In honor of the memory of the victims of the 9/11 Islamic terrorist attacks, I would like to “reprint” the posting I did last year on this anniversary date.
God Bless America.
When I think about September 11, 2001, it is a very visual experience for me. As a child of the television and Internet ages, I suppose that isn’t a surprise. I remember being in my office watching the first TV reports of a “small commuter plane” crash into the World Trade Center. I remember the sense of confusion in my office, two blocks from the White House, and my personal sense of shock and my struggle to start making some decisions about what to do that day. I remember constantly looking out my window into the brilliant blue sky wondering when the next plane was going to come into view into Washington. And I remember how quiet it was on the Metro subway car as I left that city under attack.
But inevitably, as I remember that terrible day, I always return to the stories of three individuals who were directly involved in the events of that day. I find their stories compelling, very visual, and also excellent examples of what makes our country great and its citizens unique and wonderful.
As it turns out, all three of these men are gay Americans. All three went to work that morning as was normal – like all of us did that day – but only one came home that evening. One survived the attacks in New York. One became a hero in the early hours of the War on Terror. And the last died doing what he loved best – helping children learn.Perhaps what keeps me thinking of these three men is that all of their stories involve choices. Choices that are made, or not made, on a daily basis. Choices that seemed insignificant at the time, but have had long lasting and important ramifications.
Dave – World Trade Center:
At about 8:30 AM on September 11, 2001, Dave exited a taxicab at the foot of the World Trade Center complex with his work associates. They were in Manhattan that day for a morning meeting at the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the North Tower. They entered the Tower, but Dave stopped and told his co-workers he wanted to step outside and smoke a cigarette before their long day began. They had a few minutes to spare after all. He said goodbye to his colleagues as they boarded the elevators for the long ride up; he’d be up in a few minutes.
Dave turned around, walked outside, lit up a cigarette and, I’m sure, enjoyed the warm bright Manhattan skyline on that September day.
At 8:46AM, American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the building where Dave was to have spent his morning. His coworkers had already reached their destination by the time the explosion rocked the complex below. None of them survived.
It took many hours for Dave to get a Blackberry email message to his family letting them know he was okay. Dave wandered around the city for much of that day – in shock no doubt.
So, a last minute urge for a smoke saved Dave’s life on 9/11 – how ironic. Dave, along with others who survive catastrophes, probably went through a long recovery period and struggled to find some personal meaning of the events of that day. I know that the experience brought him closer to his family. How ould it not?
But I often wonder if Dave now chooses to smoke more or less? Did the habit that saved his life become a positive casualty of 9/11 in the following months? Or, perhaps Dave realizes that one never knows when any of our lives will change in a blink – so why not take a puff when you feel like it.
Mark Bingham – United Flight 93:
At about 10:10am on September 11, 2001, high above the Pennsylvania landscape there was a great struggle taking place. At the core, it was a struggle to control an aircraft. At a higher level though, the passengers were struggling to stop what may have been the most devastating symbolic attack on 9/11 – a burning and destroyed U.S. Capitol Building.
In a few but important minutes on that aircraft, the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 became American heroes in the first counterattack against the Islamist war against our nation. One of those heroes was named Mark Bingham, a gay Republican from San Francisco. Evidence clearly shows that Mark and a number of other men on that flight took matters into their own hands. They made up their minds after they had learned from calls to the ground of the unfolding attacks on America that morning. While Mark may not have uttered the now famous phrase, “Let’s Roll!”, he clearly made a choice that morning that I’m not sure many of would have had the courage to make. I can’t honestly say what I would have done.
Mark and his fellow freedom fighters probably knew whatever steps they took would result in the death of all of the passengers of Flight 93. Perhaps they knew that the plane had turned south and was pointed toward Washington. Whatever they thought, they made the choice to take a stand.
As a gay Republican, Mark may have had to take some unpopular stands with his friends in the past. It is sometimes difficult to hold your ground and stand up for your beliefs when it, at times, feels like the entire gay community does not want to hear dissent or alternate views on any given issue. As a rugby player, Mark had to make tactical choices during the course of a game that would contribute to the success or failure of the team. Leaders do what is right, not what is necessarily popular.
In news reports after his death, his mother Alice Hoglan spoke of her son’s character. “Mark was a fully alive person,” said Ms. Hoglan, a flight attendant for United Airlines who raised Mark as a single mother. “I don’t mind at all that he is being identified as a gay hero, though that was just one aspect of him. He was proud of being gay, just as he was proud of being a Republican, and proud of playing rugby, and proud of his friends.”
On 9/11, Mark knew what he had to do. He knew he had to make a final stand in his life. He chose to join his last team. These men put their selfish interests aside in the interest of their country. We could use a man like Mark Bingham making selfless choices and taking unpopular stands in the gay community these days. But on 9/11, Mark wasn’t a gay man, a Republican, or a rugby player. He was an American hero and always will be.
Joe Ferguson – Flight 77:
The last time we had dinner, Joe told my partner and I about how much he was looking forward to being a part of the bicentennial of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Typically, I found myself jealous of him. In his role as Director of Geographic Education at the National Geographic Society, Joe had one of the most unique and rewarding jobs I can ever imagine having.
