Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Let's Roll to Shanksville, PA

Anna and I made an emotional pilgrimage yesterday. For years, we have talked about making the hour and a half trip from Morgantown to pay our respects to the hallowed ground where Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, PA. On Saturday, we finally did it. With the upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we wanted to check it out before all the hub-bub. It will be interesting to watch the coverage of the anniversary services there, now that we have a “sense of place” for that location. For me, a sense of place is very important—if I have been to any specific geographical coordinates, I have a much closer and personal connection to that locale and all that happens there.

It was an interesting drive, through several small towns with a variety of interesting sights. We passed dozens and dozens of new wind turbines in different clusters along the way (Anna agrees that if you count those stretching north from the Cheat Lake area at the start of our trip, we may have seen a hundred of them).

Along the way, we had many enjoyable conversations. At one point, I tried to articulate why this was important to me. You see, I felt like the 40 Americans who died on Flight 93 were the biggest heroes of all. Now this is not meant to take anything away from those courageous first responders who perished at World Trade Center (WTC)—their bravery, too, is unquestionable.

However, I felt compelled to visit Shanksville to express my gratitude to those who fought back against terrorism, even if it was going to cost their own lives. Had they not chosen to fight, that jet would have likely crashed into the Capitol building in Washington, DC. It probably would’ve killed a young congressional intern like I once was (Anna loved the behind the scenes tour of the secret basement corridors in the Capitol building during our visit in the summer of 2001—since 9/11 there is no way to do that because of the security precautions in place now).

More importantly, it might have destroyed a huge and historic symbol of America. Of the four planes that crashed, Flight 93 had the fewest passengers, and no one was killed on the ground. Because so few died there, and because of its remote, rural location, it doesn’t always get the attention and credit that I think they deserve. As we drove up there, in my mind they were the bravest of all. They saved the U.S. Capitol, and demonstrated the American resolve that we will not stand by idly and allow such thing to happen. If their plane had crashed near an east coast urban area, with easy access to more of the population, I think these victims would get more of the attention they deserve. I wanted to honor these brave Americans—not just Todd Beamer, who famously uttered “Let’s Roll” as the passengers began their counter-attack, but all who gave their lives that day.

Upon arrival, we walked out to the viewing area, on a small hill overlooking the crash site. A local expert with a Flight 93 Memorial Ambassador shirt was explaining to folks about the actual crash, and about the new memorial that would be opened in a few weeks. You could already see the temporary fencing in the field below that was being set up for the special guests and dignitaries who would be arriving for the ceremony. A white cover flapped in the breeze down below, covering what will be the “Wall of Heroes” to be unveiled on 9/11.

Heroes. Indeed, I had come to pay homage to those whom I had thought were the biggest heroes of all. However, I learned a life lesson that day. Especially when you yourself cannot claim to be a hero, how can one presume to measure heroes? Who am I to say who the biggest hero is? Maybe calculating hero-ship is something most of us should not attempt.

I came to this conclusion, because we met a man at the overlook who had left his home at the Jersey shore to escape the path of Hurricane Irene. He had always wanted to visit Shanksville, too, and the immediate need to get away from the storms provided a good reason to come to the mountains of Pennsylvania. He shared his story with the “ambassador” and several other visitors like us. It was an absolutely fascinating story. We could have talked with him for hours.

Bob Mansfield worked on the 82nd floor of the second WTC building to get hit. He had commuted into work, taken a series of elevators (because none of them went the full height of the building), and had just arrived at his desk on the far side of the building (where he couldn’t see the first building that had been hit). As he sat down and grabbed his coffee mug, he was suddenly tossed backward by a big explosion—the second plane had hit his building. It didn’t take long to figure out what happened, because jet fuel was leaking through the ceiling (he knew what jet fuel smelled like from his military days). He and his coworkers realized they needed to get out. [The following few paragraphs include a few quotes from his interview with U.S. News and World Report shortly after it happened—although in the haste of the moment, some of the reporter's facts from that story were wrong, so I have woven what Bob told us with a few of his quotes from that article.]

