09 September 2008

Henry's Walk to Work

Henry liked walking to work even in unpleasant weather, so on this bright and beautiful Tuesday morning in September, his stride was even more brisk than usual.

As he walked toward the World Trade Center, where he had worked for almost three years now, he watched the people around him attentively. This was an activity that he forced himself to do from time to time.  One of the first things he had noticed when he moved to the city with his wife and daughter was that people seemed oblivious to the sights and sounds that had quite startled him as a newcomer.  He had been surprised how quickly he himself had grown accustomed to it.

It is easy to ignore the familiar - the cars and taxi cabs, the occasional police siren, and the people hurrying by, carrying the instruments of civilization: briefcases, handbags, coffee cups, and cell phones.  The general bustle of human activity represents so much productive energy, it would be impossible for a mind to fathom it all at one instant.  In New York City, any one snapshot in any direction captures a thousand stories and logs the progress of a thousand free souls pursuing ... Pursuing what?  Life.  Happiness.     

Henry guessed that few of the New Yorkers that were hurrying to their own destinations would have bothered to give much thought to their surroundings - and that’s as it should be, he supposed.  But more than this, he wondered if the people realized what their movements, their freedoms, rested upon.  In this, Henry was probably quite unusual, for he gave thought to something that is taken largely for granted in America.  He understood that the same familiarity and routine that leads people to not notice their surroundings can also cause them to forget that their lives and livelihoods depend upon a freedom that was earned generations ago.  

Like any other treasure, liberty must be guarded and defended.

Why did Henry think about this, when it was the furthest thing from the minds of his fellow New Yorkers as they rushed by?  Perhaps it was because Henry was as unusual as an adult as he had been as a child.  He had never known his father - not really.  When Henry was only five, his father had been killed in the desert near Tehran while trying to rescue American hostages from Iranian terrorists.  The actual living memories of his father were blurred and confused.  The most vivid image - and the one that was permanently fixed in Henry’s mind as being his father - was that of a photograph Henry’s mother had displayed prominently on the living room wall.  (Indeed, it is still there today, in Henry’s boyhood home in the suburbs, where his mother lives alone.)  

In this respect, his father had watched over Henry and his mother as they lived on, and had imparted his confidence and immovability.  It may seem strange to say, but this photograph played no small part in Henry’s life.  In the picture, his father is wearing the white barracks cover - that is to say, the white dress hat - of a United States Marine.  The slightly tensed muscles of his neck and his hard jaw emerge above a blue collar.  In insignia on the hat and on the collar, golden eagles guard the earth.  When Henry looked into the photograph, his father would gaze outward, with a look of supreme confidence, right into Henry’s eyes - a look that Henry was quite sure was meant for him alone.  He could not be said to be smiling, though in the hours that Henry would stare at the photograph, a smile would seem to come and go as Henry’s thoughts wandered.  It would be hard to overstate the strength that Henry drew from that photograph as he grew from a boy to a man.

Henry remembered being gloomy one night when he was maybe about nine or ten years old.  His mother had finally said, “What’s wrong, Henry?”

“Nothing.  It’s just… my teacher said today that America was a bad place because we kept black people as slaves.”

“You’ve heard about slavery before.”

“I know, but… I guess I never thought of it as having to do with America.”

“Well, Henry,” she had said, “slavery is very evil.  And slavery has existed in every part of the world for as far back as we know about.  And it’s true: the New World is no exception.  Slavery found its way here in some places when Europeans started to come over.  But you must understand this – America is the only country that was ever started on the idea of eliminating slavery.  So that’s something.  It took a lot of time and a lot of people fought and died to do it.  But America got rid of slavery forever.”

This explanation would have satisfied Henry, but he noticed his mother’s face cloud over as soon as she had finished.

“No, not forever,” she added quietly, almost dropping to a whisper.  “Your father…”  She looked away, then got up and busied herself for a moment with some dishes that were on the counter.  “It has to be guarded, fought for.  Your father died fighting for that.  He died because… because he wanted to live.  I know that’s confusing but it’s true.  You’ll understand it some day.”

