It was something we hadn’t seen our audiences do for awhile: stand up as we played “God Bless America.” Our audiences are always very dutiful and patriotic. They immediately stand up for the Star Spangled Banner, with the men removing their hats, their hands over their hearts, as they should.
“God Bless America” is a popular number. We always play it as an encore and the audiences love it. But generally they don’t stand up for it. There was only one time in all my years with this band that I ever noticed that they did, and that was just after 9/11.
Someone swiped my part, so I wasn’t able to play it this particular evening. Instead, I stood and watched. As I did so, one of the other percussionists leaned over and noted, “They’re standing up.” I blinked. Yeah, so? Glad they are.
“They haven’t stood up for ‘God Bless America’ since 9/11,” he said.
He was right; they hadn’t, but I never gave it any particular notice. In any case, my attention was fixed on one particular member of our audience. A casual member of our band, he often marches with us, and sometimes plays concerts, and other times, as on this occasion, just comes to listen with his wife and children, and their dog.
They’d spread a blanket out and some lawn chairs. At the first strains of God Bless America, he sprang up, handing the dog’s leash to his wife. Then he grabbed his two daughters, about six and eight, I would guess, and picked them up in his arms. No easy feat, as he’s not a large man (he was so smothered in little girls you couldn’t see his face). But he did it, and then still managed to reach out for his wife’s hand. She looked puzzled but gave it to him.
I hadn’t noticed the rest of the audience stand up, but I noticed him. This man was a 9/11 survivor. He’d been in the South Tower, I believe, on an elevator, when the second plane sliced through the building and the elevator cable, sending the elevator car plummeting to the ground.
Or so I’ve been told. At the time of 9/11, I was the editor of the band’s newsletter. I asked him for his story, but he refused to tell me, and though curious, I understood why he didn’t want it published. Eventually, I got other band members to tell me the story on the promise that I wouldn’t publish it in the newsletter.
It was what they call survivor’s guilt. Only he and one other man climbed out of that broken elevator cab alive – and miraculously uninjured. I could understand why he didn’t want to publish his story. It would sound too much like a celebration of luck when so many had been injured or perished.
He would have been dancing on the bodies of all those poor people left behind in that elevator car who hadn’t make it, who weren’t so “lucky”.
In my office, we were working on the (very late) September issue of our magazine when we learned about 9/11. We were in a very busy part of the building, connected to the Public Affairs Department. As the news grew grimmer, people were searching desperately for an available phone to call some relative who was in one of the Towers.
One man’s daughter had been on her way to an appointment in the World Trade Center. She was on a bus headed downtown when the planes hit. She immediately called her father, one of our employees, to let him know she was all right.
Relieved, he stood in the middle of our editorial department, amidst the tide of people running around, telling the story of how lucky his daughter was and how lucky he was. Meanwhile, my boss was frantically trying to reach a friend and neighbor who worked at the World Trade Center.
I understood this man’s relief and joy that his daughter was alive, but I wanted to tell him, “Shut up! Don’t you realize there may be other people within the sound of your voice whose relatives may be dead or injured or will die if they can’t get out!?”
Being in Public Affairs, I said nothing, of course, and he finally went away. The women in our department wept when the news came that the North Tower had collapsed.
Our musician friend has always kept his miracle to himself. He never discusses 9/11, as far as I know. He lives cheerfully in the present with his wife, his son and daughters, his job, and his music. But this evening it must have occurred to him that it was okay to thank God for a miracle, that no one would notice.
Everyone stands for the national anthem and rightly so, for it’s a tribute to our nation and the courage it took to defend our banner through a dark night in 1812. God Bless America is a prayer, thanking God for the courage to defend freedom, through a sunny, but very dark, September morning.