A lot has happened since my last post – I’ve had a 10 month hiatus from the world of Chez Lark, this past (and last) school year at UW-Madison completely consumed my life. But if there’s anything to warrant breaking radio silence, it is the experience I had today.
It seems that in all of the traveling across the United States that I’ve done in the past four years, I never had the chance to really be a tourist. I’ve criss-crossed the country numerous times for my photography business: when I first started doing my fine art architectural photographs of LDS temples back in the Fall of 2010, I traveled over 13,000 miles in four months (thank heavens for cheap Southwest flights!!). In the middle of my 2nd year of grad school. No joke. I have no idea how I managed a 4.0 GPA that semester or how I stayed on top of my teaching responsibilities, but I did… Since then, I’ve racked up another 10,000 miles. That’s 23,000 miles within my own country, not including hopping across the Pond a few times and traveling around France and Senegal. But truth be told, I never really got to see very much of the American cities I was in – usually I was in and out in 24 hours.
Knowing that, you can imagine how much I was looking forward to seeing some of the sights that Dallas has to offer. Despite being under the gun to get my dissertation proposal revised for my defense that is looming ever larger on the horizon, today I cleared everything off my schedule and gave myself the entire day to explore downtown. The 6th Floor Museum (the old Texas Book Depository)/Dealey Plaza and the George W. Bush Presidential Library were on the top of my list. There was a lot to see and learn. I want to chronicle all of it, but it’s late and I can’t afford to stay up too much longer to write everything down. Today was filled with deep introspection, and of all the things that I saw and felt, I knew that I absolutely had to write about one thing in particular before I go to bed:
The 9/11 portion of the exhibit was extraordinarily touching, and it really choked me up.
Up until that point, the displays, videos, and photographs followed a fairly predictable chronological pattern from President Bush’s birth to his election as president. The first few months of his presidency followed the same chronological trajectory and focused on how he began building the foundation for the platform he ran on. When I was in the section containing the displays about the “No Child Left Behind” program (which I wasn’t really interested in), I heard a couple of docents tell other patrons to prepare for the changes that would take place when they turned the corner into the next area. I glanced up and to my right and noticed decals on the walls which, beginning with September 1, 2001, broke down events from the President’s schedule in 1-2 day increments. I thought, “Oh, she’s talking about 9/11 – everyone kind of has an idea of what will be in that room. What is there to prepare for?” I went back to reading some of the placards, and a few minutes later I finally made my way to the small breezeway that connects the “No Child Left Behind” and the 9/11 exhibits.
The breezeway is laid out in very short, backwards 7, with the stem growing out from the education section. At the corner, a large photograph features an enlarged image of a newspaper that shows the Twin Towers on fire. It’s a familiar image, of course, but it catches your attention and you don’t really look down the rest of the little hallway (if you can call it that). They totally designed it that way on purpose – its extremely effective because you truly aren’t expecting what comes next . After I finished looking at the picture, I turned to my right and looked directly into the 9/11 section. This is what I saw:
The sight of those two beams literally took my breath away. I gasped, and immediately a huge lump formed in my throat and my vision blurred with tears. The similarities between the beams and the silhouettes of the Twin Towers are hard to miss… Fault of mechanical reproduction, this picture doesn’t do these justice, nor does it adequately convey how touching and emotional it is to see them. The picture automatically distances the viewer from the visceral power that permeates this room. Let me tell you that seeing the images of the WTC flash across a TV/computer screen or seeing it in print is entirely different than seeing debris from Ground Zero less than 25 feet from your person.
I stood there and tried to regain my composure. It took me a little while. I then noticed that the walls surrounding the beams were engraved with all of the names of the individuals who died on the 4 airplanes (NYC, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania field), everyone who was known to be in the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks, and the people who died at the Pentagon. Over 3,000 names are on those walls. The walls are made of some type of metal (which carries the steel theme throughout the rotunda). Another lady and I simultaneously reached over and touched them, looking up at all of the names.