She had suddenly moved to Henry and held his face between her hands, looking right into his eyes.  He had been surprised that her expression was almost a smile, because a moment before he had thought she was about to cry.  She said with an earnestness he would never forget, “You have to take over where your father left off.  Guard it, Henry.  Don’t forget that our freedom is not simply something that we have, but something we must work to keep.”

That was long ago.

But it goes far to explain why Henry had few friends, wasted very little time, made neither apologies nor excuses, had earned his advanced degree in engineering, had married the woman he loved, and had moved to New York to work among the best in his profession.  It also helps to explain why Henry, walking to work on this bright and beautiful Tuesday morning in September, thought about certain things while others didn’t.

Some eight years prior, before Henry was working at the World Trade Center, Islamic terrorists had attacked Tower One.  This event had offered, for anyone who cared to look, a glimpse into the fragility of freedom - and it had also offered a glimpse into the weakness and forgetting in America that Henry worried about.  An attack on the United States - an attack with clear ideological roots and state sponsorship - had been treated not as an act of war, but as a crime.  And this response seemed to satisfy most Americans.

There is an irony in liberty.  The more solidly and consistently freedom is instituted in a nation, the more its citizens can get on with the business of living.  They trade peaceably; they do not think about war.  This is very good.  They become accustomed to this freedom, which is also very good, for it implies an extended period of peace and prosperity.  

But there is a danger.  The generation that defends its freedom in war understands the alternative to freedom.  It fights for its life.  It sees its enemy firsthand, in the trenches, in the air, and from the deck of a battleship; it sees the perverse righteousness of the exterminator, the dead glare of the suicidal killer, the murderous, marching drones of the omnipotent state.  The next generation only remembers their mothers and fathers talking about these things, and the generation after that disregards them as dangers.  It does not understand them; it thinks them unreasonable, exaggerated, impossible.  Hence, the peril.

It would be tragic indeed if men could not remain free without having a war to remind them that liberty is the most rare commodity in history.  And it would be still more tragic if our freedom - the freedom of the United States of America - perished because men forgot that war is necessary when an enemy has its knife at our throats. 

Henry continued on toward the Trade Center plaza.

By now, he had ceased observing the passersby.  His mind wandered as he walked toward the North Tower.  What is today, the 11th?  My feasibility report is due a week from today, he thought.  I’ll have to work a little late tonight, maybe.  Amid the crowd flowing past him, a tourist was looking up, holding a camera to his eye.  A professional-looking woman in heels clicked by.  A young man with a messenger bag slung over his shoulder, stood up on the pedals of his bicycle as he pumped.  He was wearing a New York Yankees cap.  Did the Yanks play last night?  No, I think they had the night off.  They had been beating up on the American League East – the Sox and Jays – but Henry had been too busy lately to watch the games.  

He walked through the Trade Center plaza, glancing at the sculpture in the middle of the fountain - a giant gold sphere supported by a dark irregular form of curves and sharp angles.  Henry did not particularly like the sculpture as it appeared from the other side because it looked like a great sinister eyeball - a God or state watching him as he walked by.  But he very much liked looking at the sculpture from this angle, with the Towers behind it.  He imagined the supporting structure to be Atlas, shouldering a great, golden world.  

Today, however, the dark form holding the globe did not look like Atlas.  It looked like a giant claw clutching a helpless world in its talons.  He shuddered and continued on.

For no reason he would have been able to put a finger on, Henry suddenly thought of wife and his little girl.  He thought of them in simple detail, as he had last seen them that morning.  He recalled that spot on the side of his wife’s neck, how lovely it looked with her dark hair draped lightly over it as she slept, and how it was warm and fragrant as he bent down to kiss her.  Going into his daughter’s room, as he did every morning, he remembered being slightly amazed as he stood in the dark watching her sleep, that she really had grown so… long.  He had reached down, touched the blanket by her feet to check.  Sure enough, she really was that tall now.

He looked at his watch.  6:38.

Looming above him magnificently were the two towers of the World Trade Center.

Henry did not go a day without marveling at this human achievement.  This is where he most liked to be.  In this city of skyscrapers, he liked to stand at the foot of these two monoliths.  Paradoxically, though he was dwarfed by the structures, they made him feel like a giant.

