Sunday, September 25, 2011

Let Us Do Good - A Final Lesson

This morning - rain or shine or a combination thereof - is the 10th edition of the Tunnel to Towers Run. Last year, we awakened on the Jersey side on race day and made our way across the Hudson. This year we have pared down our journey considerably. We spent last night in Manhattan so that we could attend the pre-race pasta dinner held annually on the Saturday night of Tunnel to Towers weekend. What an extraordinary event.

I know not who - other than me - has visited this space each of the past eight days (although the prime suspects are those with at least some DNA similar to my own). This is a space usually reserved for declarations and observations about whatever is on my mind on a particular day. It is not tied to any particular topic. This week has been the exception to that rule. I offer no apology for it.

Life is lived forward. But the human body is designed to allow us to turn our heads sufficiently so that we can glance back from whence we came. As much as we might not want to be - or as it might pain us to be - we are forever tethered to our history. Often we seek safety in numbers. We think "macro" when something bad happens - such as the murder of thousands on American soil at the hands of cowards - because of the numbing quality of numbers. By going big we focus less on the detail. We focus less on what we know to be true, which is that the collective is comprised of separate, individual pieces, and that the fallout from such an event is not spread out equally among all of those affected by it. The converse is true - for each person killed the impact visited upon her or his family is everything. They cannot dissipate the force of the impact by sharing it with anyone else. It is theirs. Every day.

FF Vernon Cherry of Ladder 118 was as renowned for his beautiful singing voice as he was for his valor. He moonlighted as a wedding singer. He was also the FDNY's official singer. He performed the National Anthem at departmental ceremonies. He also performed across the New York City area with his band. FF Cherry was forty-nine years old. He was a twenty-eight veteran of the FDNY. As if his job as a firefighter and his second job as a singer/performer were not enough, FF Cherry had a third one as well. He was a court stenographer in small claims court in Lower Manhattan.

He and his wife Joanne, parents of three, were married for thirty-one years. “It was love at first sight,” said Joanne Cherry, who met her husband at a high school dance. “We couldn’t take our eyes off each other.” His colleagues in the firehouse heard him often extol them to take as much joy and pleasure as they could out of every day because, "Tomorrow is promised to no one."

Firefighter Shawn Powell was a member of Engine 207 in downtown Brooklyn. FF Powell was thirty-two years old. He was a veteran of the United States Army. He married his high school sweetheart Jean. He and Jean had one son, Joshua, who was five years old at the time of his father's death.

His colleagues noted that he brought unusual skills to the Fire Department. An artist and woodcarver, he had built props and volunteered at several New York City theaters, including the Apollo Theater, and studied architecture at New York Technical College. At Engine Company 207 — where the slogan is "The House of Misfit Toys" because of the company's specialized, somewhat bizarre-looking fire-fighting equipment — he made the point in comic relief with a poster that includes a square- wheeled fire engine.

Firefighter Stephen Siller was a member of Squad 1 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He joined the FDNY in 1995. He was thirty-four years old. By age ten, FF Siller was an orphan. His mother died of cancer. His father died due to a blood clot. The youngest of seven children, he was raised by his older siblings. He and his wife Sarah, married in 1990, were the parents of five children (two sons and three daughters).

On the morning of September 11, 2001, FF Siller was not working - having just completed a shift. A passionate and talented golfer, he was on his way to meet his three older brothers at the Glenwood Country Club Golf Course in New Jersey, so the "perfect foursome" could play a round of golf. He was listening to his scanner when news of the World Trade Center disaster came across. He called his wife telling her to let his brothers know he would meet them later; he was going to get his gear and join his company, Squad 1. According to his brother, Frank, his family has pieced together the details of Stephen's final actions. They believe he drove his own car from Squad 1's Brooklyn firehouse to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, where traffic was at a standstill. He probably ran through the tunnel and was picked up by Engine 224, and after arriving at the disaster site most likely hooked up with his squad. Mr. Siller and 10 other members of Squad 1 did not survive.

A decade later, his legacy and that of those who died that morning - including those who died trying to save others - survives. Ordinary people doing extraordinary deeds. The faces of what a hero looks like.

-AK

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