"I thought it was an earthquake at first," he says. "The whole building just rocked." An official with the New York Port Authority, Mansfield raced with colleagues for the nearest emergency exit; they found a locked door. "We thought we were trapped." They retraced their steps, only to discover a fire had broken out in their offices. Bob was a volunteer fireman in his New Jersey community, and grabbed one of those glass enclosed wall mounted fire hoses and turned it on.

They doused the fire, found another exit, then climbed down 82 stories, meeting hundreds of others in the dark, silent stairwells. If you have ever seen the iconic picture of young firemen rushing up the steps of an interior stairway while others are walking down, Bob is in that picture.

After literally running down the first 50 flights of stairs, around the 30th floor, things started slowing down as the met the backup of others who were trying to get out. Once he made it to the mezzanine level, all he had left was to go down the escalator and get out the doors. He was near the escalator talking to a fireman when another huge explosion occurred, throwing debris and choking dust all over him. He did not know it at the time, but the first building had just collapsed, and as it crashed to the ground, its debris burst into the lobby of his building, and with it a thick darkness of nearly impenetrable dust.

"We hit the ground," Mansfield recalls. "There was debris flying everywhere, and it was pitch black. I heard a lot of screams, but I couldn't see anything." In the darkness, he followed another man with a flashlight, which only lit a few feet ahead through the dusty air. Eventually they joined some firemen, who were trying to find their way out as a human chain, each holding an arm on the shoulder of the one ahead; because it was so dark one couldn’t see much further. The first exit they tried was blocked, and Bob suggested going out another door on the river side of the building, used by commuters who came via ferryboat. That door worked and the group was able to get outside.

By then, he was a figure of ghostly white. His suit pants were coated in gray ash, his dress shirt balled up in his hand–it had been his mask. He worked his way uptown, initially desperate for water, and frequently asking to borrow cell phones to call his wife, but it seemed he could never get his call through. A woman in a car gave him a ride to the Port Authority terminal, where the manager gave him an “I ♥ NY” t-shirt from one of the vendor stores. He wore that clean new t-shirt along with his dust covered pants all the way home that night.

This is just a summary of Bob’s story that he shared with us. It was quite a memorable accounting of the horror of that day. Bob would probably cast off the mantle, but he indeed was a hero that day. He later saw a BBC documentary, where a British businessman talked about the Port Authority worker, with his suit tie askew, manning the firehose to beat back the flames, and then encouraging others to pass below the stream of water while he held the hose high so they could get to the stairwell. The British businessman credited this man—unknown to him—for saving their lives with his actions, and wondered on-screen whether he had made it out. Bob was eventually able to call the British businessman and let him know that indeed, he had made it out alive, too. They had a long conversation that day, as I am sure Bob has had lots of long conversations about his experiences on 9/11. Besides the residual dust damage to his lungs, the events of that day have changed his life forever.

Although he just thinks of himself as a regular guy who did what anyone else would do if put into that situation, Bob is indeed a hero in my eyes. It would be wrong for me to think of him as a lesser hero than Todd Beamer or any of the other brave souls from Flight 93. He proved to me that heroes walk among us and we might not even know it.

The rest of our time there was spent in the museum area, with posters explaining the details of the events that day, the following investigation, and the plans for the new memorial area to be opening soon. A brief biography of each of the 40 victims is especially touching. Although it was crowded with visitors, the entire room was silent with reverence. It is a powerful emotional experience that will leave a lasting impact on me—as well as that lesson learned on not measuring heroes.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

UC, the Coast Guard, and me

Many of you know that I am a huge fan of both my alma maters—the University of Charleston as well as West Virginia University. Despite my love for my undergraduate school, going to the University of Charleston was actually my back-up plan. Several of my fellow Class of 1976 Parkersburg High School crew team members were going there (Roger B., "Meat" C., Jay S., and Eric F.), since the Golden Eagles had the only collegiate rowing program in the state at that time. Scottie Wilson, our coxswain who had graduated in 1975, was already down there.