These buildings cannot be compared to the Egyptian pyramids, which, though breathtaking to observe, are fundamentally monuments built to honor death.  The awe one feels is at least partially horror.  Pyramids are funeral pyres upon which were flung an unimaginable number of slaves pressed into service - whole lifetimes disposed of for the sake of a pharaoh’s corpse.  Neither can skyscrapers be compared to the ancient ziggurats of Babylon, nor to the temples of Aztec civilizations, which were devoted to the sacrifice of human beings to their gods, and were built for the ghastly purpose of tearing out the hearts of young virgins or captured prisoners as they writhed in final agony.    

What is the purpose of these two pillars, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, upon which Henry gazed?  They were built for human life and living.

Every child, given a pile of rocks, will build a pyramid.  As he adds each rock to the top, it sometimes stays and more often tumbles toward the base, the likelihood of its vertical position being roughly inversely proportional to its height off the ground.  Thus, from one pile of rocks, the child makes another pile of rocks: the pyramid.  It is the rare builder who can make that pile of rocks - or steel - go straight up. 

A skyscraper is an audacity.  It is man shaking a fist and saying, “Nevertheless, I build!”  Both Nature in her apathy and Evil in its malice wish to knock the skyscraper down.  The one blunders with wind and the force of gravity; the other plots with hatred and worship of the grave.  How much easier it is, Henry thought, to knock things down than to build them up.  

To think about what was required for these towers to stand: the fits and starts of mankind, as men struggled over the centuries to create the institutions that would free men’s minds; the accelerating advance of science and technology as men were liberated to examine the world and exploit the material of nature; the innumerable calculations, discoveries, victories, failures, inventions, analyses, tragedies, hypotheses, surprises, and arguments that made it possible for Henry not only to be productive himself every day, but to do so while being perched in the sky, so far above the ground, with this purposeful city sprawling beyond the horizon.

The summation of all that mental toil was necessary for these towers to have been raised.  The defense of liberty is what props the towers up.

That building, the North Tower, Henry thought, will remain standing only as long as I guard her.

Her?  Yes, the building is a woman, he thought.  As fragile as she is beautiful.  Henry smiled slightly at the thought.

As long as I guard her?  Am I alone in guarding her, alone in understanding that she needs to be guarded?  Perhaps.  His slight smile straightened to something rigid and inflexible, and his eyes narrowed.  It was the look on his father’s face in the photograph.  The Marine.

By now, Henry had entered the North Tower, and he passed a security guard as he walked towards the elevator.  It was still early, but several people were standing there, waiting.  Someone had already pressed the button, silently launching the invisible and unregarded symphony of coordinated actions that the complex machinery would perform, to deliver the elevator to the ground floor in the service of Henry and the others.

Henry played a sort of game in the elevator every morning.  As the elevator ascended, he would watch the illuminated floor indicators as they rapidly incremented.  At each number, he would pretend that the numbers indicated not the literal floor he was on, but rather the chronological foundation upon which this building rested.  Thus, he would start at the ground floor: the ancient Greeks, Aristotle.  As the elevator rose, he would continue - Magna Carta, Constitutions of Clarendon, de Montfort, the Renaissance, Columbus, Galileo, Newton, Locke, The Declaration of Independence, America, electricity, the Industrial Revolution, the steam engine, and so forth.  He would see how fast he could name these to himself, and how much detail he could squeeze in.  He loved the irony of counting off the floors so rapidly, when he knew the incalculable effort that each increment represented.  How easy it makes it seem, he would think.

The elevator doors opened, and Henry stepped in with several other people on this bright and beautiful Tuesday morning in September, making sure as he always did that he got a good view of the illuminated floor numbers on the panel.

The elevator doors closed.

Henry looked at the numbers, prepared to play his little game.  The floor jolted almost imperceptibly as the elevator started its graceful rise.  “Simple,” he thought.  “As easy as one…”




Holden F. Gear said...

This is beautiful prose.

It's as though you know somebody like Henry.


Kelly said...

That's really beautiful. Thank you for writing that.

Kelly Edge

LB said...

HG, happily we know someone like that too.

And, he drew the picture!