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Sunday, September 11, 2011


by F. Rutledge Hammes

“City worker takes it in.” Photo by Ryan Brenizer from Osama is Dead; Photos from a historic party at Ground Zero.

The day they killed Bin Laden,
I had to answer for it.
My sixth graders came to class,
alive with all the borrowed excitement of their parents.
It was clear, by their looks of blind enthusiasm,
that they were certain something extraordinary had happened,
though they couldn’t – for the life of them – say what.
They couldn’t have been two-years-old
when the Towers came down.
Too young, by my count, to see history
as something you live through.
But old enough to consider the concept.

They had questions, and lots of them.
                 Why is everyone so happy? a girl asked.
                 My dad was dancing, said her friend. What’s the big deal?
                 Wait, I don’t have a TV, added another.
                 What happened? Is Osama still president?
It would’ve been good of me to start from the beginning,
start with the day the worst of mankind quaked
the blue mornings of New York         like a Golgotha evening.
I could’ve described the thin white jet streams
that crossed the towers like a Crucifix
or the fireman the president tucked under his arm
and bullhorned his promises of vengeance across lower Manhattan.

There were warnings in the wind, for months to come.
I could’ve said that.
I could’ve told them we made mistakes
in the sixties, in Southeast Asia,
and yet still found reasons to forget the wisdom of our fathers
and venture off rashly into another war.
I could’ve taught them to hear the wind themselves,
explained it’s the whisper-thin moments that forecast the most.
I could’ve described how everything was draped in patriotic bunting,
as if solidarity, in any respect, was ever that easy.
I could’ve told them, once the battalions shipped out,
the truly devoted church-folk of this country
started to see a wide range of miracles,
                 from the apostle Paul eating a sandwich at the altar
                 to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse trotting past their window.
I could’ve told them that,
when a parade of caskets came marching home,
even God’s chosen stopped negotiating with the dead.

It would’ve been easy to share a few positives,
tell them stories of Rick Rescorla and Flight 93,
how the best of humanity saw the face of evil that day
and spit in its eye.
Teachers live for chances like these,
for those rare gems of history
that allow us to impart a little wisdom,
a little insight into our station in the world.
But I had seen what no man should ever have to see,
                 a mother burying her child,
                 a girl staring up at her lost balloon,
                 a soldier glazed over in a thousand-mile stare,
and to that day, my ears were still ringing
                with voices on the line,
                             with the calls they made just to say,
                                          We’re storming the cockpit. This is goodbye.
And so, I just sat there,
counting the times I’ve found myself
returning to those wingless angels
                  who leapt out – hand-in-hand – into the eternities of sky.
It’s still a struggle to escape my sense of that day,
the feeling I got that something vital (in all of us)
had been lost along the avenues of steel and glass and bone,
where colonies of wide-eyed pedestrians
pleaded with the heavens for a saving grace.

To a student, there’s nothing more terrifying
than what a teacher cannot bring himself to say.
But some things in this world cannot be explained.
So, after a while, I just shrugged,
smiled a little what-do-I-know smile
then offered a hapless,
                 Let’s just say it’s a good day
                           to be alive.

In 2004, F. Rutledge Hammes earned his Master of Fine Arts from Old Dominion University, where he worked closely with several National Book Award winners, NEA and Guggenheim fellows as well as New York Times Bestsellers, including Janet Peery, Sheri Reynolds, Bob Shacochis, Dorothy Allison and Bret Lott. He is a contributing writer in the recently published book, Postwar Literature 1945-1970, which is now one of Amazon’s top selling resource books. Over twenty of his short stories, essays, articles and poems have been published in various journals across the country. Hammes won the Cypress Dome Fiction Award, six Addy Awards and was a finalist for both the Montage Poetry Award and the Paul Laurence Dunbar Award for Poetry. Also, he was recently named the best up-and-coming writer in Charleston by the city paper. Hames serves on the oversight board for the Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts and is presently a writer-in-residence and award-winning writing teacher at the Charleston County School of the Arts.