9/11/2001: us in America
In 2001, after what was for him an interminable wait while Alban played on his team week after week, Charlie started at age 6 playing soccer in the local under-8 soccer league. The practices and games were the highlight of his week. He played well on some days, and he played badly on others. His team won some matches, and lost others. He felt it all very keenly. We took the movie camera to some of the games, but trying to get a good shot with most of the play occurring too far away was very difficult.
After I had given up one Saturday, Alban took over and minutes later caught Charlie scoring a beautiful goal. It was the perfect goal for a six-year old. There’s a hysterical scream on the tape after the ball goes into the net, the long drawn-out howl of a South American soccer commentator, and that was Alban.
These are the good old days, and we are even catching some of them on video!
Soccer will not lead you to the American psyche. For that, you need to examine Pop Warner, the “cub scout” version of American football, which Tom played for the first time this season. It was a hard season for him. As a beginner, he did not play much in each game, because kids start at around the age of seven putting on all those pads and playing American football. His team lost every game. But Tom kept going. He kept making tackles. Tom is our tough cookie.
Early on in the season, I asked him why in a pre-game scrimmage he had not tried to catch the ball when it was thrown his way. “Because if I do they’ll all jump on me!” came the candid reply. If you know the game, you’ll know that he had already caught on to the basic principle. If you get the privilege of throwing, catching or running the ball, the entire opposition is focused on mauling just you. Tom’s coach overheard us, laughed, and gave me the word: “It’s an unnatural act, playing football. You either can do it, or not. But it’s no shame if you can’t: it’s an unnatural act.”
Mike Moran is also a tough cookie, and he can tell us something about football and the American psyche. He was the fireman from Rockaway Beach in Queens who stood up on stage during the Concert for New York that Paul McCartney organized at Madison Square Garden.
Mike paid tribute to the brother he lost at the World Trade Center, the eight members of his ladder who were lost at the World Trade Center, and the twenty members of the New York City Fire Department (American) football team that were lost at the World Trade Center. Twenty! Running into burning buildings is an unnatural act. You either can do it, or not. But it’s no shame if you can’t: it’s an unnatural act.
Mike Moran continued, he said, in “the spirit of the Irish people: Osama bin Laden, you can kiss my royal Irish ass!” The crown roared its approval, and after a while the roar spontaneously turned into that gut-felt chant: “U S A! U S A! U S A!”
2001 was the year that I finally raised the Stars and Stripes in front of the house. We Americans (yes, I’m one now) do many things wrong, and foreign policy in the Middle East is clearly one of them. But nothing justified the attacks of September 11. The power and the money and the style here fascinate the whole world, none more than those who profess to hold us in contempt. But mere envy, base prejudice and a kernel of political justification should not masquerade as something good, something sacred.
Of course, not everybody here is too focused on the international situation. Daphné is busy getting straight A’s, and maintaining a social life that normally requires two simultaneous telephone lines, one for the phone and the other for Internet messaging. Marie-Hélène noticed that, at 14, she keeps the phrase “I love . ..” on the blackboard in her room, periodically erasing one boy’s name and replacing it with another! She attends Teen Court, an orchestrated demonstration for teens of what can go wrong if you misbehave. The motives are laudable, but were perhaps perverted when she developed a crush on an accused pot smoker who embodied the mystique of the unrepentant sinner!
Alban taught us not to make him take an elective which he did not want to take by getting a “D” in his guitar class. He did just enough to avoid the ‘F’ that would have made him repeat the course. Okay: music is not for Alban!
His booming social life fits in a lot of time for playing with Alex and Charlie. He helps Alex learn letters and words, which makes us happy, and plays soccer with both little ones in the living room before wrestling with them all in a heap in the middle of the floor, which makes us less happy. He gave us a scare when he fell on his head skateboarding in town and needed a CAT scan in the emergency room, but he was fine.
Back at the bottom of our driveway on the day that I hung the Stars and Stripes, Nick and Alban were moved by the spectacle to start parodying the Pledge of Allegiance, the daily morning ritual of all schoolchildren in the USA, in front of the cars going by. Not wanting to antagonize and provoke any passer-by suffering from an excess of the patriotic fervor sweeping the country in the wake of September 11, I told them to stop.
“Dad,” retorted Nick, “it’s that flag which gives us the right to do this. That’s what freedom means.”
Long pause and stern look to conceal secret admiration. He’d been living in the US for a little over two years: how did he even know that?
We’re back to Mike Moran’s New York City firefighter colleagues, the ones who committed the unnatural act of running into the burning World Trade Center towers, and never committed another act in their lives. Freedom isn’t free, but it sure is worth a whole bunch. Thanks again guys.
A Happy and Prosperous New Year to you and yours!!!
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We’ve left the annual update now, in order to bring you an anecdote, a little story from 2001 that is fun to recount but was a little scary at the time.
It starts with a Greyhound bus. We were driving back home from Disneyland, and Tom and Charlie decided that they wanted to take the bus for a part of the trip. It can get stuffy and crowded in a car with too many children. So we put them on that bus in Santa Barbara, with tickets to Salinas. The Greyhound follows Highway 101, the main road to the North, but its schedule is relatively leisurely, to allow time for stops and mail or package deliveries at many of the towns, and some of the villages, on the route.
We drove Highway 1, the incredibly scenic coast highway built on the side of the mountains that rise out of the Pacific in Big Sur. We had plenty of time, even on that windy, sometimes narrow road, because of the bus’s slow schedule. Then, a little excitement. Flashing lights and a long line of stationary vehicles announced a rock slide. It wasn’t an avalanche, more a steady if erratic trickle of rocks rolling down the mountainside and across the road.
The remaining children of course jumped out to explore, disappeared up ahead, and then came running back brimming over with excitement because rocks had landed right next to them. Parental gulps, but we did not need to say anything else. They had scared themselves, even though they had been standing next to responsible adults when these rocks fell. On their way back, they had gleaned that the CHP, California’s highway police, were not letting cars through until the slide stopped.
How were we going to get to Salinas in time to meet the bus? There are very few minor roads in this part of the world: the terrain is too forbidding. But there was one a few miles back from the slide, the Nacimiento Road, and we had to take it. It was incredibly windy, with cliffs dropping off to the left and right, very few barriers and even fewer lines in the middle of the road. We drove slowly and for along time, up, up and up into the Ventana wilderness, great views at times if we could ignore the missing barriers.
Then we were stopped by armed soldiers! As in the American Army!
It turned out that the road crossed an army base on the inland side of the mountains. The base had been alerted about the rock slide on the coast highway and were guiding those intrepid souls like us who made our way to the base in a convoy across to highway 101. We duly arrived at the highway (thanks guys!), and belted up to Salinas, where we found Charlie and Tom in the Greyhound depot, where they had been waiting perhaps half an hour for us. No panic, just waiting. But I must admit that we had burned though a ton of nervous energy on the long drive from the rock slide over the mountains and across the army base.
All’s well that ends well!