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Collateral damage

There's a new paradigm for our post-Sept. 11th patriotism: big American flags, flying proudly and prominently--but left outside at night, and when it rains. It says something, maybe, about the depth of our commitment to the treasure of freedom. We make our statement, express our oneness, and drop our check in the mail. But vigilance? Come on, we're busy. We hung the thing up. What more do you want? Blood?

Blood, of course, is what it's all about, and not just the kind you swap for juice and cookies. My dad, a Fourth Division Marine in World War II, lost 75 percent of his company in combat. He's 83 now, and though I've never been able to extract a wartime story from him, mom heard a rare one once: a story about running up a white sand beach, under fire, and seeing his buddies fall on either side of him. And then continuing, by the grace of God, to run.

Dad was getting ready to make a ground invasion of Japan the day they dropped the atomic bomb. It was a tradeoff: an estimated one million Americans were expected to lose their lives in that assault. Someone came running into camp saying the war was over, and they thought he was crazy, talking about something out of Buck Rogers. You could say the atomic bomb is the only reason I'm here today. You could also say that 200,000 Japanese civilians died to make it possible.

The 20th century was an exceedingly bad time to be a civilian. By one estimate, as the century began, 85 to 90 percent of wartime deaths were military. That dropped to less than 50 percent around World War II. As the century ended, three-quarters of wartime deaths were civilian. But it's soldiers, not civilians, who are seen as heroes--after all, they choose to be put in harm's way.

Maybe that's why I'm reluctant to classify my 52-year-old brother, Jim, as a hero--even though people keep telling me he is. He had the misfortune to be working on the 96th floor of One World Trade Center on the morning of Sept 11. To the best of our knowledge, he took a direct hit from the first airplane.

Was he a hero? Did he die for his country? He died, and that's enough. Even now, it's hard to wrap our brains around the exact circumstance of his death, but we pray it was quick and horror-free. Less horrifying, at least, than for the folks left standing on the roof. Or for the ones who jumped out the windows. Or for the ones onboard the planes.

It's two days before the attack, and after listening to a weekend of bad news chronicling the rise in unemployment, the drop in the stock market, and the world economy tail spinning into a global recession, my wife and I turn to each other with all the irony we can muster and agree: what we need right now is a good war. Two days later, we have one--at least, that's what we're told.

There certainly isn't a lot of peace on I-95, on our way to my brother's house in Princeton, New Jersey. A car whizzes by with a huge decal occupying the back windshield, "WE WILL HUNT YOU DOWN." It's a flag in the shape of the United States. It's only 48 hours after the attack, and a radio call-in host outside of Washington, D.C. has run out of patience with attempts to assemble a response coalition. "Why don't we just bomb first?" he suggests. "Tell them, 'Excuse us, we've got some business to take care of,' and get back to them later?" Bomb who, bomb what, bomb where? He isn't saying.

We hear endless church services on the radio. One speaker laments our "shallow knowledge" of God's will, and I wonder whether our shallow knowledge isn't a function of defense contractors running network news departments. When, during a service at the National Cathedral, Billy Graham asks God to give us the strength to do what we have to do, he sounds like he's christening a battleship. Preacher after preacher tells us that God is on the side of the righteous. I imagine that's what the hijackers screamed just before they hit the towers.

Jim's wife is a basket case. She can't stop talking, and the reason she can't stop talking, is that when she stops talking, she starts crying. So she keeps talking. Talking to friends on the phone, to family, to neighbors, to her sister, who's been sleeping over. She hugs me and says, "You're the right size. You're the only one who feels like him." She's got a friend canvassing the hospitals. Jim's company is doing the same. She's filed a missing person's report with the New York City Police Department. It was four pages long and required her to identify her husband's body in intimate detail--down to the metal screws that remained after surgery for a broken leg. That was her trump card: the screws, like fingerprints, would identify him.

We've got more comfort to exchange, so we drive upstate the next day to see my parents. At 76, mom's been around long enough to bury a fair number of her friends. But a son? "This is going to kill my parents," I tell myself. But I know it won't--and the knowing only makes me sadder.

For the past three days, we've have an unspoken mutual agreement: we know Jim's dead, but we pretend he isn't. Word has trickled in: someone on Jim's floor got out. Someone above Jim's floor got out. Survivors have talked about which floor they were on, and how long it took them to run down the stairs before the buildings collapsed.

We've done the math: it would be close, but it's possible: Jim is in a hospital. Jim got ferried to New Jersey. Jim has a head injury and can't say who he is. But Jim is alive, somewhere.

On Friday, I get a call from Jim's wife in Princeton. She's found out exactly where he was sitting. And from an eyewitness, the damage done by the plane. It took out eight floors of the building, each one an acre across, and his floor was one of them. He's gone, and he probably never knew what hit him. The suffering, she concludes, is all ours.

I reluctantly herd everyone into the living room--mom, dad, my wife, and my thankfully oblivious child--and relate the contents of the call. I have my arm around my mom when I hear a sound I have never heard before. It is a deep, almost mannish series of grunts. It is a heaving that seems to be coming from inside my mother's bones. Doubled over, she is repeating my brother's name: Jim. Jim. Jim.

I watch my parents, with that slight stoop of old age, stand up, shuffle over to each other, embrace, and weep. And I hear my mother say, "I don't want anyone else to ever have to feel this pain."

It's times like these when America becomes two countries, populated by two cultures. For one group, tragedy unites them in fellowship. There's family and friends, saying prayers, lighting candles, donating blood, sending mass cards, food and flowers.

