The Big Thing
December 14, 2001
Shanksville, Pennsylvania

As you drive around Shanksville, Buckstown, Reel’s Corner, and the hundred other small townships that litter this part of Pennsylvania, you see the requisite flags, red-white-and blue Christmas light displays, and “Proud to be an American” signs.

You also see hundreds of small banners and stickers emblazoned with Old Glory over the words, “Let’s Roll”.

Those were the last words heard from Flight 93 before it dropped off the radar and burrowed into a field here on a plateau in the Allegheny Mountains.

The locals are proud and protective of their little temporary memorial. Some feel like they are in competition with New York and Washington…what happened here was just as important and no less tragic. They want to make sure that the people who perished with Flight 93 get their due.

They point out the critical difference that the people on that flight, unlike those that plowed into the WTC and the Pentagon, knew what was happening. They knew that their plane was being turned into a weapon. They knew that they were going to die. They knew that hundreds, even thousands of others would perish as well if they didn’t do something.

They acted with the kind of selfless bravery that we would all like to believe we are capable of…even though the natural inclination had to be to stay low, stay quiet, and hope for the best.

As I stood before the simple chain link wall that is the temporary memorial to the victims aboard Flight 93, I was joined by two local men. They live on opposite sides of the hill. Both had seen my headlights up at the site. They had come up to “check on things”. It was late on a Friday night in the middle of a violent windstorm that had the flags and banners at the site flapping wildly. Some the smaller flags had been blown off the wall. When the two locals came up I was in the midst of gathering the fallen flags and wedging them back into the fencing.

Since 9/11, three buildings of historical significance within a ten mile radius of the site have fallen victim to arsonists. The locals in the area surrounding the Shanksville Memorial have taken it upon themselves to set up an informal watch of the site to ensure that it is not the next to go up in flames.

I convinced them I was up to no mischief. The first man to arrive was a young man, early 30’s. His words were polite but his body language and delivery were hostile. Shortly after he arrived, an older man pulled up in his truck. He approached calmly, asked me why I was there. He was the one who told me about the arson attacks.

“We saw ya headlights up here. It’s kind of late for anyone to be visiting our little monument.”

Throughout the area, as I blundered about trying to get concise directions to the site, I had heard that same possessive expression regarding the memorial. It was “our” memorial, “our” crash site, “our” victims…a small, but constant blip on the radar.

When they heard I had been to the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, they pumped me with questions about what it’s like in those places. I filled them in. I tell them that this site feels lonely, out here in the dark.

They informed me that various government organizations have already purchased the land where the plane went down and are in the planning process for a permanent Memorial. Among locals there is a mild debate as to whether or not this permanent installation should charge people to come in. Some feel it’s only right as a way of defraying the cost. Others think it should be free, that no one should capitalize on the tragedy…even if the money ends up going to a good cause. Mostly, though, the folks I talked to around town agree that something needs to be built as quickly as possible.

“These folks are heroes. We have to honor our people right.”

The younger of my two companions waxes on about the courage of the victims of flight 93…how they fought back and got control of the plane.

The older gentleman takes this in, slowly stroking his beard.

“Way I figure it…must have been a tie. If they got control of the plane and beat those hijackers down, they would’ve found a way to land it or asked for help or something. No…I imagine they couldn’t get full control so someone decided…well…to get it where it couldn’t do no harm.”

The younger man argued this point. He wanted the passengers who jumped into action to be declared the winners. There’s a touch of desperation to his side of the debate. He needed them to be the winners. The older man was not interested in arguing. He held his hands up in mock surrender.

“You may well be right. Yes, you might. Guess we won’t ever know the particulars. But whether win or tie…they didn’t let no one else get hurt. That’s a fact. That’s the big thing.”

The younger man and I agreed that this was, in fact, the big thing.

The pointed into the darkness to show me where the crater is and told me it is all fenced off. They disagreed on the purpose of the fencing.. The younger man said it was due to the site being a crime scene, the older said it was for safety reasons.

“Ain’t gonna find anything out there…parts of that plane were spread for miles.”

He told me that if I really wanted to see it I could go staggering out in the darkness and probably find a way over or through the fence…but that he preferred I do no such thing.

“Dangerous…and you won’t get much out of it. So, you could just leave those folks in peace.”

With wind growing more violent and the temperature dropping fast, I had no desire to go stumbling across a dark meadow, trampling the ghosts of Flight 93. A particularly strong gust kicked up and tore at the largest flag. One side was ripped down and away so that it flapped wildly in the breeze and threatened to tear away from the wall entirely.

I don’t know who reacted first but in a split second we had all begun to surge toward the flag, its loose end crashing about like an unmanned fire hose. We wrestled with the flag and the wind. The older man left us holding the flag and went back to his truck. He came back with some tie-wraps he deftly ran through the eye-holes on the flag. It took some doing to reattach the flag to the fence, but reattach it we did.

I was cold and ready to leave. The two locals were inspecting the banners and flags, looking for openings the wind could exploit. They assured me they had it covered. Something about how they said it made me feel that they did not want my help…that they would prefer I moved along and left them to it…like I was a kid who had come over to their house and was fine and cute until I started opening up the cabinet with the expensive china in it.

And in a way, I guess I was.

I climbed into my truck. Driving off I watched them, in the glow of their headlights, methodically checking every item on their wall. Keeping it intact…Guarding the memories and ghosts of Flight 93.

That’s the big thing.

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