Today, a park dedication took place in Hoboken, NJ, USA. The Debbie Williams Memorial Playground was dedicated today, in honor of one of the many Hoboken residents who fell victim to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 9-11-01. Some very special people were there, and it was a moving and important event for many. Many family and friends of Mrs. Williams were in atendance, from all over the world. They came to see a playground enter service, in her honor. This was a park that Mrs. Williams took her child to many times, located in a city that she had adopted from her native Canada. Plenty of children were on hand, and seconds after the ribbon was cut, they were crawling all over the playrgound apparatus, putting the park to work making children happy. Despite the truly dismal weather, one could almost feel a ray of sunshine beaming out as those kids faces lit up and they lost themselves in the fun of exploration.
Brenda & I were there, not because we knew Mrs. Williams, but because some special people in our lives also were in attendance. Sara Giannakakis and Sherry Childs, the Assistant Principal and Principal of the Glenwood Primary School in Rome, GA, flew all the way up to be there today. Raymond Smith, a Hoboken artist, was there. Brenda & I were there. None of us had never met in person, but we knew each other and had formed a tight friendship over the course of the last year. The common bond? A flag. A flag that not only represented the spirit of the United States of America but also the spirit of a community, the capacity of people To Be Nice. The desire of people to understand, to contribute, to help. A flag that embodied everything that is right with the world, despite signs everywhere to the contrary.
I was an eye-witness to the attack on the World Trade Center. I was, and still am, very messed up by what I experienced. I wrote about it. I sent it to family and friends, and, like those old Wella Balsam shampoo ads from twenty years ago, they told two friends about it, and they told two friends about it, and so on, and so on, and so on. My story ended up in Sara’s email inbox, and she sent me a reply. (She & Sherry told me today that there was much hand wringing over this, wondering if that might be rude to blindly correspond with me, a stranger. Oh those southerners!) As it turns out, I was delighted to hear from her, and it was one of the first of many exchanges I have had with people who read my story. (I thank you all for taking the time to send me a note.)
In the immediate aftermath and chaos of 9-11, the art teacher at Glenwood Primary had an idea, to create a flag made up of the handprints of the kids from the school. I believe the flag project served as both a distraction from the horrifying reality of what just transpired, as well as giving them a sense of lending some support to a hurting New York City. Well, it turns out that the people of Rome, Georgia all wanted to prop us up. The flag ended up containing not only the handprints of the kids, but also the teachers and the parents. It became a community project that helped a town help a city.
Sara now had a new friend in the New York area (me), so she asked if she could send the flag to me to do something with it. Brenda & I took it to Pier A Park on the Hoboken waterfront, near where I saw everything go down on 9-11. We tied it to a railing, and that was it. That's where my involvement ended.
The flag took care of the rest.
Pier A had become a shrine to the WTC victims, and a steady stream of people had been coming down there ever since that awful day, to pay their respects, to see the altered skyline, to reflect. They all saw this flag made up of handprints, some of the palms being quite small. It made quite an impact. Brenda & I sat nearby and watched and listened to people as they walked by; they all stopped short at that flag. They did double takes, leaned in, and studied the details. “Look, it’s little hands.” “Hey, Julie, come here look at this, look it’s the prints of other school children, look what they did”, said one mother to her daughter. I’m glad Brenda convinced me to take it down there so everyone could see it. (I wanted to fly it from our apartment fire escape, but no one would have been able to see those little palmprints.)
Another person who saw it was Raymond Smith, a local artist. He was preparing an art exhibit of children's artwork regarding 9-11, and felt that the flag belonged in the exhibit. The flag moved to Hoboken's City Hall, as a featured piece in the exhibit, but it ended up staying around long after. The Mayor felt it deserved a permanent home and it was decided to keep the flag up full-time. (As it turns out, politics reared its ugly head and the flag has since been co-opted several times for partisan fundraisers and such, but there is hope that it will find a proper home in Hoboken's Historical Museum in due time. But I digress.)
So today, in Hoboken, under a very gray sky, high winds and pelting rain, the five of us met face-to-face. It was wonderful. Like a completion of something. Not in the sense that our communications will cease (quite the contrary; we have an open invitation to visit Rome), but just in the sense that we have formally met. We have faces and hugs and handshakes to go with all the words and emotions we have shared over the last year. Ray & I shook hands, and looked at each other, saying a lot without speaking a word. He's a neat guy and I wish I had more time to talk with him and his wife and kids. But he was busy creating a flag too; Rome is getting a reciprocal palmprint flag and I'm proud to have my hand on there. Ray's dedication to the Rome flag, and his efforts to compile an accurate list of all the Hoboken victims—Hoboken lost more residents on 9-11 than any other city or town anywhere—are commendable, and deserve more recognition.
As it turns out, we all were named on a proclimation; Ray and Sara were really excited to have me named on it, but I still say I didn’t do anything. I’m flattered, and honored, and I thank you, but I still say that the people of Rome, GA and Ray Smith are the heroes of this story. But I will hang that puppy on a wall in my house and show it to everyone who comes over.
Brenda, Sara, Sherry and I walked around Hoboken while we played tour guides, feeling a bit nostalgic (we moved to the "suburbs" two months ago). We took them to Pier A and showed them the place where their flag hung. I showed them where I was standing on 9-11. I showed them lots of little things that I love about Hoboken. We stopped in a cafe and snacked, and talked, got to know each other. It's funny, because not only do I know the two of them, but I also know two other guys who grew up in Rome from an aviation-related mailing list I subscribe to. They still remain email addresses; we have not met in person, but hopefully someday. In fact, one of them was going to try and fly up in his single engine airplane, but Ma Nature had other plans for that. (We missed ya Stan, why not come up for Thanksgiving?)
Driving home, Brenda & I compared notes. Bottom line: we want to know more people like Sara, Ray, and Sherry.