Muriel’s footsteps made a hollow echo on the museum floor as she stopped short in front of a photograph of the World Trade Center in flames. Softly in the back of her mind a country song flitted through: Where were you when time stopped frozen that September day? September 11, 2001.
A tingle of fear crept up Muriel’s spine, remembering.
“Mamma,” Murial had said, running up to her mother that Tuesday morning, “can I have a ---”
“Ssshhh…” Her mother laid a finger across her lips and lifted Muriel onto her lap, hands trembling.
Muriel had never felt her mother’s strong, confident hands tremble before. Mamma was all dressed up for work and was clutching her purse, getting ready to take Muriel to “school”. Muriel looked up and saw that Mamma’s face was pulled together in jagged lines, white as if she had seen something terrible. Or heard something.
That’s when Muriel’s five-year-old mind realized whatever was causing her mother’s face to scrunch up was on the radio. An announcer’s voice was saying, “Early in the morning today, a plane from American Airlines swerved off course and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. This was just off the press, more details to follow. No updates yet on any fatalities.”
Mamma sat there rubbing Muriel’s back up and down, up and down, listening to advertisements about cleaning supplies, waiting for the news reporter to come back on the radio. When he did not return quickly, she flipped on the TV to the morning news channel. “This is NCB News reporting live. We just got the news that a plane was hijacked and careened into the World Trade Center…”
“Mamma,” Muriel asked quietly, “what is it? What’s a world trades-ender?” Muriel stared at the video footage of a plane crashing and fire erupting from a crumbling building.
Mamma turned her head very slowly away from the TV and faced her little daughter. “It’ll be ok, honey...just something happened to a plane and some people got hurt.”
Mamma didn’t go to work that day, and Muriel didn’t go to “school”. Muriel’s grown up brother called in from college out of state to see how they were doing.
It was so quiet that day. Then came the headlines day after day starting with three words: “Paid Notice: Death…”
After that day the world changed.
The day before, Mamma had hung over the fence, chatting with the neighbors. People stopped right in the middle of the grocery store just to say “hello and how are you.” Muriel could play on the street with the next door neighbor children until dark, when the street lights flickered on and Mamma called, “Muriel time to come in!”
The day after, Muriel couldn’t play in the street anymore. Instead of stopping to chat, people would walk past each other in the grocery store, staring at each other suspiciously as if each thought the other had committed some secret scandal. You couldn’t go on an airplane without walking through a scanner, and you couldn’t even bring your fingernail clippers.
“Hey.” Muriel’s fiance, Jordan, slung his arm around her shoulders. He looked thoughtfully at the photo.
“Do you remember what you were doing that day?” Muriel asked.
“Yeah,” replied Jordan. “I was new to the second grade. I was sitting at the desk by the window, behind a dude who was picking his nose. Somebody came in and whispered something to my teacher. She told us to wait in class and left the room. She was gone for what seemed like hours, then when she came back we all had to recite the pledge of allegiance. And she told us in brief about what happened.”
They gazed at the photo for a few more seconds, then together followed the others in the group to the next display room.
“Now this might look familiar to you, Grandpa,” said Judith, as she pushed her elderly relative in the wheelchair into the World War II display room.
George scanned the room. He took in the faces in black and white photos of young fresh-faced boys in crisp uniforms, ready to ship out and fight to defend the country. He smiled softly as he passed a display of “in the day” items which at one time had been so common to every American household: a war-proof A-11 spec wristwatch, a gas-proof baby buggy, one of the first models of microwave, a well-worn pickaxe used in trenches, Johnson & Johnson “anything-fixer” duct tape, a Continental manual typewriter…
George tapped the hand of his great-granddaughter resting on his wheelchair handle and pointed to a display case. “See that? It was Spam - the greatest thing they invented since sliced bread! Back then, everything was rationed and it was very hard to get meat, so this canned meat was a huge treat! We had it for Christmas one year, sent all the way by my mother to me when I was part of recovery in Britain.”
Then there was the dress. A stylish rayon red polka dot dress, available with wartime coupons, complete with zipper in the back. It took him back…
“Mother, I’m going!” young George had said, squaring his shoulders and looking down at his slight-built but very strong-willed mother. “Gerry already shipped off. I need to do my part.”
“Son, you’re not even of age yet. You’re barely seventeen; you just had your birthday,” his mother pleaded. Tears stood in the corners of her eyes.
George caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror behind her, very muscular at six-foot-two. He placed two gentle hands on his mother’s shoulders and looked into her eyes. “I love you but I have to do this.”
“Lying about your age and going off to fight a war will not make it end sooner, darling...please...just reconsider…” Mother’s voice trailed off.
George sighed and shook his head, shouldering a duffel bag. “By the time I’m 18 I’ll be out of boot camp and ready to go. I’ll write. I promise, Mother.” He kissed her cheek and strode out the door.
There was just one more stop he had to make before he walked to the train station. One stop that almost made him change his mind. Linda…
She was waiting for him underneath the oak tree, staring listlessly out at the distant hills behind her parents’ house, swaying back and forth slowly in the homemade wooden swing that George himself had carved for her last birthday.
