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 its 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 doesnt 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 doesnt 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 hadnt
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
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
As we came clear of the end of that side of the building we saw
or more accurately, we didnt see it. We didnt
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
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 couldnt 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 boys shoulder.
The other kid, it turns out, wasnt 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 dont 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
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, youre getting soaked,
she said softly. I nodded.
Hadnt seen it before, had you?
I shook my head no. She smiled, sadly. Dont forget
to use your umbrella. Then she turned on a dime and marched
Nice lady. I wondered how often shed 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 were 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
my train. She shook her head and looked up,
at nothing in particular.
Maybe someday, she said.