A Day For Remembrance – A Reprint

I wrote the following piece six years ago when Jeff and I made a stop at the Flight 93 Memorial on our way to Gettysburg. This is reprinted from the original Blogger post.

There are some moments in a relationship that you don’t forget. I especially remember one fight that my husband and I had four months before our wedding. I had just returned to Nebraska for my last semester of college and student teaching. I was several weeks into my first eight-week assignment and eagerly waiting to hear where I would be sent. The plan had always been to try to get an assignment close to Michigan so I could be near home as I finished the last of our wedding planning and we would be married a few weeks after I returned home. That was proving to be more difficult than imagined.

“So, the last proposal has been sending me to Las Vegas.”

“But you’re supposed to be coming closer to home, not farther away.”

“I don’t know what you want me to do. I don’t have much control over this. Apparently all of the spots close to Michigan have been taken by schools in the area.”

“Tell them that you are getting married and that you need to be close to home.”

“I already did that and they told me that it didn’t look like it would be possible.”

We went around in circles, both of us getting increasingly frustrated with each other over a situation neither of us had much control over. We angrily got off the phone and continued the fight over email (in days before text that’s what you had to do, kids). The next day I was sitting in our secondary ed classroom, talking about methods before heading over to our initial student teaching assignments when another professor came next door to our room.

“A plane just crashed into the Twin Towers.”

Suddenly where I was student teaching didn’t matter so much as whether or not my family was safe. I wanted reassurance that my fiance was still ok and that we would still be able to get married in four months. I thought about my two friends and classmates who were planning their wedding for the same day. One of these friends was in the Reserves. Would their wedding still be going on as planned? On September 10, 2001 my biggest concern was that my fiance just could not understand that I didn’t have control over where I was going to be sent. Less than 24 hours later my biggest concern was just seeing him again. He was 700 miles away and I had to wait until that night to hear his voice.

Today as we drove to Gettysburg we made two stops. The first stop was at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. The second Flight 93. Back in the days of my early adolescence when I was obsessed with poorly written historical romance novels, I read a book about the Johnstown Flood. I didn’t remember much about it, but since we were going to be in fairly close proximity to it and it would mean another stamp in our passport book I wanted to take the detour. The story of the Johnstown flood of 1889 (125th anniversary next year) is pretty incredible. In the second half of the 19th century the railroad built a natural dam outside of Johnstown that created a reservoir for use by the railroad. It was then purchased by a group of wealthy men (including Andrew Carnegie) who built a resort on the banks of the man-made lake. They renovated the dam and assured the towns in the valley below that all was well.

In the years since the flood there has been a significant amount of discussion and disagreement over responsibility for the disaster, the type of discussion that would make pundits on MSNBC and FOX News giddy, but it is still inconclusive. What we do know is that the Pennsylvania mountains got a unusual amount of rain (8-10 inches in one night), the banks of the dam flooded over and it eventually gave way, sending a wall of water down into the valley, eventually landing in the town of Johnstown and killing over 2000 people along the way. It was a disaster that equaled the Chicago fire and San Fransisco earthquake in scope. The Red Cross was heavily involved in relief efforts and nearly $4 million (a huge amount at that time) was collected from around the world to assist in relief efforts. It’s an incredible story and I enjoyed hearing the accounts and seeing the lasting remnants of the dam.

We left the memorial and headed once again on the up and down rollercoaster that is the western Pennsylvania landscape. It was stressful for my husband as he drove the trailer. For me, I was wondering what was wrong with me that I chose to drive through the mountains in the dark, through the night, seven years ago on our way home from Washington D.C.

Less than an hour later we arrived at the Flight 93 National Memorial to see the field where 40 individuals worked together to prevent four terrorists from flying a plane into the Capital building. At the moment the memorial is still pretty bare bones but striking, nonetheless. I don’t know when we will get to the memorial in New York, so for me this was about more than the stamp (although that was a selfish bonus). The reality is 9/11 changed my world. My kids will never know what life was like before 9/11, and perhaps as time passes that will be ok. But one of the things I have learned in the years that I taught the Holocaust is the mantra “Never Forget.” We say this too often, and too easily we do forget. Events that are supposed to be significant become less significant as they lose their impact. Pearl Harbor happened long before I was ever born and while the historian in me recognizes the importance of December 6, it has very little emotional hold over me.

But I remember where I was when I was told the Twin Towers were hit. I remember watching the news as information unfolded. I remember talking to my mom that night to check in, and then making up with my fiance over the phone. I remember what it was like to have my boyfriend waiting right at the gate when I returned from London just weeks before we discovered whether or not we had something to worry about with Y2K. Two years later, when my fiance dropped me off at the airport after I came home for Thanksgiving from my student teaching assignment in Denver (a little closer than Las Vegas but not much) he had to drop me off almost in front of O’Hare, an airport that was not yet equipped to deal with the sudden security changes in place. While my own kids will never truly understand it, I want them to know that it is a part of my history and the impact that it has had on their lives today.

It was a stressful drive the rest of the way to Gettysburg, but we made it and were able to fit our new camper on a site that we were not sure we would fit on. Tomorrow, on the birthday of our country, we will spend the day touring the battlefields that nearly witnessed the complete destruction of the Union. Until then, good night.

Post originally written on July 3, 2013.