Sugar Cookies at the Pentagon

Flowers floating beneath one of the benches at the Pentagon Memorial.

“Get over being a sugar cookie.” That’s what Admiral William H. McRaven says in his book, Make Your Bed. McRaven is a retired Navy SEAL and his simple book of truisms about living rang in my ears this September 11 as I stood in front of the Pentagon staring at the point of impact from Flight 77.

An American flag marking the point of impact on the Pentagon.

Life isn’t fair. In SEAL training you are “called out” for no apparent reason and required to dive into the ocean and then roll on the beach until every inch of your body and uniform is covered in sand. Then, you spend the rest of your day with those annoying grains itching and poking at you. That’s a sugar cookie.

On business trips to Washington I always take the Metro from Reagan International to downtown D.C.  I hear the Pentagon stop announced over the speaker each time, never giving it much thought. I gave it a lot of thought as I rode the train this September 11. And I got off.

Life is short. And it’s not fair. So I stopped.

The date and time of of the plane crash mark the zero line. The first bench is for the 3-year-old that died on the plane.

The Pentagon Memorial is a collection of swooping benches. One for each of the 184 people that died that day. The benches swooping toward the building are for those that died on the plane. The benches swooping away from the building are for those who died in the building. Fresh flowers adorned the seats and floated in the small pools of trickling water beneath each bench.

The fanfare of the morning ceremony was being cleaned up when I arrived. Workers were wheeling away speakers and stage gear. I wandered among the age lines marking the year of birth for each victim. The youngest was 3. The oldest, in her 80s.

A woman approached me and asked if I could help find Hilda Taylor, a sixth grade teacher, and her friend, who had died on the plane that day. I asked her what year Hilda was born and we walked to the appropriate age line to begin our search.

As we sat together on Hilda’s bench, her former teammate dug in her purse and pulled out an article written about Hilda for me to read. She filled in between the lines and told me about the real Hilda…the one with spunk…the immigrant from Sierra Leone who always spoke her mind…the one who loved her students.

As I heard her story unfold for the next 30 minutes, the benches around me all became people–each with a story and a life worth remembering.

All the survivors I saw and met that day had to roll in the unfair sand and move on, just like we all do when tragedy strikes. They have to live with being a sugar cookie, as those annoying grains poke at them again today on September 12…and every other day.

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