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Reflections on September in the US

by Chris Stephenson

HB journalist, Chris Stephenson tells of how he learned of the events of 11th September among the Amish community of Pennsylvania, and his return to New York two days later.

After breakfast on Tuesday we took a leisurely meander along the back roads of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania — Amish country. We’d come by train from New York City the previous day and were due back there in two days time to catch our return flight from JFK.

Rays of early morning picture-book sun beamed through the trees; a haze of heavy dew glistened; the sky, as it was for every day of our stay in the US, an untarnished pastel blue. Amish families — women and girls in vegetable coloured dresses, white light-weight ‘mob’ caps; men and boys in shirt sleeves, dark trousers, no-nonsense braces and broad-brimmed straw hats — had long been at work in the fields of small, compact farms, so neat and clean that even the cattle seemed freshly painted.

Realising that we’d forgotten the address of the people we were due to lunch with, we returned to our motel, in the lobby of which all faces were fixated on the television screen. "Look," either Enid or I said, "the World Trade Centre’s on fire." And, upstairs, we watched with uncomprehending, numbing horror as our room TV showed repeated images of that building: one tower in flames, whilst an airliner sliced into its twin like a hot knife through butter.

On Thursday, as the train from Philadelphia approached New York’s Penn Station across the watery flatlands of New Jersey, passengers crowded to one side of the carriages to catch their first glimpses of the distant, altered, Manhattan skyline. There it stood, glinting in the sun, a heavy pall of - by now - white smoke reaching high into the sky like some dreadful banner of destruction. Nonetheless, seen from afar like this, the city seemed somehow imperious, private.

Memories of our return to the city - made possible by our landlady’s generosity in allowing us back to her B&B for as long as it took us to find a flight back (the following Thursday, as it turned out) — are dominated by successive never-to-be-forgotten images of a large and unique community’s struggle in the aftermath of the unimaginable…

…The sheer, no-holds-barred, up-front goodwill, guts and chutzpah of the ordinary New Yorkers thronging the route through which the rescue teams — the police, the fire brigades, the scores of volunteers — entered and returned from the area of destruction (‘Ground Zero’), cheering, supporting, uplifting them hour after hour after hour. It was a riveting and - particularly for us, aware of being not wholly a part of it all — an intensely moving experience, one we felt immensely privileged to have witnessed.

… The increasingly expanding street-side clusters of photographs of the missing (many of them poignant family snapshots captured during their subjects’ happiest moments); the sense of desperation underlined by the added contact addresses and pleas for information. They began as billboards plastered with hopes and wishful dreams but, as the hours and days seeped away, turned inexorably into pictorial memorials of the disappeared.

… The makeshift, sidewalk shrines, so many that the air was at times full of the sweet scents of burning candles.

… The flags; the Stars and Stripes. Neither of us is particularly keen on flags, but this manifestation, we could sense, was something different. Small flags, hundreds of them; hand-held - not waved - or protruding from the back pocket of jeans. Not symbols of national superiority; more like familiar images of reassurance. We felt that we too, had we been New Yorkers in these circumstances, would have carried flags.

… The proliferation of hand-written messages, on sidewalks, in public squares, on specially sited banners. Apart from the inevitable, but thankfully rare, instruction to "Nuke the Bastards", these were invariably messages of hope, pleas for peace, for friendship, for brotherhood. None more telling than the chalked message in Union Square: "An Arab-American Is A Fellow-American".

But this, of course, was New York, a unique, multicultural island; it ain’t necessarily like that elsewhere in that vast continent.

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