A View from the Hill: Opportunity of a lifetime

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I was 50 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. I was editing a little magazine from a tiny cubicle in a shared office space on Newbury Street in Portland when someone mentioned that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers.

And then it quickly got worse. Much worse.

Andrew MarstersWe watched on a little TV as the unimaginable happened in America. By noon the actual attack had ended, but the devastation had just begun. I walked to a leafy little park beside a church and cried.

I forget what that evening was like, or the subsequent days and weeks. I suspect the memory of those days has faded and fragmented for many others as well. Unless that is if you were in New York that day.

A couple who are now my neighbors were working in New York that day. He remembers looking out his office window and seeing the second jet screaming toward the second tower.

She remembers the several close friends she lost that day. As we talked on Munjoy Hill, a small jet flew over on an unusual route. Everyone stopped and looked up.

They both remember the citizens of the devastated city of New York pulling together. They remember neighbors and strangers committing thousands of acts, big and small, of generosity, kindness, and compassion.

And they worry that that was the last time Americans would care for each other.  

Perhaps they are right. After all, the next attacks on America – one by a virus, and one by insurgents striking at the core of our Democracy – would only succeed in dividing us further.

But while I’m a cynic, I see reason for hope. After all, while generations move along at a lumbering pace, they do eventually, inevitably, get out of the way. In that truth, I see opportunity.

I have five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Only one of them was alive on 9/11. She doesn’t remember what grade she was in, fourth or fifth. Without telling anyone what was going on, the school sent everyone home. “You could definitely tell that something was wrong,” she said. 

Beyond that, she said, “My memory is a bit fuzzy.”

That’s the thing about memory. It gets fuzzy. Trust me.

Dan Barry, one of America’s greatest essayists, writing about this fuzziness last Sunday, recalled the “Never Forget” slogan that came out of 9/11.

“Of course,” Barry wrote in The New York Times, “the call to Never Forget can also be interpreted as another honorable attempt to preserve some faint sense of the day’s many emotions. Honorable, but perhaps futile against the ceaseless rub of the passing years, the vagaries of memory.”

Barry cited a study in which New Yorkers were interviewed in 2001 about where they were when the buildings were hit. Interviewed again a year later, 40 percent of them had altered their stories. In the office one year, on the train the next. Fuzzy.

The pandemic is of course still going on. But already there is a generation that won’t remember it. COVID-19 has been around for most of my 3-year-old grandkid’s life. But unless God forbid, it goes on for longer than another two years she won’t remember a thing about it.

That’s a good thing because it will allow her to look ahead rather than in the rearview mirror.

In his book “The Greatest Generation,” Tom Brokaw observed, “A common lament of the World War II generation is the absence today of personal responsibility.”

There are huge battles ahead. Climate change. Rescuing democracy in America. Somebody’s going to have to fight them. Many people, some of my generation, but most of younger generations, already are.

Brokaw was right to praise the selfless courage of the World War II generation. A great generation, certainly.

But “Greatest” suggests no future generations can match it. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.