Today is September 11. The attack in 2001 by religious extremists, radical muslims, on four planes flying over America set in motion a staggering series of actions by retaliating armies of the world, supporters of the attackers on several continents, refugees fleeing violence, and more. Bin Laden’s virtual hand grenade blew up like a nuclear weapon. The New York Times today has a startling op-ed column by a U.S. soldier who signed up to punish Bin Laden’s sympathizers but found a different reality. I’ve never seen this confirmed, but I wonder if the attackers who terrorized and killed the people on those flights in 2001 had chosen the date because it matched up with the emergency phone number in the U.S., 9-1-1? Is that just a coincidence? The carnage felt very close to many of us in the Merrimack Valley because two planes had departed from Boston, and even closer for people like me with strong ties to Dracut, Massachusetts, home of the pilot and farmer John Ogonowski who was among those murdered on 9/11.
For a long time, the event was beyond writing about for me. I found a way in to what had happened after working on a sculptural tribute for seven victims linked to UMass Lowell that was designed by art students and built on campus. John was a graduate of the school. My friend Jack Neary, a playwright and actor, wrote a compelling remembrance of John as a high school friend in Lowell that showed another way in to the tragedy. Around 2009, I began composing a long, multi-part poem about the prevalence of war in American history. Called “The War Place,” the poem looks at the major conflicts that most of us can name. I knew that 9/11 had to be included in the line of wars. The long poem gave me a form in which to write, and the following piece is the result. This and a few other sections from “The War Place” are in my book Union River (2017).
The War Place (12.) 9/11
On a rise on the south bank just below the rocky grill of the riverbed, students at his college carved into stone his name and six others from the school to remember John, who grew up to be a pilot and a farmer, who shared his land with Asian refugees who had resettled in the inner precincts of Lowell and who wanted to grow vegetables as they did in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, a region from which John had flown home hurt soldiers in the closing years of the Vietnam War; John the preservationist, who saved open space in Dracut, called Agumtoocook by native people for its vast forest; John, who on September 11, 2001, lifted his passengers into a “severe clear” sky, nothing but blue on the route west; John, who guided American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston’s Logan Airport, where so many of us have flown away with faith in the promise of technology, management, and civilized behavior; John, who carried his travelers into boundless air on a day when he had as usual driven in early from Marsh Hill to captain his plane across country, that day like any other in the late summer, not officially fall even though schools were in session; that day like no other by the end of the morning, by the end of the paper rain and ash-cloud, by the end of the twisted steel and burnt ground, by the end of John’s life —- on that day from which we have not fully recovered the bounce that has always made people elsewhere admire our sure belief that Americans can figure out a problem and invent the next dazzle —- a day that moved John’s neighbors and even strangers to drive slowly up the winding hill road that leads to his farm, where they heaped flowers, handmade signs, candles, sympathy cards in front of the wide white gate leading to the farm, piled high the cut flowers, placed in silence —- and past the white gate up the driveway a giant crane held an American flag that looked as big as the flag that covers the left field wall at Fenway Park on opening day —- and past the crane and flag was the farmhouse of John’s family, his wife and daughters, who needed him to come back so he would sit next to them at the table in the house one more time.