Images a dad can’t forget

When our country is attacked, it’s hard to find words with the capacity to rationalize, comfort or heal. It’s difficult to speak when you’ve been punched in the gut.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was awakened by a call from the newsroom, telling me I needed to come to work immediately. I had the day off because I had my wisdom teeth cut out on Sept. 10 and then spent hours in the emergency room after fainting at dinner. I’d been looking forward to a leisurely Sept. 11. Unfortunately, any day that the first words out of your mouth are “What attack?” is unlikely to be peaceful.

I wound up working most of the day with a mouthful of bloody gauze. I had to sort through hundreds of horrific images as we put together that day’s “extra” edition of the Ledger-Enquirer and the next day’s paper.

When I got home that night, I joined the millions glued to their TVs. I held my then 18-month-old son, Saylor, and wondered in what kind of America would he grow up. I worried about war, never imagining that it would last 20 years, cost thousands of lives and result in our negotiating peace deals with the Taliban. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the original plan.

There was footage of the Congress, united if only for a moment, singing “God Bless America.” It was uplifting and disturbing all at once as the lawmakers endeavored to appear determined and resolute but struck me as more apprehensive and fearful.

When they finished singing, Saylor smiled and clapped. He didn’t know terrorists attacked his country. He didn’t know war loomed. He just knew they were singing, and he liked it. He was blissfully unaware. The image of that toddler smiling and clapping on Sept. 11 will stay with me forever.

(See 2001 column: America will sing again)

Terrorists attacked America again last week. I suspect you’ve heard about it. The whole world heard about it. The first phone call I received about it came from the other side of the Atlantic, 4,000 miles away. It was Saylor.

He’s been attending a university in Scotland for the past two and a half years. He’s a political junkie, even studying political science. He just might be a little too interested in politics, but he is definitely not blissfully unaware of what’s happening in the world anymore.

Because of the pandemic, I haven’t seen him in person in over a year. He was supposed to be home for the summer and for Christmas. Thankfully, technology allows us to communicate in ways I could barely imagine 20 years ago. With FaceTime, I can see him clearly, and we can speak with the words traveling 4,000 miles almost instantaneously. I have much slower conversations with some folks face-to-face.

Like the rest of the world, he was watching in disbelief as thousands of cultists stormed the Capitol, rampaging like lunatics — their version of a “protest,” though most protests spring from things that actually happened, not parroted delusions about “rigged” elections.

His face was white. They don’t get a lot of sun in Scotland, so he’s not exactly a tan lad anyway, but his face was pale with horror. Since he was a jabbering baby, he has never been at a loss for words. He didn’t know what to say beyond “Are you watching this?” In the background of his room, I heard the same news coverage that was on my television.

“I’m afraid so.”

We at last found enough words to talk about who was responsible and what might happen next. At the moment, I feared for our very democracy. As some pandering and complicit enablers began to jump off the train in the ensuing couple of post-riot days, I felt a little better, but now I worry some folks who fell down the cliff of cultism may be lost forever — and ready to strike in smaller packs of crazy and as lone wolves. That likely will be far more dangerous than the lunatics who stormed the Capitol.

I hope my next conversation with him is not as fretful. I hope I’m not seeing his reaction to another attack. I hope I’m not seeing his eyes reflect the horror inflicted by a little militia group’s strike on politicians, another mob readying the gallows again or an insane act by a single Qanoner who storms pizza joints to stop Satan-worshiping Democrats from eating children in the basement. I’ve seen enough of fools hyped up on propaganda and conspiracy theories to the point of never being capable of reasoning again, thank you.

The images of that clapping toddler in 2001 and that fearful 20-year-old of last week haunt me — and, yet, I treasure them. There’s value in seeing tragedies through someone else’s eyes.

For me, I always will see these tragedies in someone else’s eyes.


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