For 2 years now, from 5-11 pm Monday through Friday, I man the switchboard solo at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Washington, DC, and call the code blues.
I just pushed the remote to WETA 32 (PBS) and saw through my black sunglasses the famous footage of the World Trade Center being perforated by jets. Again I witnessed the shape of a huge cross in the image of the horizontal line of fire tearing through the second vertical tower. Again, even though it was 6 years ago, the ravage brought angry tears to my eyes: Lasik in 1999 rendered my chronic severe dry eye condition, by 2000, such that I am unable to read for extensive periods, but I have always been able to cry. And I will always cry at the footage of that fateful, brilliant morning of September 11, 2001.
I recalled being sheltered in the E. Paterson, NJ kindergarten closet during air-raid drills, near where a statue of Alexander Hamilton stands proud on the banks of the Passaic River.
Not long after I moved down to DC from NJ, I was house sitting for a week on Albemarle St. NW, a block away from the house of my then-new friend Frances Papa. Frances had kindly rented me a room, sight unseen, just because she knew my mother.
Elvis died the week I was house sitting. I sat in the dark in a rocking chair listening solemnly as the radio played, “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.”
Frances had introduced me to Timmy (Themistocles), her eldest nephew, a big Greek-American Vietnam Vet with a penchant for games. Since I was new in town and Timmy was a fellow “countryman,” I agreed to spend Saturday with him and a buddy of his. Timmy was to pick me up around noon at Albemarle St., with a surprise in the trunk of his car. I also had a first date set up for that night with a guy who lived nearby, on Yuma St.
As soon as I woke up that Saturday morning, something made me grab pen and paper and scribble these words:
Clouds are organizing in the East.
The marksman kneels in the nettle.
Black trees against a fiery background cut a jagged crosshatch through the sky.
Like teeth in the neck of a rabbit, blood pours from the sky.
Right away I thought, “These mysterious words have nothing to do with me.” I pulled on my jeans and stuffed the paper in my back pocket.
After Timmy came to pick me up, Timmy said, “Let’s see what’s on the radio.” He turned it on, and out came the words:
“Clouds are organizing in the East.” Then, irritated, Timmy shut the radio and said, “Hell, it sounds like it might rain.”
We drove about a half hour and were out in the country. Timmy parked the car next to a field and said, “This is as good a place as any.” I wondered what he had planned. He got out, opened the trunk of the car and showed me three skeet-shooting rifles. Gleefully, I grabbed a gun and followed the two guys to a stand of long grass. Then the young man, the buddy, knelt and took his first shot:
“The marksman kneels in the nettle.”
I thought, “This is interesting . . . first one line and then the next. ”
We had great fun skeet shooting all afternoon and started the drive home at sunset. I noticed the brilliant orange sky and the black trees in front of it:
“Black trees against a fiery background cut a jagged crosshatch through the sky.”
That night, when the guy from Yuma St. came over to Albemarle St. to pick me up for our date, I was combing my hair in the living room, looking into the mirror, and I could see him looking at me from behind. He said, “You might think this is kind of weird, but as I look at your hair, neck and teeth, I picture a rabbit in a field.” I pulled out the paper from my back pocket and was stunned: “Like teeth in the neck of a rabbit.”
But I didn’t think twice about going out that night.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I awoke and again grabbed pen and paper and wrote down the same lines I’d written in 1977. I’d forgotten that the last line hadn’t “come out” yet. I nervously drove over to attend seminary class, parked my car and went into the TV lounge and saw the World Trade Centers being ripped by planes. In panic, I ran to the chapel, where we all prayed. As I prayed I thought,
“So: It took this many years for the last line to come out:
“Blood pours from the sky.”
But that day ALL the lines came out.
Kyrie Eleison (Greek: “Lord, have mercy”).