Seeing him, Linda rose slowly. A strand of red hair curled in the wind, and there were tears in her blue-green eyes. He would remember her this way as long as he lived, even if he lived to be one-hundred.
They didn’t speak at first, just stood there looking into each other’s eyes and holding onto one another.
Finally George whispered, “They say the war should be over in 6 months. I’ll be home before I even ship out.”
“That’s what they say…” Linda returned, swallowing hard. “It’s not right, you know. Technically it’s illegal what you’re doing.”
George shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe some time I’ll think back to when I was a stupid young boy hoping a wrong will make a right. But Linda, I’m not going for an adventure. Those devils could come here, to your house or mine, and tear up everything we love. I have to protect us, so we can have a future. Linda...will you wait for me?”
Linda pasted a smile onto her mouth and nodded. “Yes.”
They kissed...a sad, long kiss, and then George walked away. He looked back once, to see her waving, red hair still caught up in the summer breeze.
George could not imagine the horror that would meet him in France and Germany and Britain in years to come. Nor how long “Hitler’s War” would take to actually get resolved. Day after day of guns going off, blood spilled from his best friends, children orphaned, homes and farms torn apart by bombs and guns, sights no one should have to see...George and his war buddies nicknamed the war the “Desert Fox”. Occasionally, George received a letter from Linda or his mother. His father still refused to write, because of how George had lied about his age and gone against better counsel, but Mother let him know his father still loved him and asked about him every day.
“Grandpa?” Judith was gently shaking his shoulder. “You ok?”
George looked up at Judith and smiled. “Yes, dear, I’m fine. Just remembering. Old people do that. Remember.”
“But you’re not just any old person, Grandpa, you’re 98 today!” She hugged him from the back and began wheeling him back to the group of museum tourists who were threading their way into a theater room.
As Judith passed a final display case before entering the theater room, she noticed a tribute to the many medical personnel and essential workers who had fought courageously over the past year during the midst of a pandemic. That had been one long, hard year, Judith mused. And she definitely did not want to relive it. But it had taught her a few things. She could now feel for those who were ill and alone, where before she had felt disconnected and found them difficult to understand. She could sympathize with those who were struggling financially, because she had been one of them, a college student, out of work, trying to pay rent while taking home-based college courses online.
One day particularly stood out in her mind.
“Class will be adjourned until next Tuesday, because I have business to attend to,” her teacher had told the class over their virtual classroom software. “Anyone have any qu--” Mr. Pudgett’s voice broke off into a harsh cough. He cleared his throat. “Anyone have any questions (excuse me)?”
“Mr. Pudgett, will we…” the streaming lagged, and Judith couldn’t catch what the other student said.
“That will be fine...alright, class dismissed.” Mr. Pudgett stayed online long enough to bid each student goodbye and good luck over the weekend. “Stay safe. Thank you. Yes, have a great weekend. Stay safe.”
Stay safe. The greeting had replaced “how are you” by today’s standards.
The following week, Mr. Pudgett was not able to host the next class. He was in the hospital, badly sick with the deadly virus that had very recently traumatized the entire globe.
Judith shook herself back to reality. Everyone in the group was wearing a mask, and the group was carefully limited to only 6, led by a middle-aged female tour guide.
The group sat in the theater room, 6 feet apart from each other, seated on top of management-issued red dots.
The tour guide smiled cheerfully at her audience and said, “I hope everyone enjoyed their tour of the Jefferson National Gallery and will come back to visit. Now, I noticed we have a visitor here who is better than a museum exhibit because he fought in World War II. Is that right sir? Do you have anything to share with our group today?”
George looked up in surprise then a slow smile crept up his cheeks. “Well, ma’am, I don’t know that I have anything overly wise to tell this bunch of young folks here. Except that war and sickness and national crisis isn’t what makes a person courageous or famous. I’ve lived quite a while now...I’m 98 today.” George said proudly.
“Yes, I served in World War II, and I lied about my age to get in at 17. Don’t try that at home,” George added, winking at a 10-year-old boy seated across from him.
“I do want to tell you though...if getting through tough things doesn’t make you famous or brave, then what does? Nobody seems to know the answer to that but I do know my wife did. She died just recently because of the virus. But she always used to tell me, ‘George, you don’t have to do something big to make your mark on the world. There was a Man who lived once on earth who made a mark on the entire world that no one will ever be able to forget no matter how they try. He was a poor man, never fought in the army, survived a massacre, had hundreds of people following him because he was kind and gave them food to eat, could have been a well-renowned world leader, but was executed alongside two thieves for crimes he hadn’t committed. And yet just because He did that, we have the opportunity to live beyond this life. So just be a man who does what is right, and live with love in your heart and kindness to others. Then you’ll truly be a great person.’ Linda was right, you know.”
The group nodded thoughtfully as they turned toward the large display screen to watch the closing documentary.
The projector came on, displaying black and white films from the 1920’s as a man’s baritone voice began speaking: “Always do your best. What you plant now, you will harvest later.” Well said, Og Mandino. The greatest moments of all time have been moments of extreme frailty when one person stood up to make a difference...