Saturday, September 11, 2004

Today is a sad day for me. On this day, two things struck at my heart: one as an American, one as a member of a smaller, more tight-knit community. On September 11, 2001, my country was struck by a series of vile terrorist attacks. On September 11, 2003, one of my oldest friends died after a battle with kidney disease. I thought it might be right to say a little something about both.

September 11, 2001 was another Tuesday for me. I got up early to go to work at the Horace Mann office in Springfield, where I temped for a great group of people. I helped take care of various office work until I could land that one permanent job with the state bureaucracy. I figured after a few years of riding the state gravy train, my student loan would be paid off and I could go back to college to get my Masters and Ph.D. I settled into my ersatz cubicle which was really just an empty space where everyone else's filing cabinets and cubicle dividers met the walls of the building. I logged onto the internet, since it was a slow morning and I'd just figured out how to surf while working. I think the first topic of the morning was a new debate of office workers all over Springfield: Krispy Kreme doughnuts were muscling in on local favorite Mel-O-Cream. A true Springfielder will respect Krispy Kremes, but will also know that there's only one true doughnut, Mel-O-Cream. So the debate was going on quite well. One of the underwriters in our office walked out of her cube with the news she'd just heard on WTAX. An aircraft had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. It was just an accident, I said. Sad, but still an accident.

That's when we got word that another plane had struck the other tower.

I sat back down in my chair. My guess was the Chinese. After the attempts at denial-of-service attacks the previous year (September 9, 2000 to be exact) I figured the PRC had lost it and were trying to goad us into war with them. Maybe they wanted a showdown over Taiwan. Maybe they wanted to try to hurt us after the incident with the Navy intelligence-gathering plane in Hainan as well. Then we heard from Osama bin Laden, a guy who was pretty much a staple of late-night tv jokes.

I remember only being able to see red for a few minutes. I started thinking about going back into the Air Force, assuming I could drop about 30 pounds and get back into some kind of shape as a runner. I wanted to go to war with the fools who had struck us with no cause. That idea disappeared when I heard a rumor on the radio that government offices might be attacked simultaneously.

Then I heard about a plane crashing into the Pentagon. So much for the military idea. It disappeared when I realized that my mom was sitting in a government office right then. She worked for a congressman after all. I tried calling her on my cell phone, only to hear that cell service was out of order. So, I kept trying until I heard her voice on the other line. We didn't do much work that day. We just watched and listened to the news as it came in, tried getting onto various newspaper sites to keep updated from the print media. The message was being repeated over and over. Al-Qaeda was claiming responsiblity for this. 19 Arab men flew those planes into their targets. One plane crashed after a group of passengers fought their way into the cockpit.

I went out for lunch, and hit my usual spot, Panini. I think I went with the portobello sandwich, and talked with the owner's daughter about what was happening. She was worried, since her boyfriend had just gone to basic training at Lackland AFB. I did what I could to assure her what would happen while he was training, but it didn't help much. The city was scared, angry, and ready to go to war. Except for the usual gang of apologists, some of whom immediately called for a stop to American war plans. We'd just lost God knows how many people, and there were already a group of aging leftists and other assorted anti-Americans who said we shouldn't retaliate, and instead accept it as penance for our arrogant American ways, for electing George W. Bush as President. Those people still don't get it. They never will. Even after the local women's "peace movement" asked us to end the racist war in Afghanistan (we hadn't even dropped the first bomb on Mazar-e-Sharif when this happened), I still don't know what higher purpose kept me from beating these protesters and their ilk to a pulp.

Looking back, I think it was that I didn't need to pull my dad away from the airport security detail to which he'd been assigned within hours of the attacks. The Springfield Police Department activated every single guy on the force, and set up 12-hour shifts, everyone in uniform. Dad worked in the Mobile Command Post the city had purchased for just such an occasion, and it was transported out to Capital Airport to make airport security that much easier. I didn't see much of him for the next couple of days.

Those days were very worrisome. I was champing at the bit, ready to be called back into service. I wondered if maybe I could hide my allergies to animal dander and see if I could get back in. That wasn't to be. I went to my old church the next night and prayed that we'd unite as one nation and see this through. For a while we did unite, ready to hunt down anyone who would try to take advantage of our pain. We sent troops to Afghanistan, and started making al-Qaeda pay. Saddam Hussein started boasting of his support for terrorist groups who attacked Americans and Israelis. All that got him was a message of "You just stepped in the line of people the United States will take down." He gave the US yet another reason to invade (like we didn't have enough already). He wanted to start something, and hope that the US would never get around to finishing it. We'll do just that. We will fight those who sow terror in God's name, those who justify their murders with chapter and verse from the Koran, those who sully their fellow believers with despicable acts of violence. The war isn't over yet, and we'll stop once we've won. We've lost too many people to terrorists. It's time the terrorists are removed from society.