He traveled around the world, bringing American school children face-to-face with the natural wonders of our Earth. He was not only a teacher but also provided a critical turning point for these kids, many of whom had never before left their own neighborhoods. Joe provided the path for these students to experience things that many of us never will in our entire lives. In addition, he got to travel to the four corners of the globe. How rewarding that must have been. How do I sign up for that job?
I got an email from Joe on Thursday, September 6. “Hi cutie” it started – typical opening line for Joe. He had just returned from Alaska and wanted to tell show me all the pictures, but the following week he was headed to California. I think I still have the email somewhere. It was hard to throw away.
As dawn broke on September 11, 2001, Joe called his Mom in Mississippi to give her a wake up call as he always did when he traveled. He said to her, “I’ll call you when I get to California. Have a good day.” He was that kind of person. The kind of person, who, no matter where he was and how busy he was, dropped a postcard to his friends so we could share a part of his experiences throughout the world.
At Dulles International Airport, Joe stood with his group traveling to California and took some last minute photos. He and another colleague were scheduled passengers on American Airlines Flight 77, accompanying three D.C. public school teachers and three students on a National Geographic-sponsored field trip to the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, Calif. After the photos were taken, they bid farewell to the children’s parents and proceeded to their gate.
At 9:37am, Joe lost his life at the young age of thirty-nine when terrorists slammed the plane into the side of the Pentagon at 500 mph. A teacher and positive role model to young Americans was taken from the world in an act of sheer violence and viciousness.
As I was dealing with the many emotions of the events of September 11, a thought crossed my mind the next day. Gosh, I thought, Joe had said he was traveling and now he’s stuck somewhere until the airlines are allowed to fly again. So I called his work number in DC and left a message. After I heard his voice for the last time, I said ‘Give me a call if you are checking messages.’ ‘I hope you make it home soon,’ I concluded.
It wasn’t until Friday, September 14 that I found out that one of my dearest friends had become a casualty of the attacks on America. Suddenly, this war was personal – it had hit home. I wasn’t expecting to have to go to two memorial services and walk around in a state of numbness for many weeks.
At Joe’s memorial service, there were lots of tears and lots of laughs as well. One of Joe’s friends told the gathering that Joe had this way of making you feel as if you were his best friend in the world. I knew exactly what he meant. I saw Joe every once in a while. We would have lunch, or more likely trade emails or phone calls. But every time we talked, I felt like Joe’s best friend. Joe still has a lot of best friends all around the world.
Perhaps Joe’s death hit me so hard because it was the first death of someone close to me that I had experienced as an adult. I am still surprised by the impact that his death has had, and in many ways continues to have, on my life. In fact, I did a lot of personal reflecting in the months following 9/11. I questioned how important my job and even my life were in a time of war where terrorists could invade your workplace or your school and slaughter you with no remorse. I questioned what value and worth my own career had in comparison with a man who had chosen to teach and change the lives of young people. I felt trapped in a good job that was giving me no personal satisfaction.
All I could remember was how happy Joe always was and how that cheer was infectious to all of his friends and colleagues. I would miss that cheerful influence on me. Joe had made the choice to live life to the fullest extent possible. He was the model of an optimistic American who knows no frontiers and no bounds. He was doing more than his fair share of contributing to a better society.
And then one day in early 2002, I heard a song on the radio that I don’t remember hearing before 9/11. I didn’t even know it was LeeAnn Womack voice, because the words are the soul and essence of Joe Ferguson. The words are an expression of his personal passion and love of life. And the words are also an inspiration to get through the many trying days of our post-9/11 world.
I’ve made some better and happier choices in my life recently. My partner and I took a trip out West last year and followed some of the Lewis & Clark Trail. I imagine Joe would have loved the scenery and spirit of America that lives and breathes in the land of Montana and Wyoming. The IMAX film about the “Corps of Discovery” produced by the National Geographic Society is appropriately dedicated to Joe’s memory.
Many times I continue to call upon the stories of these three gay Americans as my guide. I’m glad I know their stories and I’m very fortunate to have known one of them and called him a friend.
To Dave, Mark and Joe and to all Americans who have died and fought in the War on Terror – I dedicate this space to you today – Patriot Day 2004.
And to all of us who survived 9/11 and who believe in America and who believe that the principles of freedom and liberty are worth fighting for – I ask that the next time you hear Leann Womack’s song on the radio, think of the choices you are making. I hope we all dance.
We miss you, Joe.
“I hope you never lose your sense of wonder.
Get your fill to eat, but always keep that hunger.
May you never take one single breath for granted.
God forbid love ever leave you empty-handed.
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens.
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance.
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance…
I hope you dance.
I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance.
Never settle for the path of least resistance.
Livin’ might mean takin’ chances, but they’re worth takin’.
Lovin’ might be a mistake, but its worth makin’.
Don’t let some hell bent heart leave you bitter.
When you come close to sellin’ out, reconsider.
Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance.
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance…
I hope you dance.”
-Bruce (GayPatriot) – firstname.lastname@example.org