Some years back I was honored to call an older English gentleman my friend. He served in the British Army in WW2 in North Africa and on the island of Crete. He was captured when the Germans invaded that island and spent almost three years as a prisoner of war. He remained in the army after the war to retire as a senior NCO with over 25 years of service. My English friend sent me pictures of their yearly veteran’s ceremonies.
Every vet put on a blazer, wore his regimental tie and beret, and pinned his decorations to his jacket. They made their way to the local veterans’ memorial and laid a wreath in memory of their absent comrades. Then they retired to the local pub and lifted a glass to honor those who had gone on to report to a higher power. The men who chased Rommel across the desert and went ashore in Normandy are still be a bit thirsty.
We Americans don’t wear our ribbons. Mine are on the wall in a shadow box, faded by time. Most of us don’t wear ties except for weddings and funerals and berets are only worn by Frenchmen.
So what do we wear? Baseball caps – that great American invention. We mark our caps with our heritage – the Big Red One, the First Marines, the Strategic Air Command. The navy men wear blue caps with the names of proud ships – USS Enterprise, USS New Jersey, Lexington, Newport News. Unless you’ve been there you don’t know a CVA from a CA or a BB from an FFG, but we know.
The old men see fire and rain and Thuds and Phantoms in the hazy sky. They still hear that distinctive rotor beat of the Hueys. They see long gray ships silhouetted against the horizon and remember the days when they were dirty and tired and hungry. They remember playing rock and roll out to the tree line in 7.62 NATO time They remember the catapults throwing Skyhawks into the air. plane after plane, and doing it all again the next day and the day after that.
They were bored and tired and sometimes frightened, those old men who wear the hats. They came home to a country that didn’t understand and really didn’t care what they had done. Today they fight the diseases and the ghosts of those far off days. They will tell you where they’re going, but don’t ask them where they’ve been.
The old men in hats shake hands when they meet. They ask “Where were you? What did you do?” and they sometimes say “Yeah I was there too”. Mostly they understand. For that minute in the middle of WalMart they’re nineteen years old again and tired and scared. Then they thank God that they made it home and they remember those who didn’t.
And the old men get into their cars and go about their business. If you look closely you might see the smoke and the tracers and the dead men behind their eyes. Sometimes they won’t hear you because their ears have rung since those days of steam turbines and jet engines and heavy artillery.
They stand and salute when the flag passes by because they learned of respect and honor in a hard school and that education has never left them. Sometimes the old men wake in the middle of the night and hear the band playing The Stars and Stripes Forever and they smile just a little and whisper to themselves “I’d do it all again.”
God bless the old men who wear the hats.
Todd: Hello… Operator…listen to me…I can’t speak very loud. – This is an emergency. I’m a passenger on a United flight to San Francisco.. We have a situation here….Our plane has been hijacked…..can you understand me?
Lisa: (exhaling a deep breath to herself) I understand… Can the hijackers see you talking on the phone?
Lisa: Can you tell me how many hijackers are on the plane?
Todd: There are three that we know of.
Lisa: Can you see any weapons? What kind of weapons do they have?
Todd: Yes…. they don’t have guns….they have knives – they took over the plane with knives.
Lisa: Do you mean…like steak knives?
Todd: No, these are razor knives…like box cutters.
Lisa: Can you tell what country these people are from?
Todd: No…..I don’t know. They sound like they’re from the mid-east.
Lisa: Have they said what they want?
Todd: Someone announced from the cockpit that there was a bomb on board. He said he was the captain and to stay in our seats and stay quiet.
He said that they were meeting these men’s demands and returning to the airport… It was very broken English, and… I’m telling you…it sounded fake!
Lisa: Ok sir, please give me your name.
Todd: My name is Todd Beamer.
Lisa: Ok Todd….my name is Lisa…Do you know your flight number? If you can’t remember, it’s on your ticket.
Todd: It’s United Flight 93.
Lisa: Now Todd, can you try to tell me exactly what happened?
Todd: Two of the hijackers were sitting in first class near the cockpit. A third one was sitting near the back of the coach section. The two up. front got into the cockpit somehow; there was shouting. The third hijacker said he had a bomb. It looks like a bomb. He’s got it tied to his waist with a red belt of some kind.
Lisa: So is the door to the cockpit open?
Todd: No, the hijackers shut it behind them.
Lisa: Has anyone been injured?
Todd: Yes, ..they…they killed one passenger sitting in first class. There’s been lots of shouting. We don’t know if the pilots are dead or alive. A flight attendant told me that the pilot and copilot had been forced from the cockpit and may have been wounded.
Lisa: Where is the 3rd hijacker now Todd?
