On this day, September 11, we are all invited to pause and reflect on that terrible day. As with Pearl Harbor, as with JFK’s assassination, we remember where we were and what we were doing. But, out of the ashes, I found some hope about six weeks later when I ran in the New York City Marathon.
There was some question as to whether the marathon would even occur. In the days and weeks after the attacks, it was unclear if there would be more attacks. Beyond that, having thousands of runners standing on an open bridge at the start of the marathon seemed to invite danger. Yet one week before, it was announced that the marathon would happen, even though fully one third of registered runners had dropped out.
As I contemplated whether or not I would go, I admit to being afraid. Thankfully I didn’t let fear make the decision and I boarded the plane for New York City. Yes, I ran and yes I finished. But there are some enduring images that have stayed with me and that gave me hope.
Near where I was staying in the Times Square area was a fire station. It was decorated with mementos and memorials. That station had lost a significant portion of their fire fighters. People would stop and ask to be photographed with surviving fire fighters. After all, they were all genuine heroes.
The day before the marathon my sons and I got as close as we could to the site of those attacks. We could still smell smoke and ashes and grew quiet as a flat bed drove by carrying a huge piece of metal from one of the destroyed structures.
The day of the marathon we were warned not to accept drinks from strangers in the crowd but only at official rehydration stops. Again, there were still many unknowns and considerable fear.
As the marathon was about to start, at the front with arms linked were fire fighters and police officers, another enduring image from that day.
But the image that has stayed with me the most is that of a lone New York City policeman. My son had encouraged me to wear a T-shirt that said where I was from and also had my first name on it. Indeed that created some nice interactions with people in the crowd, to include several yelling out “Hey! I’m from El Paso!” I finished the marathon and was walking to meet my sons, the finisher’s medal about my neck. To one side was a lone policeman. He looked at me and said “Congratulations, Rich. You did it.” I went over and shook his hand. But as I was walking away, I began to imagine what that man might have been through the past weeks. Recovering from his own sense of shock. Grief over the loss of what likely were numerous friends among first responders. And yet he could for a moment set all that aside to affirm a middle-aged exhausted runner who clearly finished near the back of the pack. Somehow that image more than anything else from those days has stood as a beacon of hope — that amidst the darkest times many are able to rise above their own pain to deliver an act of simple kindness.
So on this day and in the wake of senseless shootings in my hometown, the memory of a solitary policeman somehow reminds me that even in the midst of that darkness some can truly rise on eagle’s wings.