The Big Thing
December 14, 2001
As you drive around Shanksville, Buckstown, Reels 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, Lets 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
The locals are proud and protective of their little temporary memorial.
Some feel like they are in competition with New York and Washington
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
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 didnt 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 30s. 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. Its 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 its 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 its 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 wouldve found
a way to land it or asked for help or something. No
they couldnt get full control so someone decided
get it where it couldnt do no harm.
The younger man argued this point. He wanted the passengers who
jumped into action to be declared the winners. Theres 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 wont
ever know the particulars. But whether win or tie
let no one else get hurt. Thats a fact. Thats the big
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.
Aint 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
but that he preferred I do no such thing.
and you wont 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 dont 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
Thats the big thing.