In January 2001, I was standing on the marble memorial that straddles the sunken USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. The water was so clear and shallow that I could see the rusting hull of the ship. In some places, it’s not even completely submerged. That day, the surface of the water glistened with the irridenscence of a thin layer of oil which still trickled up from the bowels of the Arizona some 60 years later. On the wall of the closed end of the memorial is engraved the names of the 2350 who died that day.
To get to the memorial in the middle of the harbor, you must take a tender from the visitors center where you first watch documentary-style clips of the events of December 7, 1941. All of the tour guides were soldiers who survived the attack. Gray-haired and wrinkled, they gave talks and answered questions about this surreal experience they had when they were young men in the prime of their lives. Everyone, including myself, was impressed, awestruck and deeply moved by their accounts.
One of the guides seemed particularly forlorn, and I wondered why he put himself in the situation where he had to relive this horrible event every few hours for new groups of tourists. Now I realize that he wasn’t sad per se. Reliving the day wasn’t the problem. The problem was that no matter how eloquent, how vivid, how accurate his description, there was no way to make anyone truly understand what it was like to be there that day. This is why, I think, there is a kinship among soldiers and people who experience similarly traumatizing public events such as Columbine, Oklahoma City and September 11th. No one else except your band of brothers really understands. It’s not their fault, they couldn’t possibly.
I would try to tell family members and faraway friends what I saw on September 11th, but like the old soldier at Pearl Harbor, it only served to frustrate me. It seemed I couldn’t find the words to make them understand (and I fancy myself a writer here). I don’t know what kind of response I was hoping to get from them – some glimmer of recognition I suppose. More often than not, I got what I’d call a comparable, when the person nods and says something like, “Oh, my sister lives in Westchester, and she said it was terrible.” Right. Your sister can’t even see Manhattan from her house. It only served to cheapen what I saw, heard, smelled and felt. Though I don’t blame them. They were only trying to sympathize and stake a claim on whatever tenuous connection they might have to that day so they could be part of it somehow. Kind of like six degrees of Kevin Bacon.
I’m not trying to downplay their experience, even if it’s only tangential at best, or self-righteously claim that in whatever way the events of that day unfolded for them it wasn’t true or real. But after a friend in another city declared sometime in October 2001 that all the news coverage was depressing and thought it was time to move on, I decided I didn’t want to be their Kevin Bacon. I was still smelling that particularly acrid and distinct odor of rotting flesh and charred electrical wires. So I stopped talking about the events of that day, and I don’t take people to Ground Zero to narrate and be their tour guide like the old man at Pearl Harbor. (Sorry, family and friends, this is an addendum to my Life Continuity Plan.)
When the Pearl Harbor tour was over, I shook that old soldier’s hand and thanked him for the information, not knowing that in a few short months, we would have a strangely similar experience in common. He nodded in the direction of Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head and said, “I have been lucky enough to see heaven on earth. And I’ve also seen hell.”