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Concrete reminders of our history

June 2, 2011 - Betsy Bethel
Life happens at such a break-neck pace we rarely have a second to ponder the remarkable things that happen to us every day. In the past two weeks, I have forged valuable memories, but if I don't cement them in writing they are likely to get swept away into an unmarked folder in the part of my brain that is akin to the basement filing cabinet buried under old sports equipment and strands of broken Christmas lights.

A noteworthy journey occurred on Sunday, May 22, as three other bagpipers and I headed across Pennsylvania's countryside from Fair Hill, Md., where we had played at a huge Highland festival the day before. Along U.S. 30, we passed Gettysburg, where we stopped briefly to stand in the spot where that momentous Civil War battle's first shots were fired 148 years ago. Monuments made of concrete and iron punctuate the landscape — our nation's way of cementing its history so we won't forget ... a mounted general here, a captain there, a field hospital in that barn, a charge that started on that ridge. In the three days of the battle, thousands lost their lives in what amounted to the largest slaughter on North American soil. Having lived in both the north and south and having recently watched Ken Burns' famous documentary series on the war, I felt no sense of pride standing there in that beautiful countryside, the mountains rising to the north and the sloping, long-ago blood-soaked farmland and forests to the south. I didn't feel righteous or victorious or even grateful. Instead I felt an overwhelming sadness, because both sides were fighting for freedom and although the North was victorious, so many individuals and families lost everything at Gettysburg.

We climbed back in the van and journeyed on until a small sign pointed us down a back road past the farms and trailers of Shanksville to a small metal barn that houses the Flight 93 Temporary Memorial. There, we were reminded of the fate of a commercial airliner nearly 10 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001. We looked out at the open field where al-Quaida terrorists who had taken over the plane were forced by a group of heroic passengers to crash it. All 40 passengers and crew perished. The terrorists, however, fell short of their intended target, the U.S. Capitol, where legislators were in session. We then retrieved our pipe cases from the van, quietly assembled them and solemnly walked to the overlook, where we played the hymns "Martyrdom" and "Amazing Grace," in honor of those ordinary American civilians who took extraordinary actions that morning in the bright blue September sky over Pennsylvania. I get choked up every time I think about those men, who were brave beyond comprehension. They, too, were soldiers in the cause of freedom. I feel a perplexing mixture of fury, pride, awe and grief as I look at the field in the distance and imagine the plane, which witnesses say was inverted just before it crashed, exploding in a fireball.

I plan to return to the spot on Sept. 11 this year, the 10th anniversary, for the memorial's official opening The work will not yet be completed, but the plans overwhelm me with their grand scale and touching tributes — from a stand of 40 trees, to a wall inscribed with the 40 names that follows the flight path leading to the "final resting place," to the 93-foot Tower of Voices at the memorial's entrance that will hold 40 wind chimes representing the enduring voices of the 40 martyrs. I'm told that Pennsylvania field is unlike the other 9/11 memorials in that it is isolated, quiet, open. Even in its unfinished state, it invites contemplation, spurns the fast pace of our daily lives, and indelibly inscribes the tragedy on our hearts.

"Timeless in simplicity and beauty, like its landscape, both stark and serene, the Memorial should be quiet in reverence, yet powerful in form, a place both solemn and uplifting." — Paul Murdoch, Flight 93 Memorial architect


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