched the scene. Then:
“Even from nightmares, can be born a dream.”

And down below three firemen raised
The colors high in the ashen haze
The soldiers above had seen it before—
On Iwo Jima in ’44.

The man on sticks studied everything closely
Then shared his perceptions on what he saw mostly
“I see pain, I see tears,
I see sorrow—but I don’t see fear.”

“You left behind husbands and wives
Daughters and sons and so many lives
are suffering now because of this wrong.
But look very closely. You’re not really gone.

All of those people, even those who’ve never met you
All of their lives, they’ll never forget you
Don’t you see what has happened?
Don’t you see what you’ve done?
You’ve brought them together, together as one.”

With that the man in the stovepipe hat said
“Take my hand,” and from there he led
four thousand Newcomers on into heaven
On this day, two thousand one, nine eleven.

Now you might see that poem as moving and simple, as outsider art, and you might call it cringe-inducing kitsch, but it’s part of the record of our time, because it’s part of how Americans experienced and reacted to Sept. 11. And so it ought to be saved.

*   *   *

Here in New York we’ve elected a new public advocate, Betsey Gotbaum. She is an impressive person, a woman who knows and loves New York and who in the past few years helped save the New-York Historical Society as a vital institution.

Betsy Gotbaum and her friends at the historical society too should turn their minds to getting and saving as much as they can from Sept. 11.

The huge canvas sheets that people write on, in magic marker, at the Ground Zero memorials. They hang on the gates of St. Paul’s Church, for instance, one of the churches near Ground Zero that didn’t burn. I was there one night watching the volunteers change the sheets and put out new markers. The messages people left on them—from the strangers of New York to the dead of New York—were and are priceless. They were like notes left on the side of the road at Gettysburg. Some of those canvas sheets could be bronzed like baby shoes and put in an eventual memorial.

(Two memories. One: The woman who ran the St Paul volunteer service the night I was there, in October, insisted on putting a new canvas sheet out at midnight even though there was not much foot traffic and no one who walked by seemed eager to be writing notes. But the woman told me, “The bars close at 2 and 4, and people who’ve been drinking need to write.” And you know, she was completely correct, and by 3 a.m. the empty sheet was half full. Two: A young Hispanic woman, a newcomer to America or a visitor, came by with her friends. She wrote a long note on the canvas in black magic marker. When she finished she turned and said to no one, in English, “I was here.”)

There’s a lot more to be saved. The hundreds of thousands of cards from children all over the country to the survivors of the towers and the Pentagon. In New York there were a lot of crayon drawings sent from second-graders in California of the twin towers with sad faces being saved by firemen carrying flags. We should collect them too, and bronze ‘em up, and put them in an eventual memorial.

There’s a lot that still needs saving. The remaining bottom of one of the Trade Center towers, for instance—which is still there, with the iron work like a cathedral. That piece of metal is emblematic of so much, and must be cut down in one piece, and saved for the memorial. And the gear of a cop, a fireman, an EMS worker; the gear of a construction worker—all of it should be saved.

The oral memories of everyone in the towers and nearby are valuable too. Including the terrible memories of those in buildings around the towers who saw the people who fell from the top floors. They were called jumpers. They were not jumpers. Jumpers are suicides; they decide to die. These people were on a window sill with roaring flames on one side and on the other a hundred floors of air. They didn’t decide, the flames decided.

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We have to remember. We have to save these things. We can’t lose them. History needs them. Children will learn from them. Scholars will ponder them.

Here in New York we call what happened on Sept. 11 the greatest and most successful rescue effort on American soil in all of U.S. history.

But there’s more rescuing to be done, and it’s from a thief called time, which robs memories of their vividness, and from the Dumpster, which is daily carting history away from Ground Zero and the Pentagon.

I wish I could hear my father talk about what it was like 60 years ago, on Dec. 7, 1941, when he was 15 and living in a little apartment near the old Brooklyn Navy Yard, and hearing the tough men who worked there react to Tojo’s deeds. He and his memories of those days are gone. I wish I’d asked him; wish he’d written it all down; wish someone had asked him to save what he thought and heard and witnessed and feared.

So President Bush and Mr. Ridge, and Betsy Gotbaum and everyone else, as a Christmas present to history I hope you get this project going. Some day long from now when America is “old and gray and full of sleep” and “nodding by the fire,” it can “take down this book” of memories and slowly read about the hardy and inspiring country that got through that terrible day together, and the war that followed.