11 September 2010

Nine Years Later

There's this moment in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where the two contemplate joining the military as a career change, to go fight in the Spanish-American War.  "Remember the Maine," Butch suggests.  A jaded Sundance retorts, "Who can forget it?"

That's about how I've felt these nine years since a handful of misguided and warped Islamic extremists took control of not only a few airplanes, but seemingly our entire planet.  I have no interest here in discussing how prepared our government should have been for the attacks and I'm not interested in pointing fingers or exploring conspiracy theories.  It happened.  We all saw it happen, and we've each of us had to adapt to living in a world where it happened.

For most of us, it's really more of an abstract reaction.  I've been saddened, angered, frightened, and had my various opinions about different aspects of the causes and effects of the attack.  Some of us have had far greater consequences with which to live, and I have often wondered just how much solace the orphans who lost their parents that day have found in assorted "We Will Never Forget" bumper stickers.  Maybe it's been a daily reminder that other people care about what happened to them; maybe they see it as a very crass way that their personal Hell has been co-opted by a marketing department.  I can't say; I'm one of the blessed ones who lost no one that day.

It's always irked me, personally, to hear that day referred to as "9/11."  I keep thinking that, had our Founding Fathers been so lazy, we would celebrate "7/4" instead of "The Fourth of July" as our Independence Day.  I see on this year's calendar that we're now calling this "Patriot Day."  I don't know when that made its way to the calendar pages and I don't really care.  I suppose it's a step up from "9/11," but it sounds like just another excuse for mattress discount sales to me.  But then, the word "patriot" has always made me uncomfortable; I've heard it most commonly bandied about by people with some very absolute ideas about what the word means.

I'll never forget the next day, I was at work and I heard helicopters in the air.  You young kids may not remember this, but the Federal Aviation Authority grounded all air traffic for a few days, so we had this very eerie period where nothing was airborne.  I stepped outside and saw three low-flying military choppers go overhead.  gunners sat with their legs dangling over the side, straddling their weapons.  Were they patrolling?  Transferring from one local base to another?  Test driving the equipment?  I have no idea, but I do recall smiling at the sight and feeling the chill down my spine that returns every time I think about the image--including now, as I type this.

I was also proud of country music that Fall.  Who will forget the finale of "America: A Tribute to Heroes" with Willie Nelson leading an entire stage full of celebrities through the entirety of "America the Beautiful?"  And who else could it have been but Willie, the very personification of calm and idealism that represents the best our society has to offer the world?  Willie's the very image of perseverance; when he came on stage and warbled his way through "America the Beautiful," it was more than a star-studded performance.  It was comfort incarnate.

We've all heard Alan Jackon's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," and I recall vividly being mesmerized by the live debut of the song during the CMA Awards broadcast.  Leave it to the guy who was "just a singer of simple songs" to find the most basic level of humanity in such an overwhelming event.  It gave me hope.

Often forgotten, though, was the Country Freedom Concert, which aired before the CMAs that year.  It began with (as I recall) Jackson and George Strait agreeing by week's end to perform a fundraiser concert for the Red Cross.  As soon as word got out that's what they were planning, every country artist who wasn't already committed to being somewhere else volunteered to participate.  The show-stopper (for me, anyway) was Hank Williams, Jr.  Charlie Daniels Band had been told not to perform their newly minted song, "This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag" because it was so aggressive.  (Personally, I just thought it was a weak song; the kind of thing you might come up with screwing around with your buddies but not something you actually record and market for sale, but that's just me.)

Anyway, out came Bocephus and he re-tooled "A Country Boy Can Survive" to "America Will Survive."  And what really struck me--and made me applaud--was that the original song really played on anxieties and suggested violence as the only recourse.  And yet, in the 2001 incarnation, I heard the line, "'cause we're the boys raised on freedom and fun" in lieu of being raised "on old shotguns."  Alan Jackson found the humanity in the atrocity, but Hank, Jr. helped us find some much-needed swagger without going too far with it.

In the years since, however, I'm sorry to say that country music hasn't bothered to be nearly as thoughtful.  Name-checking the military at all is sufficient for cheap applause from an audience (I'm looking at you, Zac Brown Band).  I'm sure the artists and fans of such one-dimensional songs feel they're "genuine, and if that's how they feel then so be it.  All I know is that in the last nine years, I've lost track of the military-centric songs of mainstream country...and can count on one hand the ones I thought were thoughtful and actually paid sincere respect for the men and women in uniform.  The rest are little more than ditties constructed by and for armchair warriors, for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been little more than reality TV.  But I digress; I'm trying to avoid the negative here today.

Here's a fun anecdote I thought I'd share.  It's no secret I'm a Batman junkie and a fan of listening to DVD commentary tracks.  Anyway, Kevin Conroy shared this story on the commentary track to Batman: Gotham Knight.  He called around and asked what he could do to help, and they said they needed help with the soup kitchen, feeding the rescue workers.  Conroy quipped that, being an actor, he had done plenty of restaurant service and reported for duty.  Anyway, it came out in conversation that he was in fact the voice of Batman in the animated series and features dating back to 1992.  This got some buzz going and he said he finally broke down and did the Batman voice for the rescue workers which he said really seemed to cheer them up, because they broke out in applause.  Conroy was clearly humbled by the response; even discussing it years later on that DVD he's clearly just sharing a special moment of his own life with us the audience rather than any kind of shameless boasting.  Sometimes we forget how important the little things can be in life, like hearing the voice of Batman while recuperating from searching for survivors was for those selfless men and women.

Kevin Conroy, the voice of Batman
As for me, I've said about all I really feel compelled to say on the subject this year.  Maybe next year I'll have something inspiring to share, or at least something cohesive.  It's hard, though, when entire shelves of books on a given subject by far more qualified people than me have already been published.  I suppose, if there's one thing to appreciate today, it's that life goes on.  It's been much easier for a lot of us than it has been for others, and we owe it to those who lost their loved ones not to elevate our own reactions to that god-awful day to the same level they've endured.

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