Two years later, I lost my friend Eric Todd. I'd just spent my first full year in Wheeling when I got the news that Eric's transplanted kidney was failing and that he wouldn't last long. When he died, it was a bit of relief mixed with the sadness, since he'd been fighting this kidney diease all his life.

I met Eric when I was thirteen. He was five. Eric's father and my dad were partners in the Springfield PD, and Eric's father helped my dad make the transfer from being just a regular beat cop to an evidence technician. His father died in an auto accident as he and a fellow officer were coming back home from a football game. My dad had the duty of taking evidence from the accident site to reconstruct what hapened that night. Dad also had to be the one to identify the body. I have no idea how Dad managed to keep doing his job faced with that scene.

After the funeral, my parents did all they could to help Eric's mom through her grief. I tagged along because I doubt my folks wanted to leave me at home all the time. So, I met Eric. Like every five-year-old, his toys were a mess, missing pieces and covered in dirt and sand. He wanted to be a catcher for the Cubs, like his favorite player Jody Davis. I entered teenagerdom with this little bundle of energy shadowing me everywhere I went. I also had that "don't touch my stuff" phase in full effect after Mom decided to grab a bunch of toys I'd been saving as a collection so Eric could play. (Never mind I was trying to design a strategy game with them, toys were meant to have stuff lost in the carpet, I guess.) So, I fell right into the big brother role that Eric needed, and he fell right into the little brother role that I needed. So, we played, wrestled, and he howled any time he didn't get his way with my old toys. Typical sibling stuff, I guess. We'd adopted Eric and his mom into the family. I still call his mom my aunt, even today.

When I enlisted in the Air Force in 1992, there were a lot of questions going around about Eric. He never seemed to grow or age. At 11, he still looked like he was 8. He didn't change much when he hit 12 or 13, or 14. Tests from the doctor's lab work showed he had the same kidney disease that affected Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis. Unfortunately, Eric didn't have a tv show or celebrity status to get help for him. So, we prayed for a miracle or two. We got them. Eric was able to get a couple of kidney transplants, since the first transplant was rejected. From the time he was 14 to the day he died, Eric was on more medicines than I've seen any individual person have prescribed for them. After spending almost a year recuperating, Eric returned to high school and graduated at 19. I hoped he'd be able to at least go to college, but that wouldn't happen. He was told that there was no way to stay healthy and minimize the risk of infection at college, so it looked like he was done for schooling. Eric still didn't give that much thought, turning his thoughts towards trying to make money. Even a few months before he died, Eric looked towards a small business that he could manage with a friend. He wanted to make ghillie suits for the local deer hunters.

His new kidney started to die after that, rejected again. This time, there was nothing science could do for him. He was too weak for dialysis, too frail for another transplant. All we could do was keep him comfortable and watch him die. Here was a young man who had been through two surgeries to extend his life, had to juggle a social life with a strict regimen of medication and infection prevention, and was even greeted by the Pope on the Holy Father's visit to St. Louis. (Eric was Presbyterian, which makes it kind of funny even today. We buried Eric with the rosary given to him by John Paull II.) I had to beg and plead to get to take time off from work for his funeral, but I knew I had to attend it. My boss tried telling me no, but I told her I might be needed as a pall bearer. I wasn't needed after all, but I wasn't going to be prevented from saying goodbye to my little brother.

Eric was buried in a quiet country cemetery, right next to his father. There was a huge police turnout, with many of the law enforcement agencies coming out to pay respects to Eric, his mother, and the memory of his father. It's what cop families do. He had a bagpiper there to play Amazing Grace, an appropriate gesture to Eric's Scottish heritage and his joking "obsession" with bagpipes. I still miss him even after a year. Because of Eric, I started taking adulthood seriously, realizing that I had to set a good example for him to emulate. I think I did that pretty well. He was stubborn and tried to fight for every second of life among us. I like to think that I helped foster that toughness in him, thogh it's probably more his mother and my dad's guidance that did it. I'll still miss watching Spongebob Squarepants with him, playing Goldeneye on his beat-up N64 and generally being a guy hanging out with family.

I think I'll root for the Cubs tomorrow to honor Eric's memory. I think he'll like seeing a Cardinals fan do that for him.

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