Oct 11th - One Month On

American Flags

It is one month since the phone rang and I picked it up while working at my desk. It was 09.30 and the caller said – “turn on the TV – something is happening in New York”. I turned on the TV and listened to the commentators saying it appeared that a plane had hit the WTC. The picture was of smoke pouring out of a tower. A few moments later a second plane flew into the second building live and we were left in no doubt. A cut to the Pentagon for comment and the commentator ducked as there was a distinct explosion behind him.

It took me two hours to get through to a student friend in Washington. All lines were busy and when I finally got her on a cell phone. I had clearly woken her up (student life!). I suggested she look out the window (Georgetown on the north bank of the Potomac more or less overlooks the Pentagon on the south side).

America went flag crazy. As businesses laid folk off in uncertain times the flag makers were out of stock in just a couple of days and were hiring. If you’re seeking information about the Texas Confederate flag, you can find it in this article.

Americans don’t understand why anyone could not like America. It is hard to explain that many in the world see the US differently. THIS IS NOT TO CONDONE WHAT HAPPENED – but being a foreigner in the US is a little more difficult than usual and having another view has strained a few discussions with folks you otherwise consider rational and outward looking. It doesn’t matter that you lead with – “it doesn’t condone what happened…” People just don’t understand how invasive US culture is. It certainly drives home how invasive the British Empire was at its peak in the 1910′s.

It must be hell if you wear a turban. It is hell. A sheik was arrested on the train on the 12th September while apparently fleeing a police raid in Boston. The Providence Police acting on a tip off from Boston stopped the train and arrested him. Holding charge – possession of a concealed weapon – a religious ceremonial knife. The next day the Providence Police released the man – clearly embarrassed that they had held him at all. The mayor issued a carefully worded statement praising the police for acting promptly and rather pointedly reminding folks they were acting on information received and had not made the decision themselves.

It is now – October 11th – and I am in Washington visiting my friend. Driving across the top of Manhattan Island and down the New Jersey shore the New York skyline has been altered forever. The eye jars as it sweeps across the horizon and something is missing.

There are F15′s lazily leaving contrails at 30,000ft plus over Washington, waiting to pounce on anything flying over that should not be. They are cleared to shoot first and ask later. There have been two close calls. A pilot who punched the wrong radar transponder code into his aircraft and failed to answer air traffic control and a private plane that missed the Notice to Airmen saying “no flying over cities”. The town is trying to keep going but the Capitol is shut (the anthrax thing is just starting).

There are flags EVERYWHERE in America.

In Washington I can get into any show or museum I want to visit. The Holocaust Museum – normally a three-month waiting list for a 90-minute timed slot – is wide open. “How many tickets do you want?”. The Metro is heavily policed – the day before a deranged person shot a pistol in the air and sprayed a liquid in a station (carpet cleaner and mentally ill). I visit the National Air and Space Museum where there are artifacts of every major flight and space achievement from the Wright Brothers original “Flyer” to a German V2 rocket to Skylab to an Apollo – Soyuz module linked in eternal friendship between America and Russia. The full-size Lunar Module sitting on a piece of simulated moonscape looks dusty, tired and irrelevant. There is almost no one here and fewer care.

We attend University discussions about choosing your major to try and help my friend decide. The Georgetown School of Foreign Studies is charged with energy. Every Arab speaking professor and most of the students have been hired by the government and are not in classes. My friend’s intern job with Chemonics has been to review and formulate policy towards dealing with Yemen. Suddenly Afghanistan is also included.

We go watch polo. My friend is the Vice-President of the Georgetown Club and captain of the women’s team. They have 12 donated horses – some of whom are a handful. We ride and exercise them in an open arena in Poolesville to the west of Washington. All very normal here.

After Washington and on the way home I take a few days to see another bit of America. I visit Gettysburg to view the scene of the US Civil War’s pivotal battle when the North won a major victory and stopped the Confederate Army advance. I thought it would be a quiet weekend, the residents of Gettysburg thought so too. Rooms were not prepared, there was hardly any food in town. Everyone in a major city around the town thought they would drive to Gettysburg for the weekend as it “would be quiet – you don’t need to fly”. I finally found a room 10 miles from town in a plastic hotel and visited the battlefield the next day. Amazing monuments on the northern lines – the south had no money to put any up – all that are there are modern – put up over a hundred years after the battle. The pivotal point at Little Roundtop – held by a few men who ran out of ammunition and made a last desperate charge with bayonets. They had nothing else left and were being overwhelmed by the Southern Army. Amazingly they broke the rebel charge and held the flank. It is just like in any of the modern movies about it. The hurriedly built walls for shelter are still there. It is unbelievable – especially this weekend.

The place is full of re-enactors. Dinner in a tavern – next to a major and his wife in 1860′s garb. Normal folks till you get them talking about the civil war. He plays the part (hell he has played real parts in three movies!). All the stores are full of fake uniforms and swords and guns. In one store it is clearly the real stuff from the real war. People in here are fanatics. They are carefully comparing notes and making sure they get the right item to go with the part they play. The conversation is funny: – “Do you KNOW how many f*&king General Meade’s there are in town this weekend?!! It’s not right you know – who appointed them??”. I leave amused.

Next day I drove to Amish country and looked around. They really do still dress in black and drive horses and buggies on the roads. The food is good and the Amish are very private. There is a whole layer of non-Amish people who actually interface with the public who come to look. The Amish don’t like being a tourist attraction but accept it. The stores are full of booklets explaining their point of view.

I love the drive-up bank window which is set at a height for horse and buggies. There is water for the horse! If you hitch your horse on the rail and go inside there is a shovel for the poop for when you come out.

America – in all its shades and flavors – endures…..