*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat 2/16/2007
as "Always remember, never forget"
Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Couey
Several hundred thousand people annually find their way to the temporary Flight 93 Memorial near Shanksville and those numbers will likely increase after the permanent memorial is built.
The plans have been finalized, after clearing up the apparent misunderstanding about the four extra commemorations scattered throughout the design. The new memorial will no doubt be a place of beauty and reflection. But the stark simplicity and the spontaneous expression of what stands there now will be lost forever.
I go to the memorial several times a year. Each visit keeps fresh in my mind the memory of that day, a day that left an indelible mark of history and tragedy on us all. The fleeting sense of unity we felt that day has, as anticipated, dissolved and left us bitterly divided, perhaps irretrievably polarized. But, standing there and gazing across that field, I recall that for a few short, precious weeks, all of America walked shoulder to shoulder; we spoke with one heart.
There is a sense of the evocative that is felt here. It strikes as soon as you crest that steep hill and carefully coast down the pitted and gravelly road. It’s a very simple memorial, even spartan. A small shed, some memorial benches, and a section of high chain link fencing. The real power of this site is in the commemorations left here by the unknown thousands. They are spontaneous expressions, utterly sincere in their intent, most showing the rough edges of a lovingly home-made object. Then you stand at the edge of the gravel and gaze across the field, empty save for a lone American flag which stands at the edge of the impact site. A meditative silence exists, broken only by the sad soughing of the restless wind that always seems to blow. Visitors, even children sense this, as the conversations remain low and muted. There is the overwhelming feeling that something momentous happened here.
There are other places like this. Gettysburg, certainly, but Pearl Harbor especially comes to mind. A lot of people made that connection and it’s easy to understand why. In this green field here, and in that oddly-shaped harbor thousands of miles distant, both were places where not only was America attacked without warning, but also where Americans first fought back. The Remembrance of those events is important to us. Freedom can only remain precious to us as long as we are aware that someone gave us that present, gift-wrapped with their own life.
I will visit the new memorial when it is finished, and I will likely be deeply moved by its architecture and artistry. But a part of me will always remember this first memorial, a vision which came not from the vision and skill of the artist, but wrenched from the aching hearts and tender hands of ordinary people, people for whom the greatest memorial to that day of terror and togetherness will always shine within themselves.