The docent came up behind us and placed his hand gently on my shoulder. (He’s in the dark suit in the previous picture). He said softly, “I’m so glad to see the two of you touch the walls. It really humanizes the experience in this room and allows you to connect with what happened. Most people don’t know how to process seeing 3,000 names stretch across the walls, and I’ve seen very few individuals reach out and touch anything in an effort to physically connect with what happened and with those who died.” His eyes were teary and he gave me a sad smile (and that didn’t make it any easier to swallow the lump in my throat). Then he pointed out two names and told us the story of who they were and what they were doing when they died. Then he let us be.
Five TVs were set into the walls and they showed news footage of the attacks, when the towers fell, and the crash sites at the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. A small theater played videos of President Bush’s visits to the various sites, Laura Bush’s remarks during the memorial service in Pennsylvania, Bush’s addresses to the nation, etc. The image that stayed with me the most from that montage was a spontaneous interview in the Oval Office on September 12 or 13. A reporter asked him how he was feeling and how he was coping. He cut her off with a slight gesture of his hand and said, “I’m not thinking about myself, I’m thinking about those who lost their lives and their families.” The camera zoomed in close to his face as he said something to the effect of “I’m someone who has a job to do, and I am determined to do it.” He said some other stuff that I can’t recall, but his expression was the most important thing.
I’ve read a lot and heard some individuals express the opinion that he and/or members of his administration was/were in on the attacks or that the attacks didn’t happen the way we think they did. I have always thought that was ludicrous, and looking at his eyes when he was speaking, I am even more convinced that the conspiracies theories concerning his involvement or prior knowledge aren’t well founded. His eyes were teary, sad, and exhausted – there was a mixture of anger against the people who attacked us, and with frustration with the situation facing our nation. But there was also the unmistakable, heightened awareness of a protector and the dogged persistence of a fighter, who moments before had been pounded into the ground but was now standing and staring into the eyes of his opponent, resolved to come back from near defeat and win the fight.
In all of the podium thumping, vocal emphases placed on certain phrases, and steely gazes directed at the camera/audience during rehearsed speeches that politicians resort to (including him), I have never seen him look like that. Furthermore, it’s been my experience dealing with individuals (and myself) that one cannot fake that kind of mixture of emotion, indignation, and determination. I was so taken aback by what I saw that I sat through the video again just to study his body language and his eyes one more time.
It’s really hard for me to put words to what I took away from that… All in all, I like George W. Bush, the man. He was never pretentious. What you saw was what you got (for better or worse) and when I peel back the policy and just look at the man, I have always felt that he was a genuine individual. That being said, I don’t think President Bush always made wise decisions, and he obviously made mistakes during his administration. But it’s always easy to criticize from the sidelines with a bemused smirk or an air of intellectual and/or political superiority. Being eye-to-eye with crises and difficult decisions is a lot different than seeing it from the living room couch without being privy to all of the information at hand. That applies to whoever is in office, and I admit that I have been guilty of that on occasion. Newsflash #1: contrary to popular belief, the press isn’t omniscient, either. Newsflash #2: objective, unbiased reporting no longer exists – Yellow Journalism is still alive and well. We’ve grown so accustomed to it that we don’t always recognize it. Anyone who tells you differently isn’t as educated as s/he thinks s/he is.
So with that, coupled with 20/20 hindsight spanning the last 13 years, I watched his eyes closely during that video. I guess you can say that after seeing him respond, I gained an added and deeper dimension of respect for him as a man and as the President.
I spent most of my time in the 9/11 exhibit. It was an opportunity to reflect on what I was doing and what I felt that day. In September 2001, I was a brand new freshman at BYU – the semester had started only the week before. When I first gathered that something serious happened in the US that morning, I was eating breakfast in the cafeteria of our dorm. Usually they had music from the radio piping through the cafeteria, but that morning it sounded more like a radio talk show than the regular mix of easy-listening. Radio talk shows have always driven me nuts (give me the music!!), so I tuned it out. But eventually I noticed that people weren’t really eating – they were listening. I slowly made out something about planes and buildings, and that the President’s safety was at risk.
