Without jet trails

Tue, 09/18/2012 - 1:26pm

The day is not done when I leave town at five, the sun is far from the horizon when I pull out of the parking lot of the little grocery store. It means missing the stretch of Corn Neck where one seems to be riding over the ocean, but it is a bit shorter going up past the Police Station and it fits some odd sense of symmetry not to go the way I came.

It is early, still, and with much daylight left, it is time to go to the cemetery and “plant” the crisp new American flag that has been lying in my back seat for over two weeks. It was provided by the Legion, gotten the day Merrill was buried, the best of intentions undone by rainy mornings and forgotten tools and most of all reluctance I cannot explain.

The hammer is not the best implement, but hammers are one thing I have aplenty, and something larger and more efficient would also do more damage when — likely if — I dropped it on my summer shod feet.

It is peaceful at day’s end in the cemetery, and I don’t have to worry about blocking traffic. The grass is greened by the rains and cool nights. The earth is surprisingly soft, the metal stake to which the familiar round emblem will be affixed is slender and smooth, the task will not be difficult.

I look around, certain there is some protocol I never learned and will certainly breach, but there is no discernible pattern. Placing it to the side of the stone marker appears the norm, but here that is not possible, as it is flanked by two shrubs, conical evergreens that make me try very hard not to look to my right, to the southeast and the newer part of the old cemetery. Over there, two monster yews, as old as I and laced with poison ivy (I learned the hard way), tower over my grandparents’ headstone.

They are more visible than the globe (yes, it IS a globe!) atop my great-grandfather’s stone, and I admit to taking some mean pleasure in the knowledge they both dwarf the large stone the wicked Lucretia had set for herself and my great-grandfather. There were evergreens there once, but they went the way of so many deciduous trees and only stumps remain.

They were supposed to be miniatures, as well...

The stake goes in slowly but certainly, my little taps nudging it along, inch by inch, dulling the head of the shiny stem, until it is deep enough. Finally, it is done, perhaps not perfectly straight but I doubt another effort would make a difference. It takes a few tries to catch the threaded post but it works, I inserted the flag and straightened. The flag hit, as I feared it would, the face of the stone.

Done, I think not of my uncle, or my cousin gone but a few years after his father, whose name is also on the stone. Instead, I think, as I usually do, of my grandmother, buried by those crazy giant yews. Widowed in early 1941, she watched her sons go off to war, all five of them. She deserves a flag of her own.

The next week the sky is September Blue, a color that will always evoke in everyone living in this part of the country — or watching televised reports — eleven-year-old memories of a day of shock and sadness. The recollection is undiminished, I am sure, after all we all remember that blue sky. But then I find what I wrote back then, a week after the towers fell.

“Last week, the prime minister of Great Britain stepped up to the podium and as he spoke I scrawled his words in the margin of a newspaper, the true legacy of these terrorists, whatever their names and immediate fates: ‘Their barbarism will stand as their shame throughout all eternity.’”

“Words can be powerful tools, I thought then and again, listening to the service in the National Cathedral and the verse of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, vaguely familiar but no longer in hymnals. I found it, finally, in one old songbook of my mother’s: “I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel...”

The hymn I remember because once, long before Sept 2001, I knew all the words and it had only slipped into inactive memory from which it was easily retrieved. It was eerier and it has stayed with me. That Tony Blair said the barbarism of the terrorists will stand as their shame throughout eternity I had long forgotten. Perhaps “shame” was never a part of our national dialogue, perhaps it only sounded better as so many things do, spoken with a British accent.

We want something we perceive as stronger, some vengeance that isn’t ours to extract when what, truly, could be worse than shame throughout eternity?

The flags are at half mast this second Tuesday in September. It was Tuesday eleven years ago, this is the second time the date has fallen on Tuesday, a calendar-geek fact.

Eleven years ago I was looking for dusty hymnals, for the ink on paper that was easier to remember than words scrolled on a computer screen. Eleven years ago most of us were still watching a major network when something major happened, we all saw the same images, and remember the same images. On this anniversary I watch clips on the internet, including footage shot by a friend who lived in lower Manhattan who simply grabbed his cameras and ran and recorded history: more things forgotten, people on the street talking of other U.S. cities having been hit, the Block Island rumor mill on steroids.

We were an oasis, not untouched — was there anywhere in this part of the country that didn’t have some connection to that tragedy in the big city over the horizon? — but removed, under those quiet skies that only became bluer as the days without jet trails increased.

It’s popular, it seems, to say “never forget” as some patriotic declaration, for businesses and politicians on both sides of the aisle, and I just look at the ads and wonder if anyone else is insulted by the implication that we ever could.