Then there's the other group, the kind for whom an event of this order sharpens the lines of separation and difference. These people want blood--or at least, unquestioning allegiance.

Less than a week after the attacks, Fox News reports that a Florida-based company called NCCI has refused to let its employees display American flags at their work stations. A small firm a few minutes from my parents' house, MCCI, immediately begins to receive threats from Fox viewers. MCCI points out that they're not the same company, and that they don't have a policy prohibiting flags. Still, the company receives 100 abusive e-mails, a dozen threatening phone calls, threats to its 17 employees and their overseas sales agents. NCCI, meanwhile, announces that it never had a policy prohibiting flag displays. Fox bills itself as "The #1 Fair and Balanced Morning Show."

I bring my car to Jiffy Lube, an excuse to get out of the house for a while and get an oil change for the 700-mile trip we'll be taking back to North Carolina. CNN is on the television screen in the waiting room. The anchors trumpet "America's New War," like it's some kind of laundry detergent, and "Operation Infinite Justice" like it's a new show on the prime time schedule. I marvel at the efficiency of their marketing efforts on behalf of the military: does CNN actually broadcast from the Pentagon?

To be fair, every network's got its logo, its graphic, its slogan. But they're all the same in one major respect: they're all telling us we're at war. It occurs to me that the only people I hear clamoring for war are people who have never experienced a real one. The president. Talk show hosts. Newspaper columnists. Most of Congress.

But the people who know what war is aren't in a hurry. They're quiet. They approach the topic with a reverence and a respect reserved for something bigger than they are.

Bomb who, bomb what, bomb where? My dad is stone faced. His buddy, Leo, was on Iwo Jima with him until he was wounded by a sniper. Leo earned a Purple Heart. He brings my parents communion every day.

In 1946, the Infantry Journal Press in Washington published The Fourth Marine Division in World War II, a hardcover book recounting the progress of the Marines as they island-hopped their way across the South Pacific. Roi-Namur. Saipan. Tinian. Iwo Jima. Dad eventually got three copies, one for each of his sons: Jim, Bill, and David. The book is a product of its time, with references to "Japs" and liberators. But the strategizing and heroics it relates are breathtaking.

The tone, however, is at odds with the note my dad wrote to me on page one: "May you never know the obscenity of war with all its pain and sorrow and destructiveness."

My wife hunkers down at my old parochial grade school, which has offered her its computer lab so she can grade e-mailed assignments from her faraway students at North Carolina State University. She's sitting in the room where I sat when I was in the sixth grade, wearing a light blue shirt, navy blue pants, and a bow tie. I think to myself: could that little boy have ever, in his wildest dreams, imagined sitting here again, under these circumstances?

We start making plans for a memorial service. I talk to relatives I haven't spoken with in years. I get phone calls from high school friends and teachers I haven't heard from in decades. And I walk around my home town, having flashbacks like I'm in a movie. Here's the street where my oldest brother, Jim, pushed my go-cart into our neighbor's flower bed. Here's the corner where Jim saved me from getting beaten up when I was 10. Here's the park where Jim sent me off on my bike for the first time without training wheels. And here's the lake he kayaked on with his wife two weeks ago, when they came up for Labor Day weekend.

The lake is still there. Jim is gone.

Losing a brother is a unique experience. It's losing a touchstone; a huge piece of yourself. For me, the youngest of three, it's also like kicking a leg out of a three-legged stool. It's destroyed the dynamic of my family. I realize how much of my identity, even in adulthood, has been forged in relationship to Jim--in conjunction and opposition. We were close, and then we weren't. We both lived in New York City for a while, and then geography and marriage and responsibilities did the job they do on every family.

As the oldest and the youngest, we had an undeclared sibling rivalry. I succeeded in ways that he failed. I failed in ways that he succeeded. He endured his work, I relished mine. He dug in, I kept moving. He had money, I had a child. He took vacations, I stayed home.

Today, I can't measure my successes against his failures. He had a bald spot; I still have all of my hair. Only, it doesn't matter anymore.

Am I wrong to wish that my brother had a vocation instead of a job? That he had followed his bliss instead of hanging in and hanging on--through one layoff and rehiring, through back surgery from stress, through so many firings that at the time of his death he was doing the work of four people? Can I bear to think that he departed for work every day for the past three years, fully expecting to be fired when he got there? Or that he was planning to take early retirement in three years and live his life?

And what will I do with the vision of reconciliation that seemed, finally, to be approaching? The notion that, some day, the competition would evaporate, and we would make peace? With the passing of years, distance appeared to be trumped by togetherness. Jim and his wife came to North Carolina for our wedding. They spent this past Christmas at the Carolina Inn, and hung out on Franklin Street. They came to Cary in June for our son's first birthday. We were forging a new relationship as fully-formed adults. It had started. And just as soon, it stopped.

It's Sunday morning, the day after the memorial service and we're driving down Route 81 through Pennsylvania on our long way south. The sky is postcard blue, and the air has that snap that tells you it's coming up fall. Bright spots of red and orange jump out of the countryside to confirm it. We're playing a radio station that bills itself after every song as broadcasting from "the best country in the whole wide world." It's an oldies station.

We stop at a McDonald's for some extra-hot coffee. I ask the guy swabbing the toilet in the men's room how he's doing, and he lets out a long sigh. "I want to go home," he says. "Me, too," I reply.

Me, too. EndBlock

More by David Potorti


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