Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Let's Roll

The Pennsylvania countryside near Shanksville is very similar to the country-side of Michigan in the fifties when I grew up -- except the bottom half of the lower peninsula of Michigan where I lived has the contour of a pancake -- unless that pancake has a bubble to give it some elevation and then my home in the Saginaw Valley would be flatter (please don't ask why it's a valley if it's so flat -- no one knows). Pennsylvania has so many hills there are sections that trucks are gently advised to go elsewhere because they might have a VERY bad day if they continue on the road they are on. But I digress.

This part of Pennsylvania is a throw back to a simpler time. Farmland stretches for miles, and it smells of hay, grass and fertilizer. There are farm houses with penned ducks and geese in the front yard, railroad crossings that have no electronic gates or flashing lights or even a stop sign (I did remember to stop and look both ways!), and one lane dirt roads that lead to covered bridges that still function as bridges, and once over them the dirt road leads to more farmland and more dirt roads.

There are also a surprising number of American flags flying in yards, and there is no holiday in sight.

The reason for the flags is simple: it was here in the hills of Somerset County that Flight 93 impacted on September 11, 2001.

There are references on some maps to the impact site and chapel, and there are discreet, almost reverent signs that point you in the right direction if you are looking for them, but they don't shout at you, or advertise themselves in any promotional way. You have to seek them out.

I followed a notation on a local map of Somerset's covered bridges to the Chapel. The Chapel hugs the corner of two back roads, and a small portion of the land behind it has been given to a memorial to the Flight 93 crew and passengers. A large granite cone is the centerpiece, and the names and faces of the captain and crew are chiseled on the monument. Most of the space contains small offerings, such as painted rocks or plaques. The Chapel is not open every day, but you are welcome to go in on other days if you "get lucky" and someone is there. Today was not an open day, but I did get lucky and was able to visit the inside. The man who was working in the chapel gave me a map and directions to the impact site, which is about 5 miles from the chapel.

The Memorial sits on a small road off a country road. I was the only one visiting the chapel, but there were a number of people at the impact site. The site is run by the National Park Service, and it is a temporary memorial. There is a small walk-through building staffed by a volunteer, some port-a-potties, and the remarkable memorial that the visitors to the site have created. Like Ground Zero, a "wall" has been created where people have hung an amazing array of things that hold meaning to them, or in some cases to the victims. Dolls, clothing, license plates, coins, buttons, rosary beads, painted stones, plastic flowers, and flags, flags, and more flags.

Around the wall, other small memorials have been build -- a flag made of tiles, a huge star topped by an eagle grasping a plane in his talons, a wooden "avatar" for each of the victims (complete with beads and decorations and for at least one, a Japanese flag), a granite slab placed by motorcyclists, a wooden cross painted with angels. Even the car railings around the parking lot have been painted and stickered in remembrance.

The plans are to tear this all down and build a permanent memorial, with roads, a granite wall with the victims names on it, and a Visitor Center. It is supposed to be done for the 10th Anniversary, but the Park Service has no money and they have not yet broken ground. It would be fine to add a Visitor Center -- a real toilet is always welcome, and I guess I'd buy a refrigerator magnet if there was a gift shop. But leave the personal memorials alone. The real memorial is there now. The heartfelt thanks from those who have visited is so clear that no wall with names on it could say it any better.

More Images of the Chapel and the Memorial (Site uses Flash, and may load slowly for slow connections)

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