The Pentagon
December 8, 2001
Pentagon City, Virginia

It looks almost like any other really big construction project. There are all the requisite items: huge construction cranes; temporary fencing; mobile home trailers serving as offices; heavy machinery; the grind and roar of large trucks; and Hard Hat Zone warning signs. You can look at it and pretend it’s no different from the Metro station overhaul being done on the other side of the building.

For a while, anyway.

But the Metro station project doesn’t have armed checkpoints. It does not have uniformed soldiers spread all around it. It does not have yellow crime scene tape blocking you from getting too close.

The Metro project does not have two freshly planted trees in the grassy area above it serving as impromptu memorials.

The Metro project does not have flowers placed around those trees, laminated signs of remembrance hanging from the branches, pictures of some of the victims on little popsicle sticks planted around the bases, soggy handwritten notes held in place by coins with the ink running in the rain.

It doesn’t have a steady trickle of somber people, some with looks of grim determination, others with tears streaming down their cheeks, coming to view it.

We climbed out of the Metro stop at the Pentagon. We hadn’t come there together but we ended up together somehow. As soon as you walk out you are in the middle of a massive construction project. We all milled about uncertain. Was this it? They certainly got the outer wall up quickly.

There was the Sunday School teacher from Bethesda. She is going to Australia for three weeks. She had to come down to the Pentagon before she left. Three women and a man from Houston, business consultants, stood huddled against the wind and rain. They were to have flown out last night but pushed the flight back a day so they could come by… “to pay our respects”. A couple of teenagers with pierced lips, noses, and eyebrows were there with their very military looking father. He had to force them to come down.

A guy walked by on his way back to the Metro with a glazed look on his face. He had a closed umbrella in his hand. He walked back through the rain without using it. He saw us standing there and pointed back behind him and simply said “that way”.

We walked through the cold drizzle, the wind trying to snatch our umbrellas away and made uneasy small talk. No one knew what they were supposed to say. About the time the puddles found the weak spots in my shoes I saw the corner of the building.

Up at the top was some plywood patching a hole where heavy stone blocks had fallen out. The big stone blocks still in place around it were blackened. We could see the massive construction site as we followed the trail marked by the Crime Scene tape closer to…it.

As we came clear of the end of that side of the building we saw it…or more accurately, we didn’t see it. We didn’t see the wall that was supposed to be there. The temporary fencing blocked the view but you could tell that something large was missing. Up on a hill across the freeway exit ramp a couple of people were standing and looking back behind us. The exit ramp is closed off for now. We crossed and slipped and slogged through the mud up the hill.

Two skinny little saplings stood on the hill. They looked like the sad little Christmas tree Linus brought home in A Charlie Brown Christmas. I was focused on the trees and on not falling on the slippery hill when I heard one of the punk kids say, “Oh, shit”.

I turned around.

The wall was gone. Plyboard was slapped up in massive quantities to create a temporary outer wall where the inside of the building had been exposed. I couldn’t maneuver to see all the way back into the huge gash in the building. It went back too far. I thought I was seeing to the back of the site but the military father, who works at the Pentagon, assured me it went back deeper.

How much deeper?

“A lot deeper.”

It was cold and rainy. We all stood around getting drenched while looking at the little tree shrines and the huge void in the side of the building. We were all forgetting to use our umbrellas. At some point I put my newspaper down on the wet grass and sat. The four business consultants were crying. The Sunday School teacher was on her knees by one of the trees, in front of the flag, praying. No one spoke.

The consultants, in light windbreakers, started to shiver and reluctantly started back to the Metro. One of the punk kids looked bored. The other one was shaking. I thought he was cold. He was angry.

“We gotta get that guy, Dad.”

His father just nodded and put an arm around the boy’s shoulder. The other kid, it turns out, wasn’t bored. He was resolved. As they were walking off he was asking his Dad about enlisting.

The Sunday School teacher was huddled over in her big rain poncho, trying to scrawl a note in the rain. Her hand was shaking. She put her note at the base of the tree and put a small silver crucifix on it to hold it in place against the wind.

At the top of the building, defiantly lonely, somehow proud, was a Christmas tree. One of the soldiers at the entrance to the construction site told me that some of the construction workers went out and got it one day and put it up. Others brought decorations and lights from home to decorate it.

I kept looking at the Christmas tree perched at the point where the wall fell away.

I don’t know how long I sat there. Long enough to be cold and wet and shivering. Long enough for my camera to get so drenched it stopped working.

The Sunday School teacher was gone. I dragged my soggy self up off the ground and made my way down the hill. I walked back around the building towards the station, military people blasting past me. Military people seem to always walk with great purpose and direction…like they are perfectly clear on what the immediate goal is.

A woman in a full military dress uniform smoked past but then stopped and turned suddenly back to me. She took a few steps toward me and reached down for my umbrella. She then took my hand gently and pulled it up. “Use your umbrella, you’re getting soaked,” she said softly. I nodded.

“Hadn’t seen it before, had you?”

I shook my head no. She smiled, sadly. “Don’t forget to use your umbrella.” Then she turned on a dime and marched off quickly.

Nice lady. I wondered how often she’d seen the shocked, zombie-walk of a tourist witnessing the scope of the damage for the first time.

When I got down inside the Metro, the Sunday School teacher was down there waiting for the train. She looked as dazed as I felt. I had spoken to her some when we first emerged out of the Metro upon arriving at the Pentagon. She is a very sweet, very kind woman. I muttered a hello to her as we waited for the train. We both stood there awkwardly, feeling like we should say something but not feeling like talking or knowing what to say.

She finally looked up at me, her brows knitted, looking confused.

“God says we’re supposed to forgive.”

She stood there. Wanting to say something else. Not quite finding it. The sign overhead began flashing a warning that the Green Line was approaching…my train. She shook her head and looked up, at nothing in particular.

“Maybe someday,” she said.

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