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Smoke and dust and heroism

Posted by Richard on May 4, 2006

I haven’t seen United 93 yet. Soon, maybe. I’ve read quite a few of the reviews and comments, and everything I’ve read suggests it’s as fine a film as I’d hoped it would be.

Nothing else I’ve read comes close to Gerard Van der Leun’s Of a Fire in a Field. I first read it several days ago and was unable to even write about it. I’ve read it several times now, and the impact is still powerful. I don’t recall anything that has ever moved me more.

It’s about United 93, but Van der Leun began by recalling 9/11 and its aftermath, when he lived in New York. He’s a fine writer whose words often paint evocative images; but I can’t find adjectives adequate to describe this passage:

Inside the wire under the hole in the sky was, in time, a growing hole in the ground as the rubble was cleared away and, after many months, the last fire was put out. Often at first, but with slowly diminishing frequency, all the work to clear out the rubble and the wreckage would come to a halt.

The machinery would be shut down and it would become quiet. Across the site, tools would be laid down and the workers would straighten up and stand still. Then, from somewhere in the pile or the pit, a group of men would emerge carrying a stretcher covered with an American flag and holding, if they were fortunate, a body. If they were not so fortunate the flag covering over the stretcher would be lumpy, holding only portions of a body from which, across the river on the Jersey shore, a forensic lab would try to make an identification and then pass on to the victim’s survivors something that they could bury.

I’m not sure anymore about the final count, but I am pretty sure that most families, in the end, got nothing. Their loved ones had all gone into the smoke and the dust that covered the end of the island and blew, mostly, across the river into Brooklyn where I lived. What happened to most of the three thousand killed by the animals on that day? It is simple and ghastly. We breathed them until the rains came and washed clean what would never be clean again.

. . .

Every time I read that, my eyes well up and my breathing becomes labored. It’s as if there’s a weight on my chest.

Van der Leun went on to describe the "ordinary courage" of the New York police and firemen who went up into the twin towers to rescue those trapped on 9/11, and then he connected it to the courage exhibited in the sky above Pennsylvania that day:

To this day, those men who went up those stairs exist in my mind as starlight, beyond my capacity to comprehend — only to honor. But I went to a few of their funerals and so I know, if only slightly, the human face and the life and the families of about a dozen.

Far above and away to the west on that day, there was as we knew, and now as we have seen, another group of American men and women who, when they found out what was happening and what was to be their likely fate, also took that fate in their own hands and came on, fighting to thwart or reverse that fate, until the last moment of their lives. Ordinary people in an extraordinary situation finding the ordinary courage to resist and to fight against the evil that appeared among them.

That’s the theme and the pace and the action of "United 93:" How ordinary people, at first strangers to each other, found the courage to act together in the face of certain death.

Despite the whines and the cavils of the weak and the vile and the corrupt among us, "United 93" has no "message."

Despite the rising and continuing attempts to cheapen the film from the spiritually and politically bankrupt that batten off America, "United 93" has no politics.

You don’t "review" this film if you have an ounce of soul left to you. You watch it.

"United 93," from the first frame to the last, simply and clearly lets you see what happened high in the air on that day. It is, as the phrase on the poster says, "The plane that did not reach its target." Instead, it reached something unintended and much higher. It became and will remain a legend; an integral part of the tapestry of the American myth from which we all draw what strength remains to us, and, in the future, will surely need to draw upon even more deeply. Like the best of our legends, it arises out of our ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Go read the whole thing. Van der Leun has outdone himself with this essay. And at the end, he has a question for you.

Of a Fire in a Field has been nominated — along with another Van der Leun post — for best non-council post by members of the Watcher’s Council. On Friday, the Watcher will post the results of the voting. I haven’t read most of the other nominated posts, but I can’t imagine this one not winning. It’s simply in a class by itself.

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One Response to “Smoke and dust and heroism”

  1. Robert BURKE said

    First this flight could not have any phones calls made becuase in 2001 the technology did not exsist to make calls from a plane. Second how did an engine appear 8 miles away?

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