My original plan as a high school senior was to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Our family vacations generally were to the beach—mostly Myrtle Beach but also Virginia Beach as well as the Outer Banks. During those beach trips (especially at the Outer Banks), I realized as a high school student that the Coast Guard would be a cool job. You are likely going to live along the coast line (bikinis!), you don't generally get called into battle until the war is at your shore (the draft had ended, but Viet Nam was still fresh in everyone’s mind), and you can retire after 20 years like other military members (they get treated as if they are military, but technically the Coast Guard is under the Transportation Department, not the Department of Defense). Plus their academy had a crew team!

I had never visited New London, Connecticut, much less the Coast Guard Academy itself, but I decided that I would give it a try. Part of me liked the structure of a service academy, where I would be pushed to do my best. Plus, it would be cheap to attend, because the government pays for it in exchange for service after graduation. My high school counselors seemed to think that I had a good shot, especially considering my high standardized test scores (I had a tendency to do well on such tests—better than my grades sometimes reflected).

Unlike the other service academies, the Coast Guard Academy asserted that they did not use Congressional endorsements (e.g., to get into West Point, your Congressman or Senator must give you a recommendation, which is sometimes very competitive—and sometimes can be political). Since my family had no political connections, that idea sounded great to me. The Coast Guard Academy had a complicated and unpublicized formula for making their selections, based on what they called quality points. There were three “cuts” over the course of the year before making their final selections. I made the first two cuts, which then required me as a finalist to go to Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Columbus for a complete military physical (it was there that they decided I had some distant vision problems, resulting in my first pair of glasses). Finally, late in the spring, just before high school graduation, I got a letter from them in the mail. Knowing that my entire future hinged on what was inside, I opened it with trepidation. It turns out that I had 5954 quality points (the exact number has lived since then in my brain), and the cutoff for that year ended up being 6000. By 46 mysterious points (less than 1%), I just missed grabbing the golden ring!

Indeed, if I had graduated in 1975 rather than 1976, I am sure that I would have been selected. You see, 1976 was the first year that women were brought into the service academies, which had previously been restricted to only males. Although I harbor no resentment towards equality for women, I feel confident that I would have made the cutoff for the old program. But apparently, it wasn't meant to be. So I fell back to my second option—go to UC with my friends.

What started off as my second choice ended up being a good fit for someone like me. I liked going to a small school (PHS was the largest high school in the state at that time, and UC was only about half its size). As much as I also love WVU, I fear that I might have got “lost in the crowd” in Morgantown as an undergrad. I had a core group of friends in Charleston from the very first day with my rowing buddies.

A smaller school was definitely a good place for me to get started. Yet I'm glad I went to a small school in the capital city, as opposed to the other WVIAC schools in small places. There were so many events and activities in the big city of Charleston that supplemented my UC education—things that never would have been available to me in places like Glenville, Philippi, or Athens, West Virginia.

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to teach at the local community college, WVU-Parkersburg. For many of my students there, it is their only feasible way to get a college education. However, I'm so glad that I didn't go to school there (although I did sign up to take College Algebra there during the summer prior to my senior year—only to show up for the first day and find that the class had been cancelled due to low enrollment). Personally, I think going to a community college is not as educational as a traditional college (and don't get me started about on-line colleges).

I know that at UC, I learned a lot from a number of great faculty members. Dr. Evelyn Harris was incredible, as was Dr. Richard Shultz, both in my major of Political Science. Dr. Harris was an amazing woman. Her husband had worked on the Manhattan Project during WWII, and after the war had taken a job at one of the local chemical plants. Dr. Harris began teaching at UC in 1946, and her students included many pre-eminent West Virginians, including Robert Byrd. However, there were many more professors who taught me lots of new things (e.g., Dr. Harper, Justice Neely, Dr. Susen, Roz Freedman, Dr. Newman, and even Denny McLaughlin, whom I never had a class from but always enjoyed having interesting conversations on a variety of topics with him).

However, despite all this great learning that took place in the classrooms from these great teachers, I learned just as much (if not more) by living in the dorms. It taught me how to get along with others from different cultures (from foreign places like Nigeria and Iran, as well as New Joisey and LonGisland). Getting along well with others in college, when you are living on a small campus 24/7, truly honed my interpersonal skills. Just learning to do one's own laundry on a regular basis was a part of the college experience (remember those little black tokens?). I also learned other odds and ends like backgammon, lacrosse, and bocce ball.

