Cameron Conaway’s recent trip to the Flight 93 Memorial left him heartbroken, but not in the way he expected.
I thought about it while eating street food in Hanoi and while studying the Thai language in Bangkok. In Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia I thought about it too. My travels in southeast Asia have taken me to people and places far different than I could have imagined, but the more I traveled the more I craved to see what home would be like post-travel. Aside from some quality family time in Altoona, the thing I most longed for was to make the short drive with my mother to Stoneycreek Township in central Pennsylvania to see the Flight 93 Memorial. President George W. Bush got it right when he said, “What happened above that Pennsylvania field ranks among the most courageous acts in our history.”
The drive to the memorial was well worth it. Outside, postcard skies lit our way as the green of Pennsylvania rolled like feline shoulders. After living in the concrete Legoland of Bangkok for over a year, Pennsylvania’s shades of green all seemed so vibrant, as though the plants could barely contain the chlorophyll. Several years prior, my mother had visited the site and spoke of how powerful it was to hear the stories and to see the many photos and even the huge impact crater. We spoke of where we were when 9/11 happened and how things have changed since. “Can’t believe it’s been nearly eleven years,” we said almost in unison.
We pulled into the site and when I stepped out of the car I took a deep breath. An emotionally riveting experience was around the corner and I needed to prepare myself for it. I’m a museumer, that is, I’m the type that’ll spend five hours in the Little Rock Nine Museum and still be excited to go back again. After we took a few steps from the car I noticed my mother already had tears in her eyes.
We took in the natural beauty of the countryside as we walked along the concrete trail to the series of display signs each with a photo and a brief description of the sequence of events. The sun felt good on my face as we read in silence and refreshed our memory of that tragic day. After six or so signs we entered a small corridor where we could sign our names in a book and post a note on the bulletin board. We spent a few minutes reading the fifteen or so notes that others had posted and then we followed the trail to make our way toward the marble Wall of Names. The trail seemed to be a few blocks long and there were no signs indicating what is was or why it was shaped in a particular way. To our left was a black “Memorial Plaza Wall” that didn’t contain any engravings and looked more like something a skateboarder would love to ride. Out in the far distance we noticed a rock had a few small American flags waving next to it. We weren’t allowed to get closer and we assumed that’s where the crater may once have been. As we continued walking we took guesses as to what this black wall was or might be or was supposed to signify. Passersby looked equally confused.
We made it to the end and approached the Wall of Names. These were forty marble structures each containing the name of one person on the flight. Orange construction cones were placed in front of them. That was it. There was nowhere else to go and nothing more to see. No stories to be heard. It felt cold although we were standing in the sun. Some older folks milled around sharing stories of where they were and some young adults in their early twenties simply turned around and went back home. I didn’t blame them. There was simply nothing else to see. In fact, there was actually less to see and hear and do than there was years ago. Even the toilets on the way out were Porta-Potty style and an elderly couple struggled mightily just to get into them.
We sat in the car in silence. I think we both felt bad feeling bad. The sacred ground where lives were sacrificed for the sake of our country didn’t seem the place for complaining. Emotions began to stir and turned to thoughts that I dare not say. What about those who lost family members in Flight 93? What about those who traveled across the country or even from other countries to see this site? My mother’s eyes seemed to mirror my own feeling, creating a comfort within me that allowed me to open up: “Not only was 9/11 one of the greatest tragedies the world has ever seen, but it has changed America and our relationships abroad and, more importantly….” My voice trailed off. “It’s one of the most heroic acts in our history. It’s been eleven years and this is all we have here? A few signs outside and a few slabs of marble? That’s an absolute travesty. This is how history gets lost.” I pulled the neck of my shirt to dab the water in my eyes.
Of course, I came home and did some research. I read about the funding struggles, the controversies and even this recent piece from the Post-Gazette where former President Clinton is hoping to generating an extra $10 million for the memorial site. Still, I can’t pretend to know the complexity of such an operation – from the political battles to the funding struggles to even the idiosyncrasies of land acquisition. I only know what I felt as an American in that moment when tears formed and then thereafter when more rationality kicked in: that as we approach the 11th anniversary of 9/11 not only do us Americans deserve better, we need better.
Donations to help build the Flight 93 National Memorial can be sent here.