At the Flight 93 memorial
By Patrick McGinty
The road is newer inside the park. Forest regeneration is underway in slanted columns that are not it. A teal fountain in the tree-and-dirt distance becomes a lone port-o-john. A pond is then a marsh. Two tan port-o-johns are yoked close before an empty field. We park between blueish plates from Kentucky and Kansas and walk past Abraham Lincoln and dirty oranges and Massachusetts to a cement plaza.
Unlike memorials at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the tacit goal of the Flight 93 Memorial is to construct a meaningful structure of some kind in a place where there was once nothing. “Normalcy” was nature. There are no looping patriotic videos here. Save a park ranger type character, there is no overseer of any kind. The premises, like all national parks, are heavily advertised as trashless. Four signs a woman terms “zoo-like” are displayed before an empty field that is not it. I read each several times and can report that during this time more than fifty-six percent of the passers-by found the exclamation points to be misthought. America Attacked! is the header on one. Another: Mayday! The third write-up is curt, informative. Plane parts were found forty feet into the earth. The largest piece recovered was a six-foot-by-seven-foot piece of fuselage. The sign nearest the field is simple: Forty pictures in a five-by-eight grid of the crew and passengers. I’m not the only one who keeps looking out to the field thinking there should be...something. There’s normally a statue or flag at these things. There is only a green then greenyellow field. Four tan port-o-johns huddle in the back left, a larger gray one on the end.
The flag is a little further up. It flies forty or fifty feet above an outdoor classroom of sorts. Two or three dozen chairs grow from the gray-white plaza, and past the podium, a long wide sidewalk dissects the land. On the left in place of a fence is a triangular charcoal cylinder, a prism that points up, its base grounded, and that’s when you realize it is out there. It’s not the port-o-johns or the marsh or the guys fussing with a makeshift stage out by the white wall one hundred yards away. It is out beyond the low black barrier that’s almost like a ramp. A woman tells me that the path the prism takes was once police tape.
Hundreds of crickets are in the black-eyed Susans covering the it field. Crickets are busy in the field field, too, but you stop looking that way once you’re out on the walk. Either people stop talking or the crickets get louder. There is enough wide open space to start a city but two visitors are in wheelchairs so the general walking pace is kept slow. Plus you aren’t really supposed to whiz through these things. The white gleaming wall is ahead of you the whole time but those trees beyond the ramp and the Susans and the slightest of declines: those are the trees from the zoo signs. Those are the trees climbed and cleaned of human debris by the arborist, the one from the cover of the Sunday Post-Gazette. The one who is not well.
The stage for Wednesday has ten aluminum steps on either side. Given the platform’s half-dressed state, it is hard to decipher or even guess what exactly will transpire on the anniversary. Attendance must be pre-confirmed via email. Families of the victims will be allowed on the crash site. Or they are always allowed on the crash site. Do they hop the ramp? None of the information I receive is what you’d call official.
The white wall is eight or nine feet high and is not a wall, neccessarily. White marble dominoes are lined thin-side to thin-side. A single name is chiseled and inked in each at eye-level. The universal first thought is of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the second is...what, exactly? That there’s less names? That these names are more prominent? What parallel would you like to draw? The base of the white rectangles are bestowed with small ribbons or flags. One or two Steelers-related items are down there. The flight was from Newark to San Francisco which makes the offering not only tacky but also presumptuous and my mother calls me over, says Look.
Beneath a blackly etched name is a faint, colorless watermark that reads “and unborn child.” To miss this on the first pass makes you wonder what type of person you are. Other people notice it because I am now so obviously noticing it. The light under-etching is a sinister bit of design that is also weirdly educational in this moment if not downright communal. Pay attention. Or pay attention to those who are paying attention.
Folks are paying attention back where the prism meets the wall. The wall is deceptive. It is actually two parallel walls with a slight yawn between them. The families of the victims do not, it turns out, have to hop the ramp.
A white-walled roofless hallway hides a gate as tall as the walls. The gate does not fold in or out down the middle. Its wood must be new but looks old. The vertical planks are wider than the gaps between them. Susans and trees peek through, wagging. Visitors stare from their faces like I do at this simple wooden object that’s been built between us and it, this tall anchored swing gate that brings a chill to rural mid-Atlantic September, a cold natural non-periodic element. The pulse of crickets is steady. Men hammer at the stage.