Flashback column: “America will sing again” (September 2001)

(Note: This is the column I wrote back in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. It’s also in “The Best of Chris Johnson, Volume I,” available at this link.)

It’s so easy to lose perspective in this life.

I spent Monday getting my wisdom teeth cut out and then spent about five hours that night at the emergency room after an unexplained fainting spell. I didn’t care, because I was more worried about my stepmother, who was in surgery that day as doctors worked to rid her body of cancer.

I reckon I was fine. My stepmother’s prognosis was positive. Then something happened to put our individual struggles in perspective. Thousands died at the hands of cowards and launched us into a war that will be unlike any other.

This won’t be like World War II. There will be no D-Day, no Iwo Jima, no Hiroshima, no Bataan Death March. It will be a war on a much smaller scale, but much more complicated. It’s a war against evil, which knows no boundaries. The battle will be won by freedom-loving Americans, but the war against evil is as old as time itself.

What happened Tuesday is forever etched in my mind. I can put the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination and Kent State in historical perspective. But I can’t truly know how it felt.

My grandfather, who used to ride me around in his wheelchair after losing both of his legs in World War II, knew how it felt. My parents knew how it felt when Macon County High students were told their president was killed. It hurt. And this hurts. We hurt for America and its shattered families.

I played hooky from school the day the Challenger exploded and watched it happen live on television. To this day, I still feel guilty about it. I saw Reagan shot, John Lennon killed. I rejoiced with millions as one little girl singing nursery rhymes was saved after falling down a well. Those images will stay with me forever.

Many images from Tuesday will stay with me forever, too. Planes crashing into skyscrapers. People leaping to their deaths. Palestinian children dancing in the streets. But there’s one image that gives me hope and keeps it all in perspective.

The U.S. Congress, just a week ago bitterly partisan, was united that night. Lawmakers bowed their heads for a moment of silence and then sang “God Bless America.” It was hardly unexpected, but moving nonetheless.

But that’s not the image I’ll recall best. When the Congress finished singing, my 18-month-old son, Saylor, clapped and giggled. He had no idea why I’d been glued to the television while he stacked blocks and jumped off sofa cushions. He only knew that folks were singing, and he likes singing.

The next generation won’t know the pain, anger and sorrow America felt Tuesday. They’ll read about it, and teachers will help them put it into historical perspective. But they’ll never truly know.

And they’ll have their own Tuesdays to deal with, as well as their share of triumphs.

Saylor will have many more days to laugh and clap, as will generations to come. Time does — and must — march on. And so will America.

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