Although rowing helped bring me to campus, I didn't stick with it for the entire four years (breaking my leg while ice skating at the Civic Center was the beginning of the end of my crew career). I found other interests that eventually demanded that extracurricular time. Primarily this was student government, which provided another major learning experience that benefited me immensely in my career. But there were other ventures as well, such as our College Bowl trivia competitions and my internships in the Legislature as well as in Congress.

Indeed, UC was an early member of the consortium that is today the leading internship experience in DC (The Washington Center). My senior semester spent working for Congressman Rahall on Capitol Hill set the stage for future career events in my life. Ironically, it was also during that semester that I discovered it was common for Congressmen to get requests for recommendation letters to the Coast Guard Academy, and that they were routinely provided. It might have been worth at least 46 quality points if I had submitted a recommendation letter with my application from my congressman rather than from my pastor or teacher.

Another advantage of UC was the many fine speakers who visited our campus (in part because of our location in the capital city). I always tried to attend these events and got exposed to lots of interesting ideas. Some of the speakers I remember were John Dean (Nixon attorney), Dean Rusk (Secretary of Defense), Cyrus Vance (Secretary of State), Rev. William Sloane Coffin (intellectual), Ken Hechler (former Congressman), Jeremy Rifkin (economist), and a former CIA agent whose name I forget (or did he wipe my memory?). I also got to meet many West Virginia politicians, such as Senators Byrd and Randolph, as well as Governors Rockefeller, Underwood, and Caperton (who served on the UC Board of Trustees while I was an ex officio member as student body president). I made many connections while a student in Charleston that helped me along life's way.

The education I received at UC let me get into our state's flagship institution, WVU. I'm proud that my training at UC seemed equivalent or even greater to my fellow students in grad school and law school. I am convinced that I ended up getting the best of both worlds by attending both UC and WVU. Plus, by waiting until 1981 through 1985 to attend WVU, the football and basketball teams were much more successful (a bowl game each year during that span, and probably the best teams of the Catlett era).

Besides the great education I attained there, perhaps the best reward for going to UC was the life-long friends that I made during that era. Facebook has served as an excellent tool for putting us all back in touch again. Some of the best people I ever met were at UC. My times with those folks in that place were some of the best experiences of my life, and as a result, my overnight dreams often revolve around UC days.

I think there are several lessons one can learn from my experience:

1. Not getting your first choice, while it hurts at first, may not turn out all that bad.
2. Don't assume that high school counselors know everything.
3. Just because a congressional recommendation is not needed, doesn't mean you shouldn't try to get one.
4. Make the most of whatever life gives you!
5. Friendships made over three decades ago can be reconnected and revived via Facebook.

This is the Coast Guard Academy's "Eagle," which all incoming freshman sail during the summer before beginning their freshman year. I would have been on this ship during the summer of '76 had I garnered a few more points.

My friend North Bend

When I was a youngster, if we wanted to do something special (such as if there was someone visiting), a popular thing to do was to picnic at North Bend State Park. It is only about 30 miles from where I grew up, and was the only state park in the vicinity (although now Blennerhassett Island is a state park). To me, North Bend has always been a wonderful place.

My earliest memories involve piling into our 1960 Oldsmobile and heading out two-lane (not four-lane) Route 50. During those picnics in the old days, pop only came in bottles with metal caps (requiring a bottle opener—no twist offs—and don't forget to put them back in the six-pack when empty to return to the store) or cans (don't throw your pop top pull ring on the ground!). There were no styrofoam plates or plastic cups, just paper versions. The ice chest and drink jug were not heavy duty plastic, they were metal.

In the late '60s during these day trips, we also played “Jarts”--a game described best described as horseshoes using lawn darts (with big fins and a heavy point on the end). Because a poorly aimed Jart could penetrate a skull, they have since been banned from the marketplace.