Todd: He’s near the back of the plane. They forced most of the passengers into first class. There are fourteen of us here in the back. Five are flight attendants. He hasn’t noticed that I slipped into this pantry to get the phone. The guy with the bomb ordered us to sit on the floor in the rear of the plane……….oh Jesus.. Help!
Lisa: Todd….are you ok? Tell me what’s happening!
Todd: Hello…..We’re going down….I think we’re going to crash……Wait – wait a minute. No, we’re leveling off….we’re ok. I think we may be turning around…..That’s it – we changed directions. Do you hear me….we’re flying east again.
Lisa: Ok Todd…. What’s going on with the other passengers?
Todd: Everyone is… really scared. A few passengers with cell phones have made calls to relatives. A guy, Jeremy, was talking to his wife just before the hijacking started. She told him that hijackers had crashed two planes into the World Trade Center……Lisa is that true??
Lisa: Todd…..I have to tell you the truth…..it’s very bad. The World Trade Center is gone. Both of the towers have been destroyed.
Todd: Oh God —help us!
Lisa: A third plane was taken over by terrorists. It crashed into the Pentagon in Washington DC. Our country is under attack….and I’m afraid that your plane may be part of their plan.
Todd: Oh dear God. Dear God…….Lisa, will you do something for me?
Lisa: I’ll try….if I can….Yes.
Todd: I want you to call my wife and my kids for me and tell them what’s happened. Promise me you’ll call..
Lisa: I promise – I’ll call.
Todd: Our home number is 201 353-***3…….You have the same name as my wife…Lisa….We’ve been married for 10 years. She’s pregnant with our 3rd child. Tell her that I love her…….(choking up)..I’ll always love her..(clearing throat) We have two boys.. David, he’s 3 and Andrew, he’s 1…..Tell them……(choking) tell them that their daddy loves them and that he is so proud of them. (clearing throat again) Our baby is due January 12th…..I saw an ultra sound…..it was great….we still don’t know if it’s a girl or a boy………Lisa?
Lisa: (barely able to speak) I’ll tell them, I promise Todd.
Todd: I’m going back to the group—if I can get back I will…
Lisa: Todd, leave this line open…are you still there?……
Lisa: (dials the phone..) Hello, FBI, my name is Lisa Jefferson, I’m a telephone supervisor for GTE. I need to report a terrorist hijacking of a United Airlines Flight 93….Yes I’ll hold.
Goodwin: Hello, this is Agent Goodwin.. I understand you have a hijacking situation?
Lisa: Yes sir, I’ve been talking with a passenger, a Todd Beamer, on Flight 93 who managed to get to an air phone unnoticed.
Goodwin: Where did this flight originate, and what was its destination?
Lisa: The flight left Newark New Jersey at 8 A.M. departing for San Francisco. The hijackers took over the plane shortly after takeoff, and several minutes later the plane changed course – it is now flying east.
Goodwin: Ms. Jefferson…I need to talk to someone aboard that plane. Can you get me thru to the planes phone?
Lisa: I still have that line open sir, I can patch you through on a conference call…hold a mo…..
Todd: Hello Lisa, Lisa are you there?
Lisa: Yes, I’m here. Todd, I made a call to the FBI, Agent Goodwin is on the line and will be talking to you as well.
Todd: The others all know that this isn’t your normal hijacking. Jeremy called his wife again on his cell phone. She told him more about the World Trade Center and all.
Goodwin: Hello Todd. This is Agent Goodwin with the FBI. We have been monitoring your flight. Your plane is on a course for Washington, DC. These terrorists sent two planes into the World Trade Center and one plane into the Pentagon. Our best guess is that they plan to fly your plane into either the White House or the United States Capital Building.
Todd: I understand…hold on……I’ll…….I’ll be back..
Lisa: Mr. Goodwin, how much time do they have before they get to Washington?
Goodwin: Not long ma’am. They changed course over Cleveland; they’re approaching Pittsburgh now. Washington may be twenty minutes away.
Todd: (breathing a little heavier) The plane seems to be changing directions just a little. It’s getting pretty rough up here. The plane is flying real erratic….We’re not going to make it out of here. Listen to me….I want you to hear this….I have talked with the others….we have decided we would not be pawns in these hijackers suicidal plot.
Lisa: Todd, what are you going to do?
Todd: We’ve hatched a plan. Four of us are going to rush the hijacker with the bomb. After we take him out, we’ll break into the cockpit. A stewardess is getting some boiling water to throw on the hijackers at the controls. We’ll get them….and we’ll take them out. Lisa, …..will you do one last thing for me?
Lisa: Yes…What is it?
Todd: Would you pray with me?
They pray: Our father which art in Heaven
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive our trespassers,
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…
He makes me to lie down in green pastures
He leads me beside the still waters
He restores my soul
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for His name’s sake
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…..
Todd: (softer) God help me…Jesus help me….(clears throat and louder)
Are you guys ready?……..