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Posts Tagged ‘Yorktown’

9/11, Patriotism, and the Spirit of America

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, were horrible. I don’t know about the rest of you, but 9/11 threw me into a state of grief I had never encountered before. Honestly, at one point that very afternoon, I stepped out of the building, sat at a nearby picnic table, put my head in my hands, and cried. Tears of pure grief. I had never felt real grief before. Yeah, I had lost family members, including my grandfather, a man I deeply admired. But those were expected deaths, deaths resulting from a life long lived. 9/11 was a complete shock, a true tragedy, and different from anything I had ever seen before.

Firefighter & Flag

The terrorists attacks upon the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the foiled Flight 93 attack, killed 3000 people. It was the greatest loss of life in a single day on American soil due to conflict since Antietam. But I was not in grief solely because of the horrible loss of life, or of the families torn apart, or of the resulting economic turmoil. I was in grief because I felt I was witnessing the beginning of the end. Nations and civilizations can fall because of great tragedies. Would 9/11 be the catalyst for the collapse of the Great American Experiment? This is what I felt I was witnessing: the defeat and collapse of the country I loved.

For the first time in my lifetime, America had been directly attacked. Not one of our outposts, not some ship in a foreign port, but one of our own cities. And not just one of our cities, but our greatest city. And not just attacked, but brutally and savagely with devastating effect. Just what the hell was happening? Have our decades of choices since WWII been so misguided that a huge segment of the world – namely 900 million Muslims – wants to destroy us? How did we go so wrong? Would our decadent and irresponsible society recover? Could our incompetent leadership handle this tragedy properly and put us back on the right path? This was my state of mind in the aftermath of 9/11: doubt, discouragement, grief.

Washington QuoteI had already made my plans to visit park sites in Virginia and North Carolina in the fall of ’01 when 9/11 happened. Of course, I had to go through with my trip. Even though my faith in the country was shattered, hiding in the basement was clearly not the answer. I had dear friends flying to Hawaii for their honeymoon, I couldn’t be a coward and stay home. So, grief-stricken and all, I packed up and headed south.

Colonial National Historical Park was one of my first stops on that swing through the South. It’s the home of the famous Yorktown Battlefield, where the Revolutionary War was settled in 1781. I was twitchy during the entire drive from Connecticut. By then the planes were flying again, and I found myself startled every time I heard a jet engine. Was it crashing into a building?? I found myself alarmed whenever the radio cut out. Did terrorists take out a radio tower (many New York-area radio stations went off the air during the WTC attacks)?? The worst moment was when I saw a group of Muslims sitting & talking in a pavilion near the Colonial visitor’s center. They made me nervous & suspicious, clearly a prejudicial reaction of which I am not proud.

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis

Now normally, I revel in the history of our national park sites. I’ll go through all the displays, do as many trails as I can, investigate the terrain and surroundings, try to internalize the significance of the events at hand. At Yorktown, I clearly went through the motions, lost in a fog of my post-9/11 funk. It was a beautiful fall day, the peak of autumn colors, bright blue skies, but I was just wandering around, avoiding the public, just roaming the grounds. But I did manage to notice a few people in a field, clearly interested in something in the skies up ahead.

There, above a field, near the very site where Cornwallis surrendered to Washington, giving Americans their freedom, circled two bald eagles.

There’s a lot to be said about symbolism. Psychologists, archaeologists, writers, artists, Madison Avenue marketing experts and politicians study and leverage the power of symbols on a daily basis. Symbols can sway opinions, change moods and can even affect the course of a nation. Powerful symbols can affect the most intelligent, pragmatic folks, and even impact the cynical and the jaded (although they are loathe to admit it). Never underestimate the power of a well-placed and well-timed symbol.

Bald EagleBald eagles were not common in Virginia. Their numbers are improving (in fact there’s been a great resurgence of the species) but they were still fairly rare in the southern Eastern Seaboard. Yet there they were, just circling around above the field, clear as day in the bright, blue sky.

I don’t know if it was the symbolism of the bald eagle circling a site of such great historical significance, or if the coolness of seeing such beautiful birds in an area where they are rare, or if it was just something different to snap me out of my funk, but whatever it was, I felt better after that point. Later I realized that we managed to keep this country together for more than 200 years, through some really tough times, and although 9/11 was terrible, it really didn’t crush the country. We’d recover.

In the years since 9/11, we’ve had a tough time of it. We had some bad governance, went down some really dark paths, but I’m convinced (perhaps especially in light of the recent election) that we’ll get out of this. I still have faith in the Great American Experiment, even though we’ve been sidetracked by events external and internal. The great, extinct nations of the past died because of stagnation, but here we have a chance to change our direction every election cycle. The eagles of Yorktown mirror that belief: once on the brink of extinction, the great birds have rebounded because we changed our direction. Our decisions to ban DDT and provide bald eagle habitat saved the species. If we can do that, we can also make the choice to change our direction and save the country. That gives me great optimism.

Not to say I’m not still jaded and cynical, I guess I’m just optimistically jaded and cynical. 😛

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[I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Colonial NHP in 2001. All pictures are, I believe, in the public domain.]
Links:

Colonial National Historical Park

A Collection of Post-9/11 Essays (not all of which are endorsed by AiC)

Recovery of the Bald Eagle

Google map to Colonial NHP

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