Our Second Pearl Harbor
As if one in a lifetime isnt enough
Youre a sap Mr. Jap to make a Yankee cranky.
Uncle Sam is gonna spanky.
- Popular song written in 1942 shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor the previous Dec. 7.
Sometime last Tuesday, this long-forgotten ditty reappeared in this writers memory. It came as before me on the TV screen the twin towers of the World Trade Center were about to crumble.
As those skyscrapers, symbolic of Americas dominance in more than just the World of Finance, turned to dust, cement and tangled steel claiming more than twice the death toll of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, memories took me back to events in Hawaii in 1941.
By the time the towers crumbled, it was obvious I was watching a second Pearl Harbor - as if one in a lifetime isnt enough.
In the New York version of the Day That Will Live In Infamy, I was among millions who watched it live and in shock. The original sneak attack so far away in the Pacific I was to see a week later in newsreels. No television back then in homes.
Radio was our live media in 1941, but it was hours - long after the battleship Arizona and much of the Pacific fleet sank - before the horrific and unbelievable news reached the then 48 states. The destruction and killing was already over.
The flames and smoke in Manhattan were as obviously the work of terrorists as the flames and smoke at Pearl Harbor.
In one, a powerful nation took the sneaky route in an attempt to cripple us by attacking our military. In the other, a powerful group bent on hate and revenge sought to intimidate us in an equally cowardly sneak attack on innocent civilians.
Perpetrators of both holocausts declared war on us without formalities. Both sought to change our way of life, yet both underestimated the fiber and resilience of Americans. Both were as wrong as the British when they thought they could tax tea in Boston.
Remembering Pearl Harbor (which was the battle cry of my generation), I knew by the time the twin towers came down in New York what would come thereafter. Thats when that old long forgotten song flashed anew. They had made a Yankee cranky, and as soon as the shock subsided, they were in for a spanky.
In both attacks, the attackers had galvanized previously divided Americans as quickly as the flash of the first plane that struck the north tower. Instantly, we became a nation undivided.
I found it virtually impossible to keep up with the rapid-fire conflicting preliminary reports that are modus operandi in live-tube coverage. Yet the word Pentagon hit a raw nerve. Rand!
Rand D. LeBouvier, captain, U.S. Navy, head of unmanned space flight, stationed at headquarters in the Pentagon. The kid I used to call Bucky Beaver, the kid I took on his first fishing trip, his first hunting trip. The kid I played games with, whose graduations I attended at Friends School, the Naval Academy - as I attended his wedding.
Wife Lois was his guest when his new big ship, the Carter Hall, was commissioned in New Orleans, I couldnt make it. Then Rand was in fleet headquarters in Japan, and we kept in touch. When he got back we again fished. He was almost a son; I was proud of him.
At first, I was confident Rand would be a Pentagon survivor. Hes big, no nonsense, tough, smart, been around. Like the leaders I served under back in my WWII Navy days, hes the kind of commanding officer one would follow anywhere without hesitation.
Then came TV estimates that the death toll at the Pentagon would be 800 or more. I froze inside. The odds had changed. Events on the tube were no longer just news.
I couldnt find Rands home phone number, and the Pentagon number drew only a different kind of busy signal. So I stayed glued to a television set I rarely watch - and wouldnt have had this time had I not been alerted by a friend when the first plane struck the north tower.
The carnage was unbelievable. Where was I? Was I tuned into London, Dublin, Jerusalem, Palestine or some other far-flung locale victimized by the usual terrorists on that screen? Why all the destruction in the first place? And why not more video from the Pentagon? Where was Rand?
United We Stand
I put a small American flag on both posts of the gap at the rail fence in front of the house. The big flag that always hangs from the staff at the porch wasnt enough; the additional two were my way of screaming to the world America, no one, nothing can bring her to her knees.
Meanwhile, out in Garrett County, close friend Johnny Marple, an army veteran, was posting in plastic letter by letter on the big towering sign above his bait shop We Will Find You Bin Laden. I looked down the street at Park Road on the shore of Stoney Creek: Every home but two were flying the red, white and blue.
When I stopped at the customer center at Lauers supermarket to ask why there was no flag anywhere within or outside, I was told others had also asked; they didnt have one, but they were ordered. Later in the day red, white and blue bunting was prominent outside in contrast to Rite Aid drugstore next door, where the only colors of our nation were in the companys logo. I called 800/Rite Aid to register my disappointment. In a parking lot on Fort Smallwood Road, I saw a young man replace a Ravens pennant with a small flag. I honked my horn and gave him a thumbs up.
Faces were grim, but small flags flapped from antennas of passing cars as I drove to my appointment for the therapy Im undergoing following recent shoulder surgery. Like all other patients and therapists, I stayed tuned to the latest developments. There was more pain in the heart than the shoulder being manipulated to erase scar tissue and stretch tendons and muscles.
In New York, the Hotel Vista (now a Marriott), where I stayed when in the city to attend the opera, tumbled. It was sandwiched between the twin towers. Son Joel, who lives and works in Washington, had called promptly to report he was okay. But what about Rand?
Everywhere was solemnity. The topic was the same: disbelief, anxiety, fear, anger. It was Pearl Harbor all over again. But this time our presidents presence and reassurances werent limited to a voice on a radio. We could see him live, note that his eyes were like ours - and we could also detect his anger and resolve. Previously lukewarm to his presence in the Oval Office, I became his staunch follower - as did all but a handful of Americans following Pearl Harbor, when our president was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I canceled my much-looked-forward-to fishing trip, the first since April when I crushed my shoulders rotator cuff. Fishing seemed so inconsequential while exhausted rescue workers frantically removed debris at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon - where I feared Rand could be.
I stayed home and watched the news turn from bad to worse. Yet one e-mail among the many that arrived brought the most important and welcome news that will ever be electronically fed into the computer at the Burton home/office. It read:
Thank you for your message. I am alive and well, but it will be a while before we know about all the others. Pretty traumatic day. I was in the part of the Pentagon that was hit, but fortunately in the inside ring, so we were just knocked around a bit. Love, Rand.
A great weight lifted from my mind; sleep would come easier - though not easy. Our world changed in just a few hours. Not in my lifetime - and maybe not in that of my children and grandchildren - will it ever return to what it was.
We can no longer be smug and complacent; the war of terrorism has erupted on our shores.
The only consolation evident, and it is small indeed - for it will never bring back those 5,000 lives - is that the perpetrators have made a Yankee cranky. Uncle Sam is not only going to spanky but, I hope, administer a sound thrashing.