I inhaled the rest of my food and went out to the lobby to watch the big screen TV before I had to go to class (I had about 10 minutes before I had to leave). As I made my way over there, I heard people groaning and crying. Then I rounded the corner and saw the replay of the second plane hit the tower. I stopped in my tracks and just stared at the TV. Then the coverage cut to the towers falling, and I felt my stomach plummet. The girl sitting in a chair next to me started crying hysterically. Evidently one of her family members worked in the WTC. Another guy next to me was from New York, and he was trying to call his mother. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen, and I cried. We watched it over and over. Finally I had to go to class – I met my roommate on the hill going up to the Tanner Building (she was coming back from a very early morning class). She asked me why I was sobbing, and all I could get out was “Planes… buildings… gone. Gone!” She hadn’t heard anything about it and didn’t understand and I pointed back to the cafeteria and said, “TV… Planes… Go watch.”
I stumbled my way to class (which happened to be American history). It was in a small auditorium with a large projector screen, and by the time we all got there, the professor had CNN playing. We didn’t do anything during class but watch the news. No one spoke. We just watched. And cried. For 75 minutes. When the bell rang the professor held us longer and prayed with all of us. Since it was a Tuesday, and every Tuesday the university has a devotional/forum at 11 am, we filed toward the Marriott Center. That day the university president was supposed to welcome us to a new school year. Usually a little less than half of the basketball arena filled up for those meetings, but that day all 20,000 seats were filled. President Bateman (BYU’s president) didn’t give his remarks. Instead he prayed with us – somehow he kept his composure – and he told us to go home and call our families. He said that his office had pulled all of the names of students who were from the NYC area, and he advised them to do all that was possible to contact their families. He said that university officials would be working their connections in that area of the country to help get as much information about those students’ families. Then he shared some scriptures about faith and the Atonement of Christ.
The only other class I had that day was Karla Nielson’s interior design class – we’d only had one or two classes with her prior to 9/11. It was a very small class (18 students instead of her usual 200). I don’t recall exactly what she said, but I remember watching her and listening fixedly. She of course expressed sadness about what happened, but I remember being impressed with how much faith she articulated. She said something to the effect of “This is not a time to turn away from and curse God. This may very well be one of our life ‘Job’ experiences. Remember Job’s faith and how he turned to the Lord and became closer to Him in difficult trials.” She gave her full lecture that day – which, as I have learned while getting to know her very well over the past 13 years, is just like her. Take time to mourn and re-ground your faith. Then get back to work. Typical Karla.
I’m pretty sure that I spent time with my sisters that night – and we probably called our parents. But I don’t remember for sure. Thursday the 13th, my American history professor showed a movie that he had found somewhere of videos taken from airplanes from various places in the USA, and Neil Diamond’s America (with extra bass) played in the background. We cheered and cheered (cried). We watched it again. And we cheered again.
I remember that during the weeks and months that followed, there was a greater sense of patriotism and pride in our country. There was also a greater outpouring of faith and belief in God. People were kinder to one another, and for a while, people focused on family rather than their paycheck. Congress came together and got things done. Hopefully we can regain that as a country – but let’s hope it doesn’t take such drastic events to help us get there again.
9/11 affected all of us in one way or another. I didn’t lose a loved one in those attacks. But the attacks and the subsequent military action meted out against Afghanistan and Iraq did directly affect the lives of my family. Like so many others families, some of my immediate family members either enlisted in the military very soon after 9/11 in an immediate response to the needs of our national security, and all of the service members of my family were deployed overseas. I am very grateful for their desire to serve, their dedication, and the many sacrifices they made to help ensure our freedoms.
Hundreds of artifacts were on display in the 9/11 section of the museum – unfortunately there were too many to photograph, and even if I could, not all of them were under enough lighting (no flash photography), so they wouldn’t have come out right anyway. Just like the focus of his presidency shifted after the attacks, the direction of the rest of the museum’s exhibits changed from that point on. Instead of progressing chronologically the presentations focused on issues and initiatives, and they drew from all 8 years of his time in office to form a conglomerate of decision points and the subsequent consequences. All of the exhibits were phenomenally done, and I plan on going back next weekend to see the rest of the museum and library. I will write more about the other sections in a later post.
Regardless of one’s political persuasion, the 9/11 exhibit is a must see. If nothing else it gives everyone a chance to physically connect with what happened. If my experiences are like everyone else’s, it also gives rise to introspection and an opportunity to determine whether the resolutions we made and the priorities we set during our healing process are still in force. I, for one, have some course corrections to make… In the end, today was an emotional day for me.
I’m proud to be an American. May God continue to bless America.