I needed to get my hands on a serious weapon and lots of ammunition or retreat to the eastern end of Long Island, to the south shore, a place where as a homebuilder I’d often found work and rejuvenation for the spirit. I chose to retreat or escape; I’m not sure which word was appropriate.
I had to get away after almost a week of seeing fireballs over lower Manhattan, news clips of New Yorkers running and screaming, faces filled with anguish and terror, reminding me of Edward Munch’s painting “The Scream.” I needed to distance myself from journalists explaining over and over how the Twin Towers, flight 93 and the Pentagon had been attacked by suicidal terrorists.
The town of Westhampton has a bridge south of Jessup Lane connecting a long rope-like barrier beach named Dune Road to the mainland. I crossed it and headed west to a pristine area of sand and ocean named Cupsogue Beach where, back in the day, on a week-end or after a good day’s work, many happy hours were spent relaxing with family and friends.
I lay on a blanket within earshot of the surf washing the sandy shoreline while innocent voices of children mingled with the calls of low-swooping seagulls. I was pleased with my decision to leave the craziness behind. Normally the warm mid-September water attracts a crowd eager to enjoy a last beach day but this was not a normal week-end.
A family walked by, kicking up sand as they approached the churning Atlantic Ocean waves. The three figures, a father, mother, and daughter dipped their toes into the still-mild September water.
The father, with his back to the mid-afternoon sun, raised both arms creating a shadow on the sand. I watched with curiosity as mother and daughter, a girl of about ten with red hair and a face covered with a field of blossoming freckles, formed their shadows. They stretched on tiptoes trying to outdo the father, but they failed. The father was much taller and his shadow much longer. The young girl hung her head and her shoulders drooped.
“Wait!” I wanted to yell out. “Hold on there, you can do it.” I wanted them to return in just a few hours when the bright sun would be lower in the sky. “Come back, just you and your mom. Come back and I will measure your shadow. It will be longer, much longer than that of your husband, your father.” How could I explain to a ten year old the importance of timing? It is not only what we do but also when we do it. It is not only what we say, but also when we say it.
On the morning of September eleven, a dark and evil shadow passed over lower Manhattan, over the entire country, and over the world. Thousands of New Yorkers were going about their business within the towers, many with plans of being with their families and loved ones that evening. A deadly fast-moving shadow shattered those hopes and plans.
The monstrous shadows destroyed the Twin Towers and ended those plans but were not totally successful. Like two massive but vulnerable and innocent giants, the towers collapsed, falling to the pavement, trying their best not to harm the smaller buildings and their horrified, unsuspecting occupants. Unfortunately, many lost their lives.
I considered the strong possibility I’d built summer homes for victims of the terrorist attack. The homes stood not far from this peaceful stretch of beach in towns named Remsenburg, Westhampton and Quogue. Left undisturbed were their belongings, locked within the cedar-covered wood and glass exteriors; a faded pair of jeans, worn flip-flops, a family photo or sadly a notepad on a coffee table containing scribbled shopping lists or random thoughts to be re-visited upon his or her next trip to the east end of long Island.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me.” The poor souls who lost everything that September morning will never fear again, nor will they return for a second chance.
The rest of us have a second chance. We can measures ourselves against long-standing shadows as well as those yet to appear. Evil shadows exist here among us. Some shadows are labeled prejudice, hate, hunger, greed and malice.
All shadows are not evil. I stretched my body in the shadows of tall broadleaved trees for protection from hot summer days. I walked in the shadows of Manhattan steel and glass skyscrapers and found protection from howling winter winds and icy rain. I stood in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln monument and felt their strength and grace. As a boy I played in the shadow of the Old North Church, a Boston symbol of patriotism during the American Revolution.
As an awkward teenager, I walked in the shadow of Papa Jack, my grandfather, and learned much. He came to this country over one hundred years ago bringing old world values of hard work, honesty and love of family.
The heroic shadows of hundreds of firefighters, police, and emergency responders racing into the burning towers will forever be imprinted in our collective memory.
As I tried to make sense of what happened in lower Manhattan, of what was clearly madness, a large fair-weather cloud drifted in from the south. It seemed to read my mind, hanging motionless above my piece of beach, providing shade from the hot sun.
Let us raise our guard, our awareness to danger, but never run from fear. We can live strong, full lives and never forget what happened on that unimaginable day. Let the shadows of brave men and women in the military and police chase down all who threaten freedom. May all well-meaning shadows spread and protect us like the ever-lengthening shadows of a father, mother and daughter on a warm September afternoon at Cupsogue Beach.