Thursday, June 29, 2006

A detour to an empty field in Pennsylvania

Wednesday, as I considered my route back home to Ohio from Washington, D.C., I remembered: there was a special site, somewhere in Pennsylvania--was it near I-70? I checked, and indeed it was: Shanksville, Pennsylvania, not too far off the path I would take home.

Do you recall that name? Does it sound vaguely familiar? I wager so: that is where United Airlines Flight 93 plummeted to earth, as a group of "hell, no, we're not going to take it anymore" Americans rose up against the terrorists on September 11 (yes, that September 11) and fought back.

So, as I departed northern Virginia, I dithered about whether I would get off the Pennsylvania Turnpike for this visit. "It will take too long," I thought; "I can do it the next time through," I rationalized. Then came a firm response: "No, I may never do it. This is the time; I am in no hurry; I am not due back for another it now!"

So, I got off the exit before, and made the turns necessary, going from an interstate, to an old, bypassed federal route, to a sudden turnoff onto a county road, through the heart of Shanksville, a small town--it looked to be a pleasant place to live, one of at least 100,000 such towns across this country that makes one remember how decent and sturdy our people really are; and a town that no one ever would have heard of but for this--a "fame" that I suspect hangs uneasily on the good people of this town.

Through the town, I headed up another road--there were signs directing me to the "temporary memorial." One sign was hand-made; I suspect the locals grew weary of the questions from visitors like me, I don't blame them. Another turn, down a simple road, with broad fields on either side.

The fields had once been hills, full of coal--this was strip-mining country. Whatever one thinks of that, the land seemed healed and peaceful, devoted to farming now.

Then I found the site. Hastily paved parking suggested a steady stream, which I saw as I lingered there. A bus full of "plain folks"--Amish, or Mennonites, I mean--pulled up after me. I confess I spent part of my time studying them, too. "It is rude to stare," the voice of my mother echoed in my head; but it was no insult.

There is a large "wall" erected: a section of fence, really,where people have left personal articles and tributes. Plaques, notes, small rocks with messages painted, sat at the base; articles of clothing (!), especially golf hats, with messages written on them. Also, a good representation of rosaries, medals, images of Mary and the saints, and also angels. And, of course, many flags.

On the periphery were a number of stone plaques, which seemed to be sent in from folks--one was from Guatemala!

Most interesting was the graffiti! A section of guardrail stood to one side; and folks had covered it with the most reverent graffiti I've ever seen: prayers and good wishes from visitors, honoring those who died in Flight 93, their families, and our nation. Reading these messages, and examining all that people had left--seemingly everywhere!--was strangely compelling. This was the cumulative tribute of an untold, unregulated number of people, mostly Americans, who passed this way. It said so much about those people.

One thing it said was that we are a Christian people. Very little would have been left if all the tributes involving Christian symbols or belief were removed. A large, simple cross had been erected there.

After I had surveyed all this, I scanned the surrounding fields--where had these brave men and women met their end?

About this time, the group of Mennonites sat down on benches inscribed with the names of the fallen, and, I guess I'd call her--stepped out front and gave a simple explanation of all we saw. She pointed out the location, in the fields in front of us, where the airplane slammed into the ground, at over 500 miles per hour, igniting a fire consuming many of the trees. The guide pointed out a grass-covered mound. The government had mulched the trees destroyed by the crash, placed that mound where the plane had crashed. All the debris from the crash had been removed; no one was allowed to walk on the site but the family of those who died.

A more permanent memorial is in the works, with all the trees and walks and suchlike that you would expect. It will be very pleasant, and expansive. It is slated for completion by 2011.

I don't know when, or if, I will pass that way again; but I was deeply moved by my visit to the memorial I found there.


Pro Ecclesia said...

In August, we're travelling from Ohio to Charlottesville, VA to visit my wife's family. I will try to plan a stop at this site on the way there or on the way back.

Thanks for posting this.

Ellen said...

I was moved just reading your description of the site. Thank you for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

See my tribute to the memorial here.

Shanksville is about ninety miles from here, on the other side of Mt. Ararat.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking that whatever memorial they build will not be half as heartfelt and intimate as what you describe.

In a way it's a pilgrimage site, just like those early pilgrims to St. Peter's tomb who covered it in graffiti imploring the saint's intercession. Ora pro nobis.

I hope the temporary memorial is preserved in some manner after the permanent one is erected.

glorybe said...

I will probably not get a chance to see this in person. Thanks for letting me see it through your post. Very profound.