Unlike today's kids, while the adults set up the picnic, we (usually my cousins) were encouraged to head over to the nearest playground, to do all sorts of “dangerous” activities like monkey bars without the benefit of a rubberized landing area. We also were set free to hike the many trails (with names like the River Trail, the Nature Trail, the Giant Trees trail) within the park, without worrying about deer ticks, timber rattlers, or child predators. One of the best trails involved crossing the low water bridge to Castle Rock. When you could reach the pinnacle of Castle Rock and peer around the countryside above the treetops, you were someone special—and you knew this state park was someplace special, too.

If we were really lucky, we brought our swim suits and trudged up the steps to the pool on top of the hill. There was even natural rock formations bordering the pool area, and it was nice to climb up, spread your towel on the hot rocks, and sit during the mandatory breaks. By the way, I earned my lifesaving certificate my senior year in high school, because my plan was to work for Geraldine (?) as a lifeguard at North Bend before college. She ran the pool, and promised me a job there if I wanted it. However, I had to pass it up when the chemical plant where my dad worked selected me for summer work at a much higher wage.

When my sister and I got older, my parents bought a camping trailer. We visited lots of West Virginia State Parks, but North Bend was our home base. We would often set up camp there for the weekend. In addition to hiking and swimming, we also frequented the miniature golf (no windmills or clowns, just green carpet, brown 4 x 4s, and difficult angles). We always enjoyed the “ranger programs” and got to know the people who worked there pretty well (such as Geraldine, mentioned above).

In particular, Dave Meador was a local teacher who worked as a ranger during the summer. Mr. Meador eventually became Ritchie County School Superintendent, and I was glad that our paths crossed again when I was elected to the Wood County Board of Education. I learned lots of history and science from him. Sometimes there would be nature hikes, or even night hikes (where I learned to hold a flashlight vertically above a tombstone at night to make weather-worn engravings easy to read). He took us to see the Cairo Marble Factory while it was still in business. I remember being fascinated watching those red-hot glass blobs roll down the twin screws, eventually cooling into finished marbles.

We learned all about the oil and gas industry, even visiting a working oil well. The history of the nearby railroads and tunnels and crashes were explained. The sport of orienteering (using a map and compass to find the quickest path to the finish) was tried. We visited the Smithville hermit's cave, which had been hewn from solid rock by a guy who preferred living a simple life away from society. We explored the remnants of the old town of Cornwallis, including a visit to an old store there that was still full of antiques. I learned lots of Ritchie County lore during time spent with Mr. Meador or the other rangers (Dean Six and Chrissie Somerville? were two others).

Some major memories took place at North Bend. When I “graduated” from Murphytown Elementary (it only went to 5th grade, before they bussed us into town for 6th grade at Park Elementary), our class trip was to North Bend State Park. Before junior high school, I was picked (along with Ginny Peck and Jeff Sandy) to participate in a regional science camp. We stayed at the Harrisville 4-H camp, but many of the activities took place at North Bend. As a high schooler, I even got to stay there alone a time or two when we would leave the trailer there between two weekends (one time I hopped in a small rubber raft and floated down the rain-swollen river, through the park and past Bonds Creek before landing on a big rock, deflating the raft, packing it up into a Hefty garbage bag—I didn't have a backpack until I went to WVU), and hiking back over the hill past the lodge on my way back to the campground).

Those who weren't around in 1976 don't realize what a big deal our nation's Bicentennial was. Those who do can remember all the hype. Among other things, the TV networks running “Bicentennial Minutes”--short announcements related to what was going on 200 years ago that day. Many families planned where they wanted to be to celebrate that special Fourth of July. For our family, the place to be was North Bend—Dad and I went to the big “Spirit of '76” race at nearby Pennsboro Speedway on July 4, 1976. Finally, although it brings up a topic better left untouched, my ill-fated marriage began with a honeymoon in a cabin at North Bend.

Although I have not spent much time there in recent decades, at one time I knew North Bend like the back of my hand. That's why I didn't mind holding down a campsite there this week and commuting to work like other Ritchie Countians coworkers do. I was glad when Anna and her brothers realized that North Bend would be an equidistant point for the three of them to gather for a family reunion weekend. It let me spend time this week with an old friend.