Last winter I went home to the States for five weeks. One of those weeks was spent criss-crossing the great state of Pennsylvania – a series of adventures now collectively referred to as the Pennsylvania Pitstop.
Monday, January 9th, 2017: Jewish delis, Islamic terrorism, and Mexican food.
Food for Thought…
If you’re waiting for me to say something thought-provoking or profound, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. I didn’t mean I was going to give you any food for thought; I was telling you the name of the Jewish deli where Keith and I grabbed an early lunch on Monday before heading out of Pittsburgh.
With the possible exception of New Orleans, none of the cities where I’ve lived have had very visible Jewish communities. I say New Orleans is only a possible exception despite the fact that I used to work for Tulane University, which is sometimes jokingly referred to as “Jew-lane.”
I’m sure many of the students there did come from Jewish families, but I never saw anyone so much as wear a yarmulke on campus.
Before Hurricane Katrina there was a synagogue in Biloxi, but it was tucked away in a quiet neighborhood behind a bowling alley. I didn’t even know it was there until I was in sixth or seventh grade. Needless to say, my friends and I were completely unfamiliar with Jewish culture, and, once the synagogue was discovered, we just assumed it was a “devil worshiper church” and the Star of David outside was a pentagram.
That probably sounds a little crazy or anti-Semitic to anyone reading this now, but you have to remember that this was the era of Satanic Panic. According to the media and popular culture of the time, there were devil worshipers everywhere, drinking the blood of children, sacrificing small animals, and putting hidden messages in heavy metal albums. We heard a lot more about “devil worshipers” than we ever heard about Jews.
My point in mentioning these things is that day-to-day Jewish culture is still very new to me, which is why I’m always excited to end up in a place like Food for Thought. It’s interesting to see people observing traditional dietary laws, kvetching without irony, and speaking in honest-to-Yahweh Yiddish idioms. The owner of the place is a Pittsburgh legend named Bob, a hell of a guy who makes a hell of a corned beef sandwich.
Bob seemed to know (and be known by) everyone who came through his door. Here’s hoping I make it back to that door one of these days.
After we left I felt a powerful urge to listen to Leonard Cohen and watch Krusty the Clown.
But Leonard and Krusty would have to wait. First, we were hitting the road for the Flight 93 Memorial in Stoystown.
Flight 93, for those of you drawing a blank, was the “fourth plane” on 9-11. Two hit the World Trade Center, one hit the Pentagon, and one (Flight 93) crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania after the passengers fought back against the hijackers.
Before we arrived, I bet Keith a dollar that there would be at least one 9-11 Truther nut-job standing outside picketing or handing out literature. I lost that dollar. Apart from the front desk lady and security guard at the visitors center, we were the only ones there that afternoon.
The exhibit inside the visitors center was relatively small, starting with a September 11th timeline and then snaking around in an S-pattern to a final panel featuring pictures of all the flowers and gifts left at the crash site. In-between were some of the victims‘ belongings and, most tragically, a phone bank where we could pick up plastic receivers and listen to some of the messages the victims had sent to their families.
One thing that really grabbed Keith’s attention was a notation on the timeline that said United 93 had been delayed for 20 minutes before taking off that morning. “Just think,” he said solemnly, “if they had taken off on time the passengers never would have found out about the other planes. They would have crashed into the White House or Congress.” Leave it to an airline executive to find an upside to a flight delay. But I had to hand it to him – he was right.
I’m glad there were boxes of tissue all around the exhibit. I needed one or two.
We got through the visitors center in 15-20 minutes and then headed outside to tour the crash site. The weather was extremely cold that day and the site was 0.7 miles away down a snow-covered trail. That’s why I laughed out loud when I noticed the “No Horses” sign.
I kept imagining a horse with a bad attitude not wanting to walk across the snow in the freezing cold, saying, “Yeah! No horses! Now get off my back and walk this trail by your damn self!”
About halfway down we came to the observation area where the victims’ friends and family members stood when the wreckage was being cleared. From there we could see a few houses scattered around in the distance, and I began to wonder if the families living there were the same families who lived there on 9-11. I can’t imagine what that must have been like, living in this peaceful Grant Wood painting of a community – the kind of place where dentists still have their offices in their homes – and having it marred by such incredible violence.
At the end of the trail we came to the memorial plaza where all the victims’ names have been carved into white stone.
When we looked closely we saw shadow writing indicating the pregnant mothers and flight attendants.
We also paid special attention to Todd Beamer, the passenger famous for asking an Airfone operator to pray the Lord’s Prayer with him before saying “Let’s roll” and leading the charge to overtake the terrorists.
Not far beyond the plaza, after several failed attempts to read our maps correctly, we finally located the crash site behind a short wall. There was nothing especially remarkable about it – no pieces of the plane on display or indentation in the ground or anything like that. Like a Civil War battlefield, its significance came strictly from the memory of what happened there.
The whole experience was unreal in a way, mostly because the location was so remote and the atmosphere was so unbelievably quiet. I told Keith how I had seen the Pentagon when I visited D.C. and assumed I’d eventually make my way to New York and see the footprints of the Twin Towers; but I could honestly say it had never even crossed my mind that I might one day be standing in the field where Flight 93 went down. Life takes strange detours sometimes.
We stood around and talked for a while, remembering how we’d announced the news of the September 11th attacks during our college radio show at Ole Miss. It was hard to wrap our heads around the idea that fifteen years – a whole decade and a half – have passed since then. Most of today’s high school students probably don’t even remember it. This must be how our grandparents felt about Pearl Harbor, or how our parents feel about the JFK assassination. These massive world-changing events that younger generations can read or watch old news footage about but never really experience.
We were both a little melancholy as we turned around to leave – until we noticed the large parking lot situated directly behind us. I could see the annoyed amusement in Keith’s face when he turned to look at me. “Could we have driven down here?” he asked.
I told him I didn’t know. I wasn’t paying attention to the signs.
It was dark by the time we made it back up the hill and into the warmth of Keith’s car, so we had to read the answer to his question by the light of his headlights. Turning out of the parking lot, we saw a sign pointing the way to a paved road that led straight down to the crash site. Our trek through the freezing cold had been completely unnecessary.
It would have been easy to bitch, but Keith quickly brought the situation down to Earth with his usual optimism. “Well,” he said, “if they can give their lives, we can walk a mile through the fucking snow.”
I agreed. And as soon as we got back to Pittsburgh, we drank to the memory of Flight 93 over an awesome meal at El Patron.